The Nyishi, The Forest And Life

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 6, June 2024

Text and Photographs by Upayan Chatterjee

The Forest Knows

“The bamboos sounded different that day,” said Japa Brah, vocalising a chitter trrt-trrt-trrt as he reminisced the last time he had walked into Pakke’s unbridled wilderness, back in 1984. Like most Nyishi elders resident along the eastern border of Arunachal Pradesh’s Pakke Tiger Reserve, Japa felt his age through failing strength. I saw it in the furrows that crisscrossed his face. Yet, his narrations were specific, “When I peered into the thicket, that chitter turned into low growls. Large red eyes glared at me.” Japa had struck at the alarmed slow loris (bedang-rangi), with his machette. “The bleeding animal fell into the nullah (stream). Dead.” His remorse never let him set foot in the forest again.

Japa’s namlo, the traditional Nyishi house constructed with bamboo and locally sourced timber, now sits at the edge of a tarred road, leading up to the gravelly bank of the Pakke river. Beyond the invasive lantana and illegal stone quarries at the riverbank, rainforest trees finally appear. Under the shadow of towering bhelus Tetrameles nudiflora (false hemp tree) and stout strangler figs, perceptions of a retreating forest begin to fade. While staring at the unending green from Upper Decorai camp, deep within the tiger reserve, challenging this mighty forest seems impossible. Akin to those depths, Japa’s internalisations are well-shielded from alterations to his material exteriors. Abstinence from the forest hasn’t altered his roots. When one of his sons succumbed to an early death from congenital irregularities of the eye, Japa accepted it as justice delivered by the forest’s deities.

Pakke's Nyishis have long been a hunting tribe, yet village elders believe the pressure on local biodiversity from hunting stems from the use of guns and disregard for traditional restrictions.

Misdemeanour in life-giving jungles is a high offence in Nyishi culture. Killing a tiger is the gravest. “As bad as killing a fellow tribesman,” says Late Issang, a famed shaman, hinting at the Nyishi belief of man’s mythological brotherhood with the tiger. A rooster, perched safely within the doko (a bamboo basket, traditionally used while foraging in the forest) hanging at the sketchy wooden gate of Issang’s residence, crowed at full volume, drowning the shaman’s voice. “You never know which one of these are evil spirits in disguise,” Late was visibly annoyed, but eventually made peace with speaking louder. “When a tiger dies, the entire village must be informed. The rapeh ritual must be conducted.” Fesam (Late’s wife) interjected. As a child, she had witnessed her father (also a shaman-par-excellence) conduct a rapeh, “He gouged the tiger’s eyes and broke its canines and buried it all in a marsh.” The vengeance of a blind, toothless spirit is easier to contain, they believe. “Yet, you must beg for forgiveness. With penance and sacrifice, you must pacify the tiger’s spirit,” Fesam went on, “One must never hide a tiger’s death from the tribe. Its spirit shall hunt him down.”

Human And Non-human Stakeholders

Nyishis have always been a hunting tribe. Pakke’s forests have forever been their haunt. Yet, the pressure on local biodiversity on account of hunting, elders believe, stems from the use of guns and disregard for traditional restrictions. Pinpointing the conservation value of traditions is, however, difficult. Sahil Nijhawan’s evaluation of Mishmi traditions is rooted in sizeable community-controlled forests existing independently alongside the state-controlled space of the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, but in Pakke, cultural safeguards and state policies overlap.

The vicinity of the 860 sq. km. Pakke Tiger Reserve is dominated almost entirely by Nyishis. As per the 2011 Census, they constitute more than 81 per cent (58,870) of East Kameng’s total tribal population (72,400). The Pakke Tiger Reserve now falls under Pakke-Kessang, a district carved out of East Kameng in 2018. Nyishi households command the landscape, with the occasional exceptions of Nepali migrants (mostly casual labourers) and Bodo settlers (on the Assam side of Seijosa check-gate). The Galongs, who live at Dissing-Paso Circle, and the Sulung, who live in higher mountainous reaches, wield a very limited influence. Evolution of hunting-gathering, jhoom-cultivating Nyishis into settled agriculturists, horticulturists and livestock-rearers undoubtedly shape the major dynamics around Pakke.

