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APATANI

The People of the Valley

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal”

~ Paul Coelho.

A secluded valley nestles between the towering peaks of Tibet and the serene landscapes of Bhutan in the far reaches of north-eastern India. Here, in the province of Arunachal Pradesh, where the first rays of dawn kiss the mountain crests, is the home of the remarkable Apatani people.

Although you can get here by helicopter, the most rewarding way to reach it is by joining the locals and wedging yourself into a sumo. Or, like me, my friends Manish, a master photographer, and Mizra, a walking library as I like to refer to him, pick me up from the Dibrugarh Airport. He excels in his knowledge of northeast India. So, we embark on an exhausting journey. Along this winding route, gravely hilarious road signs that read 'Be gentle on my curves' and 'Overtaker, meet undertaker' caution drivers to be careful as they snake through primordial woods, orchid groves, glacial streams, and ice-blue lakes. The journey was arduous, but the rewards were beyond measure.

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My journey was not only physical but also historical and political. Various military bases punctuated the road, serving as stark reminders of the ongoing territorial dispute between India and China. China still claims the area it seized during the 1962 Chinese-Indian conflict. This is my journey, a photographic exploration of Ziro, the enchanting valley, and its resilient people. The feeling of stumbling upon my own Shangri-La is a sensation that lingers long after I've left.

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The Great Room, Traditional Apatani Home

In 2012, a fellow travel photographer and my friend John told me about Ziro Valley. He painted a picture of an endless valley filled with verdant fields, misty mornings, many scattered villages, and people who belong to a different world. I had to see it, experience it, and meet these people.

The Apatani people, originally from Tibet, made Ziro their home many centuries ago. What sets them apart are their unique physical features: a flatter nose, narrower eyes, and a broader face, distinguishing them from other northeastern tribes. Inherently, they have a fair complexion, adding to their distinctiveness. 

Takhe Yapi (91) Hong Village

Their sustainable agricultural tactics, such as growing rice in water that simultaneously serves as a fish farm, have garnered recognition. The majority of the locals rely on farming and fishing for subsistence rather than for profit. They grow an annual crop of rice. Grinding the crop, caring for livestock, and fixing their homes take up the remaining months.

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Each dwelling typically displays the religious Donyi-Polo flag. The predominant religion in this area is Danyi-Pilo, whose name means "the sun and the moon" (but pronounced "Donni polo"). There is no association with any religious activities or temples. Although Christianity's popularity has increased significantly over the last decade, 

 

Bamboo has always been the primary construction material for houses. As they rise several feet above the ground, bamboo stilts support them. Bamboo houses are typically placed on concrete stilts in more modern homes, assuming they are not made entirely of concrete. The thatched roofs of most of these cottages have been replaced by tin ones, which do not require replacement annually. Even though my romantic side despises the exodus of young people from the area in search of better employment and educational opportunities, these housing developments must have simplified many people's lives.

 

Step inside a traditional dwelling where simplicity reigns supreme. A single chamber invites kinship and camaraderie because it has a welcoming veranda and storage alcove on either side. At its core, an elevated hearth of sun-baked mud cradles the flames of communal cooking. Here, generations gather, basking in the warmth of familial bonds and sharing stories as old as time.

 

Above the fire, extensive meat checks hang for drying, depicting the family's wealth.

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Portraits of the Apatani

Bamboo has always been the primary construction material for houses. As they rise several feet above the ground, bamboo stilts support them. Bamboo houses are typically placed on concrete stilts in more modern homes, assuming they are not made entirely of concrete. The thatched roofs of most of these cottages have been replaced by tin ones, which do not require replacement annually. Even though my romantic side despises the exodus of young people from the area in search of better employment and educational opportunities, these housing developments must have simplified many people's lives.

 

Step inside a traditional dwelling where simplicity reigns supreme. A single chamber invites kinship and camaraderie because it has a welcoming veranda and storage alcove on either side. At its core, an elevated hearth of sun-baked mud cradles the flames of communal cooking. Here, generations gather, basking in the warmth of familial bonds and sharing stories as old as time.

 

Above the fire, extensive meat checks hang for drying, depicting the family's wealth.

 

It became an integral aspect of an Apatani woman's life since, in their eyes, a woman was unattractive without the tattoo and nose plug. Getting a tattoo was a prerequisite for getting married. As a result, nose plugs and tattoos became symbols of 'beautification,' pride, and fecundity.

 

The Apatani are known for their intricate farming methods and unique facial adornments. Despite the encroachment of modernity, these tribes remain steadfast in their cultural heritage, passing down oral histories and folk tales from one generation to the next. In the verdant embrace of the valley, a profound sense of community thrives, fostering bonds of kinship and mutual respect.

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