The squat and portly Ganesha sat calmly on the dash while a string of red and white beads swayed crazily with each lurch of the car. After two ferry crossings on the Brahmaputra and two nights spent on the river island of Majuli behind us, Baro and I were now on the road to Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh.
By lunchtime, we were in the dense bamboo, cane and palm of the hills. September rains had turned the narrow track into muddy stretches. Murky pools hid the pitted road from view. Thick bush blocked our view of the landscape clearing briefly to accommodate a roadside shack or two before quickly closing in again. Then, through a larger break in the green undergrowth, directly below us, was the Panyor, its flow interrupted by a dam.
The upstream waters of the Panyor, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, had come to a standstill against the Ranganadi Dam walls. Looking down from this height, we could see the river bed downstream lay bare and dry.
Conceived as a run-of-the-river dam, it was to have had a lesser impact on the environment than a reservoir dam. This didn’t turn out to be the case. Since its commissioning in 2001, the project has met its annual energy generation target only once, in 2004.
I learnt later that, for the project to generate power due to the flatness of the river bed, the water had to be channelled through a tunnel that dropped 600 metres to another river, the Dikrong. As a consequence, no water is released into the Panyor unless there is more water than needed to turn the turbines.
On the few occasions that has happened, the released waters from the dam have flooded unsuspecting villages downstream, destroying both people and animals. The drying up of the river downstream has affected marine and human lives. Fish, once found in abundance, have all but disappeared, compelling villagers to get them from markets as far away as Assam.
We drove on to Yazali. Baro followed the Panyor’s course for an hour before stopping by the side of the road. A rocky path led down to a bridge made of bamboo and twine. Somewhere in a field nearby, a farmer on a tractor tilled his land. Clothes on a line flapped in the wind. An abandoned home slowly ceded to nature. And we were rewarded with our first views of golden paddy fields as the Ziro Valley presented itself. Then we drove on through the villages of Tago, Yachuli, Joram as the low September sun cast its shadows on the landscape.
By five-thirty in the evening, I was settled into my room. There was still enough light to take a few final photos of the day.
Tale of the Buru
We were in a part of Arunachal that Baro calls home—Ziro, the home of the Apatani people. There is a legend recounted in Ralph Izzard’s book, The Hunt for the Buru, that describes the ancient Apatani migration and the establishment of the original villages in Ziro. It tells of a fearsome aquatic creature and a brass plate.
The tale goes like this. Long ago, the Ziro valley was a swamp. In it lived a crocodile-like creature called a “buru”. The villagers lived in constant fear of being attacked. One day, the buru tried to hide in a hole it had dug in the middle of this swamp. In a preemptive strike, two myamya talos (a male and a female brass plate) left the house and headed out to the swamp.
In the ensuing battle, the fearsome buru was slain, but not before the female brass plate had been killed. On returning alone to the house, the enraged male brass plate killed the man’s son. The man, on returning home, was in turn so furious he chased the brass plate out of the house and into a bamboo grove where he smashed it with a pestle. A small piece of the plate is reported to be preserved in Hong village, though no stranger is allowed to see it. The next morning we headed to Hong village.
Hong was quiet and mostly deserted. It being past nine in the morning, most of the men and women were out working in the fields. Two women passed us on the road. Both leaned slightly forward, counterbalancing the load on their backs, with both hands gripping the cloth strap that stretched down from the top of their heads. Baro, always sociable, met them with a friendly greeting.
Then we continued up the street. Houses here have long discarded the traditional bamboo in favour of corrugated tin roofs. Many have a flagpole flying the distinctive Donyi-Polo standard of a red sun, an indication that its inhabitants follow the animistic religion.
We come upon a clan pole made of pine, called an akha babo, that towers over the village. Its role is ceremonial now, but years ago during the Myoko festival men would stretch a rope from the mast top and use it to bounce up and down in daring stunts, much to the delight of the spectators.
Some houses have smaller babo poles set into the ground by their front porch. These smaller poles, called santin babos, are erected for the head of the family and male heirs.
Where there’s an akha babo, there’s a lapang. Lapangs are covered platforms that were traditionally made of bamboo. They serve as a meeting place for the clan members. Going the way of other traditions, lapangs these days are made of concrete.
Before we headed on to Baro’s village, we took the road up to Pechi Putu. This expanse of open ground with wonderful views of the surrounding paddy fields has been instrumental in firmly putting Ziro on the world map. Every year, in September, the Ziro Festival of Music is held on this hill. That year too it had taken place over four days, attracting crowds and musicians from all over the country, some driving up from places as far-flung as Kolkata and Bangalore on their 350cc Royal Enfields. Baro and I reached Ziro just after the crowds had left.
Looking down from the height of Pechi Putu, the landscape, once lush and green, had by October turned to rust and gold. Where the submerged rice fields met a mudbank, millet was sown on the raised bunds. Where the water channels meandered through the paddy lots, fish were reared.
This unique utilisation of land and resources, combined with the unique cultural traditions of the Apatanis and their enduring relationship with their environment, has put Ziro on UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list.
We were now in Bamin village and with Bamin Baro (in these parts the family name precedes the given name) accompanying me, opening doors wouldn’t be a problem.
