Journey to Ziro

It was during my second trip to the Northeast that I decided to travel to Ziro. Some months back in Mumbai where I live, I read Ramachandra Guha’s book on Verrier Elwin.




The book prompted me to go to Shillong, where Elwin’s son Ashok showed us around his house, stuffed with the memorabilia of a life spent working with ethnic groups and recording their diverse ways of life. It was Ashok who suggested we go to Arunachal.


“You might find the Apatanis interesting,” Ashok said. He also told me about Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, an Austrian ethnologist. Furer-Haimonderf’s interest in India developed after first reading Tagore’s work in translation.


From the 1930s, Furer-Haimonderf spent many years working with ethnic groups in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast, especially with the Apatanis during the early 1940s. He was arrested during the World War as he had an Austrian passport. Austria was then under the Third Reich or Nazi rule.



He resumed his work later, encouraged by Elwin. His work and knowledge proved vital, especially once the Japanese moved up South east Asia towards Myanmar in 1944-45.


I did read his book, The Apa Tanis. And planned my trip.


Mridul, a friend who lives and works in Assam, gladly offered to accompany me, though he had never travelled to Arunachal Pradesh. In November, we headed to Tezpur on the road that led east to North Lakhimpur, following the course of the Brahmaputra. Somewhere at Bandardewa we turned north for Ziro, and found the Apatanis.


In the extreme east of the country, sun travels faster, or so we thought. Day breaks very early. We had missed the first bus heading out. But the bus that came later was relatively empty and we got prize seats by the window. We travelled past lush paddy fields interspersed with sections of dense forest.


In places, small brown thatched roof houses appeared, as did small tea houses and children waved at the bus as it passed. Intermittently, the bus would slow down for a cow or a dog to pass.


Things moved at a leisurely pace, not so the sun that already had a head-start. By the time we reached Banderdewa, the afternoon light had dimmed, though it was only around 2.30 or 3 pm. We realized there was no chance we could get to Ziro by night fall.


In places like this, vehicles did not ply through the night. The ever curious children suggested that there was indeed a guesthouse at Kimin Gate, a place on the state border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and only ten minutes from the check post. At the check post, permits to travel further were checked.


We packed ourselves into a shared auto-rickshaw and found the guesthouse, glowing a gentle red in the evening sun but deserted. It was again another set of curious, ever helpful children who pointed to the caretaker for us. A man with the proverbial heart of gold, the care-taker laid out a simple meal for us, which appeared sumptuous to us whowere tired after the long bus journey.


That night, as we lounged in the porch, with a power outage shrouding everything in darkness, we overheard a conversation and almost set off elephant-spotting. A wild elephant had apparently caused havoc in the rice fields, and a call for men to gather in large numbers with drums and lanterns had gone out. It had strayed from its herd and was lost. And had to be driven back to the jungle. We were keen to go but were careful. The jeep for Ziro was due to arrive at 5 am and missing the vehicle heading up north just wouldn’t help.


The next day, we walked to the check post where a smiling soldier nodded as he checked our permits. The significance of it all was obvious despite the silence and the amiability everywhere. Arunachal Pradesh is India’s most northeastern state, and shares international borders on three sides, Bhutan in the west, China to the north and east and Myanmar to the east. Permits were granted for only 15 days. Since we were hoping to see a lot of the region in that period, we had to carefully ration and plan our travel.


The Sumo that arrived on time was already packed. The breeze was noticeably cooler as we travelled up. In a region where everyone travels, the question that most disarmingly sets off conversations is the universal, ‘Where are you going?’ And so we got talking to two men travelling from Darjeeling, who gave us advice – welcome and helpful.


They told us about Mr Tatu, a man in Ziro, who offered home stay facilities that was quite popular.

‘Do we just have to remember that?’

‘Only that. And if you want to know about the Apatanis, its best you stay with him. He knows English too.’


It sounded simple. The search for Tatu proved otherwise. The journey was short but turned out spectacular.


