Alcove 5 – Apatani amidst Paddy Field

Picturesque Ziro is 200 km from Itanagar. Situated on the Apatani Plateau (in the lower Subansiri region) and surrounded by pine mantled hills all around, it is spectacular. Ziro, the district headquarter of upper Subansiri, is a tourist’s delight with its dazzling landscapes and tribal culture. Make a point to visit Tarin, the high-altitude fish farm, the famous whispering pine grove and the craft centre.

Ziro is the home of Apatani Tribes. The Apatanis are one of most advanced and intriguing of Arunachal’s tribal people. Both men and women tattoo themselves and the women are distinctive with their great nose plugs (dat) made of bamboo and face tattoos. It has now been banned. The Apatanis grow rice by terrace farming; they also have created an indigenous irrigation system which is unique amongst the Arunachal tribals.

The Apatani village comprises of long rows of houses with a fertility totem in front of each one. In their cooking, they use an indigenous herbal salt that’s rich in iodine. Living in perfect harmony with nature, for every tree they fell, five fresh saplings are planted. The weaving skills of their women are legendary as can be seen from the wonderful Jikhe pattern, woven jackets and intricately patterned Jilang shawls. The men are skilled in metallurgy and bamboo craft.


The Apatani, or Tanii, are a tribal group of about 26,000 (approximately) in Ziro valley in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh India. However, more Apatanis live outside this valley, making the total population to approximately 26,000 all over the state.


The culture and socio- economic condition of Apatani needs more elaboration. Apatani family is highly patriarchal. They can be dissected into two classes, popularly known as, the Gyuchii and the Gyuttii. Moreover the Apatani tribe is sub-divided into quite a number of clans. However the common belief is that all of these clans have got the status of having fallen under a single tribal identity. Although amongst them, these Apatani tribes maintain a very cordial and harmonious relation. Inter class marriage is strictly being prohibited. Only the tribal ‘endogamy’ and ‘clan exogamy’ is the directive adopted by all the Apatani tribes.

However, coming in pace with the modern trend, instances of young Apatani getting married to a person of different caste is not rare. Especially, such trends are also being noticed nowadays amongst those Apatani people who are quite educated. Monogamy as the societal norm is widely prevalent. However quite now and then, bigamy is also practiced. Marriage ceremony is again being held either by the way of negotiations. Marriages also are being fixed on the basis of seeing an ‘omen’ with the aid of chicken lever. The process is first initiated from the family of groom. Apatani tribes are mainly businessmen, establishing links with different Apatani classes on grounds of affinity, ritualistic practices and friendship ties only.


Their language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family


In the lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, Apatani tribes reside in peace and haven. Those anthropologists, who have carried out research on the birth and origin of Apatani, inferred that they have descended from a ‘legendary ancestor, Abotani.’ Further they have added that all the Apatani tribes have emigrated to Arunachal Pradesh from various region of north India that are situated in areas beyond Khru and Kime rivers. These facts have been depicted on the basis of remnants that are being found on 3 ‘neolithic’ zones at Parsiparlo and Raga circle. Also few historical leftovers are there at Talle Valley, to justify the fact as has been mentioned right now.


The dress of the Apatanis is elaborate and colorful, yet simple in style. Tattooing (Tiipe) and the stuffing of large nose plugs (yaping hullo) were once popular among the women, although this practice has gradually fallen into decline in recent years. This practice is believed to have started because the women wanted to look unattractive to males from neighboring tribes. Apatani women were considered to be the most beautiful ones among all the Arunachal tribes. Younger members of this community have stopped this traditional practice.

Traditionally, the men tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead (locally called piiding) using a brass rod (piiding khotu) measuring 12 inches, placed horizontally. Strips of fine cane belt painted in red (yari) and bent into the shape of a horse-collar with an elongated end were also worn. These strips of cane are loosely fastened together, with the loop of the horse-collar being tied round the waist. The men also tattoo (tiippe) their chin in the shape of a ‘T’ under the lower lip. The women tattoo themselves with broad blue lines from the forehead to the tip of the nose and five vertical stripes under the lower lip in the chin. The women bundle up their tresses, which are rolled into a ball (dilling) on the top of the head. A brass skewer (ading akh) may then be inserted horizontally.