I followed Baro to a house with a double-gabled roof of corrugated tin. A black Maruti Alto was parked outside. A few yards down the street there was a lapang, its platform raised several feet off the road. We entered the house.
There was a fireplace in the middle of the large room. Sitting on a mat nearby was old Bamin Grayu, the Gaon Bura of Bamin village, dressed in khaki sweater and shorts. His hair, wound tightly into a single long braid, was twisted into a knot above his forehead and held in place by a brass pin. Bamin Grayu would have tied and worn his hair in this traditional way from an early age. It was a mark of Apatani masculinity that other tribes tried to copy but couldn’t master.
A face that was a maze of wrinkles turned to regard the stranger who accompanied her grand-nephew. We were in Baro’s grand-aunt’s home in Lempya village. In the absence of birth records, Baro guessed her to be in her late eighties. She too had been sitting by the fireplace when we arrived.
Tage Manu (Ta-gay Manu) still had a good memory, especially for recalling episodes from the past. She would have been able to recall a time when she was young—a time when Apatani women followed the custom of plugging their noses with wood and when their chin and forehead would be tattooed with a thorn dipped in soot and oil. Both practices are now discontinued.
The Shiva linga
Many years ago, a woodcutter working in the forests of the Kardo hills not far from Hapoli in Ziro was chopping a tree unknowingly near a rock protruding from the ground. He was surprised to see that it fell not in the way he intended it to but away from the rock. Upon excavation, the rock was found to be at least 25 feet tall and several feet in girth. It looked remarkably like a Shiva linga. The news of this discovery spread quickly. The spot is now a pilgrimage site for Hindus and, especially, devotees of Lord Shiva.
To reach it, we left the four-wheel-drive near the bottom of the hill and covered the steep, rocky path up to the shrine on foot. Work was still in progress when we first visited. A vermilion sash encircled the shiv linga, protected behind a temporary fence and trishuls, the tridents of Lord Shiva.
We were now midway through our trip to Ziro Valley. Early one morning, we set out heading east to our next stop, Daporijo, eight hours’ drive away. Soon we had left the Apatani villages behind. After a quick break for lunch on the grassy banks of a mountain stream, it was approaching dusk by the time we reached the outskirts of Daporijo, home to the Tagin, Galo and Nyishi tribes.
In Digbak village, about 15 km from Daporijo, Taker Nirin had gathered family and friends to help him harvest his paddy lot. The rice stalks, green and gold, stood almost shoulder high in their plots. Women outnumbered men. Together they worked in teams, cane baskets on their backs. Loaded baskets were then carried across to a hut and the contents spilt onto a mat. Taker Nirin depended upon the rains to water his crop and the community to help him harvest it.
Along to Along
A further four hours into the drive to the next town, Along (Aa-long), also known as Aalo, Baro had the car stop suddenly by the side of the road.
Shouldering a contraption made of cane that Baro informed me later was a rat trap, barefooted and sporting a cane hat, a Galo tribesman walked slowly up the mountain road. Catching up with him, Baro tried to engage the man in conversation. The man wasn’t having any of that. However, he did let me take a picture. We left without ever knowing his name.
I learnt later, our Galo tribesman was not alone in his quest of trapping rats for their meat. Other tribes like the Apatani, Adi, Tangsa, Singpho and Tutsa among others from the Ziro Valley, Upper Siang, East Siang and Changlang districts appreciate its taste.
Rat meat was not on the menu at Bame where we stopped for lunch.
The Doni-Polo myth
The organised resistance to the spread of Christianity in Arunachal Pradesh can be traced back to a meeting of tribesmen in Along in the nineteen-sixties. Their aim: to unite the tribes of the region by reviving common beliefs in tradition and identity. That took shape in the form of the animistic religion they called Donyi-Polo, for the Sun-Moon. It was also a time when the centre was pushing to integrate the state with the rest of India.
M.D. Muthukumaraswamy, in “Creation myths: How did the world, and its many stories, begin?”, describes how the world was made according to Donyi-Polo:
“In one of the versions of the Donyi-Polo creation myth, all things and beings are parts of the body of Sedi—the hair of Sedi becomes the plants of the earth, his tears become rain and water, his bones become rocks, and his eyes become Donyi (Mother Sun) and Polo (Father Moon). After physical manifestation, Sedi continues to watch and guard over the universe, revealing and hiding himself to the truth seekers.”
At the far end of the hall in the Donyi-Polo temple in Along is a mural depicting the Sun and the Moon against a blue background. Mats were spread out on the floor between two rows of pillars painted light pink. Women sat to the left, men to the right. A few were gathered around the altar. Boards with the names of the Trust Committee members lined one wall. A worshipper rings the bell as she enters, dispelling all evil forces from her body.
All photographs were taken with a Panasonic LX100 and Leica DC Vario-Summilux 24-75mm f/1.7-2.8 fixed lens.
Join our community and play an active part in the future of Macfilos: This site is run by a group of volunteers and dedicated authors around the world. It is supported by donations from readers who appreciate a calm, stress-free experience, with courteous comments and an absence of advertising or commercialisation. Why not subscribe to the thrice-weekly newsletter by joining our mailing list? Comment on this article or, even, write your own. And if you have enjoyed the ride so far, please consider making a small donation to our ever-increasing running costs.