We were travelling up the valley of the Subansiri, a river that flows south to later join the Brahmaputra. The land of the Apatanis concentrated in Ziro is in the lower part of this river valley. All around us, land rose in degrees. Low hills marked by rhododendron patches that gave way to serrated ridges etched by valleys, some as steep as gorges. Farther away we could see eastern Himalayas, peaks veiled by white clouds. There were rainforest trees and bamboo groves lower down but they gave away to shrub like growth higher up.


The Apatanis, as Furer Haimendorf had written, while speaking a Tibetan Burman language were quite similar looking to other tribal groups living in this part of Arunachal such as the Miris and the Daflas. Their way of life was distinctly different though. They had settled in the valley between the hills and practiced settled agriculture.


We passed Hapoli, which as our fellow passengers said, was the administrative centre. It had small hotels and even schools. But we were insistent on moving farther north where ‘old’ Ziro was located, and where we were sure to find our Mr. Tatu. Being new visitors, we missed the fact that Hapoli is in fact new Ziro, a small town built with government assistance only in the 1950s, when old Ziro got too overcrowded.


It was still early in the morning by the time we reached old Ziro and so we set out looking for Mr. Tatu.


There was a small road leading in, and we noticed the few shops in the market already open. Some sold electrical items, others clothes like t-shirts, caps, and jackets, there was a medical shop and still another selling mobile phones with a loud sign saying Free Incoming calls and No rentals.


We asked for Mr. Tatu. The lady at the shop looked puzzled. Everyone else who noticed our helplessness were puzzled too. There are many Tatus here, they said. We realized it was like looking for a Mr. Singh in a North Indian town or village.


People had begun gathering around, eager to help and feeling helpless in turn. Meanwhile, the women in the market, selling and buying goods, made us curious. There were elderly women manning the shops. We noticed the black tattoo lines on their faces almost forming a beard. There were also black nose rings that looked like nose plugs.


Furer -Haimendorf’s book had not mentioned this. There had only that one black and white photo of an Apatani woman with nose-plugs, and we wondered about this dichotomy. If a man had been studying tribals, wouldn’t he mention this? A custom that at first glance appeared totally unique to the Apatanis.


As we waited for help about Tatu, and no one had a clue, it became apparent that only the older women sported these nose plugs. We learnt that these were called ‘yaping hurlo’ made of local wood or bamboo. An incision was made in the nostril and the ‘plug’ was inserted and it got bigger as the incision widened over time. Middle aged women had facial tattoos, but the girls had none. We saw some of them leaving for school.


It was one of the elderly woman who pointed down the road and she said it was one Mr. Tatu’s house. He had worked in the police for a long time, and he spoke Hindi and even English. He was widely travelled.


‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he had travelled up to Delhi too.’


His house behind high walls. A metal gate seemed impressive but no one emerged despite our repeated jangling of the bars. An obliging passerby insisted we just walk in and wait for Mr. Tatu to return. He would soon, he assured us, though he had no idea how long we would have to wait.


Half an hour later, Mr. Tatu did turn up. The mystery fell into place. Mr. Tatu of the home stay fame lived in Hapoli, he said, the new Ziro we so carelessly left behind. But Nani Tatu, this gentleman, saw our backpacks in the outhouse and riding over our insistence to leave, opened up his house to us.


‘There’s a spare room,” he said, “and we are the Tanii.” This is what the Apatanis called themselves. “And you are guests from outside, ‘halyang‘. You are most welcome.”


He also told us that the people of other tribes who lived in the surrounding area were the ‘misan’.


The Apatani villages in old Ziro were all located across a single broad valley. At its centre, an area of 20 square miles, is an expanse of

unbroken irrigated rice-fields. The fields were brown because the new crop had not yet been transplanted. It is this `settled’ nature of the Apatani lives that have made possible a style of life totally different from the surrounding area. As Furer-Haimendorf wrote, the Apatanis for long remained concentrated in that one valley, and in their seven villages, all situated within an hour’s walking distance one from the other. They did travel outside on work, some even farther up to Delhi as our host, Mr. Tatu had. Some worked in the Assam plains but most of them lived in and around the area of Ziro. Other tribes for long lived lives of flux and restlessness. Not so the Apatanis.


