It’s all about land for the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, who are believed to have migrated from beyond the Khru and Kime rivers in the north. Their methods of agriculture have drawn worldwide attention.
Tucked in the lower ranges of the eastern Himalayas is the bowl-shaped Ziro Valley, the home of the Apatanis who practise a unique agriculture system in which no farm animals, machines and modern methods are used. Their wet rice cultivation system is extensive when compared to the surrounding tribal regions, where terrace and shifting cultivation are practised. Every inch of arable land is used, and in spite of limited water resources — one small river waters the entire expanse — the Apatanis’ dedication to their occupation has earned Ziro Valley the “World Heritage Site” tag from UNESCO.
In the labour-intensive wet rice cultivation system, water is allowed to stay on the fields, and once the paddy seedlings are transplanted, three cycles of weeding are done to ensure a healthy crop.
Paddy-cum-fish culture is popular with the Apatanis. While paddy is being cultivated, fish is also reared on the fields. Domestic waste is used to enrich the soil thereby enhancing ecological sustainability.
The Apatanis’ love for land is evident from their fencing techniques for land demarcation. Tall fences stand guard around every plot. The house of the Apatanis has its own architectural style. Primarily made of timber and bamboo, it is raised four feet from the ground. Houses are closely constructed and situated near the fields so that water from the river is judiciously used.
The spectacular Ziro Valley is also the headquarters of Lower Subansiri district, situated at a height of 1,500 metres above sea level. It is surrounded by blue rolling hills and is topographically cut off from the rest of the populated areas of Arunachal Pradesh. The tattooing and stuffing of large nose plugs (yaping hullo), once popular among the women, has gradually declined in recent years. According to legend, there was a time the Apatani tribe was subjected to frequent invasions by other tribes. The invaders not only looted them but also stole their pretty women. The Apatani men, therefore, came up with the idea of nose plugs and tattoos to make their women look less attractive to the invaders. The men, however, tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead ( piiding) using a brass rod (piiding khotu).
The staple food of the Apatanis includes rice, fish and pork. One of their delicacies is cooked rice stuffed in a hollow bamboo stem, which is then baked on fire. At nights, villagers sit together and enjoy home-brewed rice beer.