Apatani people

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Apatani diorama.JPG
Diorama of Apatani people in Jawaharlal Nehru Museum, Itanagar.
Total population
(20,000 (2001))
Regions with significant populations
Arunachal Pradesh, India:
Apatani (Tanii), English , Hindi
Donyi-Polo, Christianity , Animism
Related ethnic groups
Nyishi, Hill Miri , Adi

The Apatani, or Tanw, also known by Apa and Apa Tani, are a tribal group of people living in the Ziro valley in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh in India. However more Apatanis live outside this valley, making the total population approximately 60,000 all over the state. Although their total population is 60,000, there are only about 14,000~20,000 people who speak their native language in its original form. Their language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family as well as the Tibeto-Burman and North Assam groups. (see Tani languages).


There are no known written records of the history of the Apatani tribes, but throughout their history the Apatani have had a democratic system of running the society. The village council is known as the Bulyang.

One of their oral accounts speaks of their migration from the extreme north of Subansiri and Siang areas following the rivers of Kurung and Kumey. These oral accounts are usually presented in the form of folk tales such as the miji and miguñ.[1] These accounts on many occasions are supported by landmarks which still exist on the migratory paths of the Apatanis. At the small village of Yangte in Kurung Kumey district, for example, is a stone beside which the Apatanis held a high-jump competition on their way to the present habitat. Therefore, these oral accounts have substance but need corroboration by anthropological and scientific evidence.

The miji is a collection of religious chants performed by priests who preside over the sacrifices of mithuns, cows, chickens and pigs during various rituals. A religious song, which may be sung from ten minutes to twelve hours, accompanies all these ritual performances which describes the previous interactions with the spirits or gods, locally known as Úì, the content of which explains the origin of the myths among others. The miguñ is more realistic; it is narrated in prose, and the stories within it explain the origins of the Apatani people.

These folk tales include legendary places as well as recent events, such as the downfall of a 19th-century ne'er-do-well. In these two folk tales, both the ritual chants and the prose narrations speak of Abotani, who is reputed to be the original ancestor of the Apatani and the other tribes in central Arunachal Pradesh. These tribes encompass the Tani group, comprising the Apatanis, Nyishis, Sulungs or Puroiks, Hill Miris, Tagins, Adis and Mishmis.

The first contact with the Europeans occurred in 1897, when British officials came to stay in the valley for two days; six similar brief visits were later held between the 1920s and 1930s. In 1944, after a temporary government outpost was set up by an anthropologist-administrator, the Apatani came in contact with minimal government presence for the first time. When a second, permanent outpost was constructed by the Assam Rifles in 1948, stationed there to protect the land, the Apatanis attacked. The officer in charge retaliated by burning two of their villages.


The Apatani or "Tanw" language is spoken by nearly 60,000 people in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. It is a very tonal language and meaning of the same word changes as per the tone. It contrasts vowel and consonant length. Verbs can be expressed with the addition of vowels to the ends of words, and most words have a root and a prefix. This language is a classical language which means that it is usually used in rituals or in miji, which is a type of Apatani literature. Fluent language speakers are only about 20% of the total Apatani population, which makes this language a vulnerable language.


The heads of sacrificed animals hanging over the grave (byu) of an Apatani man in Ziro. Sacrifice of the animals and special rites are performed on death of near ones.

Most Apatanis are nature worshipper. They believe every object in universe possess divine power and represent benevolent or malevolent gods or deity. Among all Sun (Ayo Danyi) is consider supreme almighty above all malevolent and benevolent. Likewise, god "SW-MYORO" the safekeeper of household, surrounding, paddy field- Garden(Aji-Lyapyo), "JILO-LYAYU" the couple gods of KNOWLEDGE and WISDOM, "LYAPIÑ-CHAÑTUÑ" the gods who protect and safeguard love and marital relationship of husband and wife. 'GWNW-PILYA" the gods to protect Apatani people from any kind of untoward accidents. KIRW-KILO, MYORW-SW, HARNYAÑ PUBYAÑ, DOPUÑ MYOLEY, GYO- KHARUÑ, etc. [MOST OF RESEARCHERS ESPECIALLY OF NON-APATANI ORIGIN HAD MIS-INTERPRETED THE APATANI COMMUNITY AS SUN AND MOON WORSHIPPERS. WHEREAS "MOON DOES NOT REPRESENT ANY DIVINE FIGURE IN APATANI RELIGIOUS BELIEF]. 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 Festival, celebrated on 5 July every year, is the main agricultural festival of the Apatanis.


