Ziro is a wonderful landscape with beautiful forests, rolling hills and rice fields, and also home to a unique culture which sets an example to the world for successful co-existence of man and nature.
The Apatanis give us a taste of a life that involves simple living, traditional food, sustainable farming and social forestry.
A tribe located in a small valley in Arunachal Pradesh has been able to defeat modern technological advancements in terms of environment conservation. The Apatanis from Ziro have a unique lifestyle that focuses on living in harmony with nature. We take you into their homes and give you a glimpse of their lives that are simple, peaceful and rare to find in the present era.
Ziro is a small picturesque valley tucked away in the lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Somewhat off the popular tourist path of Tawang, this little valley and its people have much to offer to those seeking beautiful unexplored regions in our country and a culture to learn a lot from.
Apatanis, who are nature worshippers (particularly the Sun & Moon), are known for their traditional methods of sustainable farming and social forestry. In April 2014, Apatani Cultural Landscape was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for “extremely high productivity” and “unique” ways of preserving ecology. I had an opportunity to stay with one such Apatani family in Hong Basti (village) of Ziro and get a glimpse into their lives & surroundings.
Traditional rice fields
Primarily farmers, Apatanis are known for using sustainable and efficient methods of cultivating rice. Their farms are built on flat lands and therefore, wet rice cultivation is followed along with pisciculture. Even the elevated partition bunds between rice plots are utilised to grow millets. Their farms are marked with efficient channels and canals for irrigation purposes. No farm animals or machines are used; the focus instead is on using nature friendly and sustainable methods only. They have also successfully been able to conserve the forests around the valley which serve as water sheds for streamlets flowing down into the fields, thereby, helping them in the irrigation system. There is so much that one can learn from them on how to use traditional methods to accomplish what modern machines and systems have been unable to!
Hong Basti from the inside
The Apatanis live in very simple bamboo huts perched on top of vertical wooden stilts forming dense settlements called Bastis. Almost all houses in Hong Basti are traditional, but a little walk into other villages like Hari and Siiro show signs of more permanent, brick and mortar structures coming up. In spite of this, these simple yet adequately furnished houses are one of the examples that made me rethink our consumerist approach towards life.
The centre of the house, not only serves as a kitchen where food is cooked over wood fire, but also as a gathering point for talks and discussions. Fire is lit right in the centre, around which family members and visitors sit to chat, watch TV, play music or simply spend time with each other.
Day one at Ziro
A usual day in a Ziro village begins as early as 5:00 a.m. when all the adults, having finished their morning chores, leave for the farms and children for school. The entire village seems to come to a halt in the late morning hours till evening, with just a few women engaged in weaving traditional clothes, if not going to the fields. Being on the east, the sun can set as early as at 4:30 p.m., depending upon the time of the year. As a result, all the evening activities happen around 4-5 pm which is also the time for everyone to be back to their homes, take a stroll, meet neighbours and friends and for children to play in open spaces around the village.
Homemade beer and discussions
Every evening after sunset, our hosts received their neighbours and relatives who would mostly just stop by to say hello, and they would all be served traditional homemade rice beer with special Apatani salt called ‘Tapyo’. Traditionally Tapyo is made at home using ashes of certain indigenous plants, which to a large extent is also responsible for saving Apatanis from the problem of goitre, Now of course with the easy accessibility of iodised salt, this problem has been tackled by all. Drinking freshly made rice beer is more of a social activity and along with it came discussions and insight into the lives of the Apatanis. During those evening sessions, topics discussed are as varied as environmental conservation & politics to trends of love marriage & music.
The unique nose plugs of the Apatani women
Another unique feature of Apatanis and probably the most photographed are the facial tattoos and nose plugs that the women wear. There is no documented reason as to why the tradition started, but we did notice that this tradition is no longer followed by the younger generation. Many women from even the older generations have opted to take off their nose plugs.
Food in a traditional Apatani home revolves around rice for obvious reasons. Rice is often accompanied with boiled vegetables, meat preparations or other delicacies cooked in bamboo shoots. There are hardly any spices used in traditional Apatani food, hence the green chilli, which accompanies every single meal.
Fortunately, my travel coincided with the Myoko festival celebrated in the month of March. It is a month long festival of friendships and merry making, starting somewhere around 20th March every year and going on for one full month. A couple of villages get together every year to host this festival. The unique feature of this festival is that homes of host villages are open all day for guests throughout the month. Just about anybody can walk in, greet and enjoy rice beer and local delicacies! Apart from feasting, there are lots of sports events, singing competitions, stage shows and more.
The way forward
With all the goodness & simplicity of Ziro and its people, there certainly are some problems too. Infrastructural facilities like decent roads and drainage systems are missing. Employment opportunities are only restricted to the government sector which has limited jobs. This has led to the younger generation migrating to the neighbouring states. The community is also in dire need of a local municipal body that can ensure cleanliness within the villages and in public areas. Even though some local NGOs like Ngunu Ziro are working in the areas of sanitation, environmental conservation and recycling, a lot still needs to be done.
Ziro inspite of this is a wonderful landscape with beautiful forests, rolling hills and rice fields, and also home to a unique culture that sets an example for successful co-existence of man and nature.
All images courtesy Richa Gupta