It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.
Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.
The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.
This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)
This is my humble attempt at documenting some unique musical instruments that are lesser known to the world outside North-east India. These have been listed based on my actual experiences and interactions with the Nagas during the hornbill festival-2020. If you know any such unique musical instruments, please do share in the comments section below. I would be happy to learn it from you 🙂
After visiting Majuli in Assam, we were heading towards Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. This small township is popular for its’ native Apathani tribes and the annual music festival that it hosts just before their harvest season. Since, we were going there around late October, we missed the music festival. But nevertheless, and we wished to meet the beautiful Apathani people from Ziro. Before I take you through this journey, it is required to know that Ziro is the name of an entire area. It is a valley located in the Lower Subansiri district and surrounded with mountains 360 degrees. If you are planning a trip there, this post can be helpful for you to plan your own ‘Ziro music festival itinerary’.
Our itinerary: Night 1: Reach Ziro and check-in to a home stay at Siiro Day 1: Visit Tarin fish farm, Siddheshwar Nath Temple at Kardo, Hapoli market, Putu sunset point, Stay at an Apathani tribal home Day 2: Explore Apathani villages on leisure and return.
Other places & Things of interest: • Short trek to DilopolyangManiipolyang- the twin hillocks • Dolo Mando hill • Middey- the place of the largest pine tree of the valley • KilePakho ridge • Meghna cave temple • The orchid research center • Drive to Talley Valley national park- Here you can spot the illusive clouded leopard
The Details: We were in our shorts and loafers shivering with cold at a temperature of 2 deg C. when we arrived the top of Ziro valley at 12.30.a.m. At Hapoli market, we met the caretaker of the home stay we had booked who had come down to pick us to his home located in Siiro, a further drive up. After reaching his place, I couldn’t help but jump into the cozy bed that was set up in this traditional house with bamboo interiors and wrapped myself with the warm fluffy blankets. I passed out almost immediately!
The next morning was an interesting day. We visited the fish farm at Tarin. The Ngihi variety of fish is cultured in tanks located amid the pine trees in a beautiful location that you reach after a very scenic drive. Ziro is the only place in India where this species of high altitude fishes are reared and that too as an inter-crop in paddy fields. September would be an ideal month to see these aquaculture farms that set a beautiful green backdrop for the popular Ziro music festival.
I must say that there are no roads in Ziro and one has to just randomly drive. So, we drove amid some scenic stretches and parked our car at the end of an eddy path. From there, we trekked up a small path inside the Kardo hills to reach the Sri Siddheshwar Nath Temple. Lord Shiva is believed to be residing here with his entire family in the form of a 20+ feet high self-manifested idol. We were introduced to Lord Shiva, Parvathi, Karthikeyan, Ganesh and even his little mouse in this remote location filled with just silence and the smell of burning incense. We walked a little further which we were told to be the only place in India where kiwi fruits are grown. This fact came as a rather surprise to us who are so used to seeing the New-Zealand seal on kiwi packs bought in the Indian markets. I picked up a kilo of these home-grown fruits at the price of what I would generally pay for one fruit at the supermarkets in Bengaluru.
We then, wandered around the Hapoli market which was altogether an experience in itself! Clothes, shoes, thermals, utensils, vegetables (that are mostly local), local sweets and confectionaries – everything was sold under the same roof. Bunches of bhoot-Jhalokias (the hottest chilies in the world) were sold in abundance. And then we reached this section of the market where we went berserk… Trust me! Rats, moths, honeybee larvae, silkworms, roaches were all there- up for sale. Rats were fancy. These rodents were sold in their farm fresh or dried & seasoned form. A dozen of them tied by their tails were handed over to the person next to me as if the vendor was giving him a bunch of litchis. However, I decided not to get too adventurous in trying any of these local delicacies.
From there, we drove to Putu (Hill-top) to catch the sunset. This is the top-most point in Ziro and you can see the entire town and the surrounding hills from here. The Ziro airport runway cuts right through the several Apathani tribal hamlets that lay scattered all over as seen from the top. We stayed there for some time enjoying the 360deg view and the cool breeze before heading back to Siiro.
We requested our homestay caretaker to serve us some local and traditional meal for the night. So, he enquired us if we would like to visit an Apathani tribal home over for dinner. What better than eating with an Apathani family in the land of the Apathanis! Without a second thought, we all jumped up and said “YES” in unison! We drove past several bamboo groves, pine forests and finally alighted at Hong village- A village full of the Apathani inhabitants. It was a sudden shift in the environment with almost all structures being only of bamboo. We were greeted at the village entrance by the carols and guitars at the church (That also was a traditional Apathani bamboo structure with fireplace in the center of the room). Although we couldn’t understand the lyrics, we were still lost in the magic of the native music. We waited there until the mass was over and visited the family that was waiting for our visit.
We were hosted by a warm welcome by all the members of the family where the eldest women of the family handed over bamboo mugs with the local brew of rice beer- Apong. I noticed that the construction of Apathani homes were simple. A large room with a central fireplace. Given the extreme cold temperatures of the place, almost all activities of a normal house are in this room since the fire keeps everything warm. The room has bamboo chairs in the living area, cots with beds on the other end for sleeping purposes, food will be cooked in this central fireplace and food grains & meat hung right above it for drying, a small water outlet to be used as a wash-basin that gets drained down the hut that is situated slightly above the ground. The washrooms are however located on the backside of the huts separately.
Then, we were served with a sumptuous Apathani meal. It was a complicated and an exotic spread for us as almost all the ingredients were new to us except the rice. Rice was accompanied with chicken cooked inside bamboo, Teak flower & shredded pork curry, Pika pila- a pickle made with bamboo shoot and pork fat and made to taste with Tapyo- the salt made by burning the local herbs without any water ( not from the sea!). Bliss… Since our visit to this Apathani home was exclusively for the dinner experience and as while we were still thinking that we couldn’t ask for more, the friendly family invited us over to stay with them for the night! Hearing that, our joy knew no bounds! We were excited and went back to Siiro to return to Hong with our luggage for the night!
We spent the next morning photographing the village, discussing about the Apathani traditions, feeding the domesticated pigs and relaxing in this place that was so cut-off from the rest of the world. We were served simple sweetened rice with boiled eggs for breakfast after which we got busy chatting with the local folk. So, Apathanis are known world-over for their unique tradition of wearing huge nose studs with women folk having tattoos across their faces. The culture of drawing permanent face tattoos was practiced back then to avoid men from neighboring villages from abducting the girls of Apathani tribe who were considered to be very beautiful (indeed they are!). However, the younger generations of the tribe are against this practice in modern days who often get bullied in the cities/towns for the weird designs on the faces. It is sad that the so-called cultured people in the urban areas fail to recognize the line between tradition, culture and style! Although I have photos of the folk who had been so welcoming towards us, I will not post any of them here as a mark of respect for them as they don’t like the exploitation the photos undergo in the electronic media.
That is all the time we had in this beautiful village. It was farewell to Ziro, its incredible natural beauty and the wonderful people, until next time! We drove down the valley with company of two Apathani women seated in our rear seat until half way (thanks to the poor connectivity of the place) and the serene river flowing down on our left side all the way down!
From here, we proceed on yet another eventful journey, to Haflong.
Key Notes: Must do: Stay with an Apathani family, enjoy the Ziro music festival, spot a Mithun (a cattle breed endemic to this region), and shop groceries at the Hapoli market Must see: The aquaculture in paddy fields.