back to map >

Into the Unknown
Arunachal Pradesh, North East India

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh witnesses ritual sacrifice in a remote province of north east India, only recently opened to visitors.

India’s most remote and least populated province, Arunachal Pradesh, is one of the last wildernesses in the world. Few travellers have seen this spectacular Himalayan landscape of subtropical forest and lush jungle, where dozens of tribal groups carry on traditions unchanged for centuries. Largely unexplored and unmapped during the Raj, the region has been closed to outsiders since 1962, when the Chinese invaded and were repelled. Tourism is now allowed, although the border is still sensitive and visitors need special permits. I am told that I am the first foreign journalist to visit the area.

My husband Guillaume, an entomologist, had always dreamed of following in the footsteps of Stanley Kemp, a zoologist who accompanied an army exhibition to Arunachal Pradesh in 1911 and found beetles that have never been seen since. Although I’d never heard of Arunachal or Kemp, I was keen to witness traditional customs unlikely to survive once India’s tribal education policies reach remote villages.

Leaving the Brahmaputra valley, we drove north into the densely forested Himalayan foothills, zigzagging round vertiginous gorges of palms and tree-ferns, on a road newly built so that troops can move quickly in the event of another invasion. We passed gangs of itinerant road-workers, hacking stones from hillsides and heating tar above blazing fires, while their ragged children loitered outside shacks made out of oil drums and thatch. There was almost no traffic, but roadside signs proclaimed the Border Roads Organisation’s rhyming homilies: “Don’t race, drive with grace”, “Speed is a knife that cuts a life”. Whenever the road dipped to cross a mountain stream, we stopped the car and Guillaume searched for beetles in mossy waterfalls, while I walked on ahead, beneath strange flowering trees with clusters of bright yellow blooms and dangling white bracts, and between verges of wild cannabis.

As we reached the land of the Nishi, the road was often blocked by apricot-coloured mithuns, a species of humped cattle native to the eastern Himalayas, and highly prized as evidence of wealth, for buying brides and for ritual sacrifice. The Nishi live in communal longhouses, built on wigwam-like stilts, with walls of woven banana palm and shaggily thatched roofs. Pigs, chickens and goats scavenge beneath the houses. Guillaume disappeared into the undergrowth with his sieve, and I strolled through the village with Doljit, our Assamese guide. Women in bead necklaces and tartan sarongs stared at me, open-mouthed, as Doljit chatted to them in their dialect. His Mongolian features conveniently allowed him to pass for a member of some nearby tribe, and within minutes we were invited into a longhouse. Coils of rope tied to the door frame showed that this household owned many mithuns. We clambered up a notched log and ducked under a lintel into a low, dark room. The flimsy floor creaked and bounced with each step and I was afraid of falling through the widely-spaced bamboos, but gradually, through the smoky gloom, I noticed babies fearlessly toddling over the gaps.

We crouched round a smouldering hearth in the middle of the room, while a shy woman with cropped hair poured steaming liquid from a blackened kettle. Soon we were sipping hot, salty tea from small tin cups. Above us, joints of meat hung in the smoke, and firewood and rice dried on plaited trays. The palm-frond walls were bare apart from two faded photos, a jagged piece of mirror, and a bow and quiver of arrows. Sarongs and bedding dangled from a bamboo rail, beside a five-foot stack of mithun skulls. A wizened man appeared in the doorway, sporting a rattan helmet trimmed with an eagle claw, bearskin, hornbill beak and drongo feathers. He carried a conical basket of woven rattan on his back, and a fur-trimmed machete at his hip. Skinny, wrinkled legs poked from his pleated loincloth. He nodded at us with shy curiosity as he sat on his haunches and lit a bamboo pipe.

As we drove away, we saw men hacking steep slopes to make rice terraces, and women in sarongs, bent double to plant bright green seedlings in flooded beds. Several youngsters wore jeans and tee-shirts, with hair gelled and dyed auburn. Younger children scampered along the narrow dykes and stared at our car in astonishment, but none asked for pens or sweets. As part of his anthropology degree, Doljit studied the ethics of tribal tourism, and he urged us not to offer villagers presents or Polaroids.

