Udeepta Phukan, an independent researcher, working on the interplay of memory and emotions in the social life of Northeast India, recently embraced this cradle of happiness – the Ziro Festival of Music! In his traveler’s avatar, he relives some of his choicest memories here on Backpacking Series and urges you to bump it to the top of your bucket list.
The Tranquil Presence of Ziro
These days, people are in search of excuses to take a break from their dull and drab routines, to energize their spirits, and rekindle their youthful hearts. What if I were to tell you that the best excuse awaits for you every year in a little-known valley called Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, pocketed away from the hustle and bustle of the city? Hard to believe? Hop along, as I take you on a jaunt to one of the most unheard of places that blooms to life in one exhilarating music festival.
What Makes Ziro so Special?
Tucked deep into nature’s lap, and away from the quotidian cacophony of urban life is the sleepy little Ziro Valley in the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Perched atop serene blue hills, the sight of Ziro Valley abounds with lush green-yellow rice fields spread across a wide expanse; it’s a paradise in hiding for even the best of touristic gazes.
Ziro is home to the Apatani, an animistic tribe that has survived the sweeping effects of civilization by relying on its indigenous knowledge traditions and a strong community-lifestyle. For a long time now, Apatani tribesmen have employed local knowledge for wet-rice cultivation while constantly emphasizing on sustainable agriculture, an interesting case in today’s burgeoning shift towards mechanized agricultural practices.
But the Apatani tribe is known more for its womenfolk, who until a few years back practiced the art of making facial tattoos and inserting large nose-plugs, evoking keen anthropological enquiry among researchers. Legend has it that these women smeared their faces with ink produced from tea saps and put on nose-plugs to prevent themselves from getting kidnapped by marauders from neighbouring belligerent tribes. The veracity of this story is disputable though.
So, in its localness and its largely quite surrounds, does Ziro miss out on fun and frolic? Absolutely not! It supercharges itself, every year, in what’s popularly known as the Ziro Festival of Music or ZFM, when the entire valley relinquishes its isolation and comes alive in an altogether different fashion.
This year, the attendees at ZFM 2018 were in for a surprise. The usual overcast skies made way for the Sun, the first time it has happened since the start of the festival in 2012. Ah, and it was quite a sight to behold, to say the least.
If I could write a short answer, a one-word answer, to the question of ‘what makes Ziro special’, it has to be ZFM. Over the years, Ziro Festival of Music, this one-hell-of-a-music-concert, one of the most soul-unwinding experiences, has grown bigger and better and brought some good publicity for Ziro. No wonder why the state government partially funds this extravaganza!
The How, Why, and What of Ziro Festival of Music?
Dubbed as the ‘Woodstock of the East’, ZFM is a fest like no other in India. It brings together people from all over the world – aficionados of music willing to embark on a whooping 18-20 long hours of arduous journey from Guwahati, the largest city in Northeast India. Mountainous terrain, rugged roads, rickety rides, and hairpin bends make up for a tough welcome. But once you brave past these, you land yourself in nothing less than a Shangri-La.
ZFM was the brainchild of Bobby Hano and Menwhopause guitarist Anup Kutty, who in 2012, decided to bring indie music to this distant frontier land. The success of ZFM lies in the fact that it has carved out a niche for itself in the indie music scene, acting as a platform for lesser-known artists and bands to showcase their talents while at the same time inviting established acts to make some buzz.
Lou Majaw, Indus Creed, Damo Suzuki, Lee Ranaldo, Menwhopause, Guru Rewben Mashangva, Steve Shelley, Akkumika, Antione, No Strings Attached, and Shaa’ir n Func, are among the many artists who have graced ZFM.
The USP of ZFM is its democratic set-up: artists and fans freely interact, make merry, and immerse themselves in the pristine atmosphere. There aren’t too many outdoor music fests that cater to such bonhomie. To add to the uniqueness of the fest, there is not one but two stages, named after the animistic religion of the Apatanis—Daanyi Pillo (also known as Donyi Polo). Situated on a hillock, both the day and night stages are eponymously named, as Daanyi stands for the Sun and Pillo stands for the Moon.
For the adventurous, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to try out novelty dishes featuring pork, frogs, and silkworms that the kiosks around the stages sell. Still thinking if you would really want to take a daunting trip to Ziro Valley from wherever you are, just for a music fest? I bet you would, once I tell you that it’s much more than ‘just’ a music fest! Read on.
