Are you a culture lover like us? Well, you must meet the Apatani Tribe of Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India – the tribe that’s as enchanting as the valley itself. Are you a nature lover too? Then you must discover Ziro Valley, the abode of the Apatani tribe.
We enter the Ziro Valley, as arenaceous and lovely as any backcountry can be. Apatani tribe’s abode, this region in Arunachal Pradesh, is all about wilderness at its best.
It’s a clear sunny day, but the air is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
One of the unusual, unique, and loveliest landscapes nowhere to be found, this valley looks like a mythical land. Amid the untouched wilderness, a flat plain covered in the intricate scheme of rice paddies – the sight makes you gawk. I feel like running around the lush fields and sing, “Yeh Kahan aa Gaye hum…” My crazy Bollywood moment!
“It’s not the greenest green as I saw in the pictures but the brown or rather golden, and saturated”. I verbalize breaking the silence in the cab. “Because it’s February” replies our driver. “September is the time when the valley is awash with impossibly green and yellow patterned paddy fields” adds the driver. “I’m coming back in September for sure” I announce to myself while glancing out of the car window.
When we got an invitation to attend the Nyokum Yullo Festival of Nyishi Tribe in Yazali, we fit Ziro valley into our itinerary after talking to our host. He not only organized our visit but also arranged a delicious lunch at one of her Apatani friend’s house. And here we are!
We are in Hija Basti located in Ziro valley. The aura and vibe are authentic here.
Apatani women farming knee-deep in the paddy fields occasionally look up, and when I ask for a picture, they shyly look away.
Right from its name to its unusual landscape, to the people who seem to belong to a different universe, to its innovative paddy cum fish cultivation and its music festival that has put this place on the world map – The valley continues to intrigue people across the world.
This valley is beautiful beyond all reason.
A photographer’s muse, lush and remote valley distinguished by its unique tribal heritage and culture, It is a tiny, charming town gracefully hidden away in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh.
The town is famous for its rolling Pine Hills, sophisticated wetland cultivation, traditional bamboo houses, and intriguing Apatani tribal people. It is one of the most beautiful valleys in India with terraced rice fields, humming rivers, and pretty villages.
Hapoli or New Ziro is the major town in the valley. Hong, Hija, Hari, Bula, Baro, and Siiro are the villages in Old Ziro. Hong is, purportedly, the second largest village in Asia.
This is a place where you can sit back while exploring the fascinating tribal culture and history. Life at this hypnotic village is uncomplicated and calm.
A visit to the Apatani family gives us a glimpse into the simple, uncomplicated, and placid lives of the Apatani tribe. People untouched by the modern world and it’s complications…Yeah, those kinds. The kinds that touch the hearts.
As we enter the flame-lit hut, our host Danyi H. Mamung gives a welcoming smile. The dark hut flickers in the firelight from the fire hearth in the center of the house. It’s hard to imagine that the sun is shining high above because it’s as dark as pitch inside the house. The ambiance inside the traditional Apatani houses is always dark, even during the daytime. “It can get depressing,” I thought to myself.
We all sit around the fire hearth and enjoy a glass of Apong (local beer) with light chitchat. Mamung (in Apatanis the first name comes second) tells us about the Apatani culture and practices while her mom serves us a delicious lunch.
She seems to be concerned the way old rituals are fading in the wake of conversion into Christianity.
Apatanis believe in the omnipresence of God. And thus, never felt any need to have temples. But given the wave of Baptism, Donyi Polo temples are cropping up to encourage people to follow their own religion.
After lunch, Mamung takes us to meet her grandparents who stay close to her house.
Walking through the Apatani village is like unfolding the Apatani tribe’s traditions and rituals. The single-story bamboo houses elevated from the ground by low stilts are arranged in neat rows, an elderly Apatani woman observes other people from her patio, and kids run around and cycle – ah! a laidback village life.
The look of awe creeps in our faces when an old yet beautiful Apatani woman walks towards us, holding a little girl’s hand. That little girl is Mamung’s younger sister. The elderly lady is Mamung’s grandmother.
