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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

The Apatani of Arunachal

I awoke well-rested and looking forward to exploring the town. I had known beforehand that Ziro is home to the Apatani tribe and was curious to see their way of life.

My guide, a 26-year-old Apatani named Tallo, arrived promptly at 8 am and asked if I would prefer to walk or go around by motorbike. I chose walking.

Tallo informed me that there are six major villages in Ziro: Hari, Diibo, Hong, Hija, Bulla, and Tajang. As Tallo and I walked along the road towards Hong, his own village, I realized that this place is truly unique—an oasis, really.

There is a contrast between modern, colorful suburban-style homes you might expect to find in the West with small, traditional bamboo abodes that you are probably more likely to envision when considering the dwellings of tribespeople. The villages are set against a backdrop of numerous far-reaching rice fields. The interesting thing about these fields is that they they also contain fish––fish and rice are harvested together.

The Apatani people are beautiful (and really short!). Tallo told me that many of the passersby commented on my height (I am 5'10", so basically a giant here). A striking feature of women of the older generation is facial tattooing and nose plugs called dat. These customs were abolished in 1974 due to the racism faced by Apatani studying or living outside Arunachal, in other regions of India, so the younger generation of women do not have these adornments.

As we wandered through the streets and walkways of Hong, Tallo pointed out different wooden structures displayed in the front of homes, such as for animal sacrifice (chickens) to ward off bad spirits and spirit houses. Another common sight is a babo, a tall, T-shaped pole signifying the number of sons in the household.

from top: where chickens go to die, a babo, and a spirit house

There are also many churches (mainly Baptist) and schools in Ziro. Tallo told me the Apatani are about 50/50 Christian and Donyi-Polo (worshippers of the sun and moon). Followers of Donyi-Polo have a flag depicting the sun hanging from the outside of their home. Tallo also took me to the kiwi wine factory in the village.

We walked through another village, Hari, which differed only in the style of the houses. Some had metal roofs instead of bamboo, and others were modern and spacious, even with gates in the front. Tallo said that many of these homes are only occupied by families during festival times (there are three major festivals per year), which surprised me.

A home in Hari village

So, basically, these fancy houses are summer homes (like the Hamptons of Ziro). Otherwise, the families live in town (Hapoli or Old Ziro). He also told me that there are many people living in Ziro who are not Apatani, originating from Assam and other regions of India.

We walked for maybe seven hours in total, stopping only for lunch, and then finishing off in Hapoli, visiting the local market and a museum containing historical artifacts from different tribes in Arunachal (the tribes are collectively known as Abotani). We decided to meet again the next day to visit a few more spots (this time with his motorbike), and then attend an Apatani youth event open to the public in the afternoon, which would include a traditional dance demonstration (I spotted the sign in town and it was my idea to go).

I also phoned to book my helicopter ride back to Guwahati from Naharlagan, and much to my horror, the chopper was fully booked until Monday. This means I will have to take the bus again or try the train, which I suspect might be a little more tolerable than the bus. I plan to leave Ziro on Friday to get back to Guwahati on Saturday, giving me two more days of relaxation (and amazing food) before flying to Delhi on Monday, and back to Germany on Tuesday.

The trip has flown by quickly. As much as I love exploring, part of me is looking forward to getting back. Setting up shop somewhere new every few days eventually becomes tiring, and I can feel my energy waning a little. I have some pain shooting through my right leg, which I've before experienced before and tends to flare up from not stretching enough.


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