Apatani tribal women

The dress of the Apatanis is elaborate and colorful, yet simple in style. Jilañ, the traditional dress of the priests has recently been made into a five rupee Indian postal stamp. Tattooing (Twpe) and the stuffing of large nose plugs (Y'apiñ hullo) were once popular among the women, although this practice has gradually fallen into decline in recent years. The practice of tattooing among Apatanis is as old as their existence. Apatani male decorate their face with a tattoo on the middle o of their chin in the shape of an English letter “T”. Also they perforate their ear lobes and big pieces of hollowed bamboo called Yaru Hukho (Ear Plug) are worn to attach ear rings. Apatani female tattoos themselves from their forehead to tip of the nose. They also tattoo their chin with five vertical lines and at the top near lower lip a horizontal bar joins all the five lines of vertical tattoo of the chin. The facial decoration of the woman would not be complete without two big nose plug on either side of the nose known as Yapiñ Hullo. These Yapiñ Hullo are made of pieces of whole Cane, which are available in the jungle. For these Yapiñ Hullo a piece of dry Cane is cut.Both the ends of the Cane are smoothened by burning the ends and rubbing it against hard and smooth surface so that they are smooth and even. These processes also ensure the sterility of the material so that it does not cause any injury to the nose and became septic later.Facial decorations of Apatani females is complete with perforation of her ears and later on putting hollow bamboo pieces called Yaru Huxo, which is used for putting on ear rings. Above the ear holes, two to three perforations are made on each Ear a smaller size of Yaru Hukho are used. These smaller perforations are known as Rutting and used for wearing Rutting Yarangs. Rutting Yarang is made of flat Brass rings. The diameter of Ruttiñ Yarañ is about three to four inches. Usually they wear two to three Ruttiñ Yarañ on each ears. Dark and prominent tattoo, big Yapiñ Hullo and Yaru Huxo with ear rings and large Ruttiñ Yarañ were done for enhancing the beauty of an Apatani Lady. Likewise big, deep and prominent tattoo on the chin with a good Pwdiñ( Knot of hair on forehead) went to enhance the handsomeness of an Apatani youth. Therefore, there was competition amongst young girls of Apatani to have a prominent Twpe, big Yapiñ Hullo, big Yaru Huxo with ear ring and Ruttiñ Yarañ. Youth competed among themselves for prominent Twpe, big Yaru huxo with ear rings and good Pwdiñ.Tattooing is done by perforating the skin with the help of a tightly tied bunch of torn known as, "Lobyo' Twre" in Apatani. When Blood oozes out of the perforated skin, a solution made by mixing black soot from pots with water of boiled rice is applied (Cinyu and Pila Ala). Perforation goes on for some time and solution is applied. After sometime the solution dries. In the evening warm oil from pig tallow (Hufi) is applied slowly on the tattoo. This application of pig tallow goes on for few days. When perforation heals, it turn into tattoo. This tattooing is done by the ladies only. These facial decoration by tattooing looked fantastic when confined to the Apatanis themselves.However, along with the opening up of road communications and setting up of modern administrations in the land of Apatani –Ziro- no longer it remained isolated like earlier times. Moreover, market economy, which came with setting up of administration, forced people to move out of their traditional dwelling place. This changes made the Apatanis realise that their styles of facial decoration are unique and incongruous with the majority of other people of Arunachal. This realisation was made cuter due to the fact that the population of Apatani was very small and confined only to a small area.

