Sunday, April 27, 2014

Apatani Cultural Landscape

It was the year 2000. My friend, Omak Apang, was the Union Minister of State (Tourism), Government of India. He took the initiative to propose Ziro as a World Heritage Site. A meeting of community leaders was arranged in the Hotel Blue Pine at Ziro to discuss about the proposal. All of us present in the meeting opposed the proposal on the ground that this is a conspiracy to keep Ziro as a 'museum piece'. We were under the impression that recognition as heritage site means full stop to development.

In the following years, a UNESCO-funded research project was carried out in Arunachal Pradesh and the Apatanis, the inhabitants of Ziro was one of the subjects. This created a lot of international attention. A presentation of this project was organized in 2008 in NERIST, Itanagar. One of the recommendations of the project was to enlist Ziro as a World Heritage Site. A renewed interest was created. There was a feeble attempt to initiate the application process, but it never took off.

In late 2012, there was a newspaper report about a workshop in Guwahati in which Ziro was shortlisted as a potential World Heritage Site among many sites in the north-east India. A Facebook discussion on the topic resulted in a loose group of volunteers who took interest in pushing the initiative forward. A hectic follow up of the process ensued. The volunteers prodded a sluggish system to submit the proposal in time. This was followed by a visit of Ziro and Talle Valley by a team from the Department of Cultural Affairs, led by the Secretary and the Director in January 2013.

By late 2013, we came to know for sure that Ziro has been shortlisted for the Tentative List. This finally was confirmed when a team from the Advisory Committee on World Heritage Matters (ACWHM) visited Ziro in February 2014. A presentation of the site was made and they were taken around the area. It was a successful visit. The result was drawing up of a tentative roadmap to take Ziro to the coveted WHS. We reviewed the initial proposal as per the inputs from the ACWHM members and submitted it to the concerned authority in time.

On April 14, 2014, the Apatani Cultural Landscape appeared as a Tentative List of India in the UNESCO's website. Ziro is in the Tentative List now but it is to be seen if the Government of Arunachal Pradesh takes a proactive role in preparing the arduous task of dossier preparation and the volunteers who have been pushing the project till now can hold themselves together. In addition, ACWHM members pointed out to many aspects that need to be reversed and others that need to be taken up to meet the global standard to qualify a place as a heritage site.

Fingers crossed, hoping that developments in the coming days will be positive.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bidï - Ritual Hunting of Monkey


Abotani and Swki were best friends. There was, however, always the games of one-upmanship in those days.

“Let us see who can climb higher up in that tree”, Abotani challenged Swki.

“Fine,” Swki accepted the challenge.

Up and up climbed the two friends. Abotani tried his best to beat his friend, but Swki turned out to be a better climber. He was much higher up in the tree.

Swki looked down at Abotani and mocked, “Try and climb up here!”  

In order to save his face, Abotani had to do something.

“Ok friend, if you can just grab that branch, I will accept defeat,” Abotani said.

Swki looked at the branch Abotani was pointing and jumped to grab it. As he grabbed the branch, it broke and he fell down. Swki ended up in a deep gorge called Swki Bwdä.

It took no time for Swki to realize that Abotani had tricked him into the gorge. He was deeply humiliated.

“Come up, my friend,” Abotani tried to help Swki out of the gorge.

“I don’t wan to come up,” Swki said, sulking.

Abotani apologized and tried to cajole Swki back. Swki would not listen. He was offered several rewards but all in vain.

The time for Myoko ritual was near. It is the festival of friendship. So, it could not be performed if the dearest friend Swki was absent. Getting worried, Abotani asked Swki to come out of the gorge.

“My dear friend, Myoko is coming. I cannot celebrate it without you,” Abotani said. “I beg you to come back.”

After a prolonged negotiation, Swki agreed, “Fine, I will come only for Myoko, but what will you offer me?”

Swki agreed to come for the Myoko if he is offered a mithun along with other items. He would, however, return back after the festival. Since Abotani was in no position to bargain, he decided to agree and make best use of the situation.

“I can offer you mithun,” Abotani said, knowing full well that offering a mithun every Myoko would be a costly affair. “But I want to offer you something more useful.”

“And what is that?” Swki asked.

“A swbi bidw would be so useful,” Abotani said. “I will send him to fetch you here.”

Swki thought for a while and agreed.