Festivals and fairs are part and parcel of Apatani tribal community. Dree, Yapung, Murung and Myoko are the main festivals of Apatani. Dree festival is celebrated in the month of July each and every year, whilst Yapung festival is feted in the month of September or October. There is a great merry making and dancing during the Dree festival. Observation of another important festival is celebrated in special way. Usually held every year in the month of March, it is feted in a cyclical manner by creating three groups of villages. The first group consists of Hong village only. Second group are Hari and Bulla, consisting of villages, namely, Kalong, Reru, Tajang and Lempia .

The third and the last group are the villages of Michi, Hija, Dutta, Mudang-Tage, and Bamin. Quite a handful of Apatani tribes celebrate the festival of Murung, every year in the month of January.

The importance of all these festivals is that they all are observed with lots of enthusiasm amongst the Apatani tribes, thus ensuring better cultivation, preservation of the grains from various ill effects like storms, hailstone, insects and wild animals. They are also for the sake of welfare of villagers as well their wealth of ‘livestock’.

In the festivals and other joyful fetes, dancing and musical songs play an important role in all the festivals. In fact the Apatani tribes perform many conventional dances, amongst which the dances like Daminda and Pakhu Ittu dances are very popular.


The Apatanis are agriculturists, producing mainly paddy. Animal husbandry is another popular occupation of Apatani tribes. They rear ‘Mithuns’ cattle, pig, goats and poultry. They practice fishing by nets, angles and traps. Hunting with the help of spears, traps and arrows are practiced. While Apatani women weave nicely, men adapts to basket crafting.

The Apatanis with a highly developed valley cultivation of rice perfected over centuries has often been suggested to be one of the relatively advanced tribal societies in the Northeastern region of India. They make effective use of their land by planting early and late ripening varieties of rice. The Apatanis practice aquaculture alongwith rice farming on their plots. Rice – fish culture in the valley is a unique practice in the state where two crops of rice Mipya and Emoh and one crop of fish Ngihi are raised together. This practice is unique in Arunachal Pradesh and is known to enhance ecological sustainability.

The rice field Aji can be utilized for fish culture in the following ways. Fishes can be reared from the month of April to September when the paddy crops grow in the field. At present it is being practiced at Ziro .The fish culture can also be taken up from the month of November to February after harvesting of paddy crops is completed and transplantation for the next season begins. The culture of fishes in paddy fields, which remain flooded even after the paddy is harvested, may also serve as an occupation for the unemployed youths. Paddy field is suitable for fish culture at Ziro because of having strong bund Agher in order to prevent leakage of water, to retain up to desired depth and also to prevent the escape of cultivated fishes during floods.

The Apatanis are known for the meticulous care they take of their agricultural fields. For example, after the transplantation of paddy saplings they repeat three cycles of weeding to ensure a weed-free field and healthy crop. They practice an intricate irrigation system of canals and channels from the time they started wet rice cultivation. It is impressive to note that the only (small) river in Ziro valley irrigates the whole wet rice fields of Ziro. After transplanting of paddy from the nursery in wet rice cultivation field (W.R.C.), the fish fingerlings are put in Pakho/Hetey (channels in paddy field for drainage of water) at knee-deep height that are kept for 2-3 months before harvesting of fish. Though there is hardly any gap in the agriculture calendar of the Apatanis but the main activities i.e., sowing starts in February with harvesting in October.

At present, however, the biggest threat to this sustainable ecology is the use of chemical substances like bleaching power, other explosive materials, and an electrolyte which is most discouraging in the field of pisciculture practice. As a result of unwanted practice, the death of valuable food organisms of the aquatic environment is taking place. Further, it causes imbalance of ecological niche and thereby damaging the river bank. It is encourage able that some of NGOs have already formed unanimously local conservation Acts to stop such unwanted practices of fishing e.g. for increasing fish production in a sustainable manner, conservation of aquatic life, biodiversity is a necessary prerequisite.


For better administration, there is a village council in each Apatani village consisting of one or two ‘Buliyang’ spokesperson from each and every clan.