She smiles as she blesses every one of us with her feeble hands. “I could have spruced up a bit if you would have informed me about your friend’s visit,” she complains to Mamung while showing her dirty hands after day’s fieldwork.
She smiles all through as we pose to get pictures with her.
Mamung’s grandfather joins us, making this an absolute experience.
It’s time to bid adieu to the wonderful family. I thank them for their lovely time and great memories.
Apatani people (aka Tanw, Tanii, Apa, or Apa Tani) are said to have come from Mongolia. But we don’t know why, when, and how. The origin and migration of Apatanis continue to be a mystery. The Apatanis are supposed to have settled down in Talley Valley situated in the south-east of the Ziro Valley for some time before relocating to Ziro.
The name Ziro comes from a clan within the Apatani tribe that was the first to arrive here but no longer lives here.
They call themselves descendants of Abotani – a mythical forefather.
Unlike other tribes who are normally nomadic, Apatanis settles in one place. And, practice advanced wetland cultivation in the hilly terrain by carving the hills which is unique to them. They are known for their entrepreneurial skills and economic acumen.
The fascinating members of the tribe are the oldest women who wear massive nose plugs called yapping hurlo, huge pieces of a hollowed bamboo called yaruhukho (earplug) in-ears to attach the earrings and have facial tattoos known as tiipe.
While women would tattoo a long line from forehead to the tip of the nose and five vertical lines on the chin joined by a horizontal line, men would get a ‘T’ inked on the chin.
The tradition antedates to the pre-modern era when the men of the other tribes abduct Apatani tribeswomen because of their exceptional beauty. Apatani tribesmen made them look unattractive by tattooing the faces and wearing massive nose plugs. However, some say that women got face tattoos, nose plugs, and stretched earlobes to get good husbands. Most say that these facial adornments were considered the mark of beauty and fashion.
The skin was cut, using thorns, and ash was mixed in animal fat to fill in the deep blue color. The wounds were not treated for long so that they get infected, making the tattoos larger, darker, and clearer.
Although wearing big nose plugs and getting facial tattoos have been the intrinsic part of their roots, Apatani Youth Association in the mid-1970s chose to ban this tradition as the association finds them old-fashioned and non-progressive practices.
They live in traditional bamboo huts settled on vertical wooden stilts and form close-knit settlements known as Bastis. They worship nature and believe in being in harmony with nature. And that belief is imitated in their homes too. Apatanis believe that totem made of bamboo is sacred. And install two types of totems (Aanggya/Babo) outside their houses.
The fire hearths in the center of the house become their kitchen. And also serve as a living room where family members sit, chat and eat together.
Each village has a ritual performing platform called Lapang.
The Apatanis worship nature. They follow the animistic, shamanic religion called Donyi-Polo which is centered around the worship of Donyi (the Sun) and Polo (the moon).
They are majorly agriculturists by occupation. The tribe exercises sustainable farming by harvesting fish in the wet fields alongside rice. Apatanis also cultivate a salt called tapyo unique to them within the fields, which increases their food production. Apatani salt is briny, solidified ash made from burnt plant matter. Some are engaged in other occupations like basketry, poultry, and hunting, rearing Mithun’s, pigs, goats, and fishing.
Apatanis eat Mithun meat, pork, and boiled rice mostly. Bamboo chicken is a local delicacy. Not to forget the local rice beer. If you enjoy wild cuisines, I have heard that they eat silkworms.
Myoko is celebrated every year in March to honor the arrival of spring. It’s the time of the year when new paddy is planted in the checkered fields and, the villagers pray for the good crop. The festival is hosted by a different village each year. It strengthens the clan ties too, as the festival is the celebration of friendship and harmony. People from nearby villages are invited and, guests are offered the local beer and meat. They dance to the tune of traditional songs. For eons, Apatanis and other tribes, for that matter, have basked in the glory of sacrificial rituals as they consider them as a good omen. They sacrifice pigs during Myoko.
