New Treasures at a Festival in Arunachal Pradesh
A visit to Arunachal Pradesh is bound to throw up many wonders. While attending the annual Nyokum Yullo festival in Seppa in East Kameng district in February this year, I found a few.
Nyokum Yullo is the main festival of the Nyishi, one of the local Tani tribes. The agrarian community with martial traditions follow the animist Donyi-Polo religion where Donyi, the Sun, is the female god and creator while Polo is the male god and protector. Legend says that the tribe’s ancestral father Abo Tani was assigned an errand by his wife Ane Donyi, the Goddess of Truth. She asked him to follow a certain safe path to his destination but he ignored her advice, returning home in a dishevelled state. Heartbroken at his waywardness, Ane Donyi returned to her abode but before leaving, she promised Abo Tani and her children that she would return once a year when they invite her back. Nyokum Yullo is when they do.
Nyokum is a portmanteau of nyok (Earth) and kum (collectiveness) signifying the fact that all creation gathers for this occasion. What made the 2018 celebration truly special was that for the first time in living memory the presiding Nyibu (shaman) was a woman. Yadang Taki from the tribe’s Monal clan was chosen as the Nyokum Nyibu by a council of other shamans.
I remember walking out of my hotel on the first morning to see a procession escorting the Nyokum Nyibu to the festival grounds. At either end of town, a totem pole known as the Nyokum Dapo Dinam was erected to signify the Nyibu’s arrival and to stop evil spirits. Over the next five days, the ground was the nerve centre of the celebrations, which, while never deviating from proud local traditions, also hosted several modern events.
The Monpas, a Tibetan tribe from Tawang, performed their yak and lion dances, while the Topu war dance of central Arunachal’s Adi tribe gave a glimpse of their reputation as formidable warriors. The Nocte men and women from the highlands bordering Myanmar engaged us in a hypnotising performance and the Sherdupken from western Arunachal donned ceremonial masks for the Azu Lampu.
The days were all about showcasing folk arts, the nights reserved for newer forms of entertainment. Fashion shows and rap singers fit in effortlessly alongside traditional dances and chanting shamans. Watching local groups dancing to Bollywood hits, youngsters in cosplay and local hip-hop star K4-Kekho performing Hindi rap, I understood how prevalent Hindi is, and how popular Bollywood music is, in Arunachal.
The Nyishi’s pride in their traditions also comes through in their effort to dress for the occasion. Men wear the tunic-like paari over which they string ceremonial machetes known as dao. Their elaborate headdresses, or podum, originally comprised of the hair of the wearer, a cane cap called the byopa, a hornbill’s beak and feathers of a hornbill, a kite and racket-tailed drongo. Thanks to conservation efforts and awareness, they don’t have real feathers now but are just as impressive. The women also wear the paari, along with a sarong or galle and tassangs, necklaces made with rare beads.
The entire community gathers for Nyokum Yullo and the bonhomie is most evident in how they feast together, free of socioeconomic barriers. Villagers share tables with local politicians and SUV-driving city folk at the food stalls set up by local women. For the time I spent there, I was never short of company. Locals were always offering to top up my glass of apong, a freshly brewed millet beer, which went very well with the mildly spiced pork-heavy menu. But what was truly remarkable was how, unlike in many other parts of the country, women here owned the space as much as men did.
The last day of the festival is marked by an animal sacrifice. On the penultimate day, I was invited by the tribesmen as they entered a sacred grove in the jungle to cut and collect bamboo and other material to make an altar. Walking uphill and watching them carefully choose the right plant to harvest while paying their respects to the forest was moving for this creature of the urban jungle.
The next day, with the blessings of the Nyibu, the sacrifice was performed; the meat distributed among the people and used as tools of prophecy. It seemed to be the perfect way to end a unique celebration.
Attending the Nyokum Yullo at Seppa was not my first visit to Arunachal Pradesh. I’m hoping it isn’t my last.