A peek into the life of the Apatani Tribe at Ziro Valley

A peek into the life of the Apatani Tribe at Ziro Valley

Category On Trekking

By Sneha Rao


I first heard about Ziro Valley from my friend Hersha. He visited Ziro Valley in 2014. He described it as a valley of lush green fields as far as the eyes could see. A village with people who belong to a different world. – untouched by notions of time and money and completely trusting of one another. Little wonder then that while putting together our travel plan to the North East, I fit Ziro Valley into the itinerary.

Ziro is located in the Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh. It was only while looking at the map and measuring distances that I realised that Arunachal Pradesh is actually a very big state! Tawang and the surrounding areas are more popular with tourists. But Ziro is just beginning to gain popularity as it has started hosting a music festival.

This music festival is an annual four day event held in October. It attracts musicians and music lovers from all over the world. Thanks to this, interested travelers can now find a lot of articles, travel tips and blogs about the place on the internet.

The Apatani Tribe

But it was not the music festival that intrigued it. It was the people of Ziro. Ziro is home to the Apatani tribe, who settled here several centuries ago, moving in from Tibet. People here look different from the tribes of other North Eastern states – they have a wider face, narrower eyes and a flatter nose. They are naturally very fair. They have acquired a tan because of the long hours spent outdoors.

A woman of the Apatani tribe with the traditional face markings and nose plugs

Their occupation

They are recognized for their sustainable agricultural practices – rice cultivation in water that also doubles up as a fish farm. Most people here practice agriculture and fishing for sustenance and not for commercial purposes. They grow one crop of rice every year. The remaining months are spent in threshing the harvest, tending to livestock and repairing their homes.

Their food habits

I got the chance to visit their homes and walk around the farms. I noticed that almost every house has a kitchen garden. The greens and vegetables grown there are a part of their regular diet. The people of Ziro, at least the older ones, eat very healthy meals – consisting of rice, boiled greens and boiled meat or fish. None of this is cooked with salt, which is taken separately in a bowl and mixed with each morsel. Green chilli and ginger are used in abundance. The younger people seem to have moved on to richer and spicier food, with influence from the outside world. The practice of taking salt separately might have evolved from the days when salt wasn’t available here and people made salt using the leaves of a shrub to get their dose of iodine.

Their religion

The main religion practiced in this region is Danyi-Pilo (pronounced as Donni polo), which literally means the sun and the moon. They are worshiped for sustaining everything in the world. There are no temples or religious practices associated with this. People offer thanks twice a year, during festivals, which coincide with agricultural cycles of sowing and harvesting. The festival that takes place before spring is a dramatic affair. It lasts for a month and villages in the region take turns to host it. The host village is open to everyone for feasting and staying anytime of the day or night during this period. People form and strengthen social bonds which outlast the festival.

One of the villagers told me of this story that made me realise how strong their social ties were – There was a fire in a village a few years ago and people from the neighbouring villages rushed to help. All together, they rebuilt the village entirely in a single day!

Paddy fields are everywhere in Ziro. Rice constitutes their staple diet.

Many people have now converted to Christianity, and with that, let go of their traditional symbols, attire and practices. However, it is not uncommon to find the tribe’s unique tattoo and pierced nose among older people, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the planting and maintenance of bamboo groves outside every settlement, which continues to be held as sacred. Trees are planted regularly in the forests, which are also considered sacred by the tribes.

Their homes

Traditionally, houses have been built entirely of bamboo. They are supported on bamboo stilts since they stand a few feet above the ground. Newer houses, if not entirely of concrete, usually have the bamboo houses sitting on concrete stilts. Almost all such houses have moved from a thatched roof to tin, which does not need to be replaced every year. While the romantic side of me mourns this modernization of housing, it must have simplified the lives of many, especially with younger people moving away in search of jobs and education.

A traditional house consists of a verandah, one large room and storage space. In the center of the room is an elevated mud hearth, on which meals are cooked on firewood. The entire family congregates around this hearth while indoors and sleeps in the same room, to effectively use the warmth of the fire. Above the hearth is a bamboo ledge on which people typically place their rice beer for fermentation. Despite abundance of cattle, people hardly consume any milk products. Meat and wool are the only purpose they serve. Red tea and rice beer, on the other hand, are consumed by people of all ages.