Since then, the Apatanis hunt a bidw swbi as the first step in the preparation of the Myoko festival. The monkey is used to entice Swki on the second day of the Myoko inaugural ritual - sama pinï.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Of Nose Plugs and Tattoo of the Apatanis

Ami Nwdo Bwnyi was the most beautiful woman of her time. She was also the most virtuous and skillful. She excelled in the art of weaving and making intricate designs; she was expert in cultivation and other household works. So immersed was she in her daily works that she did not have time to enjoy life.
One fine morning, she suddenly realized that all her friends have been married off and she is getting past her age for marriage. She got worried and decided to consult the God for advice.
“I have lived a virtuous life and have been a good daughter to my parent and a good sister to my brothers. But alas! I have remained unmarried while all my friends are enjoying their conjugal life,” Ami Nwdo Bwnyi said. “I wish to get married too and lead a normal life of a woman. But I am getting old and my beauty is deserting me. Pray, my God, advise me.”
“Your life will not go in vain,” the God said. “You will get the best husband on earth.”
“I am getting old and no longer pretty,” Ami Nwdo Bwnyi asked sadly. “Who will marry me now?” 
“I will tell you the secret of remaining ever youthful,” God said. “Twpe on your face, hulo on your nose and huxo with rutiñ yarañ on your ear will keep your beauty and youth for ever.”
Ami Nwdo Bwnyi got her nose and ear lobes pierced and put on yapiñ hulo and yaru huxo. She further decorated her ears with rutiñ yarañ. She then tattooed her face, the design of which was copied from that found in the pine trees.



One day, a young man saw Ami Nwdo Bwnyi and fell in love with her. He was Mwdo Jiñdo Tajiñ. He asked the beautiful woman with twpe and yapiñ to marry him.

Ami Nwdo Bwnyi and Mwdo Jiñdo Tajiñ got married. They gave birth to various xalos – the races of the world. They were able to raise lots of livestock’s which are the birds and wild animals that we see today. Pine trees, which inspired the facial tattoo design is considered sacred by the Apatanis.

So, it was after the mother of all xalos that the Apatanis came to tattoo their faces and put on nose plugs to beautify themselves. In the olden days, more prominent the twpe (tattoo) and bigger the size of the yapiñ hulo (nose plug), more beautiful a woman looked. The more prominent the twpe and bigger the pwdiñ (hair knot), more handsome a man was considered.

Twpe and yapiñ are no longer practiced today and will become things of the past. However, they will remain the characteristic features of the Apatanis forever.

(Adapted from here)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kalung Rañtw - best of the Sacred Groves at Ziro

We have talked about the mystery of Rañtw - sacred groves of Ziro in a previous posting. Among the rañtws, Hari Rañtw is the best known for its magnificent trees which are named after the women who are believed to have planted them. Less known, but no less grand, is the Kalung Rañtw.



A special feature about the Kalung Rañtw is the fact that a shed at the site of the traditional nyatu - resting place, had been inaugurated by Kuru Hassang in 1998. The rañtw, most probably, has the biggest area and best maintained of all the village sacred groves.


The boundary is well demarcated with iron or concrete posts to prevent any encroachment attempts. Apart from magnificent blue pine trees, sacred trees include a wide varieties of other trees as well. The look of the sacred forest reminds one of Frost's verse, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep...."


Placid views from the rañtw add charm to the place.



Welcome to Kalung Rañtw.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Apatani Settlement at Talle Valley


The migration story of the Apatanis unequivocally points to the fact that they had settled down in Talle Valley before shifting base to their present habitat at Ziro valley. A team of archaeologists, in fact, had an extensive survey of Talle valley looking for any evidence of human settlement with not much success. This is understandable as the tribe had not used any materials of metal or of stone that usually leave evidences. Since the archaeologists usually look for such remains, they could not find any. What they missed, however, was the most striking evidence of Apatani settlement any visitor to the valley can see even to this day. What is that evidence? We'll find out in a while.

I always thought that blue pine at Ziro is native to the place. I believed that till some years back when I was bringing a friend working with UNDP to Ziro and during the course of our discussion, I told him that blue pine is endemic to Ziro.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Overall vegetation here and the geographical location of Ziro indicate that blue pine is exotic.” He explained that blue pine had been brought from somewhere else and planted here.

I tried to argue against it, but he was so sure about his theory that I had to revise my own belief. I recalled then that the migration story of the Apatanis also tells of the tribe coming to the valley with seeds of pine (pwsa), bamboo (bije) and mustard (giyañ). It was clear, then, that Ziro valley was once home to broad-leaved evergreen forests and that blue pine that dominate the landscape today, was planted by the Apatanis when they settled down here.

The visitors to Talle Valley are surprised at the vegetation pattern there – broad-leaved trees in the higher reaches while coniferous forests of pine and fir dominate the valley. This is the reverse of the expected pattern. The scientists find themselves at a loss to explain what they call a unique phenomenon. It is not unique, though: this pattern is found in at least one other place.

The same so-called reverse vegetation pattern is seen at Ziro valley which very few people may have noticed. Coniferous vegetation, mainly of blue pine, dominate the valley while the surrounding hills are covered with broad-leaved trees.  This pattern is because the Apatanis planted the blue pine in the valley while broad-leaved trees are native to the area and has remained in the hills.

It is not difficult to understand now that the reverse vegetation pattern at Talle Valley also is result of similar works. When the Apatanis settled down in Talle valley, they planted psuga pine and fir in the valley while the original broad-leaved vegetation in the hills around the valley has remained intact. This, then, is the most striking and strong evidence to scientifically support the Apatani migration story that they had lived in Talle valley for a very long time before they shifted to Ziro valley.