What I did at Ziro?
Tryst with Nature
I am not a morning person per se. The one thing I never like to part with is my bed. Heaven knows how many times I have seen the sunrise in my life! On the first day of the fest, the freshness at Ziro and the call of the morning birds pulled me out of the bed quite early, leaving me surprised that I was able to pull off a mean feat. I woke up sometime around 6 a.m. After quickly freshening up, I took a bicycle from our campsite and told my friends not to expect me to return anytime soon.
I pedaled my way across the fields, through the main paved road that leads to Hong village. The breathtaking view instantly reminded me of a famous song:
The alleys were not empty, for people in Ziro are up and active at the first call of dawn. The best part of the cycling trip was the unavailability of Google Maps to navigate down the road and up the hills. If you are someone who likes to remain connected to the Internet all the time, Ziro will give you a hard time. But if you resolve not to let your phones get the better of you, then well, Ziro is all-inviting.
It doesn’t hurt to occasionally turn on the radio silence mode, does it? The weariness of the debilitating journey of the earlier day hadn’t worn off. But I was all too excited to check out what Ziro had in store for us connoisseurs of travel and adventure.
Parking my cycle at a local store, I strode past the alleys with heavy steps. Suddenly a kid popped up from nowhere, and let me know that his mother extended an invite for breakfast. I had read somewhere that when invited by an Apatani household, it’s silly not to accept the offer.
Indeed, the hospitality offered to me was out of this world! I tasted a local delicacy called pike pilla, which was a fitting complement to the chilly weather. These households are the epitome of community-living, that bespeaks an equal affective involvement on the part of each family member by the fireplace.
I Witnessed a Music Festival
My timepiece reminded me that I should get going, as the day stage was to go live in about an hour and a half. I hurried to the venue, breezing my way through the meadows to reach the site where the action was to begin. By the time I reached, people were already thronging the tiny hillock in their carnivalesque moods. Here I should mention that both the stages—the Daanyi and the Pillo—create totally different vibes.
The daytime event was relatively sober. It began at noon and featured mostly the local indie acts. The atmosphere was chill, and the aura was spellbinding. After the hour-long break following the end of the daytime event, I moved over to the other stage and I could see that the groove started to set in.
The night stage is motley mix of musical genres, right from your jazz and hip-hop to ska and beyond. You are able to feel the pulse of the moment, and the setting gets electrified. People are seen indulging in a drink or two, sipping their beers to their last dregs. Lovely, isn’t it?
Where to Camp in Ziro?
A good campsite creates a harmonious space that promotes sustainable eco-tourism. Moreover, while traveling to the festival, you’d also want to explore nearby places, learn about local lifestyle, and in general have fun with fellow revelers. There are many things to do in Ziro.
You could go on a heritage-walk to the Apatani villages, go on a food-tasting spree (yes, the local brew rice beer too!), find out about local irrigation and farming techniques, and go fishing with bare hands in marshy rice fields. Phew! Tolkien fans would be delighted, for Ziro has all the elements of Middle Earth.
On your next visit, you could try Camp Zingaros, a site hosted by Discover Northeast. They had things sorted out to the detail of usual serenades by the bonfire!
What is ZFM doing better than the other music festivals?
ZFM, in partnership with the local Apatani Youth Association (AYA), has made elaborate attempts to create a sustainable design framework. It has roped in Kollol Brahmadutta, a bamboo architect, who is in charge of stage design to make them environmentally viable. The ecological connection that the Apatani tribe shares with the landscape is very well integrated in the arena.
ZFM doesn’t seem to shy away from upholding community-living practices and it sure has made a statement—you can’t take it all from nature, you also have to give something back. I urge you guys to see for yourself, how ZFM is managed as a Zero Waste Festival. Ingenious, so to say.
Ziro Festival of Music echoes the sentiments of the hills and its people—this is a place for relationships. I spent four days forging some ever-lasting bonds and listening to my campmates narrate their stock of stories, accompanied by strums of the guitar. Would you want to miss out on any of that? Hell, no!
So, what are you guys waiting for? Start planning from now, and you might just land up in Ziro next year, right in time for the festival. The nippy air, the feeling of being peacefully happy, and the promise of a culturally rich landscape that will take your senses by awe is just too much reason on why you shouldn’t call it a shot.
Think North East India
For those who do not know, North East India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack Northeast India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices. Buy now!
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Have you witnessed the Ziro Festival of Music? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you.
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