Apatani and Nishi Tribes, in the Land of the Rising Sun!

If you have read this blog before, you know that I am a big fan of India and of its diversity.  You probably also know that I am attracted to remote, isolated areas.  Well, I was well served on my last adventure, which took me to a part of India that used to be called the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA). (If the name conjures up images of the American Wild West in your mind as it did in mine, it is not entirely inaccurate as the terrain is rugged, with a landscape of pine-clad mountains and dramatic valleys.  So I guess one can think of it as the Indian Wild East.)  Sharing borders with Tibet and Bhutan on one side and Myanmar (Burma) on the other, the Northeast states, as they are now called, were essentially isolated until laws permitting limited tourism were passed in 1995. Even Indian citizens were not allowed to visit before that.  Although visitors are now allowed, the area is still off the beaten path, and permits are mandatory for foreigners.   And as you can see in my images, most of the population in some of the areas where I was shooting is of Tibeto-Burman origin, another dimension to the incredible diversity one can experience in India.

With a small group of photographers, I visited 3 of these North-East States, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Assam (and its beautiful Majuli Island).  In this post, I will share my experiences in Arunachal Pradesh and will cover the other two areas in subsequent posts.

Arunachal Pradesh, the land of the rising sun, is home to at least 25 tribal groups.  Our base to visit that state was Ziro, a town located 1500 meters above sea level, which we reached after a long 2-day drive on VERY windy roads.  Our visit was timed with the Apatani tribe’s Myoko festival, to which we were warmly welcomed.  From Ziro (and more driving), we were also able to explore some villages of the Nishi tribes.

Around 60,000 Apatanis live in the spectacular valleys of Arunachal Pradesh.  They live in houses made of tall vertical wooden stilts and weaved bamboo walls and floors.  The houses reminded me of Swiss chalets, except for the rice fields that surround them.  Older Apatani women have a rather distinctive look.  Their faces are quite extensively tattooed, with broad blue lines from their forehead to the tip of the nose and five vertical stripes on their chin.  But most notably, Apatani women wear the most unusual nose plugs, one on each nostril.   As is often the case, the story behind this tradition is unclear.  Although some argue that this practice was derived from a mythological fable, many believe that Apatani women famous for their beauty were deliberately defaced to prevent their kidnapping by warriors of neighboring tribes.  Irrespective of the tradition’s origin, traditional Apatani women were proud of their tattoos and used to compete on the size of the nose plugs.   However, contact with the modern world has made younger women discontinue this traditional practice. Older Apatani men tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead and have a tattoo under the lower lip.

Although over the last few decades, Christian missionaries have been very active throughout the Northeast and have impacted the region’s religious beliefs and ways of life, most Atapanis are still animists  (but not on Sundays when they go to a Christian church.) As such, they believe that the offering of animals will appease gods and goddesses and will bless the community.  The Myoko festival is a month-long festival, and its most important event is the “Great Pig Sacrifice,” which we witnessed. Initially, pigs were brought to a sacrificial place where a very impressively clad shaman (holy man) performed prayers for many hours for purification.  We then saw women dressed in their traditional attire sprinkle rice flour and rice beer over the pigs and other animals (chickens, birds, and other domestic animals that won’t be named here) that would be sacrificed.  I started to worry a little about whether I was being readied for sacrifice as well when they were then offering me rice beer and rice flour, but I relaxed when I realized that this was a welcoming gesture and accepted the offering many times (too many) that day.  The blessed pigs were then transported back to their respective home, where they were sacrificed by having their heart plucked.  Various parts of the animal were then offered to friends and families to spread the blessings (I did not accept that offering).  So this was quite an event to witness. 

We also visited some Nishi villages.  The Nishi tribe, the largest in Arunachal Pradesh with a population of 300,000, also has its customs.  Traditionally and still for ceremonial occasions, men wear a bamboo helmet spiked with porcupine quill or hornbill feathers. Tattoos are not the norm here, but women wear distinctive large silver earrings.   Driving through a nearby forest, we were also lucky to see a large  “mithun” which is the state animal of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.  This majestic bovine plays a vital role in the social life of the local tribes, as the bridegroom’s family has to give at least one mithun to the bride’s household.

Enjoy the land of the rising sun.




