We are driving in the drizzling rain along the zigzagged Himalayan road. Impossibly vast ferns along the road catch the attention of one of the travelers in our shared Sumo. He turns towards a local woman sitting in the back seat, ” What is it called in your language?” “We call it Hoka pada. They grow in abundance here,” she replies. His curiosity to know different languages, cultures, and traditions sparks a conversation which interests each one of us sharing the cab. Rustic views, mist-covered mountains and the 90’s Bollywood songs playing on a loop in the shared Sumo are, however, welcome distractions.
Yazali, a tiny hamlet on the banks of Panyor river looks as pretty as a backcountry could be.
We hop over muddy puddles as we make our way to the festival venue ground.
The community ground is completely transformed into a lively and splashy locale with diverse stalls selling unique souvenirs and local dishes. Nyishi people, all decked up in their traditional attire exhibit folk dance, traditional tribal games, and other cultural performances.
Reveal in the time-honored culture of the indigenous tribe as you guzzle down the Apong (traditional/local millet beer.) It’s that time of the year again when Nyishi Tribe in the East Kameng District celebrates their pre-harvesting festival, Nyokum Yullo.
We cross the bamboo bridge to make way to mock-up tribal longhouse at the back of the venue which is going to be our abode for the next 3 days. Excitement bubbles up just at the thought of staying, eating, drinking and celebrating like a local. An unmatched and unforgettable experience it’d be!
Yazali Nyokum Yullo – An Introduction
Nyokum is one of the significant socio-agricultural festivals of the indigenous Nyishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. It is held usually on community grounds of the Nyishi inhabited area.
The festival is an outstanding example of Nyishis rich oral tradition where the story of their conception is narrated perfectly and delightfully by the head priest and his helpers.
The Genesis of Nyokum Yullo
The genesis of Nyokum Yullo can be traced back to a period of Atu Nyia Tani (Son of Abo-Tani) who inherited Tani culture. Nyokum was first performed by Atu Nyia in the prehistoric period (Nirba Namchi) and since then, the descendants of Atu Nyia celebrate Nyokum.
Nyokum was celebrated at the local village (clan) level till late 1960’s but with recognition of ethnic tribal community; it’s recognized as the major festival of Nyishis in Arunachal Pradesh. In 1967, the festival was celebrated at the community level at Joram, Arunachal Pradesh.
When is Nyokum Yullo Celebrated?
Nyokum is observed from 23rd to 27th February every year. 26th of February (Main Celebration day) is declared as a State holiday by the Government of Arunachal Pradesh.
Why’s Nyokum 2018 special?
Nyokum Yullo 2018 holds special significance because Nyokum Yullo completes 50 years of its official recognition this year. Golden Jubilee Nyokum Yullo is mega in every sense.
Sustainable Natural Resource Management makes Nyokum One of a Kind
Nyishi people have a rich indigenous ecological knowledge and they make sure to put their knowledge into practice. The tribe gives value to their traditional sustainable ways
of customs and life. Nyishis’ conservation efforts and sustainable use of natural resources at Nyokum Yullo Festival is just exemplary.
Nyokum – A Symbol of United Tribal Identity
The word Nyokum comprises nyok (land) and kum (gathering of people) which means a gathering of people of the land.
During Nyokum Yullo, the gods and goddesses (Sii and Donyi) along with the principal deity Nyokum are worshipped to invocate the spirits (uyus) in nature for the better harvest and to ensure harmony, well being and prosperity of the people who have observed Nyokum.
This pre-agricultural festival is not only a celebration of appeasing the uyus for God’s blessing for bountiful harvest but it is also a festival of paying obeisance to Nyokum deity, the rain God for peace, harmony, and fertility in the society.
One of the most awesome hallmarks of the festival is that it makes people come together regardless of the cast and celebrate the essence of togetherness which strengthens the tribal unity.
Anyone regardless of their cast or status or faith is welcomed at Nyokum.
