Discovering Ziro Valley and the Apatani Tribe of Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh
Deep in the rugged mountains of Northeast India, lies the lush and fertile Ziro Valley, land of the Apatani tribe (one of the many friendly tribes of Arunachal Pradesh), a region of pine forests, rice fields, bamboo houses, traditional villages and scenic landscapes.
The very peaceful Ziro Valley, in the remote and picturesque state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, is known for its beauty and serenity, and remains as yet untouched by mass tourism, making it one of the destinations we wanted to include on our Arunachal Pradesh itinerary!
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Where is Ziro Valley and why should you visit?
As with all other places in Arunachal Pradesh, travel infrastructure is rather challenging, and getting to Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh tends to be uncomfortable (though not in any way as uncomfortable as getting to Tawang or to Aalo). Ziro Valley is not a destination for luxury travelers, but is rather, a nature-lover’s paradise, and a destination of great interest to those wanting to learn more about the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.
Ziro Valley is located about 115 km away from Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. The region is packed with hills, pine forests and rice paddies, and has a relatively mild climate (though it could get pretty cold at night!).
It is important to understand that the Ziro Valley is home to the two towns of Hapoli (new Ziro) and Old Ziro, and a scattering of traditional villages. Although it is perfectly possible to walk around and to visit each of the villages on foot, given their proximity, having a bike or car is recommended if you are on a tight schedule and would rather visit them all in a single day.
Hapoli is the ‘commercial’ center of Ziro, Arunchal Pradesh and the place at which you will be dropped off if you’re coming in via shared transportation.
Ziro Valley is not as popular a destination as Tawang (take ‘popular’ with a pinch of salt here, the Northeast remains immensely unexplored), and the area is incredibly peaceful, dreamy and lush, dotted with villages containing the characteristic bamboo houses of the Apatani tribe. There are some resorts and hotels in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, but we believe that homestays are a better source of accommodation. More on that later.
Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, should definitely make it to your Northeast India travel itinerary if you want to experience harmony and scenic beauty in a quiet and serene environment, where time seems to stand still, but you should know that Arunachal Pradesh is not an easy region in which to travel independently.
Do remember that foreigners need a protected Area Permit (PAP) whilst Indian nationals need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to travel in Arunachal Pradesh. If you don’t have much time to spare, we advise you use the services of a travel agency such as Holiday Scout for a fulfilling travel experience in the region. Even if you choose to travel independently as we did, Holiday Scout can provide services such as helping you obtain the PAP, figure out an itinerary and recommend and book accommodation for you.
The Apatani Tribe – one of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh
The people of the Apatani tribe, the major ethnic group of the Ziro Valley, and one of the 26 major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, are known for their colourful festivals and crafts, but what sets them apart is the way they practice wetland cultivation of both rice and fish in the valley.
The Apatani tribe are well known in the region for the particular tattoos and nose plugs adoring many of the older women’s faces. It seems that nobody is actually sure of how the peculiar tattoos came to be, although Lonely Planet states that this is because the Apatani tribe women are so beautiful, that they were constantly being kidnapped by another of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, so their faces were tattooed (and hence disfigured) to prevent this happening.
Our guide, himself a young Apatani local, is very skeptical of this theory though (as are all other locals we spoke to), and was keen to explain that there are two other theories surrounding the origin of the tattoos.
One theory narrates the story of a rich woman who could not find a husband (these were the guide’s exact words), but was told by a spirit in a dream that if she had to tattoo her face, she would get married without much delay. The legend goes that once she obliged, she did indeed manage to ‘find a husband’ within a matter of days, after which, all women followed suit and started to tattoo their faces in the hope of getting married quickly. Now that seems more promising than swiping right doesn’t it?!
The third theory is that during wartime, many young men perished during battle, whereupon their spirits came back to haunt their wives. The spirits made too much noise around the house and would not let the living be, so much so, that the widows tattooed their faces so that the dead husbands’ spirits would not be able to recognize them! Our guide believes that this is the most plausible of the three theories.
Do note that the women may ask for compensation for having their tattooed faces photographed. Apparently, they believe that visitors are becoming rich at the expense of their photos and want a share in the spoils! Although we did not mind giving them a tip, the women we took photos of were very happy to be photographed for free!
