17 Jun 2017 17:04 IST

Shangri-la is real

A faraway valley in Arunachal Pradesh has to do little to be a beguiling picture of country life

The tattoo slashes her face from hairline to chin. More shocking still are the old woman’s monstrous wooden nose plugs, replaced over the years with increasingly larger ones, till the feature they adorn is disfigured beyond recognition. Yet, these are not, as is sometimes believed, the legacy of desperate measures adopted in the old days by Apatani beauties to ward off abductions by hostile neighbouring tribes. On the contrary, explains Guddi Doging, our guide from this community, they’re part of a fashion trend that’s been around for generations. Now shunned by young women like her, and prohibited by law, the custom faces extinction.

Evidently, the old woman belongs to a dying breed. For us, it’s a now-or-never photo op — with a catch: orthodox Apatani women invariably distrust the camera, fearing it will entrap their souls.

I’m about to give up hope, when Doging performs a miracle. Out of her handbag comes a glossy portrait of the woman, taken by a visiting Italian photographer. Our guide lays it on the subject’s lap, watches her face light up with pleasure, then quickly slips in my request for a photo. The woman nods. Camera ready, I beg for a smile. Giggling coquettishly, my model bares naked gums. “See?” she lisps, “no teeth!”

We’re in Hong, one of the oldest villages in Ziro Valley that lies in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Home to the Apatanis, the hill-girdled region is recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site — one where the tribe’s ancient culture coexists happily with the advantages of development.

Exploring Ziro, the harmony between the old and the new is obvious, barring the odd, discordant note — the seediness, for instance, of Hapoli, the market area, or the commercial exploitation of a colossal natural Shivling in the nearby Kardo hills, resulting in a steady depletion of the surrounding forest. But in villages like Hong, Hari, Bulla and Siro, Apatanis like our ruddy-cheeked homestay owner, Punyo Chada Yalung, are environmentally aware and as proud of their ancestral traditions as they are eager to embrace progress. Before most of these rural homes stand the twin emblems of family pride and necessity: a well-maintained car and a shrine, consecrated by the local shaman through an elaborate ritual, to ward off evil spirits; denim-clad college-going youngsters with streaked hair are as integral to Ziro’s village life as the tattooed old women in sarongs and nose plugs working in the fields. And though a sizeable segment of the Valley’s population consists of Christian converts like Doging’s family, the entire tribe unites to celebrate rural festivals with gusto, faithfully observing every ritual associated with their ancient animist faith under the guidance of the all-important shaman.

In fact, it’s sheer luck that we are here during the festive season, enjoying the carnival atmosphere of the totem pole erection ceremony in Bulla village that precedes the annual 10-day Myoko Festival in March that celebrates friendship, prosperity and fertility. Once the festivities are over, most rural folk will be out working in their fields, busy with rice cultivation and pisciculture. And an eerie somnolence will descend on the villages, turning them momentarily into ghost towns.

****

Eager to make the most of our stay during this special occasion, we spend an entire morning in Bulla, watching the men whittle the babo or totem pole into shape and fashion its decorations from various indigenous materials, while a young man in a smart grey suit films the activity on his video camera. “The manager of the State Bank of India in Itanagar,” Doging whispers. Home, for this Bulla-born boy, is evidently where the heart is. Striking a pose on the lapang, a platform as integral to the ceremony as the babo, a tall, handsome local stud engages us in conversation. “Don’t miss Rangoon, the film starring Shahid and Kangana,” he urges, adding that he has played a minor role in it.

Meanwhile, the women, in exquisitely woven sarongs, have gathered around the central hearth in the spacious wood-floored main room of a home. Invited in and offered tea, we observe how age differences and class distinctions fall away, as gossiping and laughing, they pitch in to prepare a community meal consisting of a chilli-rich rice, pork and vegetable concoction, and rice beer. High on excitement — and the homemade brew — their rosy-cheeked children, trailed by the family pets, including clucking hens, run back and forth. But as the pole finally goes up amid loud cheers, I can’t help noticing the tired, solemn faces of the shabbily dressed Bihari children employed in well-to-do Apatani homes. There are shadows in Shangri-la, after all.

We’re running late and Doging whisks us away to the Bulla cemetery, bang next to a volleyball court. It’s a strangely peaceful spot, the graves marked with triangular bamboo structures, atop which perch the skulls of a cow and a mithun, a semi-domesticated bovine that is celebrated as the State animal, but isn’t spared the ordeal of shaman-ordained sacrifices to mark important religious and community-related occasions. Considering the significance of these two entities — the mithun and the shaman — in the lives of the Apatanis, I’m highly intrigued by both.

