They say that behind everything beautiful there is some kind of pain and I couldn’t agree more especially when it came to visiting the remote Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast. After 3 flights i.e. Mumbai- Delhi- Bagdogra- Guwahati, a 10 hour bus journey in the dark of the night to Itanagar, the state capital and another 4 hour bumpy ride by a shared a Sumo, I reached Ziro.
But one look at Ziro valley and I regretted none of the above. It was love at first sight. Pretty villages (locally known as Basti), randomly shaped terraced paddy fields, lush green bamboo groves, surrounding blue hills… Ziro is a picture perfect location.
Once in the valley, we preferred to stay with an Apatani family in old Ziro rather than staying in a hotel. Hotels in Ziro are as it is far and few with basic facilities. Precisely the reason why increasing number of travelers coming to Ziro prefer homestays and the Apatani tribals that inhabit this picturesque valley are very friendly. Homestays are a beautiful way for tourists to closely observe and experience the day to day life of the tribals, talk about their culture and explore the local delicacies over glasses of Apong while providing income opportunities to the locals sustaining their unique lifestyle. Apong is a rice or millet beer that is prepared in almost every Apatani house on a daily basis.
An Apatani house, Bulla Village, Ziro Valley. Despite the diversity in almost everything in Arunachal Pradesh, one thing that remains constant is the internal layout of an Apatani house. A central hearth topped by a hanging wooden platform on which grains / meat / wood is kept to dry. Hence the hearth is probably the most important feature of an Apatani house as it serves many purposes.
There are not many conventional places of interest in Ziro for an average tourist but there is a lot that the valley offers to those who love nature and are interested in the rich tribal culture of the NorthEast. All the Bastis here turn into living museums during the Apatani festivals of Morung (in January), Myoko (20th to 25th March is the main ritual period but festivities continue till 20th April) and Dree (5th of July).
Apatanis have since ages been nature worshippers and followers of Sun and Moon. Due to rampant conversion of tribals by the Christian missionaries and out of insecurity of losing their indigenous culture to a foreign religion, a new faith called Donyi-Polo was founded in 1970’s. Mr. Talom Rukbo and other scholars came together and institutionalised their faith continuing with their age old traditions albeit in a more systematic way. In the process of resurrecting their indigenous faith, many oral traditions were written down and rituals and practices were documented.
Today almost 60% of Apatanis and 30% of Arunachalis (approx 3-3.5 lakh) follow Donyi-Polo while the rest of the Apatanis have converted to Christianity. The Apatanis have converted in the hope of a better life and some due to their poverty and inability to continue with the financially draining rituals of Donyi-Polo.
While walking the narrow alleyways of various Apatani Bastis, one possibly can not miss out on the striking members of the Apatani society- its old ladies, lovingly called ‘Aane’. Apatani old ladies wearing huge nose plugs and bearing facial tattoos have always been a subject of fascination not only for the domestic but also the international tourists. As the story goes, yesteryear beautiful Apatani ladies were made to wear the plugs to make them look unattractive to the neighbouring Nyishi tribal men who would often kidnap the very lovely Apatani ladies by raiding their villages. Due to modernization, this practice was abandoned for good in 1970. Now the nose plugs, locally called ‘Yaping Hullo’; can be seen in the noses of only the old ladies who have been wearing them for years.
The most unique feature of the Ziro valley is its sustainable and highly productive agricultural practices. Agriculture without the help of any animals is unique to Apatanis and is highly labour intensive in nature. They follow a practice of paddy and fish farming in the same field. After the rice crop is harvested, fish seeds are introduced in the paddy field till they grow big and are then sold in the market or used as food by the Apatanis.
The endless paddy fields of the Ziro Valley
Apatani practices wherein man and nature co-exist harmoniously might soon reward Ziro with the UNESCO world heritage site tag. The proposal for the same was submitted by India to the UNESCO in 2014 and is currently in the tentative list of world heritage sites as ‘Apatani cultural landscape’.
However not everything is hunky-dory in the Ziro valley. Like with everything else in the world, Ziro has its own share of problems. Large scale conversions are causing a demographic imbalance in the valley. Its no secret that despite having an anti-conversion law in place in the state, scores of missionaries throng the tribal belts on tourist visas, their activities going unchecked mostly. The catholic churches discourage the converts to carry on with their age-old customs and practices. Donyi- Polo followers are often wrongly portrayed as Satan worshippers by the Church to attract more converts. As a result, Ziro valley has in the past gone through small scale conflicts between the two communities, some even involving burning and destruction of Donyi-Polo altars by the miscreants.
Another problem that the society is facing is that the new generation of Apatanis are moving out to bigger cities for education and jobs. This has led to a manpower shortage within the Apatanis and they have to depend on labourers from Nepal and other states for agriculture. Today’s old generation is probably the last of Apatanis we might see working in the fields as there is little to no involvement of younger generation in the worldwide appreciated efficient agricultural practices of Apatanis. Thus the UNESCO tag is coming at a critical juncture and might be able to reverse this trend of migration among the Apatani youth.
There are other places of interest in the valley and most of them revolve around nature. They include the pine groves famous for their massive trunks, Tarin high altitude fish seed farm, a naturally formed 25 feet Shivalinga in Kardo forest, Kile Pakho- the highest point in Ziro, Donyi-Polo temples in Hija, Hari, Hong and other Bastis, the twin hillocks near Mani Polyang, cave like formation of large rocks known as Tai Lampii, underground bunkers created by the Indian Army during wars near Keliya village. In addition, one can also visit the District Museum in Hapoli (New Ziro) and the Handicraft Emporium for deeper insight into the arts and crafts of the Apatanis.
A walk in the Hapoli market should not be missed as it is interesting to see the unconventional things sold there like rats, dried squirrel, bamboo shoots and the Apatani favourite vegetable, the fiddleheaded fern found in abundance along the roadside on the outskirts of Ziro.
Hapoli Market, New Ziro – Along with beef steaks, rats are a local delicacy. Bamboo shoot is the most widely used raw food item in the entire North-East. Also seen here are Daos, Arunachali daggers and bamboo mugs on sale at the Government Handicraft and Handloom Emporium
There is so much to see, so much to do and so much to explore in Ziro valley. We absolutely didn’t realise how our 2 days passed away and it was finally time to say goodbye to the beautiful Ziro and move to my next destination, Daporijo, albeit with the promise of coming back soon!
Author – Onkar Tendulkar
The author is a travel blogger and blogs at travel-o-freak07.blogspot.com