Arunachal Pradesh is the land of lofty mountains, pristine landscape, and a large tribal population. Surrounded by blue rolling hills, tucked in foothills of Himalayas, and nestled in the lap of nature, is the tiny yet picturesque town of Zero. Zero Valley is the home to the Eastern Himalayan ethnic group, Apatani or Tanii as they call themselves. The Apatani people were unknown to the outside world until the 1900s. The valley is dotted by paddy fields and the tribe makes its living from farming and fishing. They reflect a beguiling co-existence between man and nature.
The Apatani tribe is non-nomadic which means, unlike other tribes, they don’t travel. Though, some sources say they migrated from Mongolia and Tibet regions.
The Apatani has no written historical record, but a very strong oral culture. It is through folklores and stories transmitted orally from generations, one gets to know about their rich past.
The Apatani also had some traditions which seem quite unusual to the modern world. One of them being the forceful abduction of girls and women by the men of their tribe in to wed them. Once the girl is picked by the man, the shaman, the religious priest, would check their compatibility in the chicken’s liver, thus declaring them married. They are also one of the very few tribes who practice their religion. Apatani follows the Dongi- Polo religion which is worshipping nature, the Sun, and the Moon. They have a totem in every house and sacrifice animals to seek spiritual blessings for their tribe and land. Their major festivals are Murung in January and Dree in July.
Besides their cultural heritage is distinct too. The Apatani women adorn themselves with big wooden nose plugs known as Yaping Hurlo and facial tattoos known as Tippie. At the time Apatani women’s first menstruation their face is tattooed and nose plugged. The ink of the tattoo is made up of pig fat and soot from the fireplace and the motif is hand-poked on the face using a thorny plant. The tattoo is a line extending from their forehead till the tip of the nose and five lines under the lower lip. Men also have a T shape tattoo on their chin.
The famous story behind the practice of nose plugs and the facial tattoo is fascinating. The Apatani tribe women were considered to be the most beautiful women in Arunachal Pradesh, and men from neighboring tribes would try to steal them. To protect them, the Apatani women were made to have the nose plugs and cover their faces in the tattoo. This was done to disfigure them so they look less appealing and over time it has embedded in their local culture. But this is just one of the stories one gets to hear about this practice. There are other stories for different reasons. But unfortunately, there is no written account to solve the mystery.
But this ‘Apatani art’, as the older Apatani women call it, is slowly dying. The newer generations are not into nose plugs and facial tattoos. They are now going out to the ‘Indian mainland’ to study and believe that this practice is a visual identification of their tribe, often making them prone to discrimination in their social lives. Also, the tradition was banned by the government in the 1970s and thus is no more in practice. The nose plug and tattoo are only visible on older Apatani women. But the last bearers of this tradition are proud of their identity.
Presently, only 60,000 Apatani people are living in the Zero Valley. Their tribe and its tradition are on the verge of extinction.