Apatani: A Distinct Tradition

Posted 10th January 2016

The population here is made up of tribal communities that possess their own unique cultural practices. This is perhaps what makes Arunachal Pradesh so intriguing to its visitors.

The Apatani are just one of the numerous tribes that can be found here. Numbering at around 37 000, members of the Apatani reside in the Ziro Valley; an area that was only opened to outsiders in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most distinguishable trait of this tribe is their use of body modification, especially amongst women. The stretching of noses and earlobes to accommodate large bamboo plugs (yapping hullo) have helped assert a strong tribal identity amongst the Apatani women. The practice of tattooing their faces was also once common. Apatani women would often have two distinct types of tattoo. The first would commonly be one that would run from their forehead to the tip of their nose, whilst the second would be 5 vertical lines on their chin. These chin tattoos were meant to mimic beards and the practice was believed to have been started to make the Apatani women less attractive to other tribes (who previously were inclined to steal the Apatani women).

Body modification in this community is as old as the tribe itself; however, since 1975, this practice has not been considered necessary. For many elders the implication of younger women not having these modifications is more significant than it may seem. By looking ‘regular’ like other tribes, a sense of tribal identity is being lost.

Young women have also changed their appearance by ceasing to wear traditional handmade dresses that would have been commonly worn by women only 30 years prior.

Recent changes in beliefs have also affected the Apatani identity. In 2012, the New Testament was translated into the Apatani’s native language due to the great numbers of Apatani that were converting to Christianity. One of the greatest impacts of this is the effect that Christianity has had on traditional rituals. For example, the wedding ritual of the Apatani has changed significantly. The sacrifice of animals once played a large part in the proceedings, but the New Testament teaching that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice has meant that this practice is now increasingly being stopped. The reading of signs presented in animal entrails – a practice carried out by elders – is now virtually unheard of.

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