We thought that the people of the Apatani tribe are particularly peaceful and friendly, and complement their surroundings perfectly.
Getting to Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh
The gateway to Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh is Itanagar, a dusty and rather busy town which also serves as the state capital of Arunachal Pradesh. It is very likely that you will need to make an overnight stop in Itanagar on your way to Ziro Valley. You can book a hotel in Itanagar here.
We stayed at the Hotel Blue Pine which was immensely convenient due to its location, right at the back of the sumo parking lot. Since we arrived in Itanagar at around 6pm, following a journey by sumo from Bomdila, we really appreciated the short five minutes’ walk to the hotel. If you intend leaving to Ziro Valley the following morning, be sure to book your ticket beforehand! There’s no need to spend more than one night in Itanagar.
The sumo from Bomdila to Itanagar cost Rs 900 (about €11) and left from Bomdila early morning (between 6.30am and 7am). The journey lasted around 12 hours. The sumo from Itanagar to Ziro Valley cost Rs 400 (about €5) and left Ziro at 5.30am with a journey time of around 5 hours.
Best time to visit Ziro Valley
Ziro Valley sees a big influx of tourists during the Ziro Music Festival held over four days every year (usually in September), although we heard rumors that the festival might be called off due to the damage being caused to the local soccer field during the event. This would be the best time to visit Ziro Valley, if you would like to experience the festival!
If you’re not interested in attending the Ziro Music festival, October and November are better months to visit Ziro Valley, since it starts to get pretty cold in December. During our visit in early November, we needed to wear thick clothes at night, though we wore t-shirts during the day!
Places to visit in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh and other things to do in Ziro Valley
We will start by saying that although you technically do not need a guide to explore the Ziro Valley, you won’t get to experience very much without one. Despite the fact that we have rarely used guides on our travels, and normally visit places armed only with smiles, sign language and a multitude of information collected via online research, we are rapidly discovering that this doesn’t really work in Northeast India.
Online information is scanty and incorrect, and the best experiences are had by grasping some aspects of the local tribal culture, observing rituals and understanding the importance of seemingly insignificant structures located in different parts of the region.
If you are only interested in beautiful scenery, then you might as well try explore the area solo. However, if you would like to try digging into the pool of the cultural wealth to better understand the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, you are going to need a local guide to help you figure out what’s going on. Even so, you will only just scratch the surface.
Our guide Tago, himself a member of the Apatani tribe, did his best to answer all our (many) questions so that we could gain a deeper understanding of his people’s culture and traditions. He showed us around all the traditional villages and pointed out every particularity he could think of. Bear in mind that what might seem quirky to tourists, is the norm in this part of the world!
Typically, a guide’s fee is of around Rs 1500 (about €18.50) for the day, whilst hiring a car will set you back Rs 2000 – Rs 3000 (€24.50 – €37) for the day. The daily cost of hiring a scooty is Rs 700 (about €8.50).
The traditional villages of Ziro Valley
There’s no doubt that the Apatani tribal villages of Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh are some of the most fascinating in the entire region. Although many of the Apatanis have converted to Christianity, some families still practice animism or Donyi-Polo (which translates to Sun-Moon), with their houses proudly bearing the Donyi-Polo flag.
Tago took us on a tour of the tribal villages in the Ziro Valley, starting from the village we were staying at – Hari Village. There we learnt all about the importance of the Nago (a shed with a monkey skull inside) and the Babo (a wooden pole used during festivals), as well as the traditional performing platform called a Lapang. The Lapang in Hong village is of particular importance since it is the only one constructed only out of wood, without the use of cement, and is being preserved by UNESCO.
We were shown altars, found near many of the tribal homes, at which animal sacrifices take place. Some of the altars showed fresh blood indicating a recent sacrifice. Eggs play an important part in the sacrificial rituals and egg shells and feathers decorated many of the altars. Tago also explained that a stick with a feather placed in front of the doorway of a house signifies that a ritual is taking place inside the home, and that the family should not be disturbed.
The Apatani tribe have no recorded history and rely on narratives and stories handed down from one generation to the next. For this reason, they are aware of the existence of past enemies and tribal wars, but are not entirely sure of who, when and where.
