In India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh, a hidden valley, an isolated town and silence all around


Villagers begin the first stages of the rice harvest near the village of Hong in the remote Ziro Valley in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. (Michael Snyder/For The Washington Post)
November 14, 2013

When the music ended, the valley fell silent.

In the last weeks of September, the monsoon rains had largely receded, but elephantine clouds continued to pour over the hillsides, drifting close overhead and dropping dramatic shadows across the golden paddies carpeting the valley floor. Cupped like so much still water in the upraised hands of the Himalayas, the Ziro Valley had returned, once again, to its customary quiet.

Details: Arunachal Pradesh, India


Over the previous three days, the second Ziro Festival of Music — one of the newest additions to India’s rapidly expanding festival circuit — had brought some 1,200 people to the valley. They’d traveled from across the neighboring Seven Sister states of the remote northeast, and from India’s big cities, to Arunachal Pradesh, the sparsely populated hill state that bursts from the plains and tea plantations of Assam and rises toward the Tibetan plateau.

Like all the artists and journalists who attended the festival, I arrived by road from Guwahati, the nearest major city with an airport. The drive — I would describe it as harrowing, but that seems like an exaggeration, albeit a mild one — took 18 hours, beginning along the flat banks of the Brahmaputra River and continuing, in its final 60 miles, along pockmarked switchbacks that hugged the contours of the hillsides as they rose through subtropical jungle toward the gentle alpine hills that enclose Ziro.

The lack of infrastructure, and the travel permits required to enter the state because of its disputed northern border with China, make getting to Arunachal complex, which has kept the state well off the grid. In its small way, the festival has begun to put Ziro on the map, but like most of Arunachal and the northeast, this remains tribal territory: amazingly diverse, virtually unexplored and beautiful beyond all reason.

Ziro, for instance, is home to the Apatani tribe, one of 26 major tribes (there are more than 100 sub-tribes) that make up Arunachal’s minuscule population. With just 1.4 million people spread over 32,000 square miles of jungle-covered hills, alpine valleys and snow-capped mountains, Arunachal has the lowest population density of any state in India. Yet follow the single road that heads north out of Ziro, first climbing through pine forest before dropping suddenly into a deeper valley lush with bananas and primeval fern trees, and you enter an entirely different tribal zone, with different styles of housing, different festivals, a different language.

After the Ziro festival, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley — two former members of Sonic Youth who played the last show — held a news conference. “This is beyond what we thought we’d come to India for,” Ranaldo said of Ziro. And it’s true: Most travelers associate India with drama — with chaos, riotous colors and the constant possibility of transcendence and disaster. Ziro bestows a calm that feels like absolution.

The scriptures of the earliest Tibetan Buddhist sect describe seven sacred beyul, or hidden valleys, a concept that led James Hilton, in his 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon,” to create the mythical Himalayan utopia of Shangri-La. That’s a name that gets bandied around a lot by tourism ministries and enthusiastic tourists alike. Kashmir, Swat and Hunza have been described as tragic Shangri-Las lost to the ravages of war. Bhutan, with its famous Gross National Happiness index, long history of isolation and highly restrictive travel policies, is sometimes described as the last Shangri-La.

Before leaving for Arunachal, I heard several people describe it as yet another one: the seventh beyul, exquisitely preserved, sublime in its isolation.

I was, of course, skeptical. But then, I hadn’t yet seen Ziro.

Among the Apatani

Shri Buga Bullo and his wife, Yagyang, live in a village called Hong. Inside their home, the tightly woven bamboo walls blocked out the brilliant sun that had warmed the Ziro Valley to an unusually hot 90 degrees. Like all traditional houses here, the Bullos’s home centers on a communal fireplace and a hanging three-tiered rack that held skewers of drying meat, firewood and, on top, a massive sheet of fat and skin from a pig, petrified and preserved over decades (literally) by the constant smoke from the fire below. Like the dozens of horned mithun skulls stacked in the corner (mithun is an indigenous, semi-domesticated bull), collected from ceremonial sacrifices performed over many years, the slab of fat is a sign of prosperity.