Villages at Ziro have shifted from thatched roofs to those made of tin. The influx of outsiders is beginning to show in their architecture.

Hapoli is the biggest town in Ziro. It is very dusty and dirty and not worth spending any time in. What is noteworthy is that all the shops here are run by outsiders – Bengali or Assamese. Most locals do not engage in small trade, though one can find them running stores in Old Ziro and Hong.

We visited Hong village with a lot of anticipation but came away both disappointed and disturbed by the dusty roads and rows of seemingly deserted houses. Poverty is visible everywhere – not in terms of hungry people in tattered clothes, but in the absence of work, infrastructure and energy. Nobody starves here – they all grow enough food to live on. While some people might lament the lack of jobs, not everyone might be unhappy with their self-sufficient lifestyles. Things are, however, bound to change when younger people who live in bigger cities return with higher aspirations or adopt lifestyles that require higher levels of consumption.

One aspect that surprised us was how fluent the locals were in Hindi. Hindi is taught in school and television has ensured people continue to be familiar with the language. An unexpected influence of television has been the creation and adoption of new rituals by people who believe in Danyi-Pilo. Some have lately started performing ceremonies and a temple like structure has been constructed near Hong! It seems futile to mourn the loss of the beauty and uniqueness of their belief and its manifestation.

Young people don’t watch much television. Their visual entertainment consists of watching Korean movies and shows on their phone. They enjoy the stories portrayed and imbibe their sense of fashion from there. Rajnikanth, Salman Khan and whoever else have larger-than-life personalities are their favorite Indian actors!

Ziro is located in a valley, surrounded by densely forested hills. When we first arrived here, my plan was to visit Dolo Mando, Kile Pakho, the blue pine forest and sacred groves that I had read about. However, the local residents of the place dismissed these as highly overrated. That didn’t mean there was nothing to do. As we’d soon discover, we didn’t have enough time to do justice to the places we visited.

The traditional huts you see in Ziro are often surrounded by gardens with wildflowers. It makes for postcard perfect pictures.

Our trek to Pangey Valley

On our first full day in Ziro, we decided to trek inside the Talle valley sanctuary, which begins on the outskirts of Ziro. Accompanied by Kago Robin, who grew up here, we set off from the hotel at 8:30 AM. Crisscrossing fields and neighbouring villages on foot, we reached a rocky road that led us past Kiwi plantations and into the forest. We met several children on their way to school and Robin seemed to know most of them.

Apart from a couple of short cuts on hill slopes, most of our trek was on a rocky, motorable road. The first 7-8 km were a gradual but steady incline, followed by a downward walk up to Pangey river and valley. All around us were dense forest, bamboo and ferns. We only had ourselves, the peacefully grazing mithuns and birds for company.

We were probably being observed by clouded leopards, assuming that humans still arouse their curiosity. While the forest itself was very beautiful, what struck me the most was the clarity of the sky above and the interplay of all the colours around me. The path was strewn with leaves shed by the trees in the autumn, and they were various shades of orange and brown. Despite this, there was no dearth of greenery.

This only got better till we reached Pangey, where the presence of a gurgling river added a touch of lightness and mirth to the surroundings. The water was clean and clear, as it should be. I could have stood there for hours looking at it bounce over multi-hued pebbles of all shapes and sizes.

The Pangey river flows leisurely through the dense forest

Pangey has a forest department inspection bungalow. One can arrange in advance with the DFO in Hapoli to stay here and also to camp at Talle, which is around 10 km ahead.

While updating the guard their about our plan, we saw four elderly people lounging in the sun outside the IB. They were traveling from Mumbai. The one amongst them who spoke to us said this was his sixteenth trip to Arunachal Pradesh! He has been trekking in the Himalayas since 2000, has visited this state every year. After exploring all the bigger mountains and routes here, he is now targeting the smaller places. The group was completely equipped with food, tents and two porters who had joined them from Uttarakhand and who have accompanied the man on all his treks since the time he started, when he was sixteen! I am inspired by his love for the mountains and it makes me less fearful that living in a big city will distance me from them. I found out later, much to my surprise, the man I met in Talle Valley was Harsh Kapadia. What a small world this is!

