Between the Tribal Ethnic Groups of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh
Guwahati India – 1877 km by land or 2.10 hours by plane from New Delhi and 983 km by land or 1.05 hours by plane from Kolkata – is the gateway to Assam along the road along the banks of the Brahmaputra River, it leads into Arunachal Pradesh bordering Sino-Tibetan-Burmese. The etymology of the name is uncertain – Assam; according to some it derives from the Sanskrit Asama “unparalleled”. The Assam became part of British India after the British East India Company occupied the region after the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826. Assam is surrounded by seven member states of the Indian confederation: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Sikkim, which in the north-east Indian region morphologically resemble a curious elephant trunk at the turn of Bangla Desh . Geographically, Assam and these states are connected to the rest of India by a narrow 22 km long strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor or “chicken neck”, part of West Bengal.
From the etymological point of view Arunachal in Sanskrit means “land of mountains bathed by the rising sun”, because due to its geographical location it is the first place in India to greet the dawn. Pradesh means simply “was.” Its mountainous territories, following the MacMahon line adopted unilaterally by India as border in 1950, were administered by the North East Frontier Agency until 1972, when it became a Union Indiana, then proclaimed state of Arunachal Pradesh in December 1986. Even today, the issue of sovereignty over the region is not yet resolved and the Chinese call the disputed region Zangnan (southern Tibet). These territories of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are home to many ethnic minorities, preserved by isolation in the Himalayan valleys and neighboring border Burmese forests. Although belonging geographically to India, they present a mixture of somatic traits related to Mongolian strain and Tibeto-Burmese, with almond eyes and fair complexion. They still live a way of life in close relationship with the natural elements in one of the last havens in Asia, between green mountains full of forests and bamboo, terraces planted with rice kissed by the sun and the long Himalayan tributaries of the Brahmaputra River.
To reach Bomdila first and then the Tawang Valley, you have to climb a set of endless switchbacks with traffic often blocked by maintenance work and interrupted by a stop on the SE-La Pass at 4,176 meters above sea level, the largest portal with Stupa surrounded by “tarchok,” prayer flags. In this area of predominantly Buddhist worship, about 95 km from the Chinese/Tibetan border, live the Monpás.
Of Mongolian descent, and having immigrated from Bhutan and Tibet in different times, the Monpás live apart from their branch of Tibetan origin because of the MacMahon Line border with China, designed by British settlers, who annexed their territory in India. Like many other indigenous eastern Himalayas, practiced the primitive animist Bon religion before converting to Tibetan Buddhism, but, unlike the other tribes, they are totally dedicated to their new religion by keeping only some elements of the old. Men dress in the Tibetan Chuba and wear a hat made from yak hair, rasta style, and a long knife shoulder. Women have a small headdress made of yak hair, with 5 or 6 braids rigid hair, arranged radially in a uniform way and adorned with tassels. All carry necklaces formed by large stones of turquoise and coral, with a pendant in the center and silver ornaments.
The Monpás people are known for their artistic creations, which include Thangka painting, carpet-making, weaving, wood carving and special skill in making paper from the tree “sukso”. Due to the cold climate of the Himalayas, the Monpás, like most of the other Buddhist tribes, build houses of stone and wood, with floorboards often accompanied by finely carved doors and windows. The roof is made with a bamboo mat to keep the house warm during the winter season. To prevent soil erosion, residents use hill slopes to cultivate rice, maize, wheat, barley, millet, buckwheat, peppers, squash and beans. In addition to domestic animals such as pigs and sheep, they also raise yaks, the furry Himalayan cattle.
Tawang Valley – impressively situated on a steep hill which offers an excellent view on the Chu Valley, where stands the Tawang Gompa, also called “Galden Namgyal Lhatse ‘, which was founded by Merak Lama Lodre Gyamtso around 1680. This Asian monastery can accommodate about 700 monks, although currently only about 300 reside there. Definitely consider attending a “Puja”, the religious function of Buddhist ritual, which is celebrated every day. The descent towards the plains of Assam, among gorges, waterfalls and crossing the mighty Brahmaputra, allows you to visit some crops of tea, for which the State is rightly famous, as well as some villages of Mishing people,
Some Arunnachal immigrants have settled in outlying areas as farmers and peasants. One such area is the Kaziranga Park , where you can take an interesting elephant safari.