Some of the older people relived memories – with stories of disasters that occurred. Many remembered the great earthquake of 1950, which was almost as severe as the one another fifty years ago. We cross-checked this later. In 1897, a big earthquake with its epi-centre at Shillong did great damage. One of the first British administrators who had travelled to the Apatani region, Robert Blair McCabe who had served as Inspector General of Police, Assam, died in that earthquake. You can look up his grave at the St Mary’s Church in Shillong. The people also spoke of great destructive fires that had struck the Apatani villages sometime in the 1950 that prompted many of them to move away, especially to the new town of Hapoli.


Tatu’s house was big, within its own walled compound. There was a bare lawn in front and a small pigsty. It had a porch at the front and back. On the corrugated tin roof, we noticed a strange looking wooden pole. It had actually been planted in the ground. This was a kind of symbolic totem called the ‘babo’ and we noticed this in other houses as well.


The babo was shaped out of a tree trunk or a big sized branch and looked like a ‘t’; there were flags strung on it. There were smaller sized babos that were placed outside house fronts and bigger ones that were just outside the lapan, the main gathering place of the people.


The babo is usually put up during the Myoko festival marked in spring. Priests dressed in colourful shawls woven by the people themselves, and wearing their own decorative earrings and nose-rings quite unlike the plugs, officiated on these occasions. Mr. Tatu told us that pigs and fowl were offered as sacrifices. In the past, men performed spectacular acrobatics. But this was risky as they took little precaution, such performances stopped.


Tatu’s house was dark but somehow comfortable. Colourful shawl-like curtains draped windows. It looked cozy when the sun died away and it got cold. There were rooms on every side of a central hall that had a hearth at its centre. The kitchen was located on a raised end of the hall. The hearth was a big square with a tripod at the centre. Firewood and kindling were stored in shelves on one side and the hearth was used to cook food and people kept themselves warm before it, as they sat on low stools around. This is how we got to know some of the old stories passed down by one Apatani generation to the other. There was a puppy that hovered around the fire, and sometimes we worried it got too near. The meal was always simple, rice and a pork curry, mixed with a lot of root vegetables. These vegetables are easier to grow and store especially so because winters are cold here and often there is lot of snowfall.


The walls in the central hall were dotted with animal trophies. Skulls and horns of mithuns, the local bison, that were given in exchange or had been sacrificed during important festivals marked by the family. Some dated to the time of Tatu’s grandfather. There was a pangolin on the wall. It was not stuffed, only its skin had been chemically treated.


The pangolin reminded me of Ralph Izzard’s book, In Search of the Buru, written in 1951. A friend had picked it up from one of Mumbai’s old pavement bookshops that no longer exist outside Churchgate. Perhaps you can still get a copy at the library of the Bombay Natural History Society. He was a British journalist who doubled up as an intelligence officer and had worked with Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. Izzard had read Furer-Haimonderf too who first mentioned this mystical animal called the ‘buru’. Izzard having read this came all the way up to Upper Assam looking for the Buru in the late 1940s.


Furer-Haimonderf described the creature as being around 12-15 feet long and being a bluish-white in colour. It had fish-like skin with no scales, and there were rows and rows of spines along its sides and back. The buru also had a triangle shaped head that ended in a snout; its teeth were small except for a sharp pair, in its upper and lower jaws. These were almost similar to that of a tiger or boar, as Furer-Haimonderf writes. It had short stumps for legs, with extremely sharp claws and a very powerful tail that enabled it to be comfortable on land as well as in water. According to the Austrian ethnologist, the land of the Apatanis had once been a huge marshy, swampy place and this was where the buru lived before it was driven away by the Apatanis, as they settled there.


Ralph Izzard never found the buru, though he spent several weeks in the forest, going up trails known only to the Apatani men. He consoled himself with the fact that it was winter and perhaps the buru was then hibernating in the hill caves all around the valley.


As Apatani origin stories went, they were the only tribe that could take on the burus. Once the burus had been scared away, Apatanis cleared the swamps and settled down to farming, unlike the tribes around such as the Daflas who lived a life of flux and constant movement. But the Burus, as Apatani stories went, were creatures to be left alone. They could be dangerous when attacked. We heard the story of a hunter who had killed a buru young and was killed by a very angry buru mother, who chased him and with swipe of her immense tail forced him into the swamp that finally claimed him.