We trekked a few more kilometres from Pangey, stopping mid way to quickly eat what we had packed. The forest kept getting denser and more beautiful. At 1:30 pm we had to take a call on how to proceed. It had taken us about 4.5 hours to get this far and Talle was at least a couple of hours away if continued at the same pace. Robin was ready to take us all the way and bring us back to Siiro Resort in the dark if we were up to it. We desperately wanted to see Talle and its beautiful pine forests that he had so vividly described. But despite Robin’s persuasive assurance, we turned back.

We were deeply disappointed about not going all the way. Except for a stop where the IB guard made red tea for us, we walked back without a break. Once the sun set at 4:30 pm and we were shrouded in darkness, the disappointment wore off a little. We learnt from Robin that there are several paths leading to the villages below from Talle, which most youngsters, including him, are not very familiar with.

He told us that people of Ziro invade the forest and Talle on festive occasions, especially on New Year’s Eve. Most of them own ancestral land in the forests beyond Talle, which they visit with their families every couple of years and plant more trees there. We also learnt that the mithuns that we found everywhere in the forest belong to villagers and are left there to graze. Their owners visit them occasionally to feed them salt. When the need arises, they are taken back to the village and killed for meat, usually during festivals or ceremonies. It is a marvel that the mithuns and their owners find and recognize each other in the vast forest! With such interesting narration, the darkness hardly bothered us and were back in the hotel by 6 pm. Here, we parted ways with Robin, who was headed to Itanagar the next day for a job interview.

Our visit to Tao Tibe, the quiet village just off Ziro

We started relatively late the next morning and drove through Old Ziro and Hong. We didn’t spend too much time there. We were impatient to go to Tao Tibe, where, Robin had promised, we’d be by ourselves, with great views of the surrounding forests for company. Tao Tibe is 40 minute walk from Siiro Resort.

Directions to Tao Tibe: If you move in the direction of Old Ziro, take the road that goes left. Around 200 metres from the hotel, head into Tarin fish farm, walk past the pools of water there and walk up the steps you see on the left, leading into the hills. The steps eventually give way to an opening that leads to the top of a hill, overlooking the Tao Tibe village below. One can just sit here taking in the view and read a book, like we planned to do, or walk down to the village, which is now inhabited by only one old couple.

As we looked around for a shaded spot to settle in, we were approached by a middle aged couple that was walking to the village. Taso Ankha, the lady, happened to be the daughter of the old couple that lives there, and she invited us home to see how they live! For a moment, I couldn’t believe what was happening.

We accepted her invitation and followed them. Over a cup of hot red tea, we discussed their way of life and their impressions of Delhi, Mumbai and other places that they have visited. Ankha’s parents and brothers had converted to Christianity, and with that, had thrown away their traditional attire and anything else that would betray their past. Ankha and her husband, however, were believers of Danyi-Pilo and seemed happy with that. Soon after, they invited us to stay for lunch, which again, we gladly accepted. Much of my earlier description of the Apatani house and kitchen is drawn from here. After a hearty meal, conversation and a big chunk of ginger that the old lady plucked for us from the farm, we headed back to the hotel. It was the most memorable part of my time in Ziro.

Ziro is best visited in October, when it has stopped raining, and rice is yet to be harvested. Guwahati is the closest airport and takes around 14 hours to reach by road. The road from Potin to Ziro, the last 60 km is terrible, actually non-existent and takes close to 3 hours to cover. Public transport is in the form of a seat on a Sumo, which hurtles recklessly on the hilly roads. Since the dense forests you encounter on this route make you feel that you’re in heaven already, the drive shouldn’t matter! However, make sure you enjoy the earthly pleasures of farm fresh oranges, pineapples and kiwis sold on the way by local farmers.

If you’ve visited Ziro Valley, then please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear about any other tribe you’ve interacted with too!

Sneha Rao

About the author

Sneha is an erstwhile HR professional from Bangalore, now living in Mumbai. She has trekked several trails in Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Meghalaya. She holds the Green Trails idea close to her heart and enjoys researching and writing about the environment.