Rituals during Nyokum
Nyishis wear traditional outfits for the celebrations. The men dress in cotton robe (eri) wrapped from the shoulders reaching the thighs. They adorn themselves with the bead (semi-precious stones like turquoise) jewelry. The men’s attire is topped by their traditional headgear podum. The women adorn themselves with beautifully draped cotton apparel (par ej), earrings, bead neck pieces, and headdress crafted with finely scraped bamboo.
The Sacrifice of Mithun (Bos frontalis)
The ceremony is marked by a sacrifice of Mithun (the cattle of the mountains) which is tied down in the ritual ground and is calmly consoled by the priest requesting not to regret its inevitable sacrifice, by chanting to it the legend connected with its origin and the noble purpose for which it is destined to be sacrificed. The priest tells it not to be sorry for its sacrifice because he’s the chosen one for the good of humanity.
After the sacrifice, the meat is reserved for the community feast (Ashing) which takes place on the last day of Nyokum.
The priest after the sacrifice collects the blood of the animals in a bamboo tube and hangs it in front of his house as a mark of distinction.
The array of Mithun horns display in Nyishi house is often symbolic of respect, regard and social prestige owed by the less affluent neighbors. Traditional artifacts are also on display in the house.
The Ceremonial Procession
On the main day of the festival, all the villagers assemble in the procession ground. Women, all decked up in their traditional attire joyfully sing, and dance all the way to the ritual ground.
A priest (Dipr Nyibu) is disguised as the evil spirit (Dirr Erri.) He carries a basket on his back in which he keeps the articles stolen from every household. Dipr Nyibu runs in front of the procession while the old and young actively chase him out of the village using bamboo arrows. He finally throws away the contents of the basket.
Meanwhile, head priest (Nyokum Yullo Nyibu) chants the hymns near the place of the worship (Uyus Ako.) The procession reaches the ritual ground (Nyokum Hapa) and the men carrying the bamboo poles with fowls hung on the top (Tori) place them on the Nyokum altar called yugang which is made of bamboo. Alongside yugang sacrificial animals which include Mithun and goat are fastened.
Traditional priest (nyib) decides the number and types of animals for offering or sacrifice.
Men and women dance (Buya) around the prayer altar in a chain singing a traditional song (Nyokum bo tapa debe) and occasionally men perform mock fights with dao (short sword) and shield made of animal hide while the priest continues to chant the hymns followed by the ritual sacrifice of a goat, Mithun, and the fowls.
While Nyishi women and men enthusiastically participate; children equally enjoy the celebrations.
After the main prayer is over, the priest takes a fowl to the north of the Nyokum Happa and chants the hymns while tieing it to the bamboo stick. The Nyishis believe that if the fowl on the bamboo stick jumps and cries, that means the deities are happy with the offerings and vice versa.
The Cleansing Process
Next day, quite early in the morning, the Riya Gama ritual is performed wherein women gather in the ritual ground for the cleansing process (Darkha). They carry kalash made of dried bottle gourd (Harcha) filled with water and covered with leaves (Kohan okh.) They offer the water and leaves to different altars and wash their feet and hands.
Millet/rice beer (apong) is used as a sacrament and is offered to everyone in dried bottle gourd spoons.
Guests are also offered rice paste (served in bamboo leaves.)
Traditional Grain Analysis Ritual
Grain analysis (Amyemch Hikanam) is done by the priest to predict the good or bad fortune of the women who performed Nyokum. He holds a small measuring cup (made of bamboo, of course) and instructs women to come one by one and fill the cup with the grain. The same amount of grain is filled by each woman and the future is predicated on the basis of the way it’s done.
The Retreat of the Priests
The rituals are followed by the Priest’s Retreat. The meal is cooked specially for the priest and the women who observed Nyokum.
Dapo Marks the End of the Festival
Dapo is performed on the last day at the entrance of the village. The priest (Nyibu) with an assistant (Bo) carries the harcha filled with apong which is covered by koh-pat. People who have participated in the celebration collect items from the forest and construct strong gate altars with bamboo. Nyibu chants and calls spirits (uyus) to come and accept their offerings and prayers and protect the region from evil spirits. Buya dance is performed around the altar.
