The Apatani tribals of Arunachal Pradesh are seen by anthropologists and sociologists as one of the most progressive tribes of India. But there is an anachronism here. They are however caught up in a web of traditional customs that would appear barbaric and primitive to a casual visitor. Winds of change may be sweeping into the beautiful Ziro valley where they live. But the rituals continue in its purest form.
Sample this: Thake Hinda, an Apatani tribal in Ziro, has a gathering of over fifty of his friends and relatives around his thatched dwelling built on stilts. He then lines up three of his best cows for a ritual sacrifice. It was both macabre and brutal. The unsuspecting cows were first struck with a heavy blow on the head. Before the helpless animals could reel, a sharp bamboo spear was thrust deep into its heart. The precision was amazing. Warm gushing blood was collected and then boiled to make it edible. A feast followed where villagers drank locally brewed rice beer followed by rice and boiled beef.
Why was Thake Hinda doing all this? He believed that this ritual would protect him from evil spirits and ensure good health for his family. A witch doctor had recommended this expensive ritual. This is no rare occurrence. Hundreds of cows, buffaloes and hen get sacrificed all over the Apatani valley at Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. The faith is so intense that sometimes witchdoctors are called outside hospitals to organize rituals as many of them have little faith in modern medicine.
If seen in isolation, this ritual would give the impression that the Apatanis are far removed from the civilized world. Nothing could be further from the truth. With decades of hard work, discipline and ingenuity, the Apatanis have carved out a special place for themselves. Best known for their farming and irrigation techniques, the Apatanis evolved their economy designed to make full use of their resources. Undoubtedly, this was really creditable for a tribe with an archaic culture. Celebrated German anthropologist Christoph Von Furer Haimendorf was so fascinated by the enterprise of the Apatanis that he visited the valley numerous times to study and write on them.
Advanced Farming Techniques
The Apatanis are best known for their farming and irrigation. Not an inch is untended in the 5000 odd acres in the valley where rice is cultivated is untended as all family members work on it. Even little children! It is difficult to find a flourishing weed. There is great family bonding and team work at play. Hundreds of years ago, the Apatanis had discovered how to use gravity to irrigate the entire plateau –much before the Israelis did the same.
The land was developed in such a way that each field had enough stagnant water. Perennial streams raised in the wooded mountains around the valley were fully tapped and channelized into streams to flow from the higher terraces to lower ones. By opening or blocking ducts, any field could be flooded or drained.
Such ingenuity came from traditional wisdom of the community and it continues to marvel government agriculture officials even today. This kind of system not only required a great deal of skill and planning, but more importantly, a high degree of understanding and cooperation between all the farmers. It is an accepted fact that everyone has a right to water. Disputes are rare. If one arises, it is immediately resolved by village elders. The Apatanis realize that their strength and prosperity lies in this kind of cooperation and unity.
Even narrow bunds separating one field from another are utilized by growing millets on it. Such optimum utilization of land cannot be found anywhere even in the most developed agricultural pockets of India. Former Chief Minister Geong Apang labels them the best farmers and foresters in the country.
Seeing the Apatani enterprise, government officials in 1965 introduced them to a new idea: Pisiculture. The idea was to breed fish in the rice fields during the months when it had stagnant water. Common carp, an exotic and fast breeding species was put into the fields helping farmers multiply their earnings. Today, most Apatani farmers are engaged in pisiculture. Encouraged, the government tried similar experiments elsewhere but it did not produce encouraging results.
But again, if one is to cursorily look at the Apatani system of farming, one would think that it was almost primitive. Tractors are rarely used. Even tilling, sowing, reaping and other jobs on the fields are manually done. Agricultural experts tried to introduce an exotic variety of rice which would give a higher yield but the Apatanis resisted it arguing that the strain they grew was tastier and that was what mattered to them.
Traditions Not Diluted
The most striking feature of the Apatanis is how they have allowed the winds of change to blow into the valley and at the same time have not allowed westernization and modernization to dilute their customs, traditions and culture. Almost all Apatani children go to school as the value of education is being recognized. More than 75 per cent of the students in schools at Ziro are Apatanis.