23 Responses

  1. Wow, France, these are incredible portraits! Looks like a fascinating part of India quite different from Rajasthan, but don’t think I could have handle the sacrifices. What an opportunity! I will look forward to your posts from Nagaland and Assam. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Michele,

      Thanks. I am sure we can get nose plugs for you if you want. I agree with your comment, women all over the world have found creative ways to “improve their appearance”. The goal is always the same but the way to do it change so drastically from one place to the next. That would be a nice book.

      1. Hey france! I am apatani and i love your posts about us and i was there when you and your groups were taking that pic of an old lady standing in a field and yea she,s my neighbour 🙂 and um not sure if you know her name-her name is tapi yelu ,tapi is her surname and one of your group,s guy gave her a 100 rupee note after the photo shoot lol i saw that too goodluck

        1. So so nice hearing from you. We had a lovely time visiting your area. Thanks for being so welcoming. Please show Tapi Yelu her photo so that she can see how beautiful she is. Hope I get to see her (and you) again. France

          1. It is really sad to inform you that she passed away last year,the family recovered her body from a field she has been working at.

          2. Oh, I am very sad to hear that. I will cherish her photo. May she rest in peace. Warmly, France

  2. Wow – have never seen any facial decoration quite like the nose plugs. Do they then always have to breathe through the mouth or are they porous – what material are they?

    1. Jura, Sorry for the delayed reply. I was stranded in the Philippines because of a typhoon in an area with very limited internet connection. The “nose plugs” are not quite plugs and they don’t seriously impaired breathing. They are almost like disks made of wood or cane (so not very thick). A small incision is made in the nostril and the disk is put in. After some time, they may stretch the whole and put a bigger one. It is a bit similar to the ear expanders (or extenders) that some people wear now in the Western world. So not a pleasant process but it was certainly the norm for them at some point.

    1. Thanks for visiting. I am glad you like the images. The landscape there was very unique, that is for sure. Best, France

  3. Stumbled upon this blog ..Terrific photography the clarity is beautiful.
    One of our family grandfathers born in Kashmir traveled extensively India and the East as an officer in the British Army .He filled the role of Assistant Resident for IPL to the Maharajah of Kolhapur in 1927 and also in many remote areas.. Quetta /Pakistan etc.. then onto Persia. Very rugged and beautiful landscape.Your photos are a fabulous visual history of the present as ours are of the past .Were there not many young people?

    1. Emilie, Thanks for visiting (and sorry for my belated reply, because of a typhoon I got stranded in the Philippines with no internet). What a life your grandfather must have had! I am guessing the landscape hasn’t changed that much. I would love to see your old photos. Are they available on the web?
      To answer your questions about the young people, while the 40 seem to be living in the village, a lot of the younger ones (20 ) seem to be away to study or work.
      However, they were a fair amount of them around this time as it was an important festival and they were all coming back to visit with the family. As in the rest of the world, the young people are greatly influenced by the outside world. Many of the boys had Korean-style haircuts (they all watch Korean soap operas) and I saw some of the girls wearing high heels (quite a challenge given the state of the roads). But they all seem very nice and respectful of the elders.
      Best, France

      1. The British officers had amazing times.My children’s great great grand father and great grand father had extraordinary positions on reflection and fortunately we have a detailed history of their many postings .
        We have some of the original photos and film of the East saved onto disc but have not uploaded onto the web .
        When one wants to ask senior relative something about the past unfortunately they’ve usually passed away years ago and now we are the seniors!
        I gather the nose plug was not something the 20 thought went too well with the modern look.Body piercing is popular among the young so long as it isn’t too disfiguring. And yes tottering in high heels would require quite a level of commitment in that terrain.I can’t imagine that once the youth have gone to the cities that they will want to return to village life full-time.I will see if a relative in Canada has posted any photos on the web.Thanks again for the lovely blog.
        I took a look at some of your other blogs..you have an interesting time 🙂

  4. Hi! I am really impressed with your collection of North East India. We are doing a profile of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, India. In regard to the same, can I have your email ID so I can write an official email to you?
    Best Regards,
    Email: [email protected]
    [email protected]

    1. Thanks for visiting the blog. Yes, I agree completely about Arunachal Pradesh being a beautiful place with beautiful people. Are you from there or did you just visit? France

Would love to hear from you!

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