Once the celebrations are over, Nyishis remain in their homes for few days, no movement of vehicles in and out of the village and no fieldwork at all. They don’t pluck fruits or flowers and refrain from washing clothes and hang them to dry because they want nature to rest.
Rain God Never Fails to Bless
The Nyishis believe that if the prayer has been done right and hymns have been chanted rightly; It’ll definitely rain as it’s a sign of God’s blessings. Surprisingly, it rains as the chants are completed by the priest. No logic though but true. The sky as blue as the sea of dreams magically turns black; mighty clouds or shall I say, clouds of joy come rolling in and it rains as the prayer comes to an end and stops after some time making the sky even clearer. I’m still in awe.
Cultural Fiesta – The Celebrations Beyond Rituals
Besides the traditional rituals, cultural programs and various competitions are also held during Nyokum. Mostly, young Nyishi people show their talents and exhibit their art. Whatever they perform, oozes their tribal heritage.
State dignitaries like Governor and Chief Minister are invited as a chief guest.
Active organizations of Nyishi tribal community that arrange the festival proceedings are ANSU (All Nishi Students Union), the Nishi Elite society and The Native People’s Committee.
Performances by diverse tribes of Arunachal Pradesh (Monpa, Galo, Tai Khamti, Adi,) traditional hunting games, demonstration of traditional zip-lining (Swla Dunam) and indigenous fishing practices (Sheph), traditional bamboo dance, pol wrestling (Nyerkaminam), pol climbing and many interesting competitions keep you entertained all the time.
Visiting the Priest’s House – The Unfolding of Traditions and Rituals of the Nyishi
Over an open fire hearth, the meat of Mithun is kept in a bamboo hollow to be cooked (smoke-dried) in a bamboo kitchen we are sitting around. We are invited to lunch at the priest’s home and are treated to a traditional cuisine with apong.
Taba Anju, priest’s daughter effortlessly and interestingly tells us about the Nyshi culture and practices.
“We take pride in our culture and religion”, she speaks as her sister serves us lunch.
I listen to her and the questions asked by fellow bloggers as I eat local rice served with ginger chutney, raw bulbs of garlic, salt and red chili chutney while chugging apong.
The tribe has perfectly adapted to the modern way of life.
The introduction of the modern education system in the Nyishi community has changed their age-old beliefs and outlook but they still feel a strong connection with their culture and heritage. Youngsters understand the significance of retaining their traditional culture regardless of modern way of living and they try to balance the old and modern.
They are now not only dependent on traditional occupations but stepped into the white collar jobs.
How to Reach Yazali
Guwahati, Assam acts as the main point that very well connects North-East India via rail and air to the rest of India.
There are three alternatives. One (The Fastest Way) is to take a flight to Guwahati and then catch an overnight train (Donyi Polo Express) from Paltan Bazar that departs at 9:20 p.m. to Naharlagun (Itanagar). Take a shared cab for Yazali (2-3 hours) from Naharlagun.
Another (The Economical Way) alternative is to opt for a direct train from Delhi to Naharlagun (Naharlagun Arunachal AC SF Express) and then reach Yazali by hiring a shared cab from Naharlagun. I’d obviously not recommend this option as it’s time-consuming. The train takes good 38 hours to reach Naharlagun.
Alternative three (For Road Trip Lovers) is to drive from Guwahati to Yazali that takes almost 11 hours. The unique selling point of this alternative is the sight of beautiful landscapes of North-East India.
Permit to Enter Arunachal Pradesh
Arunachal Pradesh comes under restricted zone so official permission is needed to enter the state. You must get an Inner Line Permit (ILP) if you are an Indian national and a Protected Area Permit (PAP) if you are a foreign national. ILP can be applied online as well as offline. One needs a furnish a passport size photograph, ID proof, and address proof to obtain the permit. One local reference is also required. Online ILP takes a day but offline ILP takes somewhere between 2-4 hours.
Please note that PAP is usually only granted to foreigners in a group of two or more.
How to Get the Permit
The best and easiest way is to get it online. Apply online ILP here.