Murung is celebrated every year in January to bring prosperity and success to the family members as well as the members of the community. Mithun and cows are sacrificed and, the meat is distributed among villagers. This festival is considered to be the most expensive and time-consuming festival of the Apatani tribe. Sponsoring or hosting this festival remains a goal for Apatani families to enhance their social status.
Dree is celebrated every year on July 5th when Apatanis appease the Tamu, Harniang, Metii, and Danyi Polo Gods collectively called DriWuhi by offering sacrifices of fowls, dogs, pigs, chickens, eggs, Mithun, and cows to ensure the bountiful crops and prosperity to mankind.
Not related to the Apatani tribe but, this is the annual music festival that has placed Ziro on the world map. Yes, Ziro valley is best known for Ziro Music Festival!
It’s held every year in September in Hong village, Ziro, and is known to be one of the best outdoor music festivals in India. Soak in some soulful music and breathtaking vistas at Ziro Music Festival.
The climate is lovely all through the year. However, September is the best time with lush green rice fields. If you are a music lover then you must visit it around September to witness the grand Ziro Music Festival.
For culture and festival lovers, January (Murung Festival,) March (Myoko Festival), and July (Dree Festival) are the best months to visit.
During the farming season, you can indulge in paddy fish cultivation, wherein fishes are reared in the rice fields.
The whole journey to this place is an adventure in itself.
Guwahati in Assam acts as the nodal point that very well connects North-East India via rail and air to the rest of India.
The nearest Airport is the Tezpur Airport in Assam. However, flights to Tezpur are capricious. The best alternative is to fly to Guwahati.
There are three alternatives. One (The fastest way) is to take a flight to Guwahati and then catch Donyi Polo Express (9:20 p.m.) or Shatabdi Express (15:20) to Naharlagun (Itanagar.) Take a shared taxi for the valley (3 1/2 hours) from Naharlagun.
Another economic alternative is to opt for a direct train from Delhi to Naharlagun (Naharlagun Arunachal AC SF Express) and then reach the valley by hiring a shared cab from Naharlagun. I’d not recommend this option as it’s time-consuming. The train takes good 38 hours to reach Naharlagun.
Alternative three for road trip lovers is to drive from Guwahati to the valley that takes almost 12 hours. The unique selling point of this alternative is the sight of beautiful landscapes of North-East India.
Arunachal Pradesh comes under the restricted zone, so official permission is needed to enter the state. You must get an Inner Line Permit (ILP) if you are an Indian national and a Protected Area Permit (PAP) if you are a foreign national. ILP can be applied online as well as offline. One needs to furnish a passport size photograph, ID proof, and address proof to obtain the permit. One local reference is also required. Online ILP takes a day but, offline ILP takes somewhere between 2-4 hours.
Please note that PAP is usually only granted to foreigners in a group of two or more.
The best and easiest way is to get it online. Apply online ILP here.
Offline ILP is issued at Arunachal Bhawan in Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur, Jorhat, and from the office of all the Deputy Commissioners of 16 Districts of the state. Tourist ILP facilitation centers at Naharlagun railway station, Gumto railway station, Guwahati Asom Paryatan Bhawan, and Guwahati LGBI Airport provide ILP on arrival.
The fee for getting ILP online is 100/- while it’s 200/- for offline ILP. ILP on arrival costs 400/-
Foreign nationals can obtain Protected Area Permit (PAP) for 30 days from the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, All Indian Missions Abroad, FRROs at Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Amritsar, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Home Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar. Resident Commissioner of Arunachal Pradesh at Delhi and the Secretary (Tourism) by paying USD 50.
Citizens of Afghanistan, China, Myanmar, Pakistan, and the foreign nationals of Pakistani origin need to take approval in advance from the Ministry of Home Affairs to get the PAP.
There are quite a few hotels, resorts, and homestays in Ziro. Ziro Valley Resort is a great place to stay. You can also find homestays on Airbnb for an authetic experience.
You’ve got it all! You are ready to embark on a journey to one of the most beautiful places in India – just one step away from making some lifetime memories.