Ten years ago I came to North East India and visited the northern Naga tribes. They had only recently opened the land to outsiders. We needed four people and a guide to get a permit. Other than a couple groups of anthropologists we were the first tourists they had ever met. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
But the Naga’s are a warrior tribe, unaccustomed and unfriendly to foreigners who they considered a threat. The children often threw sticks and stones while yelling and waving machetes at us to scare us away.
I now find myself on the other side of the Brahmaputra river valley walking thru Apani villages of Ziro district of Arunachal Pradesh, greeted with smiles, invited into the family homes and offered drinks (rice beer, millet wine and wild kiwi wine).
I’m told that they defend themselves and their culture thru kindness and their helpful nature is respected by anyone who travels thru their valley. UNESCO has recognized their unique culture and they are famed for their sustainable agriculture practices: rice paddies double as fish farms (the fish fertilize the rice and keep the soil loose while feeding on the rice); they also plant pine and bamboo forests for building.
Both of these indigenous cultures hold the mithun (semi-wild jungle buffalo) is high esteem. Apani burial sites are marked with a mithun skull which is believed to help guide the souls of the departed to heaven.
Those who have not been converted to Christianity worship the god Danyi-Piilo who is described as the Sun and the Moon. I’m told the Catholics have some respect for these traditional beliefs and many people are following both religions without contradiction. But there are also revisionist Christians who have split families and clans by introducing this idea that those who are not following Christianity are evil. Of course this has caused some push-back against the revisionist; or rather against the idea that if you are not doing like I am doing then you’re doing it wrong.
We visited a traditional temple for Danyi-Piilo and like many traditional cultures and beliefs, the only people there were over 50 years old. In this area all the women had their chins and foreheads tattooed and large nose piercings while the men had a ‘T’ tattooed on their chins. Nobody I talked to knew the reason for these tattoos: some said to beautify, others said to make ugly so they would not be stolen by other tribes. In any case, it seems clear that this religion, the tattoos, the language and ultimately the culture will mostly disappear as the elders follow the mithun into the after life.
For this it feels like a great honour to be up here staying with these people, hearing their songs, greeting them in their own language, drinking with them, and watching them laugh at us for whatever reason. The joy and kindness of the people will hopefully be passed down to their children and grandchildren.