Myoko festival in Arunachal Pradesh is about friendship between Apatani villages

This is also the time when new paddy is sown in the terraced fields and residents pray for a good crop

April 28, 2018 04:18 pm | Updated 04:18 pm IST

The rain is a good omen”, says my guide, Ribiya Taso, a giggly youth from Ziro, a town in Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh. We are in Hija village in the Ziro valley to witness the first day of the Myoko festival celebrated by the Apatani tribe. “Myoko is a celebration of friendship and harmony between various Apatani villages,” explains Taso. This is also the time when new paddy is sown in the terraced fields and the Apatani pray for a good crop.

The festival rotates between the eight Apatani villages and this year, it’s the turn of three villages — Hija, Mudang Tage, and Bamin Michi. “The Apatanis are traditionally animists and they worship nature,” explains Julie Kagti pointing to the religious Donyi-Polo flags — a red sun emblazoned on a white background — fluttering outside several houses. Kagti is the owner of Curtain Call Adventures, which curates small-group culture-focussed trips to Northeast India.

Hija’s streets are lined with bamboo huts perched atop wooden stilts with a ‘balcony’ platform. The excitement is palpable. People mill about the main street, while women and children watch from the platforms outside their huts. I ask permission to climb on to the platform of a hut and wait for the procession to begin.

Hair in a topknot

Soon, we hear rhythmic chanting and a single file of men begins to make its way around the village. A few men are dressed in traditional outfits, complete with their hair in a topknot with a wooden hair-stick to keep it in place, but most are dressed in T-shirts and jeans. All of them carry palmyra fronds. Once the men complete a couple of rounds of the village, they place the fronds on a temporary ritual hut built in front of the community platform.

And that’s when it starts to rain, a slight drizzle that threatens to turn into a downpour. We escape the imminent thunderstorm by taking shelter in Taso’s sister’s marital home. Abi brings us some lal cha, a reddish brown, slightly sweetened tea, and slices of boiled egg. She also offers me some apong, a pungent rice beer.

Piglet and roosters

I wake up at four the next morning to soft rain and a mist-covered valley. Kagti, Taso and I drive to Mudang-tage village and arrive at an open ground. Four full-grown pigs, one white and three black, lie on their side with their feet tied to bamboo poles. The shaman stands nearby with a tiny black piglet and two trussed up roosters at his feet. He has on massive hoop earrings, a large beaded neckpiece, and a silver cuff around his wrist. He chants softly, from time to time pointing his staff at the pigs in blessing. Suddenly one of the pigs, the one nearest to me, squeals and starts thrashing about. His neighbour takes the cue and joins in. But they soon settle down and the chanting continues.

As dawn breaks, five women arrive dressed in striking white, red, and blue dresses with several gorgeous stone-and-bead necklaces around their necks. “These are newly-wed women who have come to bless the animals before the sacrifice,” explains Taso.

Each woman carries a leaf-lined wicker basket filled with powdered rice, and a bamboo jug of apong. As the shaman continues to chant, they sprinkle a handful of rice powder on each of the pigs and then ladle over some rice beer. Once the pigs are blessed, we, the onlookers, get some of the rice and beer too.

“The shaman will continue chanting for a couple of hours and then perform the sacrifice,” says Taso. The meat is later distributed to neighbours and friends.

As I begin my journey back home to Guwahati, I think about the animal sacrifice, and am ambivalent. But I recall what Kagti told me: “This is religion before the sanitising filters were applied. It is what it is.”

The author is an independent travel and food writer based in Mumbai.

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