The pangolin rested on the wall, almost lifelike. Its skin still felt scaly and Tatu said his grandfather had shot it somewhere. He also had his father’s old rifle that was with a friend of his.


We heard all these stories one evening, as everyone sat around the fire drinking Apong, a fermented rice beer. Some families brewed this in large quantities and it drew in neighbours and people from all around for a friendly evening conversation.


The next morning he led us out to show us his immense fields. Tatu said he had retired from the police where he had served as a local level junior officer. He seemed to be in his early sixties. Besides his large fields, he had an entire herd of mithuns, the bison found in this region. We saw fish ponds beside the rice fields. This fish, a kind of carp, too had been introduced in the 1950s, a practice found elsewhere in southeast Asia, conducive to agriculture and village life. The carps keep away germs and consume mosquito larvae.


These mithuns for their part were left to roam around in the foothills nearby and were lured back during festivals or other occasions by their owners who placed chunks of locally made salt called ‘tapyo‘ on the grass. This made the grass especially tasty for the mithuns. Every mithun has a characteristic pattern on its coat, so an owner can distinguish his own from others. Sometimes they were led out in processions during festivals and mithuns were exchanged during weddings and offered as sacrifice.


In the past, Apatanis living in their seven villages in old Ziro practiced clan exogamy and tribe endogamy. They held themselves rigid from the other tribes. Sometimes during skirmish, other tribes people were captured and forced to work in the fields or as labourers bringing firewood or other forest products. These ‘captured’ labourers were strictly guarded. Furer-Haimendorf’s book had a picture of a man, evidently from another tribe, bound in twine to prevent his escaping. He also has stories of the skirmishes between Apatanis and the tribes around, mainly the Nishis (who were earlier known as the Daflas, a term considered derogatory now). Was this a reason the older women had ‘nose-plugs’? A forced disfigurement so as not to draw attention?


There were two kinds of facial tattoos. These were no longer so elaborate as in the past. Besides the one on the chin, tattoos were drawn from the forehead to the nose. Men also sported tattoos but these were not so elaborate. These practices ended sometime in the 1970s, perhaps under the auspices of the Apatani Youth Association founded in 1972. It had several chiefs among its members and perhaps that was what made the new measures more acceptable. Though admittedly, no study explaining this in detail has been done.


As late as the 1950s there is the record of a protest made by the Apatanis against the authorities. They attacked the barracks where soldiers of the Assam Rifles were stationed. They battled soldiers using their old bows and arrows and some rifles. It was only after reinforcements arrived for the soldiers from Kimin that peace was ensured.


Over the next four days , we visited the other rice/paddy fields around and from Mr. Tatu and other people of the village learnt about their methods of cultivation. No artificial fertilizers or machines are used, it would be difficult to use machines away on the undulating land surface. But then even no oxen was employed for plowing, it was all done by hand. We noticed the intricate system of small canals that enabled the water from the surrounding hills to be channeled onto fields. There were bunds to help store the water and lead it from one field to another.


We were invited to come again in February, where there was the festival of Murung. It was an occasion celebrated by families unlike the more community ones such as Dree or Myoko. We promised to return. It was a nice place but one cannot stay anywhere for too long in these parts.


Sometimes looking up we saw a stray air force plane flying low and that was when we realised we were very close to the border. We had plans to see other places in the State before we moved back to the plains and then all the way back across the country to Mumbai. The pangolin and the women with their nose-plugs did belong to another era altogether but as we said goodbye to Tatu, we felt we were leaving behind an entirely different world behind us.


Acknowledgements : Gauraang Pradhan travelled with Mridul Chakravorty of the National Rural Health Mission, in this trip across Arunachal Pradesh. Anu Kumar co-wrote the essay and provided research.


About the authors

Gauraang Pradhan has been with the Economic and Political Weekly in Mumbai and is responsible for circulation and marketing. He has travelled widely across India, and especially to the northeast on a number of occasions. He is an avid photographer, wildlife enthusiast and loved looking up little known groups and people with a unique way of life.

Anu Kumar’s most recent novels are ‘It Takes a Murder’ and ‘Inspector Angre and the Pizza Delivery Boy’.