nitin sethi visits Arunachal Pradesh and finds the Apatani grappling with stereotypes and change

Published: Monday 15 August 2005


-- Without Rubu Bukur, I am completely lost. Two rows of eerily quiet houses snake along both sides of a dusty road. This is Lempia village in the Apatani valley of Arunachal Pradesh. Over the next few days, Bukur will become my interpreter and guide to the valley. But today, my first morning here, I am all at sea.

It's time to summon up the basics that I have gleaned before setting out for the region. The valley is 1,524 metres above sea level; it's located at 9348'-9352 e longitude and 2732'-2737' n latitude. The recollection does not help bring much familiarity with the region, but in a guide's absence, it's a beginning nevertheless.

The area is sandwiched between the Kamla and Khru river valleys in the north and the Palin valley in the south. It's hard to believe that I am really in Arunachal Pradesh. Till date, the images that I have seen of the state have been, stereotypically, of densely forested high mountainous regions. But this is a valley: at a great height above sea level, but a valley nevertheless, as the early morning January winds remind me.

In the heart of the Apatani valley is a township called Ziro, also the district headquarters of Lower Subansiri district. Like much of Arunachal Pradesh, the district is predominantly mountainous tract, consisting of steep foothills that skirt the Brahmaputra valley's edges. While the foothills are clad in tropical rain forests, the middle regions of the district are clad with rhododendrons and alpine biotic wonders. This natural formation determines Lower Subansiri district's agriculture: jhum or slash and burn.

But not in the Apatani valley: embedded in hills that rise up to 2,400 metres, the oblong valley is home, not to jhum, but to arguably the most intensively managed wet-rice cultivation in the world. The Apatanis occupy a small patch:about 26 square kilometres. Beyond this little patch live the Nyishis and the Miri. But unlike them -- and many other tribal communities in the northeast -- the Apatanis have access to relatively small tracts of forests and hills. Stacked into a small area, the community manages space by designing compact homesteads.

Unlike the rest of Arunachal, where the tribes spread their houses far and wide, the Apatani dwellings are jammed close to each other -- to the outsider they might even appear as shanties. Till sometime back, there were seven Apatani villages packed into an almost circular area. But with increase in population over time, 12 villages jostle along a circular road at Ziro's outskirts.

Many from the community have moved away to settle at Old Ziro town or adjoining Hapoli. These townships have become semi-urban ghettos. Like any other place in Arunachal Pradesh, the Apatani valley has also changed character rapidly. Be it demography, the economy, architecture or even cultural ethics, the Apatani today is in the throes of strong currents of change.

But this is something I realise later. On this, the first day, as I make my way through the empty village, I have very little inkling of the awesome story I am already in the middle of.

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