by Sep 19, 2021Demographics, Tribes0 comments

The Apatani, or Tanw, also known by Apa and Apa Tani, are a tribal group of people living in the Ziro valley in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh in India.

The Apatanis are the native settlers of the Ziro valley (which is nearly 1058 km²), Lower Subansiri District in the central-western part of Arunachal Pradesh; with an approximate elevation of 5000 feet above the mean sea level. The word Apatani is composed of two words viz. Apa and Tani. According to the local language, Apa means ‘display of affection’ and Tani stands for ‘human race’. The Apatani society spreads between seven villages of Hari, Bulla, Hija, Mudang Tage, Bamin–Michi, Dutta, and Hong, divided into two groups of villages viz. Diibo Asso and Tinii Asso. The former group constitutes Bamin-michi, Mudang tage, Dutta, Hari, and Bulla (Tailyang-Kalung) villages and the latter comprises of Hija, Hong, and Bulla (Reru-Tajang) villages.

UNESCO has proposed the Apatani valley for inclusion as a World Heritage Site for its “extremely high productivity” and “unique” way of preserving the ecology.


Apatani oral representations of the past are diverse and complex. The two major oral genres, miji and migung, both contain historical material. Miji are primarily the chants performed by priests to accompany the sacrifice of mithuns, cows, chickens and pigs; sung in a priestly language, from one hour to 12 hours, these ritual performances describe previous interactions with the spirits or gods (wi) and explain origin myths. Migung are more historical; narrated in prose, these stories explain the origins of the Apatani people, their genealogical links with other tribes, their migration from Tibet, a few place legends as well as more recent events, such as the downfall of a nineteenth-century ne’er-do-well. Running through both these genres, both the ritual chants and the prose narrations, is the figure of Abo Tani, the apical ancestor not only of Apatanis but of all tribes in central Arunachal Pradesh, who form the so-called ‘Tani‘ group.

Many ancient myths of the Apatanis deal with the origin of the Universe. The popular myths are the Kolyung, Kolo, Wachi, and Lipyo. According to the Apatani myths, the three forefathers of the tribe originated at Mudo Suppung, the present day Tibet. The Apatanis migrated to their present habitat at different times. The priests chant about the mythical migration routes of the Apatanis during prayer times.

One of their oral accounts speak of their migration from the extreme north of Subansiri and Siang areas following the rivers of Kurung and Kiimey. Those oral accounts usually have been transmitted in the form of folk tales such as the miji and migung. Frequently present day landmarks support the folk tales, marking the migratory paths of the Apatanis. At a small village of Yangte in Kurung Kumey district, for example, a stone stands beside the place Apatanis held a high jump competition on their way to the present habitat. The oral accounts often have validity, especially when corroborated with anthropological and scientific evidence.

The first contact with the Europeans occurred in 1897, when British officials stayed in the valley for two days; six similar brief visits later took place between the 1920s and 1930s. In 1944, after an anthropologist-administrator set up a temporary government outpost, the Apatani came in contact with minimal government presence for the first time. When the Assam Rifles constructed a second but permanent outpost in 1948, with the mission to protect the land, the Apatanis attacked. The officer in charge retaliated by burning two of their villages.


Apatani (Tanw Aguñ) is the language spoken.It is a member of the Western Tani branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Linguists identify many special features of the language and describe it as a relatively “aberrant” member of the subgroup, classifying it as an early-branching member of the Western Tani branch.


Their wet rice cultivation system and their agriculture system are extensive even without the use of any farm animals or machines. So is their sustainable social forestry system. UNESCO has proposed the Apatani valley for inclusion as a World Heritage Site for its “extremely high productivity” and “unique” way of preserving the ecology.

Apatanis trace their descent patrilineally. While the status of men has been considered higher than that of women (he acts as the head of family), the sexes share responsibilities in the house and the family. Apatani women carry out the household chores of gathering both wild and kitchen garden vegetables, cooking, fetching of water, pounding of rice, cleaning of houses, washing of clothes and utensils, nursing, looking after infants and children, preparation of the tsampa, ginning and spinning of cotton and other jobs associated with the household. In the field, the Apatani woman carries out the tasks that include gardening, seeding, transplanting of paddy and millet, padding, weeding of fields and other activities. At home, women control the internal family income. The man also has his part in the farming work. 


Apatani society has been divided into two main groups – The Upper (Guth or Mite) and Lower (Guchi or Mura) classes. The Guth is the class of the patricians or rich people whereas the Guchi consists of commoners, who at one point in time used to include slaves. A Guth can be downgraded to a Mura as a result of some lapses and once he/she becomes a Mura, they can never regain their original status. These two classes are endogamous and interchanging of position is restricted by social norms (Furer-Haimendorf 1962). Guth claims a higher social status over Guchi by virtue of their birth. Apatani tradition dictates marital segregation and ritual isolation during the Myoko festivities between Guth and Guchi. Except for this, there is no barrier between the two groups either in social interaction or at an interpersonal and inter-familial level. There is also a third group called Kumr with two families.