Offline ILP is issued at Arunachal Bhawan in Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur, Jorhat and from the office of all the Deputy Commissioners of 16 Districts of the state. Tourist ILP facilitation centers at Naharlagun railway station, Gumto railway station, Guwahati Asom Paryatan Bhawan and Guwahati LGBI Airport provide ILP on arrival.
Fee for getting ILP online is 100/- while it’s 200/- for offline ILP. ILP on arrival costs 400/-
Foreign nationals can obtain Protected Area Permit (PAP) for the period of 30 days from Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, All Indian Missions Abroad, FRROs at Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Amritsar, Hyderabad and Bangalore, Home Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, Resident Commissioner of Arunachal Pradesh at Delhi and the Secretary (Tourism) by paying USD 50.
Citizens of Afghanistan, China, Myanmar, Pakistan and the foreign nationals of Pakistani origin need to take approval in advance from Ministry of Home Affairs to get the PAP.
Where to Stay at Yazali
Ann Homestay: 9862283058
For more stay options at Yazali, click here.
Places to See in and Around Yazali
Yazali is a place where you can unwind while exploring the intriguing tribal culture and history. Life at this sleepy hamlet is simple and peaceful. Scenic Ranganadi Hydel Dam is a perfect stop by while traveling to Yazali. Meandering Ranganadi zigzagging through lush mountains is a sight to behold.
Ziro Valley, home to Apatani Tribe is undoubted highlight of a trip to Yazali. It’s just 25 km away from Yazali. It has been named as the World Heritage Site for its unmatched natural beauty. The lush paddy fields enveloped by the hillocks stretched into the distance, as far as the eye could see. Stay with Apatani family at one of the picture-postcard villages (Hong or Hapoli) of Ziro to get a glimpse into their life.
Talley Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Shiva Lingam at Kardo Forest, Meghna Cave Temple, Midey (popular for its blue pine trees), Pine Grove, Tarin Fish Farm, Bamboo Grove, Tipi Orchid Research Centre are some of the top places to visit in Ziro. Ziro Valley offers amazing opportunities for trekkers and hikers – Talley Valley Trek, Kila Pakho ridge, Ziro Puto hillock, Dolo Mando hillock, and Dilopolyang Maniipolyang twin hillock are some of the beautiful trekking destinations in Ziro.
If you are a music lover then you must visit Ziro around September to witness the grand Ziro Music Festival.
Alternatively, you may explore Ganga Lake and Ita fort at the capital city of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar.
- Carry your ID card with your address on it (preferably Adhaar card) with you.
- Don’t forget to carry your ILP/PAP.
- It normally rains in every season so don’t forget to carry umbrella or rain gear.
- Food options are quite limited as they mostly eat boiled rice and meat (specifically, Mithun’s meat) so it’s wise to carry the ready-to-eat meal. Though we did find a small food joint at a reasonable distance who serves paranthas with aloo curry, fried rice, and noodles. I survived on Pineapples and oranges mostly, and you know, I have never had such tasty and juicy pineapples in my life that too at such a low price.
- You can’t miss tasting their local beer (Apong) even if you are a non-drinker like me ; )
- Be conscious of culturally sensitive concerns.
- Last but not the least, though Nyishis or/and Apatanis open their hearts and doors to the tourists; it’s always a good idea to respect their privacy and ensure that they are happy and comfortable to have you. Be aware that you are in someone else’s home. They are proud of their cultural heritage and are more than happy to pose for the pictures but wouldn’t it be nice to take their permission before you do that.
What an experience to witness firsthand the unique festival of a unique tribal group. On the whole, it’s a treat to the senses to witness Nyishi people celebrating Nyokum in a traditional way following all the rituals and practices they inherited from their ancestors.
I would strongly recommend you explore this lovely tribe and the unmatched landscapes of the region. Super unique experience.
The enthusiastic community participation and kinship make Nyokum a true celebration of life itself.
I have been asking endless questions while writing this post which Chukhu happily, patiently and calmly answered. I’m thankful to Chukhu Mammaa for his continuous guidance and for this opportunity that evolved into an experience of a lifetime.
Chukhu Mammaa can be reached at +919862830513 for any queries regarding Yazali Nyokum or you can mail him your queries at firstname.lastname@example.org
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