Shangri La

Sur­rounded by wooded hills in Lower Suban­siri district of Arunachal Pradesh is the small Apatani val­ley, cov­er­ing 26 square kilo­me­tres. VIKAS CHOUD­HARY spends over a week with the Apatani tribe, capturing their lives and land­scape in pho­to­graphs. STU­ART B

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

We travel to Arunachal Pradesh to pro­file the Apata­nis, a tribe that is happy, self-suf­fi­cient and tra­di­tional de­spite its con­tact with the out­side world

THE PAN­CHAYAT raj and then the par­lia­men­tary sys­tem have dis­torted the tra­di­tional egal­i­tar­ian struc­ture of the Apata­nis, but much of it still ex­ists. There was no “vil­lage chief ” as in As­sam. In­stead, clans had coun­cils of older men, who were re­spected (or not) for their or­a­tory and judge­ment. In fact, the role of the shaman is a good re­flec­tion of this un­of­fi­cial power struc­ture. Un­like in other so­ci­eties, Apatani shamans were not cho­sen or ini­ti­ated; rather, they sim­ply learned by ob­ser­va­tion and prac­tice, and be­came shamans if they could bring heal­ing and pros­per­ity. The other im­por­tant struc­ture that ex­plains the co­he­sion among the Apata­nis is the in­tri­cate, multi-gen­er­a­tional sys­tem of rit­ual ex­change. Here, vir­tu­ally ev­ery sin­gle per­son is tied into sev­eral re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tions with kin and non-kin.

Con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity, which is now bor­der­ing on 25-30 per cent, did not re­ally take off un­til the 1980s and 1990s. As a re­sult of this and other el­e­ments of as­sim­i­la­tion and mod­erni­sa­tion, tra­di­tional prac­tices have re­treated. Still the ma­jor fes­ti­vals are cel­e­brated, although not with the same fer­vour and de­tail as ear­lier. Be­lief in the spirit world, of course, does not dis­ap­pear with the advent of a new su­per­struc­ture, such as Chris­tian­ity, and many Chris­tians still per­form old rit­u­als. This is es­pe­cially true of funer­als, where the shaman must guide the dead per­son’s soul safely to the un­der­world.

For the Apata­nis, the tra­di­tional cos­mol­ogy was a cen­tre, with a se­ries of cen­tric cir­cles, in which lived the Apata­nis them­selves (tanii), next the other trib­als (misan) and fi­nally, down in As­sam, the out­siders (halyang). Within the cen­tral cir­cle, most phys­i­cal places were as­so­ci­ated with a spirit (wii), who has a rit­ual name and a long ge­neal­ogy, which the shaman must re­cite in the cor­rect or­der if the spirit is to be called upon to help. One of the most en­dear­ing as­pects of an oth­er­wise bloody sac­ri­fice dur­ing the Mu­rung fes­ti­val is the point in a day-long recita­tion when the shaman tells each of sev­eral mithuns (a sort of bi­son) that it will soon be killed. The shaman raises his hand, hold­ing a hol­low gourd and a few bam­boo sticks with pieces of ginger stuck on the ends, and tries to calm the an­i­mal. He first calls the an­i­mal by name and then in­tones these lines: Lis­ten, mithuns and cows! We alone did not de­cide that you would go down to the un­der­world; That was de­cided by div­ina­tions seen by a group of men; Do not be afraid; do not be anx­ious; The axe will fall swiftly,

like the rays of the sun; The chicken liver div­ina­tions took you down to the un­der­world, Where your sac­ri­fice will bring us pros­per­ity.

The Apata­nis felt pro­tected in their hid­den val­ley. Not just from the halyang, but also from the neigh­bour­ing and ri­val­rous tribes. They never re­ally fought off in­va­sions; some peo­ple ac­tu­ally wel­comed and ben­e­fit­ted from colo­nial­ism and the In­dian ad­min­is­tra­tion. How­ever, their highly co­he­sive and in­ward-look­ing cul­ture was largely self­suf­fi­cient. They even made their own salt, and this was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause other tribes had to trade for salt ei­ther down in As­sam or from Ti­bet to the north. They did not need or want out­siders. Yet, even their tra­di­tional ori­gin story sug­gests that they knew they shared some hu­man bond with the halyang.

The tra­di­tional rice agri­cul­ture in the val­ley evolved over cen­turies, with­out any re­sort to an­i­mals or wells. The ter­raced fields are land­scaped on a slight in­cline, so that the water runs into each field at a high end and out at a low end. Build­ing and main­tain­ing the bunds, or walls, of the fields is la­bo­ri­ous, as is the prepa­ra­tion of nurs­ery beds and trans­plan­ta­tion of seedlings. When the first out­siders en­tered the val­ley at the end of the 19th cen­tury, they com­mented on the won­der­ful “gar­den” they saw.

It was a de­light to work with Apata­nis for 10 years. Not only was the val­ley stun­ningly beau­ti­ful, but the peo­ple had a dig­nity that im­pressed me. In their caste-less so­ci­ety (though they did have di­vi­sions and in­equal­ity), an Apatani was nei­ther a mas­ter nor a ser­vant. They owned small tracts of rice fields and part of a clan-owned for­est, and they worked hard. But the land was gen­er­ous and they knew very lit­tle if any poverty. They liked to drink rice-wine just to have a good time. Noth­ing was more en­joy­able than hav­ing a few drinks, record­ing some folk tales and then eat­ing a hearty meal of roasted boar and red rice!

(This ar­ti­cle is based on an email in­ter­view with Stu­art Black­burn.)

Ter­raced fields are land­scaped on a slight in­cline, so that the water runs into each field at a high end and out at a low end. The tra­di­tional rice cul­ti­va­tion is labour­in­ten­sive and does not re­quire an­i­mals or ma­chines, yet the pro­duc­tiv­ity is high

The vil­lage el­der, who looks af­ter the mat­ters of gov­er­nance, has his own uni­form, a red gown. Tra­di­tion­ally, the Apata­nis did not have vil­lage chiefs. In­stead, clans had coun­cils of older men, who were re­spected for their judge­ment

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