In this park, a UNESCO World Heritage site as of 1985, lives the white rhino with a single horn. The dawn is the ideal time to observe it, when the local fog dissolves in the early sunlight and the marsh and grasslands are moist. A game drive by jeep or an exciting elephant safari is the best way to explore the wilderness of the national park, with the possibility of spotting the white rhino surrounded by other endemic animals: deer, gaur, wild water buffalo, wild boar and an incredible variety of bird life.
If you are lucky enough, you can also see the Indian tigers, which are very common in this area but difficult to spot because of the grass – called elephant grass – where they camouflage well.
A new crossing of the river Brahmaputra, leaving behind Assam, leads us to Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh and a gateway. Here is a “bureaucratic” stopover where you must make to obtain special permits to visit and get to Ziro Valley, the main destination of our journey, where we will meet the Apatani people.
The name probably derives from Abotani, the name of the first man according to the followers of Donyi-Poloismo. The Apatani live in houses built on high wooden stilts with bamboo walls and floors. They are a purely agricultural community and without the use of farm animals or machines, they developed a sophisticated irrigation system of fields. Their social structure is based on classes divided into nobles and slaves.
The women are distinguished by their extensively tattooed faces with blue lines from the forehead to the tip of the nose and five vertical stripes under the lower lip in the chin (these tattoos are called Twpe), but above all, for two large dark wooden plaques (Y’apiñ hullo) embedded on the sides of the nose, above the nostrils. From small pegs inserted at an early age, they switch gradually until they reach 6-7 centimeters in diameter for adults. The custom has been in decline in recent years and remained only among older women.
Among the legends that explain these practices, one states that in the distant past there were frequent enemy raids of neighboring tribes (especially the Nyishi) in order to kidnap the most beautiful women of the village, so their leader had decided to disguise their beauty to make them less desirable. In making the tattoo, a solution is applied to the blood oozing from perforated skin, made by mixing the black soot of the pots with boiled rice water. After some time, when the solution dries, a mixture of pig blood and oil is applied to the wound for a few days, which helps to heal first and then to turn it into a tattoo. The women also cover their braids rolled up into a ball (Dillin) on the top of their head, which they secure with a brass skewer (Adin).
The Apatani men wear their hair tied above the forehead with a Pwdiñ – a node crossed horizontally by a brass rod of about 30 cm (Dinko) – and they shoulder a long knife behind a bamboo sheath braided. They also show a tattoo on the middle of the chin shaped like the letter “T”. They too, like women, have earlobe piercings made with large pieces of carved bamboo called Yaru Hukho (Earplugs). Above the main holes, they have two or three smaller holes to wear two or three more earrings, consisting of brass rings (Ruttiñ Yarangs) with a diameter of about 8-10 centimeters.
These signs have become over time the aesthetic standards of the Apatani, and in their society it is normal that young people of both sexes compete for the best tattoos, nose and ear piercing, hair knots and rings.
Although in recent decades the Christian missionaries were very active in North-East India, influencing the beliefs and religious life of the region, most of the Apatani are still animists. As such, they believe that the gods and goddesses will be placated with the offer and the sacrifice of animals, which will bless the community.
This sacrificial practice, in fact, is one of the most rooted in Apatani culture, and one of its greatest expressions can be observed during the Myoko, a festival that is celebrated every year in the spring, although the exact start date is determined by the shaman after consulting the oracles.
The Myoko Festival is one of the most important events of the Apatani ethnicity. Has a great social significance, as the one who offers the party to family and neighbors greatly enhances their social status within the community. Event flow secular beliefs on how to ensure the fertility of the fields, and strengthen family ties between clans and between villages. That’s why the richest families aspire to always give these festivals.
