Portrait of an Apatani Headman
After arriving in Ziro, we were joined by a local Tanii-speaking guide. There was nothing wrong with our curiosity, he explained, but not all villagers are accustomed to being the subject of prolonged gazes and camera lenses. In retrospect, we were quite glad to hear that.
Soon enough, a man with a springy gait came walking toward us. A smile of recognition crossed his leathery face and he beckoned us to accompany him. Our guide cupped his palm to his mouth and said in a hushed tone, “He’s the village headman”.
Like most of the houses which lined both sides of the street, the elder’s was made entirely of bamboo. We followed him to the front porch and past a shrine decorated with egg shells and chicken feathers. Up on the landing, I glanced down at a hen which sat clucking in a woven basket. “All houses keep some ready for when the priest comes,” our guide told me as I went in.
The Apatani are largely followers of the Donyi-Polo faith, worshiping the sun and moon. Despite having access to modern media – many houses have satellite dishes mounted atop their bamboo roofs – there has been little outside encroachment on their system of beliefs. For example, misfortune is still attributed to evil spirits which village priests appease through lengthy ceremonial chanting and by making animal sacrifices.
Inside the light was dim and my eyes needed a few moments to adjust. In the middle of the main hall was an open hearth with firewood stacked neatly on a mesh rack above it, and bushels of corn cobs were hung from the blackened tin roof for smoking. This was where family members ate and slept.
The headman took us on a little tour, pointing out remedial roots and fertility enhancing herbs that had been gathered in the nearby woods. Several door-less storage rooms led off the main longhouse and at the back was a small veranda overlooking copious paddy fields.
Arunachal Pradesh is not open to mainstream tourism. Only small guided groups are given access, an approach by the government which has helped to keep the cultural heritage of the Apatani and other tribes largely intact.