Traditionally, the men tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead (locally called Pwdiñ) using a brass rod (DIÑKO) measuring 12 inches, placed horizontally. Strips of fine cane belt painted in red (AHU) 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 (twpe) 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 (dilliñ) on the top of the head. A brass skewer (adiñ axw) may then be inserted horizontally.

Customs and lifestyle[edit]

An Apatani woman with a basket going to field

Apatanis trace their descent patrilineally. While the status of men is considered higher than that of women, the sexes share responsibilities in the house and the family.

Apatani women carry out the household chores of gathering both wild and kitchen garden vegetables, cooking, fetching water, pounding rice, cleaning houses, washing clothes and utensils, nursing, looking after infants and children, ginning (clothes) and spinning of cotton, and other jobs associated with the household. In the field, the Apatani woman carries out the tasks that include gardening, seeding, transplanting of paddy and millet, weeding of fields, and other activities. At home, the internal family income is controlled by a woman. But the man also has his part of duty in looking after cultivation activities, and acts as the head of family in society.

Their wet rice cultivation system and their agriculture system are extensive even without the use of any farm animals or machines. So is their sustainable social forestry system. UNESCO has proposed the Apatani valley for inclusion as a World Heritage Site for its "extremely high productivity" and "unique" way of preserving the ecology.[2] In July, the agricultural festival of Dree is celebrated with prayers for a bumper harvest and prosperity of all humankind. Pakhu-Itu, Daminda, Pree dance, etc., are the main cultural programmes performed in the festival.[3]


Bulyang is the traditional council of the Apatanis. There are three categories of Bulyang: Akha Bulyang, Yaapa Bulyang, and Ajañ Bulyang. The institution still exists, but its functions have been diluted by other similar institutions like Gaon Buras and Panchayati Raj. Bulyang played a vital role in maintaining neutrality in war and pacified the situation between two hostile camps by wearing Aji Yatw instead of shield or armour in the battle ground.


The agricultural system of Apatanis is unique of its own, where resources are used judiciously to gain maximum production. For example, every inch of arable land available in the valley is used for cultivation, even the agricultural plot bunds are use for millet cultivation, and limited water resources are use for irrigating all the agricultural plot. The Apatanis are known for the meticulous care they take of their agricultural fields. For example, after the transplantation of paddy seedlings they repeat three cycles of weeding to ensure a weed-free field and healthy crop.

The Apatanis have had 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. A relatively modern development of paddy-cum-fish culture was introduced in the 1960s with great success. This practice is unique in Arunachal Pradesh and is known to enhances ecological sustainability.

The Apatanis, who inhabit Ziro valley, practice wet rice cultivation. The tribes in the surrounding areas - the Nyishis, Hills Miris and Tagins, practice terrace and shifting cultivation.

Unique Identity[edit]

Although sharing a common base Tani language and the Tani religion of Donyi Polo, the 'Apatani have been known to be distinct in their customs and practices compared to their neighboring Tani tribes. Some of the uniquely identifying features of the Apatani are:

Closely located permanent settlements[edit]

The Apatanis live in very closely constructed houses in the villages. Apart from the advantages of living close by, this arrangement has a great disadvantage during fire accidents.

Permanent wet rice cultivation[edit]

The Apatanis are one of the few tribes in Arunachal Pradesh who practice ownership of land and cultivate on them, year after year. Most notable is their wet rice cultivation. While their neighboring tribes practice shifting cultivation, the Apatanis practice wet rice cultivation with an intricate irrigation and channel system in the field as well as across the network of fields.

Housing structure[edit]

A traditional Apatani house is identified by its use of tall vertical wooden stilts, tight weave of the walls and the floors, and bamboo roofing. Different parts of the house use bamboos of different sizes and preparations.

Land ownership[edit]

Hari, Bulla, Tajang, Diibo, Hong and Hija are the main villages of Apatani people. An Apatani may have one or more of these land types.