To be in Ziro Valley during Myoko Festival is an opportunity you can’t pass up to closely observe their traditions. For this event, even those who live far away return to the home villages of Hari, Tajang, Tarin and Hong to attend.
Everywhere in the streets towering shamanic piles with fringes and hanging flags, signifying the animistic faith of the people, who are extremely hospitable and invite foreigners to visit their homes, offering rice alcohol and tea distillates. On the eve of the day of the great sacrifice of pigs – the main day of Myoko – the opening procession begins in the afternoon. A long spontaneous march of people, each with a local palm branch in his hand, moves slowly around some huts, one for each family clan, singing and praying the Miji, a collection of religious songs.
Inside the shaman – dresses with a “Jilan,” the traditional ceremonial dress, and large earrings – along with some assistants continues repeating the prayers until the time of the sacrifice of animals (pigs or chickens).
The following night, a pig is chosen and gutted alive and his heart, while still beating, is examined by the shaman and his assistants to determine whether the future will be favorable for the village. It is believed that on this day the gods and goddesses will bless the place, wishing you a bountiful harvest of rice.
Meanwhile, from 2 am until sunrise, in the courtyards of the houses of the rich Apatani, private parties take place with many pigs and mithun (typical cattle of India’s north-east) tied to a pole by the legs, and chickens hanging upside down on sacred tree branches. These animals are sacrificed following the same ritual the shaman by each family group.
The tours travel to every family clan in the festival, which are indicated by the presence in front of houses of married women – elegant in their ceremonial clothing light in color and with the family’s most valuable jewels, including large stone necklaces.
Once the main priest of Myoko has finished singing his prayers, assistants select the pigs and other animals and begin ripping out their beating hearts and bowels while they are still alive.
Other animals are brought into the houses and at the same sacrificed by the priests, examining the beating heart, the liver, the bowels, and in the case of chickens, even the eggs yolk. Even a small cyst can be considered an inauspicious sign, so that we often use to another expert (or several) for “co-interpreting” auspices. Various animal cuts are then cooked and offered to friends and family to spread the blessings, while outside older Apatani ladies perform some of their traditional dances.
A Cultural Mosaic
Leaving the Ziro Valley for insight into the high density ethnic area of Arunachal Pradesh, along the state road NH229 we cross several suspension bridges over the whirling tributaries of the upper side of the Brahmaputra, in the middle of a luxuriant area of nature, deep canyons, high mountains with peaks covered with snow, thousands of flower species (including over 500 rare varieties of orchids). There are no longer any “dhaba” (restaurants) with gastronomic specialties, nor the comfort of Assam, but many small villages where we stop to have a snack and can closely observe the simple rural life of the local people. This is the land of the Nyishi, whose villages are built on cliffs.
Crossing the rope bridge and walking up a steep path you can reach very traditional places, like the Yoizath, with beautiful wooden huts of rope and straw, home to the last elders who still wear the typical hat-shaped bamboo helmet surmounted by the beak of the hornbill (a protected bird, the hunting of which is discouraged by strict laws) and 3 peacock feathers or another hornbill behind. They wear their hair knotted forehead, stopped with brass pins.
Like the Apatani, they keep on their shoulder a machete (dao) and a knife (ryukchak) in a bamboo sheath, sometimes covered with a bearskin tape. Their armament consists of a lance, a large sword and a bow with poisonous arrows.
Cotton dress shirts with blue and red stripes with a cotton or wool coat fixed around the throat and shoulders, often accompanied by strings of beads of various sizes and colors indicate the social status of the wearer. Tattoos are not the norm among Nyishi, but women wear particularly large silver earrings, necklaces with multicolored beads, chains and brass bells, heavy bracelets of various metals. Generally, they wear a cloak that covers the body from the armpits to mid-calf, tied at the waist with a ribbon. The hair parted in the middle and are twisted into a bun just above the nape of the neck.
Their animistic faith is shown more in Nyokum, a holiday commemorating the ancestors and give thanks for the harvest of the field, with religious rituals which coincide with the lunar phases and cycles of agriculture.