The State, on the other hand, is a recent but aggressive stakeholder. Its initial incursions started recently when elders like Japa were already into their adulthood. From resettling Nyishis outside the tiger reserve area to the construction of roads, schools and health centres, State interventions have, however, become profound.

Today, when swarms of bees glide amidst the blooming semal (silk cotton trees) in spring, it is difficult to conclude how each active influence has protected or threatened their buzz. Here, the limitless vibrance of songbirds, butterflies and flowers shroud the infinite mystery of binturongs, clouded leopards and marbled cats. Pakke’s forests make space for the smallest of insects as easily as they accommodate magnificent herds of elephants and gaur. While the NTCA reports just six tigers from Pakke, Dr. Aparajita Datta, an ecologist working with the Nature Conservation Foundation and a Whitley Awardee, explains how inaccessibility can lead to underestimation, “....estimates from the low-elevation, southern areas of the park, state that there are seven to nine individuals, which is reasonably good for forests in this region. Additional survey efforts in the higher areas are likely to yield higher tiger estimates.” Expeditions in the region continue to describe novel species such as the Trimeresurus salazar or Lysionotus namchoomii.

Budhiram Tai, gaon burrah of Darlong village, holds the byopa, an iconic Nyishi headgear. While the Great Hornbills' casque was traditionally required to shape a byopa, the shift to artificial alternatives was made possible through efforts led by WTI, NCF and Nyishi elders like Budhiram.

Nature And Culture

Yet, this home to 1,500 vascular plant species and 600 known orchids is shrinking. A 9.3 per cent drop in dense vegetation (2010-17) has been recorded alongside a corresponding 9.14 per cent rise in open/degraded forest area. While unplanned ‘development’ and illegal mining leases are major drivers, land-use change is also affected by local resentment towards restrictions on their organic interactions with the forest.

However, issues such as ritual hunting have deeper roots than these (relatively recent) altercations driven by state policies. In Pakke, hornbills have traditionally been hunted for shaping byopas (traditional headgear for Nyishi men made from a Great Hornbill’s casque). Discussing how socio-cultural imprints of hunting are too complex for an outsider to fully perceive, Dr. Aparajita Datta highlights empathy, “Although certain situations do need strong interventions or only law enforcement, there are others where law cannot be enforced by criminalising an entire community.” The use of artificial byopas perpetuated by the Wildlife Trust of India, and sensitisation regarding the impacts of hunting male hornbills during the breeding season by the Nature Conservation Foundation were effective in reinforcing the existing traditional taboos attached to hurting mating hornbills.

With so many forces at play, it is difficult to separate the impact of cultural safeguards in Pakke. Studying the dynamics outside Protected Areas might hold clues. But apart from focussed studies such as Remnant Flowering Trees as Avifaunal Refuge in the Fringe Areas of Pakke Tiger Reserve or Looking Beyond Parks: The Conservation Value of Unprotected Areas for Hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh, a broad biodiversity assessment of these remnant patches seems to be absent. Studies elsewhere have, however, compared human attitudes across contexts that do and do not accord cultural significance to a specific species. The general conservation value of traditional safeguards can empirically be inferred from there.

In Pakke, customs such as rapeh represent social restrictions on indiscriminate killing. Nyishi folklore traces their mastery of the bow to Taking-Taring. Beloved sons of Abo Tani (the first man of Nyishi mythology), Taking-Taring were born with the gift of immaculate aim. But they had then been banished for terrorising the forest with thoughtless killing. “Deaths in the forest, even accidental ones, are sometimes difficult to handle,” Late Issang explained. Shamans must come prepared to face the wrath of a forest; talons of a Crested Serpent Eagle hung from a wooden support and he wore a machete hilted with the canines of a nirreh (clouded leopard).

