The Apatani tribe lives in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India. The tribe lives mainly in the Ziro Valley, at an altitude of 1500m. The Apatani are not nomadic like some other tribes and are known for their knowledge of agriculture, specifically rice cultivation, for which they use a particularly sophisticated, unique irrigation system. Like other tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, the Apatani practise a religion called Donyi-Polo, worshipping the sun and the moon. Every house has a totem to honour the spirits, and animal sacrifices are regularly practised for luck by the shamans. As there is no written record of the Apatani tribe’s history, in order to know more about its past, researchers rely on stories that are transmitted orally from one generation to the next. However, it is thought that the Apatani migrated from Mongolia and Tibet.
The ‘old Apatani’ women are probably the most fascinating and well-known members of the tribe. It is said that they were considered to be the most beautiful women of Arunachal Pradesh, and that men from neighbouring tribes came to steal them. In order to disfigure the women to protect them from these men from outside the tribe, their faces were covered in tattoos and nose plugs were placed in their nostrils. This practice then became a rite of passage for women at the time of their first menstruation, and marked their entry into adulthood. ‘My mother demanded to get tattooed; she felt it would be easier for her to find a husband that way,’ explains a younger Apatani woman, with no tattoos or nose plugs.
Another tradition that was commonly practised was the forceful abduction of women and girls by men who wanted to wed them. Once the woman was kidnapped, a shaman would practise a series of rituals to determine the couple’s compatibility. If the signs were positive, the liver of a sacrificed chicken would be shown to the woman’s family as proof that the marriage was a good idea.
These traditions, however, have not been practised since the 1970s and tattoos and nose plugs are only visible on older women. Things changed in 1975 when Apatani society was forced to modernise and the younger generations began attending universities and looking for jobs outside of the community. Practices like child marriage, popular in the past, have also ended.
Yasing makes millet beer, a typical drink. In Apatani culture, women make the beverage and then their character is judged based on its quality. ‘We find it important to marry women who make good beer,’ explains Michi, an Apatani man. Yasing was kidnapped three times by the same man. She ran away twice, refusing to get married. After the third time, on the advice of her family, she married the man and had four children with him. Her husband has since passed away and she now lives alone.
Sunku was married at a very young age. Before 1975, it was common for men to marry girls when they were only children. ‘I was married at the age of four,’ she says. ‘Although I did not live with my husband until I was 15, we would see each other during ritual ceremonies and big celebrations.’ Like most Apatani women, Sunku attended to the rice fields, while her husband, when he was alive, would hunt. Most women now attend college and move out of the community to work.