In the valley of the river Kamla, south of Daporijo, in an area covered by dense jungles and bamboo forests, at an altitude varying between 900 and 1220 meters, live the Adi-Gallong. They are divided into various clans that wear different garments. The men wear red jackets, woven bamboo hat with the brim pointed, flat backpack always of woven bamboo, and the machete slung in a bamboo sheath. Women show off copper and silver jewelry, their hair in two long braids.
This group of people builds villages on the hillsides with huts on stilts and cultivate the surrounding land with rice, millet, sweet potatoes, tobacco and pepper. They have very special rituals related to marriage, with various types of ceremonies, depending on the wealth of the couple. They worship the spirits, good and bad, and also worship the gods of the sun and moon.
As there are no tourist accommodations in the area, many stay with the village chief who, according to Adi-Gallong tradition, offers his home to those who are in transit. Here is an opportunity to socialize with the family clan, also make friends with the children of the small village, enjoy simple and genuine hospitality around the fire pit at the home center, and have a hand in the preparation of dinner.
From Along to Pasighat, along a scenic road parallel the Syiam River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, you can experience the thrill of being suspended over the abyss, as you walk through the gorge on Soangam Bridge, a Tibetan bamboo bridge around 300 meters high.
We are in the Adi-Minyong territory, an sort of “cousin” ethnicity to the Adi-Gallong. They are of small stature, and as such are considered the Asian equivalent of the African pygmies. They wear primitive green fabric and are particularly experienced in construction with bamboo material used to realize several suspension bridges on Siyam and Siang rivers.
In the same area also we also find the Hill Miri ethnic group. It conducts a social and economic life similar to that of Nyishi tribe, entertaining good relations with the people of the plains of Assam, with which it trades. Like the Nyishi, men wear bamboo helmets (bopar), but instead of gathering their hair on their forehead, they use a bearskin flap. On their shoulder, they carry a long sword (orok) and a small knife (rwuchuk).
The woman’s dress is typically a long blouse that is wrapped at the waist, with a multi-strand necklace of colored vegetable seeds. The disk-shaped earrings are metal. They live in beautiful bamboo huts supported by special poles arranged in an X shape.
The Hill Miri are dedicated to agriculture, focusing mainly on millet and rice crops, which distill a great alcohol, very pleasing to the population. The wine flows abundantly on special occasions, such as music festivals and dances, which they are very fond of, and especially during the Booriboot, the main celebration held in February.
Concentrated in the regions of Daporijo, Dumporijo and also in adjacent areas of the West Siang live the Tagin, a people with a warrior tradition living in pile-dwelling houses to defend themselves from monsoon rains and, above all, from the bears and the tigers.
Besides the dwellings, there are elegant barns posing on stilts. The Tagin are of Buddhist origin, but in time were converted to Christianity, while retaining the use of ancient traditional medicine, which relies on herbal prevention and treatment of diseases.
Close to Pasighat, the long and spectacular Sissen bridge, made of bamboo, announces a series of switchbacks down the approach to the plains and the route conclusion in Arunachal.
A Masabohi Hut, at the muddy port of embarkation for the barge crossing the Brahmaputra leads to Bodibill Hut. Our wait turns into a review of hitherto encountered ethnic groups, who here on the banks gather and mingle intent on their trades.
Between the bright faces with almond eyes of origin Sino-Tibetan-Burmese and dark complexions of Indian strain, everyone is committed to doing business: people sell canned drinks and tea, some sell tickets for the collective bus departing from the other shore for nearby cities, another sells samosas and various cooked food, others trade fresh milk, poured from tin containers.
After the monotonous river crossing – where there’s a colossal concrete bridge being built at Bogibel Ghat, which will permanently connecting the two banks and contaminate the Arunachal tribes – we arrive in upper Assam Dibrugarh, which definitely shows the taste of India, with its chaotic traffic, tuk tuk trumpeting and cows that roam undisturbed.
The final approach flown to Kolkata allows one last visit to the bustling city of Bengal and the Flower Market near Howrah Bridge, for one last sight full of human warmth.