Aware of my interest, our host, Yalung, promptly takes us on a mithun-gazing safari early one morning, with Tabo, the family terrier, leading the way across a misty pastoral landscape towards a stream where the animals habitually gather to drink water. Our expedition’s canine commander spots them before we do: an entire herd of mithun, their hides a graphic artist’s dream — black on white, white on black, blotches and patches, dots and dashes… Tabo, of course, has scant respect for aesthetics. Sneaking up behind a hapless mithun, he seizes its tail between his teeth and gives it a sharp tug, then sprints off to a safe spot to savour the reaction, even before his prey has lumbered around to confront its tormentor. An entertaining game, that promises to go on forever… But Doging will be waiting to accompany us to the Danyi Pilo Meder Nello, the sun and moon temple where the Apatanis gather every Sunday to celebrate their animist faith. Besides, I can’t wait to see a real shaman in action.

****

At the temple, a nondescript hall with an enormous sun painted on the far wall, I expect a wild-looking, rather scary creature — much like the tantrics of my imagination — to preside over this congregation of nature worshippers. Instead, a bespectacled young man, as uncharismatic as an office clerk, comes forward to intone prayers, which the devotees, mostly women, repeat. The hymns sound like folk songs from the North-East’s tea gardens. And as more of the faithful arrive, the women burst into animated chatter, oblivious to the priest droning on.

Later, Doging explains the reason for the apparent lack of decorum. Formal Sunday religious services like this one were never a part of Apatani tradition; they have been introduced to counter the push for conversion by Christian evangelists. It’s a surprisingly honest and empathetic assessment by a convert.

These qualities will come to the fore again, several hours later, when a crisis looms in my life. As we pack our bags before our departure, scheduled early the following morning, I discover that an envelope containing the bulk of my travel funds is missing from my purse; I have left it behind at the emporium where Doging had taken us more than a day-and-a-half earlier. The store, closed for the weekend, will not reopen until after we leave Ziro.

Distraught, I call our guide to explain what has happened. “Please collect the envelope later and use the money,” I advise her.

Urging me to not lose hope, she promises to call back. Half an hour later, she does — to report that she had caught Haj Akang, the owner, in the middle of dinner and entreated her to search for the missing envelope. Prompt to oblige, the woman had done the needful, calling Doging to inform that she has found the envelope.

The following morning, we pick up a yawning Doging and drive down to Akang’s house.

“I was so afraid I wouldn’t find the money and you’d suspect I had taken it,” says the woman, handing me the envelope. “I prayed and prayed.”

Clasping her hand in mine, I’m at a loss for words.

Back home, I ponder over the experience and how it has changed me. I’ve started believing in myths. Shangri-la, I’m convinced, is real. With its shamans and superstitions, its nose plugs and streaked hair, its animist faith and Christian missions, its Dogings and Akangs, its simplicity, honesty and integrity, this earthly paradise lies in a faraway valley in Arunachal Pradesh, at the end of a potholed “highway” passing through villages with quaint names like Yupia, Yachuli and Yazali.

That not many are aware of its existence is a wonder — and a blessing.

Travel log

Getting there

Several domestic airlines operate flights between major Indian cities and Guwahati. If you wish to use the bus service between Guwahati and Itanagar or hire a car for Itanagar (a six- to seven-hour journey in both cases), spend the night in Guwahati. The alternative is to take the overnight train from Guwahati to Naharlagun, which takes about eight hours. Hired-car services, including driver, and share taxis (₹350 per passenger) are available from both Itanagar and Naharlagun for the onward five- to six-hour journey to Ziro.

Stay

In Ziro Valley: Siiro Resort, Siiro Village, Hapoli, Lower Subansiri District, Arunachal Pradesh (tel: 03788 225 123).

Homestay: NgunuZiro Homestay (email: punyochada@gmail.com; www.facebook.com/ngunuziro).

When to go

While the season for Ziro is from October to May, the valley is known for its unique tribal culture, which is best showcased during the local festivals. The rain in the valley, however, is a double-edged sword. For those who hate wet weather, the dry month of February would be ideal. The landscape, however, tends to look parched and barren at that time and Ziro really comes into its own with a few showers, when the rice fields in the area turn verdant with all the moisture.

Tip

A local guide with access to private homes and conversant with the region’s rituals and festivals would be an asset. Our own guide, Guddi Dodging (+91 9615928709), was a valley resident

(Mita Ghose is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and editor. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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