  • Balu (Kitchen garden)
  • Aji (Wet rice field)
  • Yorlu (Kitchen garden located away from the village)
  • Bije (Bamboo garden usually located near the village)
  • Saadi/Sañsuñ (Plot of woodland located away from the village mainly for growing pine trees)
  • More (A large plot of woodland located farther away than a saadi)

Plot demarcation[edit]

The Apatanis employ unique fencing techniques for land demarcation involving fences made of elaborate structures and living shrubs. Their plot demarcation system is remarkably different from the other tribes in terms of height and density - the Apatanis have very tall and tight fences while their neighboring tribes have short and sparse fences.

Facial tattoo and modification[edit]

The Apatanis used to practice facial tattooing and modification until the 1970s. The females used to have two sets of tattoos: one running from the forehead to the tip of the nose, and another set on the chin. The males used to have a less elaborate tattoo on the chin in the shape of a "T". The females were the only one practicing facial modification with the use of nose plugs, called yapiñ hullo in the local language.

The babo and the lapañ[edit]

The babo is an elaborately structured wooden pole erected in the village as well as in every home of the Apatani. The babo is erected during the festival of Myoko. The lapañ is a village platform constructed out of huge wooden planks measuring from one to two meters in width and five to seven meters in length. The village babo is erected close to the lapañ. The babo and lapañ are reconstructed every alternative four years during the festival of Myoko. The babo and lapañ are regarded as sacred; many of the Apatani rituals are associated with them. The lapañ also serves as a traditional congregation platform and represent every clans of "APATANI". There are two category of "BABO" called AXA BABO & HIME BABO. AXA BABO represent each clan of APATANI like the "LAPAÑ" does. Whereas, "HIME BABO" are erected in individual houses representing number of male children in house. Aerial acrobatics and daredevilry on the babocalled "BABO BOHA" were very common till now.

Tapyo, the indigenous salt[edit]

Prepared from the ashes of certain plants in Ziro, tapyo is an indigenous salt developed by the Apatanis. Tapyo is used in the preparation of many traditional dishes, and also used as an alternative salt. The Apatanis have been using tapyo long before they were introduced to the sea salt or the iodized salt. The chemical composition of the tapyo is not known but many believe it to be the reason why the Apatanis were free from goitre.


The Apatanis use sañkhañ, a kind of rubber derivative to create water-tight storage vessels called "YAKHAÑ".

Shape of carriage baskets[edit]

The Apatani carriage baskets are cuboid, whereas other tribes' are conical. These days the cuboid structure is widely adapted by Nyishis around Ziro.

The Apatani today[edit]

Much of the information regarding the Apatani tribe currently available in books or on the Internet is known to be fairly outdated. It is generally based on observations made by Professor Christopher von Furer-Haimendorf in the 1940s. The Apatani have shown an impressive rate of progress since their first contact with the modern world however, and are sometimes dubbed "Japatani" by their neighboring tribes, presumably as an allusion to the fast-paced technological evolution of Japan.

The Apatani have incorporated many ways of the modern world, but the traditional culture and customs still retain their significance. Many of them are high-level government employees, Corporate managers, Entrepreneurs, doctors and engineers. Not just settled at Ziro but all over India and working far away from their native land Ziro. Even so, they make it a point to return to their villages during important festivals, notable among which are Myoko in March and Murung in January every year. Dree Festival, another important festival of the Apatanis are celebrated in all the major towns in Arunachal Pradesh and in some cities outside the state. As in any other developing countries, teenagers have been influenced by Western culture, but the traditional lifestyles are still maintained.

The culture and traditions of the Apatanis are being recognized by the world community now. Apatani Cultural Landscape is included in the Tentative List of UNESCO's World Heritage Site. <http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5893/>

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M. D. Muthukumaraswamy (2002). Voicing Folklore: Careers, Concerns and Issues : a Collection of Interviews. National Folklore Support Centre. pp. 150–1. ISBN 81-901481-2-5. 
  2. ^ "Unique Apatani impresses Unesco", Rajeev Bhattacharyya, The Telegraph, 17 June 2005. URL last accessed 21 October 2006.
  3. ^ NEZCC - North East Zone Cultural Centre

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

von Fürer-Haimendorf, Christopher. (1962) The Apa Tanis and Their Neighbors. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.