These Are (not?) Indians: Central Arunachal Pradesh

I think I exhausted myself in the preface to the previous “These Are (not?) Indians” post, so I’ll keep it short here.

These photos are from Arunachal Pradesh, which might just be India’s wildest state.  Up until a few years ago the whole northeast required special “Inner Line” or “Protected Area” permits to visit.  The former are mostly for locals and used as part of economic protectionism plans, and usually cost less than a dollar as long as the powers that be approve of you.  The latter are for tourists and are I suppose meant to provide extra income for the government to use to quash rebellions, vanquish insurgents, and that sort of thing.  Insurgency is still a problem (or, if you ask the insurgents, India is still a problem) in the northeast – in some states more than others – but in recent years the situation has stabilized enough that the government has dropped the PAP requirement in six of the seven states, thereby opening them up to any tourist with a valid visa.

The one exception is Arunachal Pradesh, where the PAP is still necessary…and pretty costly.  It cost $75 and was valid for 30 days, which is pretty hefty considering that the India visa itself was $143 (and only 3/4 that for Koreans and Eastern Europeans) and lasts for six months.  In fact, the PAP for Arunachal was more expensive than any single visa I’ve had to buy on my trip.  The fact that only $50 goes to the government and that the travel agencies have banded together and charge an insane $25 paper-pushing fee makes it almost too annoying to buy.  But we did anyway, because who knows how it will change once it opens up to the low-budget backpacking crowd.  (That’s why Bhutan charges non-Indian tourists $250 A DAY!)

The weird thing is, Arunachal doesn’t feel dangerous at all.  There is no separatist movement to speak of (probably because the locals know that the ambitions of the Chinese don’t stop in Tibet), no armed insurgency, no martial law, no Armed Forces Special Powers Act (that’s for another post), and no general sense of foreboding.  We did run into a couple “Bandh” days, which as far as I can tell is something like a general strike intended to deprive the government of a day’s worth of sales tax in order to get them to bend on certain issues.  They basically feel like Sundays, with shops closed down and all business halted for the day, but there’s an additional traffic ban component that makes the roads blissfully tranquil.  On the other hand, there’s no food to be had anywhere, which is a major bummer for those of us with no kitchen cupboard.  Anyhow, here are the Bandh’s demands:


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So, that’s the political situation.  What else to say…Arunachal is the northernmost of the northeast states, with Bhutan to the west, something like a thousand kilometers of Tibetan borderland to the north, and a bit of Myanmar to the east.  It’s full of mountains, rivers, forests, and valleys that have kept all the hundreds of tribes somewhat separated for generations, to the extent that there’s no local language that unites the whole province, as there is in Assam (Assamese), Nagaland (Nagamese), Mizoram (Mizo), Manipur (Manipuri), or Tripura (don’t know that one).  In addition to the hundreds of local languages, English and Hindi are widely spoken.

Alright, that’s that, on with the show!


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Nishi tribe (one of the most numerous, they inhabit the center of the state, particularly around the capital, Itanagar) Uncle with traditional hairdo: long hair wrapped around into a front knot.  Bones, feathers, beads, and painting are also involved.  And, of course, a knife.

One of the priests at a Catholic school we stayed at in a predominantly Nishi area said that the Nishis were an especially pugnacious tribe and that the kids always seemed ready to fight and tussle over the smallest things.

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More Nishis. Big knife, goatskin sheath.

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Not sure how useful the sword is in city life, but…

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it sure came in handy when we came across landslides and downed trees.  Why wait for the army to send tractors when you could just take care of the  mess yourself?

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Some kiddos in the restaurant on our first night in Arunachal.  After dinner, their mommy led us to a church and called the key dude to open up the back room for us.

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Also present mixed in with all the tribal locals: plains Indians.  Most restaurants, sweet shops, electronics shops, and other kind of generic places are operated by Indians from the wealthier provinces.  Then again, many of the wealthier locals take in Hindustani or Bihari “house girls” to take care of domestic work.

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Tiny restaurant at the Potin trijunction.

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CoCB@fAtB (courtesy of Chris Buchman at

Loriq, a police officer who came knocking at our hotel door.  Not because he wanted to check on us, but because (he said the following very frankly) that he had come to the hotel looking for a prostitute, had noticed our bike, and decided to chat us up since there weren’t any girls around anyway.  He took us out to his house, made entirely of bamboo that he went out into the forest and chopped down himself.  I think he had help with the curing and weaving.  The floors inside are cement and he has a stereo, a flat-screen TV, and several other amenities.  He fell in love with his life when she nursed him back to health after some sort of illness, and now their first baby has probably been born by now.  He still made her waddle around and prepare tea for us though.

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“Mee-tuhns!”  These massive but gentle charismatic megabovines should be the state’s state fauna if it isn’t already.  They have a soft creamsicle hue that, when I saw for the first time, I assumed was the effect of some Hindu parade coming by and dumping turmeric all over them.  Not so!  Who says a cow can’t be orange?

