Documenting the last honey hunting group of Arunachal Pradesh

Award-winning film by Thongdok chronicles a skill likely to die with half-a-dozen men from the Buddhist Sherdukpen community

May 02, 2020 11:05 pm | Updated May 03, 2020 08:53 am IST - GUWAHATI

Right: Producer-director Kezang D. Thongdok flanked by the honey-hunters.

Right: Producer-director Kezang D. Thongdok flanked by the honey-hunters.

Kezang D. Thongdok’s 26-minute film Chi Lupo was adjudged the best documentary at the 10th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival Awards 2020 announced a week ago.

But for the filmmaker from Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district, beneath the happiness is a deep sadness: The honey-hunting skill of the Sherdukpen community and the associated indigenous craftsmanship will fade away with the half-a-dozen subjects of his film.

Medicinal properties

Chi means honey and Lupo is hunter in the dialect of the Buddhist Sherdukpen community, whose total population is estimated to be 4,500. They are concentrated in 12 villages in the district.

“Our people used honey collected from the wild for its medicinal properties and for preparing delicacies in the not so distant past,” Mr Thongdok told The Hindu from his hometown Rupa. “Very few venture out now because of better connectivity and access to medicines and food stores and the young are not interested in learning the tough skill,” he added. The six honey-hunters the 37-year-old film-maker had followed into deep jungles at about 6,000 ft above sea level are from Thongri and Jigaon villages that are about 25 minutes’ drive from Rupa. While Thongri has some 70 houses, Jigaon has 100.

Mr. Thongdok’s four-member crew and the honey-hunters trekked for almost three hours from Thongri to a base camp where they stayed for the night. They walked for another two hours to reach the spot where clusters of beehives hung from protruding rocks on a steep mountain.

Body of knowledge

“We shot the film over a few trips in June-July 2018. What struck me while filming was that smoking the bees out with certain leaves and twigs and collecting the beehives was not the only skill under threat. An entire body of knowledge of making ladders, spatula, tongs and baskets with forest produce would go with these six men, who were in the upper mid-50s then,” he said.

The honey harvesting — Mr. Thongdok prefers the “phonetically correct” Shertupken over the official Sherdukpen —has traditionally been done twice a year. The bees make honey from wild flowers in June-July and primarily from rhododendron in October-November.

The winter variety has an intoxicating effect if consumed in larger doses, he said.

During the course of filming, Mr. Thongdok noticed that the inside of the baskets used by the honey-hunters for collecting the beehives was lined with a kind of indigenous rubber.

“It was neither factory-made rubber nor produced from the rubber tree. And I found out there aren’t many around who know that art or the natural element from which it is made,” he said.

Mr. Thongdok intends to document the art before it dies with the latex makers.

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