At gaon burrah Budhiram Tai's namlo in Darlong village, deer antlers serve a simpler purpose. Budhiram’s sling-bag was hung from a barking deer’s brow-tine and the whitened skull of a second deer held a doko. Magnificent antlers of a huge sambar hung unburdened. Before I asked him, Budhiram sensed my question, “I hunted just one barking deer myself.” The others, he had collected over a lifetime of roaming Pakke's forests. Budhiram still remembers the nullahs and the sandbanks where he found his favourite antlers like he remembers watching a tiger manoeuvre its tail to move noiselessly across a grassland. A hunter-par-excellence, his life had been spent on perfecting bamboo traps, bows, and arrows. Then, the age of guns had begun. When deaths surged in the forest, Budhiram had gone searching for hornbill nests with nest protection in mind for the first time in 2011. After scouting a nest and then witnessing the nest tree get charred by lightning, Budhiram had experienced a strange anxiety about the hornbills’ well-being.

Late Issang, a famed Nyishi shaman, known as Nyubu in Nyishi, shares that killing a tiger is the gravest of offences in Nyishi culture, considered on par with killing a human.

Now he rarely goes hunting. “Sometimes I do miss the old days when you could fish with arrows,” Budhiram said wistfully. Besides, proliferating algae in the river whispers to him about plummeting fish populations.

“Missing old days, are you?” Budhiram’s wife Yanyo joined our conversation, “Why don’t you tell him about the amount of apung (local alcohol) y’all drank?”

“It is at least better than the kind of drinks they sell these days,” Budhiram put up a meek defence.

The Women Remember

While Japa, Late or Budhiram talked of hunting, Yanyo’s memories revolved around brewing apung, collecting firewood, looking after children and preparing land for agriculture. “We always visited forests in large groups,” Yanyo shared. She remembers very few sightings from the forest.

Fesam (Late Issang’s wife) had encountered a leopard cub on the trail leading to a jhoom-cultivation site (pahar kheti/mountain farming). Yanyo had seen mekuri (small wild cats). But the gruelling work of cultivating these lands remains their most dominant memory.

“We would work chest-deep in the mud,” Yanyo reminisced, “Our legs would first turn white, and then eventually swell into a red-black bruise.” Leaving those days behind has given her solace. More so because of tree-dwelling ghosts. “The trees were closer to the village then,” she said. Ghosts chased her at the river banks or came right upto her namlo under the shadows of darkness, she shared. It is a strong belief among most elders that large trees here are home to ghosts. Some, like Budhiram, are tolerant and almost prefer that they stay. Others like Yanyo, would rather not have them around.

“Christianity relieved us of their antics,” Yanyo believes. “The trees have all been cleared. That’s why the ghosts are gone,” Budhiram disagrees. He is fearful that harder days lie ahead, “How many of our children will find jobs in the city? What of the rest?”

The importance of Indigenous perspectives as repositories of “worldviews where humans do not dominate or exploit nature” is now globally recognised.

How Will The Youth Cope?

Anurag Vishwakarma, while studying Pakke’s avifauna for his Ph.D. thesis, had tried to introduce local youth to eco-tourism. He paid them daily wages to allow for their formal introduction to birds. “It seems to be a double-ended problem,” Anurag opines, adding, “They wouldn’t grasp the economic potential of ecotourism until tourism is regular. And tourists wouldn’t arrive without the availability of trained local guides.”

How globalisation has distanced the youth from local realities is reflected in Rashmirekha Sharma’s experiment showing that just one amongst a cohort of 60 school-going students could correctly identify traditional Nyishi household items. Confusion regarding the difference between byopa and pudum (even though the byopa has historically been the most prominent icon of Nyishi culture) is even more striking.

This pace of cultural dilution frightens Budhiram, “None of the young men follow fruiting seasons these days. Few know where the wild vegetables grow. How long before we collectively forget to forage? If mining for sand and blasting for fish is the only way of harnessing the forest that the new generation of Nyishis learn, how long will the forest remain intact?”

The importance of such Indigenous perspectives as repositories of “worldviews where humans do not dominate or exploit nature” is now globally recognised but weighing these traditions solely from a utilitarian angle would be narrow. As I work on this piece, news of Late Issang’s sudden demise reaches me. A strange sense of urgency overpowers my feeling of grief. Prejudice needs to be set aside. Indigenous traditions must be heeded to, or at least archived, while we still can.

Upayan Chatterjee A researcher on computational techniques, he is also a freelance photographer focussing on the biodiversity and landscape of the high Himalaya. He is deeply invested in deciphering and learning from the close connections between India’s forests and fringe-dwelling communities.


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