Crossing the river boundary into the land of the Apatani, we drove through dense bamboo plantations and over glittering paddy fields where boys were fishing with rods and carrying their catch home in rounded (not conical) rattan backpacks. We stopped at a village of ramshackle dwellings, huddled together in narrow muddy lanes. Each house bristled with ‘bobos’ - twenty-foot bamboo structures with crossbar and dangling objects – each one celebrating a son. While Guillaume sifted leaf litter, Doljit and I strolled through the labyrinth of stilted shacks, past women weaving with hand-held looms. We climbed a rickety ladder to a dark, smoky room where clan members were drinking rice wine before a ritual sacrifice. The older women looked startling, with noses and ears distended by inch-wide plugs of dark bamboo, and black tattoos over their foreheads, noses and chins. A tattooed priest chanted as he whittled a sacrificial bamboo.

I perched on a tiny wooden stool, and pretended to sip the hot, ash-strewn wine, which Doljit warned would make me ill. Several old ladies were already intoxicated, and no longer shy. They plied Doljit with questions – how old was I? Was I a man or a woman? What tribe did I come from?

Later that day, we witnessed an animist sacrifice at the threshold of an Apatani house. A tall corn-dolly construction of green bamboo was already splattered with blood and broken eggshells, above the gaping corpse of a small bird. An elderly priest chanted and swayed, his wispy topknot secured on his brow by a string of beads and a porcupine quill.

Welcomed as auspicious guests, we watched as a man sliced into a squawking chicken with his machete, spraying blood over the bamboo. The chicken flapped and struggled as feathers were plucked from its chest and its liver was scooped out. The family huddled round, examining the gory organ.

Doljit whispered that this ritual was to celebrate a sick child’s recovery. The priest had declared the liver of the first chicken to be inauspicious, so a second (larger) chicken had been sacrificed.

“The priest takes the chicken home,” confided Doljit. “Maybe he wanted a bigger dinner.”

The celebration continued indoors, where the sacrificed eggs were cooked in hollow bamboo in the fire. When the blackened tubes were hacked open, I bravely tucked into the contents – tasty scrambled egg.

Each day, we drove for hours through dense forest, beneath tumbling waterfalls, past isolated hamlets of banana palm shacks, moved from remote hilltops to the side of the newly built BRO road. Heavy rain fell, causing landslips, making the potholes into deep lagoons and washing away roads with flash floods. Once we had to leap into knee-deep water and wade across a torrent, while our driver tried to steer the car over submerged rocks.

Now I noticed sacrificial structures outside every house, and also spindly bamboo burial towers, adorned with mithun or chicken skulls, with a coil of rope, a tail or feathers, and often – with a nod to now-banned Catholic missionaries – a wooden crucifix. Outside one house, a gory bamboo wigwam was hung with a shaggy tail and paws - a dog had been sacrificed.

We entered the land of the Hill Miri, where houses cling to almost vertical slopes on a jumble of criss-crossing stilts. Below the houses, in pools of red mud, chickens, dogs and goats roam with fierce, bristly pigs. To keep out rain and cold Miri men wear black hairy waistcoats, and flat rattan hats trimmed with feathers. We sheltered from the rain in huge, low houses of the Tagin tribe, drinking tea served by slender, short-haired women decked with earrings, toe-rings and anklets. Fathers rocked babies on their backs as they whittled arrows, which, poisoned with king cobra venom, would slay tiger, Himalayan bear and deer.

In a Minyong village adorned with skulls of wild boar, monkey, tiger and leopard, I joined a mithun sacrifice in an open-sided community house. By the verdant pastures of the Galong tribe, I drank tea on huge, airy verandahs festooned with trailing orchids. Meanwhile, Guillaume collected beetles new to science.

There are no hotels in the wilds of Arunachal Pradesh. At night, we slept in dilapidated government circuit houses, built by the British for touring magistrates. Usually we were the only guests - apart from geckos, crickets and cockroaches - in spartan rooms with walls splashed with betel juice, chipped plastic furniture, torn mosquito nets, rudimentary plumbing, dangling electric sockets and frequent power cuts. Rat droppings poked through holes in the ceiling. But the meals were delicious – rice and vegetables with hot chapattis, cooked and served by eager staff. One morning, our ‘bed-tea’ was presented in a teapot instead of the usual tiny cups. Out of the spout into my cup plopped an enormous cockroach.

During the whole week, we saw no other tourists. But, curiously, each ramshackle town boasted tattered billboards - perhaps erected before the border invasion, or perhaps instantly rusted by the humid air – aimed at nobody, but aptly describing this magical place: “Feel the Serenity, Breathe the Fragrance; Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh, a Paradise Yet Unexplored”.

First published by the Telegraph

back to map >