The society considers that man folk is higher in status than woman folk. But practically, equal responsibility of duties is shared by both in the field, home and the family affairs. Apatani woman carries out the duties of gathering of both wild and kitchen garden vegetables, cooking, fetching of water, pounding of rice, cleaning of houses, washing of clothes and utensils, nursing and looking after infants and children, preparation of rice beer, ginning and spinning of cotton and other jobs associated with the house hold. In the field, the Apatani woman carries out the tasks like gardening, seedling, transplanting of paddy and millet, padding, weeding of fields and or the activities. In a home managed family incomes internally controlled by a woman.


Most Apatanis are loyal followers of the Danyi-Piilo faith, who pray to the Sun (Ayo Danyii) and the Moon (Atoh Piilo). Abotani is revered as the sole ancestor of all Apatani and other tribes in the surrounding regions. When a misfortune occurs, they believe that it is caused by certain evil spirits, and thus they make appeasement by sacrificing chickens, cows and other domestic animals. Myoko, the festival of friendship and prosperity, is celebrated in a grand manner lasting for all of March each year. Dree Festivalcelebrated in July, is the main agricultural festival of the Apatanis.


Apatanis practice monogamy in general but a man may polygamise when he has no male child or his wife is barren or he is of a well to-do-family which can provide sufficient food and shelter or with the consent of his first wife. Polyandry system is totally unknown. The cross cousin marriage and ciciberism practices are not approved. The Apatanis treat the wife of the elder brother as a second mother and the wife of the younger brother as own sister. The customs of the marriage of the Apatanis have no age bar. Marriage is socially approved within the seven villages according to the class and status. Class means ‘Gyuchi’ and ‘Gyutii’ and the status means economic status

The marriage in the Apatani also may be arranged either by negotiations or by elopement or by the capturing.

In the negotiation marriage, the boy side must test an omen from chicken liver secretly before taking any decision and carefully examining it. The chicken omen is tested whether she will agree and lead a fruitful life with children and prosperity. If the omen favour it, the two cousin brothers of the boy go to the house of the girl’s parents taking the right omen and these two brothers are known as Gyunta.The right omen of the boy is carefully scrutinized by the parents of the girl who also test an omen from chicken liver. If this omen is also right, the girl’s parents arrange for a formal engagement.

After the preparation of rice beer and meat, the girl’s parents inform the parents of the boy for engagement. On this occasion, the boy along with his Gyunta go to her house and the boy give a Tibetan sword known as Chiri to the parents of the girl. This kind of betrothal is like promising that she is his legal wife from that day. The girl’s side also betroths a locally produced cloth known as Mabo-pulye to the boy along with a dainty meal and rice beer. After these formalities, if both the parents wish they may decide for the exchange of rice and mithun for more or less religious importance, which is known as Rutu Pini. The boys side should present a half grown mithun (sido) to the parents of the girl. In return, the boy brings 70 to100 baskets of rice from the bride’s parents and this rice is known as Arirutu.

Next day, there is an occasion known as Pyali Banii. On this occasion, the sisters of the bride bring small baskets containing varieties of rice for the bride and the groom. If the groom’s parents wish, some small rites are performed in the house of the groom and this performance is called Amohini. During that ceremony, pig and many other fowls are sacrificed to God and Goddesses who bring life and prosperity to the bride-groom. Apatanis approve the remarriage of both widows and widowers.


Traditionally there are seven large villages of Apatanis. The settlement and dwelling system of the Apatanis are always of permanent nature. The houses are constructed during the month of August to December with the help of clan members. The construction of the house is begun after preparation of the rice beer, meat and rice. Then the building materials are procured. Usually wood is used. The height of a house rises about twelve feet from the floor and two feet from the ground. Houses are closely situated and often their roofs touch each other. The floor and walls are made of beaten bamboo tied with split cane. At the time of construction of the house, the house owner offers delicious meat, rice and rice beer to the people who help and the construction of the house is completed within two days. After finishing the construction of the house, two minor rites are performed by offering a chicken and hen. These rites are performed to appease the god of house so that the house should last long and the inmates should live in prosperity with the blessing of gods.