The Apatanis traditional village council is called bulyañ (Buliang), which supervises, guides and have legal oversight over the activities of individuals that affect the community as a whole.

Buliang (bulyañ)

The Apatanis, like most other tribes of Arunachal, has developed a well-organized system of government – a village council that has been functioning as an effective village government, supported by social and religious sanctions, since times immemorial (Dubey, 1998). This local government is run by a council of representatives from the clans and has some social control over its people. The representatives of the clans, who in their plurality constitute a kind of village government, are the Buliangs (Elwin, 1959). According to Kani (1993), the term Buliang stands for the clan or village representative who meditates among mankind.

Traditionally, there are four types of Buliang, viz. Neha Buliang, Kiimer Buliang, Kiidi Buliang, and Muddo Buliang.

    1. Neha Buliang is the highest authority and upholder of the unwritten code of customary laws.
    2. Kiimer Buliang, a woman mainly responsible for the work of castration of male boars.
    3. Kiidi Buliang assists the priest at the time of rituals and funeral ceremonies; whereas,
    4. Muddo Buliang is a priest who holds the charge of conducting the agricultural ceremonies and other religious functions for plague and epidemics (Kani, 1993).

Neha Buliang is mainly responsible for the regulation and administration of norms and sanctions in the society. It consists of three bodies – Akha Buliangs, Yapa Buliangs, and Ajang Buliangs (Elwin, 1959). Each of these institutions has one or more representatives from each clan, depending on the size of a clan.

    1. Akha Buliangs
      It has permanent members who happen to be wise, aged, and experienced and can take a very active part in the conduct of village affairs but with whom lies the ultimate decision in all important matters. They are invariably consulted on all occasions in their role as advisors.
    2. Yapa Buliangs —
      It consists of the middle aged persons who carry out negotiations and sit in the village councils and who keep the Akha Buliangs informed of developments and place agreed settlements and disputes before them for sanction.
    3. Ajang Buliangs —
      They are young persons who are employed as messengers, go-betweens and assistants of the Yapa Buliangs, and act as the leaders of the young generation.

However, in practice, this division of duties is not always clear-cut, and some of the older Ajang Buliang gradually assumes the function of Yapa Buliang. Membership to the council is purely on the basis of merit and virtue.

Buliang Flowchart


Agriculture is the major economic activities of the Apatani. They live on wet paddy cultivation with fish rearing called paddy-cum fish culture. Other major economics activities are Timbering, Plantation agriculture such as Kiwi and Elichi (cardamon), Fish rearing, vegetable gardening etc.

The Apatani version of paddy cultivation is one of the most advanced cultivation practices. The main advantage of the practice is that the land gives sustained yield year after year, unlike the Jhum system, which is under cropping only once in a few years of fallow interval, depending upon the Jhum cycle. The economic and energy efficiency of this agro-ecosystem is exceptionally high and rice is exported after meeting local needs. Rain-fed cultivation of millet and mixed cropping contributes toward meeting the diverse needs of the people. Mithun, Swine, and poultry husbandry are an important link with agro-ecosystems.


Like the other Tani tribes of Arunachal, the Apatanis also believed in the indigenous Donyi-Polo religion, the praise of the Sun (Ayo Donyi) and the Moon (Atoh Polo). Misfortunes and bad luck in anyway are believed to be caused by evil spirits. For this, the Apatanis render a quite prayer to Ayo Donyi and Atoh Polo by sacrificing domestic such as chicken or mithun. Festivities in the tribe are indeed very crucial and sacred to every Apatani. In March, the tribe celebrates Myoko where the Apatanis give thanks to friendship and pray for prosperity to their gods and goddesses in the form of miji, where priests perform religious chanting.


Myoko — Mar-Apr
Myoko is a festival to celebrate friendship similar to modern friendship day but unlike the latter which lasts only for a day, it is celebrated for almost a month-long, from the end of March to the end of April. Myoko is a celebration of friendship and harmony between various Apatani villages. The festival rotates between the eight Apatani villages. This is also the time when new paddy is sown in the terraced fields and the Apatani pray for a good crop.


Dree — 5th July
The Dree Festival is an agricultural festival celebrated by the Apatani tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Every year, it is observed on 5th July with great fervour and zest by the Apatanis.

The pre-celebrations begin from the evening of 4th July. On 4 July in the evening the Dree priest traditionally inaugurates the Dree festival in their respected villages. During the Dree festival, five main deities are appeased, these are; Tamù, Metẁ, Medvr, Mepiñ and Danyi.

