group of apatani women

Anthropology: The Apatani Tribe of India

There are many small populations of people around the world who are pretty well known on a global scale. Take, for instance, the Bedouin of the Middle East and North Africa, whose name has become synonymous with nomadic people, or even the Cherokee people of North America, who are often one of the first tribes people reference when discussing indigenous Americans. However, for as many smaller ethnic groups that are widely known, there are tens or more that are overlooked (or simply not known about) on a wider scale. Oftentimes, these people come from regions that are also often overlooked or ignored by the western world. Though not as well known as others, these small groups often have rich and fascinating cultures of their own. One such example of this is the Apatani tribe of India. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this particular tribe so special:

Who are the Apatani?


The Apatani, also known as the Tanw or the Tanii, are a relatively small tribal ethnic group that lives in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northern India. The most recent census lists their population number at about a little under forty-four thousand people total. The Apatani predominantly reside in the Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which is one of the oldest settlements in the state. The land there is primarily cool, as Ziro is at a high altitude and geographically marked by rice fields and forests. As well as this, the land on which the Apatani live is currently up for being designated as a UNESCO world heritage culture site as the Apatani, who were integral to the development of the area, have been living there for centuries. The Apatani speak Hindi, English, and an indigenous language also called Apatani.

The Apatani have lived in the Ziro valley region for many generations, though the precise date they settled there is currently unknown. The Apatani are well known in their region and in the global anthropological community for their intricate cultural ceremonies, their unique religious practices, and their ecological and agricultural practices. The Apatani, while a relatively small group, are nonetheless a very important community.

group of apatani women
A group of Apatani women in traditional clothing gather in a town square. (photo by Rashmi Gopal Rao via The Tribune India)

Apatani culture


The vast majority of Apatanis still practice a religion called Donyi-Polo, which directly translates to Sun-Moon in English. This religion is commonly practiced by tribal groups in the Indian states of Arunchal Pradesh and Assam, as well as in parts of Tibet and Burma. There are approximately 370,000 practitioners of the religion today. Donyi-Polo was adapted and formalized gradually from traditional tribal religions, and is now an intriguing combination of shamanistic practices and formalized settings. Practitioners worship six main gods, who are believed to take care of the earth and the people who occupy it. Donyi-Polo followers also follow certain principles of “right conscience”, which involves the projection of love, compassion, equality, altruism, and simplicity.

Unfortunately, in recent years, Christian missionaries and other Christian groups have begun revitalizing efforts to convert Apatani people (and other tribal followers of Donyi-Polo) to Christianity. There has been minimal success so far, but some Apatani, especially those of younger generations, have been recorded as converting. However, there has been a strong negative response to these forces in the Apatani Donyi-Polo communities. They consider Donyi-Polo to be intimately connected to their cultural identity and heritage. When an Apatani person chooses to convert to Christianity, they are also considered to have given up their culture, and thus their identity.

white flag with red starburst in the middle
The flag of the Donyi-Polo religion, representing the sun. This flag is commonly flown above the houses of practitioners. (image by MattT4545)

Body modifications

One of the things for which the Apatani people are most recognizable is the body modifications that many of their women have historically undergone. While many Apatani women of older generations still sport these modifications, they are becoming increasingly less popular among younger women as the tribe becomes more modernized through interactions with the outside world and its influence, and because the Indian government officially banned the practice in the 1970s. However, there is a very intriguing story behind these modifications.

It is said that many years in the past, the Apatani tribe faced a huge issue: because their women were widely regarded as the most beautiful in the region, they were highly sought after as brides. So highly sought after, in fact, that men from other rival tribal nations would sneak into the Ziro Valley and kidnap Apatani women to force them into marriage. In order to combat these kidnappings, the tribe thought of a way to make their women less attractive, and thus less desirable, to these other men. Their solution was to extensively modify the outward structure of the women’s faces.

The Apatani women underwent two major modifications to their faces. The first modification was for women to wear “nose plugs”, which are similar to what the western world would know today as “gauges”, but instead of being pierced into and worn in the earlobe, the Apatani women would wear them in their nostrils. Though the plugs, generally made with smooth, carved wood, would start off small, the women would size them up until the nostrils became large and misshapen.

The second modification for the Apatani women would be to tattoo their faces. While men and women from other tribes in the state of Arunachal Pradesh were also tattooed, usually their tattooing was not to the extent (or the prominence) of the Apatani. Apatani women and girls would tattoo very specific patterns on their faces: six blue lines on their chins, and one wide line down the center of their foreheads originating from the hairline and ending at the top of the upper lip. The tattoos, while serving the purpose of making the women “less attractive”, also were a symbol of their identity as Apatanis. In the earlier days of the practice, not undergoing tattooing was not an option for young Apatani women. However, it soon became a sought after symbol of pride and beauty within the tribe (Haq 2018). Though not practiced anymore, the tattooing and nose modifications remain a hallmark of the tribe’s culture and have made a significant impact on their history.

woman with facial tattooing and nose guages
An elderly Apatani with traditional body modifications. She would have begun gauging her nostrils and having her face tattooed when she was quite young. (photo by Adam Koziol via Atlas of Humanity)

Farming techniques and ecological impact

Part of the reason the Ziro Valley and the Apatani tribe’s land is on the list of places UNESCO wants to preserve is because of the unique way that the tribe has used the land throughout its time there. According to UNESCO, the Apatani possess a “…rich traditional ecological knowledge of natural resource management and conservation, acquired over the centuries through informal experimentation” (UNESCO 2014). In essence, the Apatani have, through generations of experimentation, developed an intrinsic knowledge of their land and how to most adequately use it in a way that is seemingly completely sustainable for use by future generations.