We must have visited seven villages in all, including the one we were staying at – Hari, Bula, Dutta, Hija, Bami michi, Mudan tage and Hong (the largest of all seven). We walked through gorgeous rice fields (the walk from Dutta to Hija in particular was spectacular), experienced some fantastic hospitality and observed all sorts of animist practices (including a ritual performed by a shaman).
Our tour around the seven tribal villages was easily one of the most interesting and insightful we had in during our Arunachal Pradesh travel experiences, with the tribal villages being some of the best places to visit in Ziro!
The local market in Hapoli
You don’t need a guide to visit the Apatani Market in Hapoli, just be sure that you’re up for the visual ‘adventure’. Dead rats and wasp larvae feature among the items for sale, besides a wide range of fruit and vegetables, meat and fish! Easily one of the most colourful places to visit in Ziro, but consider yourself forewarned!
The egg garden
This has got to be one of the most unique places to visit in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh! You might be wondering what an egg garden could possibly be? The egg garden, located a few hundred meters east of Hong village, consists of an area with a series of altars made of bamboo egg shells and feathers.
This is where the locals from Hong village come to perform animist rituals and sacrifices, usually for favourable outcomes in dire situations. Chickens are often sacrificed, and fresh blood was evident around some of the altars. To find the egg garden, walk east, up the path leading from Hong village through a path with bamboo plantations on both sides. The egg garden will be to your right.
Visit the local animist cemeteries
Tago showed us the animist cemeteries located behind the different villages. Complex burial structures had been erected for the shamans, whilst simpler ones signified the burial of more common persons. He explained that animals (such as cows and mithun) are sacrificed during animist burials, and that the animal horns are placed at the burial site. The practice can be rather expensive for the simple villagers, a concept that reminded us of the funeral practices in Tana Toraja and Sumba, Indonesia.
The regional high altitude fish seed farm (Tarin fish farm)
We were intrigued by the idea of a fish farm in Ziro Valley. Somehow the area, dotted with pine groves and bamboo plantations, didn’t appear to be synonymous with fishing. However, the Apatanis have developed a unique cultivation system where fish are reared in rice fields, thus reaping the benefits of obtaining the two products from the same land! The fish bred here are sold to the farmers in the valley.
We walked all the way from Hari village, across Hapoli town, right up to the Tarin fish farm. The last part of the road was more of a path which we were very unsure about. We kept thinking of turning back, but eventually made it to the entrance of the farm. Although the gate was open, there was absolutely nobody around, and we wondered whether the farm has been recently abandoned! Worth a look though when you’re in Ziro!
Watch an Apatani tribe ritual with a shaman
This was easily the most fascinating experience we had in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. Safe to say that there was no way we could have attended the ritual without the help of a guide.
During our visit to one of the villages, Tago realized that a ritual was taking place, and enquired whether we could sit in (even though he had told us earlier on that the family should not be disturbed during a ritual). The family agreed, and we were shown inside a dark bamboo house where some elderly people were sitting around a burning fire. They grinned at us, as one of them pointed to a couple of chairs whilst his wife appeared with some hot tea and biscuits.
We soon realized that one of the persons sitting around the fire was the local shaman who appeared to be chanting and staring into space until, at one point, he stopped to break and examine two hard boiled eggs which apparently had been cooking over the fire. As he cracked them open, the family excitedly crowded around him and we all moved outside so that we could look at them better.
Tago explained that the shaman would examine whether the eggs broke ‘well’ and that he would reach a verdict about whether the ritual was working. Much to our relief, we were told that the outcome was looking good… we would have hated to think that our presence had somehow contributed to an unfavorable outcome!
More chanting by the shaman ensued, but this time there was less tension around the room. We thought that the shaman was chanting in the Apatani language, however Tago explained that this was the secret language which shamans used to communicate with the spirits which no one else in the room could understand. The aura was slightly spooky but friendly at the same time and we could have easily spent all morning observing the full ritual, though sadly it was time to make our exit.
The local banana tree deity in Hija village (Dora Kulu)
Legend has it that a guy called Dora Marpu once noticed a wild banana tree growing from the roof of his hut and threw it into the pig sty below his stilt house. The banana plant (which does not grow anywhere else in Ziro) spread to the surrounding area, and the village children developed a skin fungus at the same time which apparently caused some loss of life. The villagers attributed this phenomenon to the power of the banana tree which was eventually worshipped as a deity.
