“I want to marry you,” calls out Anne.
“Er, I’m already married,” I reply.
“So?,” she asks with a shrug of her slim shoulders. “What’s the problem?”
“There is no problem,” I reply with a flattered grin, “I just need my wife’s permission to marry you.”
I am standing in Boasimla, a village deep inside Arunachal Pradesh, home to the Nyishi tribe. Today is ‘Nyokum Yullo,’ their annual festival, marking the advent of their New Year. It is a time to pray for a good harvest and communal harmony. Hundreds have volunteered to sing their traditional songs and perform dances like ‘Rikham Pada,’ ‘Buya’ and ‘Ropi.’ Everyone is dressed in their traditional best. Including Annie. She is wearing a red and white dress, silver armlets, a belt with mini cymbals and thick, multi-stringed necklaces of red and blue beads. Everyone is happy, and it is an ideal time for Annie to pop the question. Cannot fault her social sensibilities – the Nyishis have practiced polygamy for ages. She would happily be ‘Wife No. 2.’ Even if polygamy is now limited mostly to village headmen, politicians and the rich.
I had come to Arunachal expecting to find tribes caught in a time warp. It did not take long for any pre-conceived stereotypes to disappear. Annie’s mother can only converse in a dialect spoken for centuries, but her daughter’s generation speak fluent English, carry mobiles and have email addresses. Wherever you go in the state, you will see a society in transit as development
and technology align them closer with the rest of the world. Places like the Ziro valley have emerged as hubs for high standard schools, attracting teachers from across the country, enabling a pursuit of non-agrarian professions for locals.
A local guide directed me to the Apatani tribe in Ziro for ‘interesting’ photos. He was right: the older women sport big, round black nose plugs while the men tie their hair in a knot. And they have tattooed faces. But these sights will not stay for long. The younger women go to beauty parlours to get face jobs done, and wear denims and other modern clothing.
The kids are even more ‘evolved.’ Toddlers have crèches to themselves in villages. A group of six year olds asked me for sweets, but I had none on me. To get even, they started teasing me, beating their bottoms 3 Idiots style. Some of their friends provided a background score singing Main baarish kardoon paison ki… from De Dhana Dan, the recent Akshay Kumar – Katrina
Kaif flick. There are no cinemas here, but pirated DVDs and satellite television have culturally invaded the remotest of regions. But it seems midwives still play an important role in getting these kids into the world; on the road to Kibithu, I saw advertisements offering cash incentives of Rs. 2,000 to mothers who delivered in hospitals. And Rs. 600 to women who got the
pregnant women to the hospital.
But an Arunachali’s traditional bamboo hut continues to be his castle. Most stay in their ancestral homes, even when they can afford better, parking cars like the Hyundai Verna outside. An old woman, nearly blind, in Hong village in Ziro allowed me have a look around her house. It had a central fire for cooking and warmth, and the family sleeps around this. There was one
additional bedroom, with the toilets on the outside. The hut was raised on bamboo stilts, and I could see pigs living below. These pigs are important food, and they help clean the toilets by eating what people leave behind. Ugh! The walls of an outer room were full of heads and horns of Mithun cows sacrificed by the family over generations; their number is a matter of pride
for them. I could not communicate with the lady directly, but she did ask my guide why I was taking so many pictures.
Notably, I always saw more women around than men. Looks like some things don’t change. Women continue to tend to the fields, fishing in ponds and taking care of all household chores. Traditionally, men would stay in the forests hunting, collecting wood and building houses. But greater environmental concerns and changing lifestyles mean they have to seek other occupations – including Government jobs. Many tend to the family bamboo holdings. They are also experts at cane and bamboo crafts.
Their faith in a higher God and the rituals practiced continues unabated. All house fronts will have symbols – made of leaves and wood or in the form of painted crosses using white rice powder – to keep the spirits away. The Apatani tribe in Hong Village of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh perform an annual ceremony at a designated spot just outside their village. The ceremony is
called Myokum, and is done for the welfare of the family. It is a tradition that has apparently been taking place forever; only those families who have been doing so earlier are allowed to continue doing so.
How sociable are these women? Very, as Anne demonstrated. They are all fun too. Most would cooperate as I took their pictures, grinning and laughing. I came across a group dancing and singing in Tajang village in Ziro valley, celebrating the fifth anniversary of their temple. They invited me join in the merry making over rice beer – I have never danced with thirty women all to myself. Some of them tried to flirt and cozy up with me. Flattering, even if all of them were over 60.
Arunachal Pradesh is beautiful, and its women pretty and high spirited. Too bad for married men who go there.
Distances / Times between points in Arunachal Pradesh
How to reach capital Itanagar by road: Fly to Dibrugarh, Jorhat or Guwahati, and head to Tezpur – all in Assam. From Tezpur, it is 170 km / 4 hrs to Itanagar by road.
· Itanagar – Ziro: 120 km / 4 hours
· Ziro – Boasimla: 52 km / 1 hour 45 minues
· Boasimla – Daporijo: 120 km / 3 hours 30 mins
· Daporiji – Aalo (Along): 167 km / 4 hours 30 mins
· Along – Pasighat: 111 km / 4 hours
· Pasighat – Hayuliang: 290 km / 10 hours
· Hayuliang – Kibithu: 135 km / 5 hours
Note: All distances are approximate, and time is without stops. It may take longer depending on driving speeds and stops taken
Some handy tips for driving in Arunachal Pradesh
· Always keep extra wollens, food and water handy
· Check tyre pressure
· The last fuel station is at Khupa near Hayuliang
· Many roads in Arunachal are open for only four months from November – February, do check road conditions before you set out
This article was originally written for and published in the DNA newspaper.