The Apatanis are known, among other things, for their body arts like tattooing and body piercing. Story has it that the Apatani women were exceptionally beautiful and attracted the attention of lascivious men. The practices of tattooing and piercing of nose and ears were started to repel such people. This explanation has no basis because a young girl with cute nose plugs - yapiñ hullo - and neatly lined tattoos - tiipe - was considered beautiful and they were sported with pride. A woman with big nose plugs and big ear knot at the back used to convey a sense of dignity.
People usually wonder how the Apatani women manage to put such big nose plugs on their nostrils. The nose is pierced with a pin-sized stick (usually of bamboo) at the age of 7 or 8 years. At an interval of time, the size of the stick is gradually increased. When it becomes as big as the small finger, cross-sections of hard smoked cane - tapi yaso replaces the stick.
I had an opportunity to observe the demonstration of preparing a nose plug when an American friend with a passion for tribal life and arts visited Ziro a few days back.
The cane is hardened by smoking it for years together. A portion is cut out with red hot slim iron stick – dachañ yakho. It is smoothened with charcoal – yamu miiri, and lo! it is ready for use.
The prepared nose plug was tried on the ear of our friend who had his ears pierced. The plug snugly fitted into the ear and was turned into an ear plug! He was overwhelmed on getting such a prized possession and the yapiñ hullo which was turned into a yaru hullo was the best present he could get!
Leonardo Da Vinci believed that nose set the character of the face. Nose, without doubt, is the most prominent feature of the face. No wonder, therefore, that nose piercing has been practiced since time immemorial. Nose piercing was said to have been first recorded in the Middle East 4,000 years ago. Today, the practice of nose-piercing is followed among the Berber and Beja tribes of Africa, and the Bedouins of the Middle East. The size of the ring denotes the wealth of the family.
Nose piercing was bought to India in the 16th Century from the Middle East by the Mughal emperors. The left nostril is the one most commonly pierced in India, as it is believed in the Ayurveda to be associated with the female reproductive organs and piercing is supposed to make childbirth easier and lessen pain during periods. Nose piercing in the west was popularized by the hippies who traveled to India in the late 1960s. It was later adopted by the Punk movement of the late 1970s as a symbol of rebellion against conservative values.
The emerging modern Apatani society prevented tattooing and piercing of noses in the 1970s. Will it return in the post-modern era? I, for one, would not be surprised.