Even literacy has not diluted their traditions or given it a modern idiom. Both young and old, educated and uneducated believe deeply in the supernatural. Their spiritual world is dominated by a host of spirits, good and evil. They fear that evil spirits spread disease and cause misery and misfortune.
Propitiation of evil spirits is therefore an important aspect of Apatani spiritualism. Sacrifices of cattle, fowls, pigs, dogs and cats are therefore never questioned. Lod Kojee, a Ziro resident who is an Apatani says: “There is no need for us to question our customs. Education cannot shake our faith in it.”
Apatanis are intensely religious and are believers in Donyi Polo, which literally means the Sun, and the Moon. However, they do not directly worship the Sun or the Moon, but believe that it is a symbol of power. They are not idol worshippers and the valley has no temples. There is no system of prayer either. Only animal sacrifices are held to propitiate the Gods and Goddesses. All festivals have a religious connotation and as a natural consequence of the sacrifices, feasting follows. Says Padi Yubbe, an Apatani: “Festivals regulate social behaviour. Even highly educated Apatanis have to actively participate in religious rituals. There is blind faith but the social restrictions are very rigid and tribals have to follow it.”
The Apatani society has always been a male dominated one. Polygamy is widely accepted even today. Having more than one wife signals a higher social status for the man. It also shows that he has the ability to pay a bride price. It is usually never paid in terms of cash, but in terms of cattle heads, a house and other material possessions. Bride price can be paid by way of cattle.
In the early fifties, Pade Lailang, a respected village leader of Reru village told late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was visiting Arunachal, that he was willing to give him some cattle if he could marry Indira Gandhi. Nehru burst into laughter and politely told him that she was already married. Pade calmly replied that he was ready to give Nehru as many cattle as he wanted! Apatanis rarely marry outside the tribe as there are strict restrictions. Fear of excommunication keeps the community closely knit as even parents boycott their children if they marry outside the clan.
Women Disfigured to ‘Protect’ Them
If you see the beautiful fair complexioned Apatani girls sunbathing on the lawns of a school in Ziro with short bobbed hair, you get the feeling that they belong to another age if compared to the older, unkempt and dirty women in the Apatani villages. The elderly women had disfigured their faces fitting black wooden plugs on their nostrils. Their faces also have tattoo lines beginning from the forehead and ending at the chin. This was deliberately done so as to disfigure them and make them look ugly. Legend has it that tribesmen from other tribes used to raid their villages and kidnap the beautiful women. It was just a ploy to keep them away. The disfiguring ritual was barbaric. A girl at the tender age of two or three would be held back while a bunch of thorns would be used to make her face bleed. A mixture of colour made from various herbs would be mixed with pig fat and other powders and then applied on her face to leave a permanent scar. Her nose would also be punctured to fit in a small wooden plug which would slowly be enlarged as she grew up.
But in the mid seventies, the Apatani Students Union got together to end this practice. They told the community that there were no raids now and there was no logic in disfiguring pretty faces. The system was stopped after the union gave a call that anyone doing it now would be fined.
Informal Judicial System
Even before any recognized system of government had touched the Apatanis, they had an informal judicial system. It works even today. The government does not interfere when minor cases like theft, land disputes, divorce and adultery are tried by village elders. The traditional court of the Apatanis called Bulyang follows the local customary law trying cases, settling disputes and awarding punishment. Its authority is never questioned. At times, a court hearing can carry on for days. Village elders sit and argue it out. The collective decision is binding.
“It is amazing how our forefathers evolved such a near perfect system of speedy justice acceptable to all,” points out Padi Yubbe. Justice is speedy and effective. When Yaniya approached the Bulyang as her husband had married a second wife, the Bulyang ordered him to give her half his earnings every month along with all his property which included paddy fields, a house and a cow. The court wanted him not to ill-treat her as she would continue to be his legally wedded wife.
Though many Apatanis are fairly well to do and can afford cemented structures, they prefer to live in bamboo and cane thatched houses in the villages built in neat rows close to each other. But things are changing. Some of the modern thatched structures have well laid out rooms and even flush toilets. Young students talk of how love marriages should be encouraged. They detest the dirty surroundings their elders live in and want cleaner homes. But they want their culture and traditions preserved. They realize that some of their traditions have helped them weld together and emerge as an unique community.