Though the Ziro Valley is a relatively small area, it is also relatively flat. This, coupled with the local climate, makes it a perfect area to grow rice paddies, which are important to the Apatani community both for commercial and subsistence farming purposes. What is so unique about the way that the Apatani farm their rice paddies, however, is the fact that they use their land to co-farm both rice and fish. Rice crops grow most efficiently in water. As such, the Apatani have developed a system in which they simultaneously raise fish in their watery rice fields. Both the rice and the fish provide important sources of food for the Apatani.

The fish and rice system also works in conjunction with other crops grown in the region. To separate the rice paddies, the Apatani also grow other grains, like millet, on dry land strips between the rice crops. The nutrients produced by the fish waste that leeches into the soil of the grain strips nourish their soil, providing high quality crop yields. While normally people running agricultural set-ups such as these need to be cautious about gradually draining the soil of its nutrients through constant crop growth (which is usually avoided by crop rotation), the Apatani are able to continue using their fields year round, year after year. The tribe has been using these methods for at least twenty generations. The Apatani still worship nature, and these principles are reflected in the way they nurture and preserve the land on which they live while still living off of it.

rice paddy divided by millet
Apatani rice paddies are separated by strips of millet, like this one. (photo via
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Chennai)

Festivals and arts

Festivals and community events are very important to the Apatani way of life. As previously mentioned, the majority of the Apatani still practice a traditional, nature-based religion. Because of this, a lot of the festivals and celebrations they have every year are based off natural events or are simply in celebration of nature. One of their two most important festivals is based off of the anticipation of a large fall harvest, and is celebrated in July. This festival is called “Dree”. During Dree, the Apatani preform rituals to satisfy five of their deities, who they believe will insure a successful harvest for them. Another one of their important festivals, called “Myoko”, does not have to do with the harvest, but is rather a celebration of friendship and connection in the community. Myoko lasts for about a month from late March to late April.

The Apatani are also well known in their region for their handicrafts. The Apatani crafts are often based on some sort of weaving; handloom crafts as well as cane and bamboo baskets and furniture making are commonly made for both pleasure and for sale. Intricately woven scarves and linens in bright colors are popular among outsider purchasers. These crafts often feature in Apatani homes and traditional clothing, and the baskets are frequently used in their farming practices. An example of their weaving styles can be seen below in the patterned linen skirts worn by dancers at the Dree festival.

apatani dancers
Apatani dancers in traditional costuming at the annual Dree festival (photo via International Business Times)


Another important and unique characteristic of the Apatani culture is their reliance on bulyañs. Bulyañs are village councils that supervise the general activities and legal proceedings of the communities of Apatanis. Bulyañs function very differently than what most western law and justice systems would consider to be normal. Instead of focusing on punishments or on prosecuting people who have committed offences, the Apatani who sit in the bulyañs work to take measures and institute rules in their villages that prevent crimes from taking place. Bulyañs bring their community members together and get them active in creating a safe and warm environment for everyone to live in. While social-legal systems like the bulyañs have been criticized in the past for not being especially effective, especially on a broad scale, they remain a staple of Apatani society. Bulyañs are also actively involved in community functions, and increase the involvement of all tribespeople, which makes the community closer and more closely tied to their culture.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The Apatani people are incredibly important for anthropological study for multiple reasons. For one, it is important to study tribal cultures like these, especially those that are generally overlooked by the western world, because there is great value in learning about the ways and culture of people who live much differently than we do. Secondly, the Apatani are anthropologically significant in a socio-ecological sense for their land use and important practices. Especially now that almost everyone in the world is facing some sort of repercussion from climate change and food is becoming increasingly expensive and inaccessible for some, there are many things we can learn from a group of people who have such a sustainable and productive relationship with the land on which they live. Finally, with outside forces making advances in ending important parts of Apatani culture (i.e. making laws that limit traditional body modification rituals, Christian missionaries, etc.), it is important to document the very traditions that make them so unique.

three apatani women
Portraits of some elderly Apatani women taken by photo-ethnographer Omar Reda (photos via The Daily Mail UK)

Works Cited

Haq, S. (2018). ‘The Skin and the Ink: Tracing the Boundaries of Tattoo Art in India.’ . Ambedkar University Delhi.

UNESCO World Heritage. (2014). Apatani Cultural Landscape. Apatani Cultural Landscape – UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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