Buga crouched on one side of the fire with a century-old silver pipe clamped between his withered lips and chatted in the local Apatani dialect with Tajo Michi, who has led tours around the northeast for the past nine years. (He goes by Christopher for the convenience of foreign tourists, and for the past two years has run his own agency, Northeast Holiday Tour & Travels.)

On the far side of the fire, Yagyang prepared a metal pitcher of rice beer, a milky, sweet-sour drink brewed in nearly every house in the valley. Like many women of her age (which is indeterminate; birthdays are neither marked nor celebrated among the Apatani), Yagyang wears the nose plugs and facial tattoos that distinguish the local women from those of neighboring tribes: a single blue line from the forehead to the tip of the nose and five separate lines running from the lower lip to the chin.

The origin of these tattoos is obscure. The common story goes that they were designed to disfigure the Apatani women, who were otherwise so beautiful that men from the surrounding tribes would raid the valley to kidnap them. Koj Mama, the president of the Arunachal Pradesh Birding Club and director of Brahmaputra Tours, told me that this is almost certainly an invention.

As Tajo, Koj and I drank our rice beer, Buga stood — bent forward nearly 90 degrees, his topknot held at his forehead by a long reed — to retrieve a jar of Apatani salt for us to eat along with the drink. The fine black powder is made from the evaporated liquids pressed out of a locally grown grass. It’s vegetal, briny flavor, infused with the metallic tang of iodine, gives the final kick to a local delicacy known as pike pilla, a simple stew made from smoked pork or mithun skin.

Unlike neighboring tribes that have long practiced a nomadic style of shifting cultivation (called jhum), the Apatani have been settled in the valley since their prehistoric migration from the north, giving them the opportunity to develop uniquely sophisticated agricultural and craft techniques.

The wet paddies that line the valley floor, for instance, double as fisheries for small freshwater fish, which are either dried and fermented for chutneys or steamed in a hollow stalk of bamboo sealed with leaves and placed in the hot coals of an open fire. This preparation, called sudu, is also commonly used for chicken, liver, eggs and rice. Canny guides like Tajo and Koj — all highly attuned to global trends — will make a point of telling you that the food here is entirely local and organic, an understatement if ever I’ve heard one.

At the Government Craft Emporium, housed in a creaky colonial bungalow in the village of Salang, craftspeople from the surrounding region receive stipends to come here and improve their skills, weaving the traditional geometric shawls and gales (a type of sarong) of the Apatani, Nyishi and Adi tribes. Wander through the compound, and you’ll see a woman from the Buddhist Monpa tribe in the state’s northwest tying small woolen carpets, a blacksmith crafting tribal machetes and a carpenter fashioning all manner of objects out of bamboo. Some of these craftsmen stay permanently at the center, while others return to their home villages to pass the skill along. At the Emporium store, the final products are sold at shockingly low prices, as little as 450 rupees (about $7) for a handwoven gale.

In about four hours, you can walk the road that loops between the villages skirting the edge of the valley floor, and in a day or so you can complete the trail through the dense forest just above. You can linger in the villages themselves, walking beneath the tall ceremonial wooden masts known as babos left from the myoko festival held every March — part of the prevailing sun-and-moon worship tradition — and past old women sifting millet and rice on their front porches. In all this you’ll find no “must-sees” or “must-dos”; Ziro resists imperatives.

On my last evening, after a brief sunset hike into the forest between Hong and Hari villages, Tajo and I stopped at a house to sample another brew of rice beer and a potent (though barely potable) distilled rice liquor. We ate skewers of beef taken straight from the smoking rack and thrown into the coals.