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Meetuhns are semi-domesticated.  They seem to be wandering around the countryside grazing at will, but locals all say that each Meetuhn has an owner to whom he’s 100% loyal…because the owner tracks him down in the forest every once in a while and tames him with an offer of a handful of salt.

Each tribe has their own particulars, but in general Meetuhns are markers of wealth and status and a guy can’t get married if he doesn’t have at least one to sacrifice at the wedding.  (Though one guy mocked another tribe saying that all they have to sacrifice to get married is a squirrel).  The meat is consumed, the horns and skulls are kept as decorations, and shamans probably do stuff with the organs.

Speaking of which, graphic image warning!  Scroll down really fast if you don’t want to see one of these guys disemboweled.

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Guess there’s a wedding going on somewhere.


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Why bother with a slaughterhouse when you could just lay two layers of plastic tarp a few meters from the side of the highway?  5km away from the state capital?

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A crew of dudes we met in a bar in the capital, Itanagar, all from the “Mishmi” tribe in the far east.  The dude on the left is a “corrupt police officer” (that’s how his friend described him).  He even handed me his gun to fondle.  Chris, showing off his true Arkansas nature, took the gun out of my hands right away and engaged the safety.  Turns out drunk cop man had been a little reckless!

On the other hand, they taught us an excellent phrase to yell at your drunk friends: “Hey man, you’d better maintain protocol!  I’m serious!”

Oh, and they invited us to come live with them for a year, experience real village life, “none of that coddles tourist shit,” and then write a book about them.  I need another lifetime or two.

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Leaving the absurd in favor of the incredible: the mind-boggling highlight of central Arunachal is most definitely the Apatani tribe.  Their villages are being considered for UNESCO world heritage status – surprisingly, not because of the facial tattoos, but because they practice livestock-free paddy agriculture.

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No bullocks helping them plough, though they do spawn fish in the rice paddies and catch them once they’re grown.

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Still, the thing that draws all the tourists to Ziro is the tattoos.  Legend/history has it that Apatani women were so beautiful that the neighboring tribes – in particular, the Nishis – often raided the villages and carried them off.  In response, the Apatanis began “defacing” their women with facial tattoos and noseplugs.  The tattoos were done with bamboo pins and charcoal.  Eventually, a tradition solidified and women began to regard darker tattoos and larger noseplugs as, if not more beautiful, at least desirable.

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Over the last few decades, the tradition of facial tattoos has totally disappeared.  The Apatani villages have government primary and secondary schools, but anyone who wants a college education has to venture either to Itanagar or into Assam.  Girls found that the decorations that had once been their protection were now the cause of severe discrimination, making it nearly impossible to live outside the village.   They banded together and agitated for a stop to the practice.  Now the only facial tattoos you’ll see in the village are on women 40 and up.

This lady’s teenage grandson had on basketball shoes and Adidas shorts.  His hair was dyed blond at the tips and gelled up all spiky.  He had an mp3 player and headphones around his neck.  If you saw him on the streets of Beijing or LA you wouldn’t bat an eye.

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Apatani Auntie with our guide Chada…who spoke perfect English and walked around the villages with us for about six hours.

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The Apatanis still live mostly in houses made of bamboo.

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Most households have their own small bamboo farm.  Notice anything special about this bamboo?  It doesn’t grow in clumps and clusters like the stuff in East Asia.  Extra easy to harvest.

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Apatani house interior.  Note the Meetuhn horns and skulls at top-left.

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Shrine built in a front yard.  The four little eyeball-looking things indicate that four (!) Meetuhns were sacrificed for whatever ceremony was just held – either wishing for luck for some wedding or kid going to college, or maybe trying to dispel some serious bad fortune.

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Every house has some sort of shrine like this in front.  Don’t exactly know what it’s for.  Chada also told us that when a couple plans to marry, they consult a shaman.  The shaman will sacrifice a chicken and look at the liver for signs of whether the couple is fated to be together.  I asked Chada if he knew how to read a chicken liver.  He responded “it’s just red, man.”

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Tajo “Christoper” Meichi, head of the Apatani Cultural Preservation society.  Also speaks perfect English.  At the time we met him, he was in the middle of a monthlong project with a Canadian amateur photographer who had come to live in the village, document various aspects of daily life, capture various shamanistic ceremonies, and put out a book to raise money for the community.


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New concrete Apatani houses.  Bigger, warmer, flood-proof, fewer mosquitoes, don’t start rotting after five years.  Who can blame them for wanting to upgrade?

On the other hand, who can help feeling that one small sliver of humanity’s evolved diversity is about to be swept away?












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2 Responses to These Are (not?) Indians: Central Arunachal Pradesh

  1. julio kim says:

    Now that I look at those watery eyes of those cows, I regret playing Diablo in my school years. There were some bovinelike monsters who were just living peacefully and quietly around their shrines and wooden homes (although they had hammers and swords), but so-called heroes just visit their village and shoot arrows into their flesh and cut their legs with fearful blades with the only intention to pick up better items. They give us everything indeed…

    • Michael Roy says:

      All well and true but, you know, you shouldn’t be too hard on Diablo. In fact, I credit it with teaching proper management of inventory space, which is a crucial skill for cycle tourists.