Our guide Tago took us to this view point just past the town of Old Ziro. You can get a good view of Ziro Valley from up here and even watch army aircraft take off and land from the air strip located close by. One of the places to visit in Ziro if you like panoramic views!
Rantu Pussa of Hari Rantu (the Sacred Grove)
The six, tall sacred trees in this grove are thought to protect the village of Hari. The trees are very ancient, and are believed to have been originally planted by the women of the tribe who first settled in the area, a number of centuries ago.
The District Museum in Hapoli
The museum showcases artifacts from different tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. We found the whole setup to be rather interesting, once we looked past the dusty cases and unkept interior.
The museum includes several maps showing traits of the different districts of Arunachal which are actually informative, making it one of the more interesting places to visit in Ziro if you like learning about the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Pop in for a few minutes but you’ll probably want to stay a while longer, although you should know that the museum is in dire need of some care!
Note that when looking for things to do in Ziro Valley, we read some articles that mentioned a visit to Meghna Cave Temple. This temple is not located in ‘Ziro town’ as reported, but is closer to Daporijo, another town located about 6 to 8 hours sumo ride away from Ziro.
Other Places to visit in Ziro Valley
There are few ridges and hillocks around Ziro valley from where you can get good views of the surrounding area. Talley Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is located about 30 kilometers away from Ziro and is home to some endangered species including the clouded leopard.
There are some great hikes to be had in Ziro Valley. Indeed, some of the moments we enjoyed most were random sights we encounterd during our walks across the rice fields and villages. You might just come across a Donyi-Polo temple, locals fishing for frogs , animist altars and burial sites.
Sunset in a great time of day for a walk, at which time the rice fields are bathed in a golden aura and villages are surrounded in hazy smoke as the locals start lighting fires in preparation for the cold night.
Hotels in Ziro and other types of accommodation
Although there are some resorts and hotels in Ziro, we really suggest homestays over any other type of accommodation. We stayed at Dogindo Homestay, arranged by Holiday Scout and we can’t recommend it enough. The homestay is located in the heart of Hari Village, one of the traditional Apatani tribe villages in Ziro.
Our massive room in the equally massive house, was more akin to a luxury suite, a rarity in Northeast India. We ate our breakfasts and dinners in the common area besides the traditional fireplace where the family gathered every evening to warm up and exchange the day’s stories.
The owner, Mr. Hage Dolo, is an aspiring man who will answer all your questions regarding the Ziro Valley and the Apatani tribe, their customs and traditions. We were treated to whiskey and barbequed frog after dinner as he explained all about the hunting practices of the Apatani tribe, and also showed us his collection of trophies from previous hunts.
The room was one of the best we stayed in during our time in Arunachal Pradesh, and the food cooked by the lovely Mrs. Dolo was delicious, but we felt that the most important aspect of staying in this type of accommodation, was the knowledge imparted and stories told to us during the mealtimes, thus helping us gain a better insight and perspective into the lives and traditions of one of the most unique tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.
Holiday Scout can help you book your stay at Dogindo Homestay. The cost of staying here is typically Rs 1200 (about € 14.75) per person, including breakfast and dinner.
Where to eat in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh
A homestay will typically provide breakfast and dinner, as well as lunch if informed in advance. There is no better or more authentic food than that prepared in a local Apatani home, and if you have the opportunity to sample home-cooked delicacies, do not pass it up (but be sure to inform your host if you are vegetarian, since members of the Apatani tribe and typically meat eaters)!
The owner of Dogindo Homestay prepared the local delicacy of chicken smoked in bamboo for one of our dinners. We were aware that this was one of the more typical Apatani dishes, so we were delighted to try it out (it was delicious)! Pork, fish, rice and vegetables are staples in the Ziro Valley. Dishes are cooked simply (boiled or steamed) and usually consist of dry curries, with little gravy or sauce.
Some local eateries in Hapoli town serve items such as soups, momos and a range of Indian foods, but nothing beats home-cooked Apatani dishes! Don’t forget to try Apong, a refreshing home-brewed rice beer, consumed widely in the Ziro Valley.
We would like to thank Holiday Scout for sponsoring our stay and providing us with a guide in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. Opinions expressed in this post are, as always, our own.