At another house, we ate fish sudu and hot chutneys, and at the end of the night, we returned to my own home-stay in a traditional bamboo house back in Hong, where the owner, Tom, made arrangements for my onward journey the next day.

After a long day (and a draught of water to match it), I fell fast asleep on a stiff bamboo pallet to the conspicuous sound of absolutely nothing.

Beyond Ziro

“There’s nothing to see here,” Tajo Nido (another Tajo) told me a day later. We sat on the porch of his aunt’s bamboo hut, built on stilts on a forested hillside looking out over the crests of the surrounding mountains and the sparse wooden and bamboo houses that make up the village of Raga. Home makes us blind.

But then, of course, Tajo is right to some extent: There really isn’t anything to see in Raga, if we’re using “see” to mean “do.” Two hours north of Ziro, Raga sits at a lower elevation, but from its hilltop perch, it overlooks the surrounding range of mountains, the kind that hint at higher ones just over the next ragged line embossed upon the sky.

The few visitors who pass through here usually do so en route to the town of Daporijo, in the neighboring district of Upper Subansiri. I myself came here for no particular reason, save for the fact that I didn’t have quite enough time to go anywhere else and wanted, after five days in Ziro, to see something of Arunachal’s diversity.

The Nyishi tribe living just outside Ziro bears certain similarities to the Apatani: Both tribes, like many in Arunachal’s central swath, are still primarily animist (although the recent arrival of missionaries from the evangelical state of Mizoram to the south has begun to change that); both tribes subsist almost entirely on agriculture; both tribes prepare food using similar ingredients, though the Nyishi make greater use of tropical plants such as banana flower and lack ingredients such as Apatani salt. Yet the structure of the place, the style of the houses, the character of the people and, of course, the landscape, lends Raga an entirely different personality.

If Ziro has minimal infrastructure for visitors, then Raga has none. The people who took me around did so out of generosity, a special trait that, throughout the largely unvisited northeast, remains remarkably untainted by the cynicism that can at times make traveling in other parts of India so frustrating.

I spent my first evening in Raga at Tajo’s home near the market in the town center, where the next day I would sample another homemade rice brew in a ramshackle house near a mechanic’s garage. At the family home, Tajo’s stepmother poured us fresh millet wine, sweet and warm and only beginning its fermentation. I used a machete to help Tajo gut the small fish that had come in that day from Ziro, and narrowly avoided losing my left hand.

The next evening, Topu Banor, the 19-year-old son of a local folk musician, took me on a short walk from the Circuit House (a simple government accommodation opened only on days when visitors come through, and usually reserved for local dignitaries) to the top of the hill overlooking the town. We walked in the waning afternoon along a muddy road built a couple of years earlier with government funds, Topu told me, but neither completed nor put into use.

It’s a typical story of negligence that reflects Arunachal’s ongoing battle against its almost impossible topography and immense distance from India’s centers of power. It also reflects the sense of alienation that remains, also kind of miraculously, tempered by the delirious optimism that has become India’s trademark in the 21st century. “In five years, Raga will be a developed town,” Topu boasted. Perhaps. Time, too, tends to be flexible out here.

As we neared the top of the hill, the clouds and mist so typical in the Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains (the almost too poetic translation of Arunachal Pradesh) had lowered over the faces of the hills, like the cataracts beginning to creep over Buga Bullo’s ageless eyes. Drops of water left the tall grasses along the roadside wet as Topu led me toward a small field on the final rise, stubbled with corn stalks.

“You haven’t been here, no?” he asked.

“No,” I said, as he pushed forward through the damp grass. In the previous days, I had seen places and views that were more perfect, more calming in their pastoral beauty, yet looking out again over a hallucinogenic swirl of hills and clouds and forest, fading through gray toward purple-black night, I couldn’t dispute what he said next as he led the way forward with a small, bashful laugh:

“Come. I will show you heaven.”

Snyder is a freelance writer based in Mumbai and a contributing editor to Architectural Digest India.

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