  1. Tamu – It is propitiated to ward off the insects and pests.
  2. Metii – It is propitiated to ward off epidemics and other ailments of the human beings.
  3. Medvr – It is a purification ritual performed to cleanse the agricultural fields of unfavorable elements.
  4. Mepiñ – It is performed to seek blessings for healthy crops and well being of mankind.
  5. Danyi Danyi is also propitiated for fertility of the soil, abundance of aquatic lives in the rice fields, healthy cattle and for prosperity of all human beings. Earlier, the Danyi was not performed during the Dree rituals, it was for first time introduced in 1967 a to sacrifice a Mithun donated by Late Millo Kacho.

Dree Festival signifies happiness, wealth and prosperity. On this auspicious occasion, rice beer and wine are prepared in every household. Every individual visit their relatives’ place and women of the family usually gift a vessel of beer to their elderly, brothers, sisters, son-in-law, etc. as a token of love.

The origin of Dree celebration:

It was in the later part of April 1967. After attending the Mopin festival at Pasighat town that the then students, Lod Kojee and his friends studying in Jawaharlal Nehru College Pasighat, in course of an informal chat felt the need for having a festival centrally organised for the Apatanis. The Apatani society has half a dozen of pujas and festivals performed individually and collectively throughout the year but not a single puja or festival was performed at a central location on a fixed date participated by the entire community like those of Bihu of Assamese community, the Diwali of Hindus, the Solung and Mopin of Adi and Galo community, and so on. Accordingly, the possibilities of modification of few pujas and festivals of the Apatani at a centralised place on a uniformly fixed date was discussed. Due to the mythological rigidities, the modification of the pujas and festivals were not possible, but after long and hard persuasions the Dree was selected for modified celebration at a centralised location without affecting its traditional identity. Earlier, each village had its own choice of dates for commencement of the Dree. As per the modified programme, the date of centralised celebration was fixed on 5 to 7 July every year. Therefore, the village level traditional ritual performance takes place on the eve of the general celebration, i.e., on 4 July so that on the following day all the priest representatives from each village of the valley can participate in the centrally installed festival altar at general Dree ground. Since then the Dree festival is being centrally celebrated by the entire people of Apatani on 5 July every year at Nenchalya near Old Ziro.


The Apatanis wear elaborate and colorful, yet simple in style, traditional dress. Tattooing and the stuffing of large nose plugs (Yaping hullo), once popular among the women, has gradually declined in recent years. That practice reportedly started because the women wanted to look unattractive to males from neighboring tribes. Apatani women have been considered the most beautiful among the Arunachal tribes. Younger members of that community have abandoned that traditional practice altogether.

Traditionally, the men tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead (locally called as piiding) using a brass rod (Piiding Khotu) measuring twelve inches, placed horizontally. They wear strips of fine cane belt painted in red (Yari), and bent into the shape of a horse-collar with an elongated end. Those strips of cane are loosely fastened together, with the loop of the horse-collar being tied round the waist. The men tattoo (Tiippe) their chin, in the shape of a ‘T’ under the lower lip. The women tattoo themselves with broad blue lines from the forehead to the tip of the nose, and five vertical stripes under the lower lip in the chin. The women bundle up their tresses, rolled into a ball (Dilling) on the top of the head. They occasionally insert a brass skewer (Ading Akh) horizontally.


Traditional Apatani House

Traditional Apatani House with bamboo roofing

Apatanis build their small houses very close to each other, in rows, along ‘village streets’, with the granaries at some distance. The houses stand on platforms, with front and back terraces accessible by steps or logs with notches. The front terrace is the more public space, and the back terrace is the more private as it faces the back yard or garden. The house interior is a single, rectangular room, usually with two fireplaces. Many houses also have a separate room near the entrance for rice pounding and keeping chickens at night. Running along one long side is a narrow space used as a toilet and to feed pigs living under the house. The basic construction materials are wood for the main construction and bamboo for the supplementary construction. The roof, once thatched with grass, has shifted to split bamboo and (increasingly) corrugated metal. Apatani villages have a number of ritual platforms (la-pang), one for each clan or clan cluster in the village.


Daminda is a dance of the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, performed during the three- day long agricultural festival of the tribe, Dree. The dance marks the beginning of the rice sowing season and is accompanied by prayers for a good harvest and protection from natural calamities. The dance is an offering to the four gods of the tribe, namely- Tamu, Harniang, Meiti and Danyi.

The Daminda repertoire glorifies the greatness of the Apatanis and their neighbouring tribes, and also include songs on love and romance, and are sung by women and children. Dressed in traditional attire, that Apatanis celebrate Dree as a festival of joy and hope. The dance is not only characterised by colour, prayers and rituals, but is also representative of the rich cultural heritage of the tribe. During the Dree festival, women folk visit their relatives and present then with home- made beer and wine as a gesture of love and affection.


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