Given that Nyishis are the largest tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, it may come as a surprise that they aren’t the most visible when it comes to tourism. Adi, Apatani and to an extent Monpa people are probably the first names that come to mind when we think tribes of Arunachal but rarely Nyishis. To be honest, until I read about the successful Hornbill conservation program that turned the Nyishi people from prolific hunters to caring protectors in a brilliant twist of game, I’d never heard of them.
With a population of over 300000, Nyishis are the most populous tribe in the state. They were fierce hillmen whose reputation as formidable hunter-warriors of yore has stayed on even till today. I guess that’s also the origin of today’s commonly held belief that Nyishis are rude and scary to outsiders. I could see the worry and fear in my driver’s face when he thought he had run over a chicken (he didn’t!) during our journey into Nyishi heartland. He went on to say he’d have outright rejected the trip had he known we were going to Seppa. Later during my stay, I spoke to a Nyishi man who explained travellers don’t venture this far and most people have had few encounters with outsiders making them very wary of strangers roaming their lands. Hence the cold stares and suspicious glances but once you break the ice, I found they were warm and welcoming, the caveat being we had ample local assistance though.
Portraits of Nyishi men and women
I learnt why that could be during my recent journey to the Nyishi heartland in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. As we made our way from the highlands of Tawang towards the lush jungles of East Kameng, the road narrowed down from a decent path to a broken jungle trail flanked by wild plantain and impossibly huge ferns on one side and layers of green mountains that seemed to have no end on the other. And this is a state highway, let me tell you! We hardly came across any villages on the route. It was just impregnable jungles all around us, claustrophobic even as the light faded. No wonder then that I had never heard of Seppa, to where we were going or find any information online. We were indeed going to a place about which Google couldn’t tell us anything apart from administrative details, that was some achievement in this age of information overload.
Rustic views of mist-covered mountains on the way to Lamdung
Seppa, the administrative headquarters of East Kameng district, is a small town on the banks of Kameng river. With a frontier village feel to owing to a sizeable military presence, there’s little reason to visit Seppa if not for meeting the Nyishis or rafting down the Kameng. So the next morning, a bunch of us drove through mist-laden valleys to reach a surreal village called Lamdung. Overlooking a fairytale view of a Papu river meandering through verdant fields, surrounded by massive mountains cloaked in lush greenery and clouds, Lamdung was as pretty as a remote village could be.
Papu valley, one of the three major valleys of East Kameng is a delight with its surreal, agrarian bounties hidden between lush jungles where demons and folklore abound. We were told of a raging waterfall and a serene lake deep inside the mountains where the Nyishi’s of Lamdung never enter. There be evil spirits, the men told nonchalantly. For a moment, I envied them living in a world where fairies and evil spirits could very well willed to be real.
(L) Usual length traditional longhouses in a nearby village; (R) The extra long corridor inside Welly Nomlu, the longest Longhouse
Crossing the snaking Papu river over a crumbling concrete bridge that skewed towards the river in one section, where gravity was doing its job exceptionally well, we headed towards another village to visit the longest longhouse in the whole state. Longhouses are the traditional, narrow but long, single room communal house for families built primarily out of timber, bamboo strips and thatch for roofs. Longhouses are belived to be the earliest form of permanent structures in societies.
Driving on a bumpy, narrow path off the main highway, we arrived at a vast clearing in a valley surrounded by more dense forests. Small box-shaped rooms were scattered at the edges of the clearing with one thatch-roofed hut at the far end. It was Welly Nomlo, the house of a patriarch Bokeh Welly, a political translator and spokesperson for the tribe, and his massive, massive family. Claimed to be the longest longhouse in all of Arunachal Pradesh, this wooden structure was built in 2006 to house 14 families at least and a whopping 180 people in all at full capacity.
Built on a meter-high platform, the floor made of wide wooden strips creaked under our feet as our lot entered the house. It was dark inside, with little light escaping through the tightly knit roof and wall. But glowing at the other end, the light from the rear doorway of the house was a speck like the light at the end of a tunnel. Making small separations within space using bamboo walls, each family had their own private areas, limitedly so, for kitchen fire and other belongings. If I had to guess, there were at least 10 such separations in sight. Two modern toilets were built outside the compound but here inside the house, a large platform running along the length of the outer wall of the house was used to pee on to the open ground below in the earlier days.
I was told a house like this could be built in a week or two with help from the whole community. In a tribal community, everything is endearingly communal. No wonder then, the Wellys told me the house was constructed so that they could all stay together with unity. And even if someone falls sick, they’ll all be there to take of the person.
Bokeh Welly and his many cousins as well as brothers, of whom he has no count, were dressed in a fusion of modern and traditional wear. Their fancy headdress called Podum/Bopiya and fur-sheathed machete called Dao were most fascinating among others. I quickly checked with one of them asking if the casque belonged to a real Hornbill. He quietly nodded implying no.
You see, the thing about the headgear is that the crowning glory of the hat is a Hornbill casque (upper beak). This meant Hornbills that were once abundant in the region were hunted to the extent that healthy populations have been decimated. But over the last decade, a group of dedicated conservationists worked together with the local community in raising awareness about Hornbill conservation and have successfully converted the hunters to protectors under the award-winning Hornbill Nest Adoption Program.
Few of the 180+ Welly family members for whom Welly Nomlu was built
Hornbill being a rare, personal favorite, I was uneasy about watching glorious yellow beaks being paraded around like trophies. But the roaring success of the conservation efforts meant I saw wooden and fiberglass casque replicas adorning their traditional headgear. It was a pleasant surprise that not only restored my faith but left me in complete awe of the conservation work that's been going on in Arunachal Pradesh, a demanding uphill task if you know what I mean.
While we were engrossed in exploring the house and the traditional artifacts laid out on display for us, an ominous formation in the sky added more drama to the afternoon. Sitting on the wooden porch, we were treated to a traditional lunch with rice and meat cooked in bamboo hollows over open fire. As always, I indulged in the spicy chutneys that are absolutely diverse and delicious in northeast while downing copious amounts of apong (rice beer). But given it gets dark by 5PM in this neck of the woods, it was time for us to leave already.
Looking up at the stormy sky, we drove back in anticipation of a dramatic sunset as we headed back to Seppa. We weren’t disappointed. Masses of dark clouds peppered the grey skies, ominously hovering over impossibly green mountains. A sunset even by the roadside was effortlessly stunning, a brilliant showcase of the pristine wilderness that East Kameng is blessed with.
Even though we barely spent a day in this unexplored corner, I was thankful for the opportunity and the initial introduction if nothing else. Unfortunately, this region is really hard to explore on your own due to the complete lack of tourist infrastructure and the apparent coldness of Nyishis towards outsiders. Which is totally understandable given they were fierce warriors, eternally at war prior to the recent mellowing down to become a peaceful society. I would still recommend you explore this fascinating tribe and the pristine landscape. But you must go with a local organisation that can help you break the ice and have meaningful local interactions in this offbeat corner of a state that’s already super offbeat!