Time with the Apatani tribeswomen

18 Feb 2019

We’ve been keen to visit the Apatani tribe of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state for quite a while. So when we found ourselves in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya mountains with a day spare on a research trip, we decided to pop up to their stronghold in the Ziro Valley.

Of course, a day isn’t long enough to do justice to any tribal group, let alone the Apatani. This tribe has called the Ziro Valley home for centuries and has carved out a special niche with its unique combination of agriculture and pisciculture, together with ingenious and enlightened land management techniques.

As with many mountain tribes in these parts (including in Myanmar just over the Patkai range), the facial tattooing of women used to be commonplace. Scholars theorise (and many tribespeople agree) that the origin of the practice springs from the perceived need to mark their women in some way to make them less attractive to visiting bands of mountain marauders. Others believe that the custom arose not a defensive tactic but as an enhancement to a woman’s beauty.

With the Apatani, the tradition brought both tattoos and nose-plugs. The nose-plugs (called Yaping Hullo by the Apatani) are wooden discs inserted into piercings in the fleshy part of the nose.

There was a time when every Apatani girl would, on reaching about the age of ten, be tattooed and fitted with these plugs. But about forty years ago, young Apatani student groups banned the practice on account of its disfigurement, functional irrelevance and the discriminatory baggage attached to it in a rapidly modernising India.

Hence our keenness to visit and photograph members of the small and slowly shrinking group of women sporting the distinctive Apatani tribal styling. We met and took tea with them in the stilted Apatani houses. Chatting through our interpreter, this serene, charming and smiling group of women projected a quiet pride in their appearance, a pleasure in their role in tribal tradition — and a calm acceptance of the fact that they represented the last generation of women to decorate themselves in this fashion. More in the photo captions above.

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