Enshrouded by the lower ranges of the eastern Himalayas, in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, lies the fecund Ziro valley: a place topographically isolated from the region’s more populous areas, all blue hills and paddy elds and mountains so huge they might swallow the sky. Below, in compact, densely populated villages, live roughly 30,000 Apatanis who have been here since at least the 15th century. In recent decades, their population has swollen immensely; in 1940, ethnographers estimated it was around 8,000. Apatani houses— crammed in rows between plane elds and precipitous hills on the valley’s edge—are raised just over a metre from the ground via sturdy posts (once hardwood, now concrete). TV antennae poke out of the rooves (once thatch, now aluminium). Floors and porches are built from bamboo, which is attened for the walls. Nearby, demarcated by small fences, are gardens bearing fruit trees, maize, ginger, chillies and local spinaches. At night, after toiling the plateau, rice beer is served in mugs.
According to Stuart Blackburn, a folklorist and one of few academics granted access to the valley for long-term research periods, European scholarship has had little to do with Arunachal Pradesh since the 19th century, when the colonial government drew a line divorcing the ‘tribal’ hill area from British-invaded territory in Assam. “Outsiders,” he writes, “European and Indian, were prohibited from crossing the line without of cial permission, and from owning land or any business in tribal territory … Even colonialism’s paper empire made little headway in this north-eastern picket of the Raj.” Bar the intermittent military expedition or curious botanist, no one—well, no uninvited parties—explored the region’s hill-riddled, remote interior. It belonged to its people.
Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf was an exception. Long before Blackburn’s expeditions in the early 2000s, the Austrian ethnologist fell in love (or something like it) with the Apatani: entranced by their ritual practices, their unwritten Tibeto-Burman language, by the wet rice cultivation system, which functions without the use of farm animals or machinery. In extended visits at the tail end of World War II—made without the recommended abetment of an armed guide, but with his wife—Fürer-Haimendorf recorded 16mm lms and took some 1600 photographs of Apatanis, Nyishis and Hill Miris. When shooting the camera-shy, he’d use the 13.5 long distance lens on his Zeiss Ikon AG, edging closer via the machine, his body, presumably, remaining very still.
His observations of daily life still prove invaluable, even when marred by racialist under- tones. In an excerpt from ADVENTURE APA TANI, a commentator speaks matter-of-factly over Fürer-Haimendorf’s grayscale footage, in which throngs gather beneath a trapeze-like spectacle: “Like most primitive people, the Apatani people can’t give a reason for the central rituals of their community—it may be a form of sympathetic magic. As the crops are expected to shoot up … so the young men swing high into the sky … No one else really knows the link between rope swinging and prayers for good crops.”
Some of what Fürer-Haimendorf witnessed is no longer there. The world trudged on, like always. Plants sprouted and died. Materials used on houses and fences eroded. Civil authority loomed, and with it the forced porterage of Apatani men; a handy colonial enslavement model trotted out in stolen lands like clockwork. With time, certain articles of clothing and decoration would lose favour: oversized hoop earrings cut from brass sheets, bre raincoats, bamboo penis covers. In the 70s, following demands from the Apatani Youth Association, the Indian government outlawed one form of local body modi cation completely: enormous plugs that reshaped a woman’s nose, stretching it markedly outward. The practice began to die with women themselves, and is now found only among the elderly. Fürer-Haimendorf’s rare, inquisitive images—recently archived in the digital library of the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies—are the earliest showing female Apatanis wearing noses full of wood, and, arguably, the most beautiful.
The story goes like this: Apatani women, admired across the region for their pulchritude, were often abducted during raids by neighbouring Nishi men. To counter the frequent kidnappings, females began tattooing each other (sometimes intervening on children as young as ve or six), drawing a wide blue line that stretched from the forehead to the tip of the nose, with ve vertical stripes and a horizontal line under the bottom lip. The inking bit was painful. Flesh was cut into with thorns, soot was mixed with animal fat and massaged into the wounds. Above, on the nose, small incisions were made in the upper nostrils. Wooden pins were inserted rst, and when the skin loosened they were replaced with large blackened bamboo plugs. These remade the whole face, renegotiating its central constituent. The women, made undesirable by conventional standards, grew proud of their facial manipulation. In an odd way, through an act both coerced and communal, the remaining plugged Apatani (now elderly) insist that they are liberated.
Photography Christoph Von Fürer-Haimendorf, copyright Nicholas Haimendorf. Thank you to SOAS Library, University of London.