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Face tattoos meet Facebook
In Arunachal's Apa Tani valley, a very traditional, tribal culture meshes seamlessly with a modern lifestyle
One of the most irritating and over-used cliches - especially where travelling is concerned - is to describe a trip as "once in a lifetime". So please allow me to start this story with the statement that my first ever trip to Arunachal Pradesh was, indeed, a once in a lifetime occasion.
My time in Arunachal was no ordinary trip, for beyond the joy of discovering a stunningly beautiful part of the country, I was party to a voyage of pure, unadulterated nostalgia.
I travelled to the Apa Tani valley with a British friend whose parents had lived and worked in the lower Subansiri area in the years between the end of World War II and Independence, when they had to leave India, broken hearted, never to return. Their daughter, like me now married to an Indian and a happily resident PIO, went to retrace her parents' steps, and to meet people who had known them, worked with them, or to meet the families of such men.
Clearly, nostalgia was always going to be high on the agenda, but who could have imagined the extraordinary love and affection that would be showered on Catriona (and, by polite default, on me as her friend) from people who remembered her parents from their childhood. Proud old men travelled long distances to meet the daughter of the man for whom they had worked as teenagers, recalling incidents from the 1940s as though they were yesterday.
And this is what made our time in the Apa Tani valley so very special. We were welcomed into the hearts and homes of the community, as we met with the men who had worked for Lt Col Betts and his wife all those years ago. Whole families came to meet us, and either through interpreters (or their charming English-speaking grandchildren ) shared memories of over six decades ago. Endless cups of rice beer were drunk, photos galore were taken, and in the process we had a glimpse of what makes society up in this remote corner of India so very special. It is the strong family, village and tribal ties, and the affection and welcome that are all part and parcel of being involved in such a tight-knit community.
We based ourselves in the little town of Ziro for a few days, using it as a hub to explore the villages around. The countryside is little short of breathtaking, with ranges of mountains as far as the eye can see, range after towering range until you can see no more. The forested mountain sides are lush and luxuriant and the sense of clean space and over-arching clean skies are balm to the city-dweller's soul.
The villages in the Apa Tani valley are the heart of society, and despite cars and a few satellite dishes, have not changed substantially since the days of the black and white photographs in Catriona's mother's book about her time in Arunachal. The biggest change is that thatch has been replaced by the ubiquitous corrugated iron, but the structure of the villages remains essentially the same. Bamboo homes are built raised off the ground, with a ladder or ramp for access. Inside, the hearth is the physical and metaphorical heart of the home. Food is cooked over the open fire, people sit around the fire to eat and drink and chat and, in the bitter cold of winter, sleep around the glowing embers. Newer, younger families are now nuclear, but the older generation is a product of a polygamous system, so many homes have several hearths - one for each wife and her children.
What was fascinating for urban outsiders like us was the ease with which a very traditional, tribal culture meshes seamlessly with the current lifestyle. Older Apa Tani women have very distinctive facial tattoos and wear nose plugs, a practice that was aimed at disfiguring their natural beauty so that rival marauding tribes would not capture them. When peace was brokered between the Apa Tanis and the Nishis in the late 1960's, the tribal elders outlawed the practice, a ban which has been religiously followed. So within the space of two generations, facial tattooing has given way to a Facebook-ing, sms-ing generation, all of whom happily co-exist.
One of the ways in which tribal culture is kept alive is through traditional ceremonies such as Morrum, which we were privileged to witness. Young men, all as cool and hip as any urban youngster, with spiky hair-dos and the latest trainers, wore traditional shawls and gorgeous strings of beads, and processed through the villages, swords aloft, in a generations-old spring festival. They chatted in English to us as we raced around photographing them, and one lad even shouted out, as I scooted past for yet another photo op, "Can you get me a job in England ?" to hoots of laughter from his mates.
Wherever we went in the valley, people stopped to chat and offer us rice beer. The Apa Tanis are not a nation of tea drinkers, be warned. It is beer, beer and more beer, at all hours of the day, and we were cheerfully told that beer is considered a health drink, so not to worry and drink up.
The food is seriously rice-based, with lots of meat, but for a non meat-eating fishitarian like me, there was loads of fish with every meal. We had rice twice a day (that's not including the beer) and occasionally for breakfast too. There is fresh fruit galore - bananas picked from the tree in the garden, that kind of freshness.
Next time - oh yes, we are definitely going back to the beautiful Apa Tani Valley, and soon - the plan is to eat and drink less, don our hiking boots and head high up into those glorious forested hills and trek. The poetically named "land of the dawn-lit mountains" beckons.
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