My three kids were excited to see elderly men doing somersaults in the air on a thick reed tied to a bamboo pole. As these men climbed on another vertical pole, the adults shrieked as loudly as the kids.
We were at the fourth edition of Basar Confluence (BasCon), a people-owned festival held in the bucolic census town of Basar in central Arunachal Pradesh in December. The event, relatively less known, even to the festival crowd that frequents Cherry Blossom Festival in Shillong or Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, is high on ecological sensibilities. It was this that had us embark on an 800-km road trip. We reached a day in advance, hoping to soak in the place. And we sure did wake up to an artist’s rendition of a rural landscape — clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds, and a few bamboo houses embellishing the space between us.
At our homestay, bamboo flooring creaked under our feet. Our hosts served us tea in bamboo glasses with a spicy aroma. Over the five days that we stayed in Basar, our north Indian family adapted to the smell of fermented bamboo shoot in food — graduating from twitching our noses to licking our fingers.
At the festival, Galos, the tribe inhabiting Basar, put an impressive display of objects made of bamboo — huts, stage, stairs, benches, bridges, straw lights and even the tall tumblers to serve apong (rice wine). Less than 60 years ago, the Galos were hunter-gatherers. Their games at the festival were reflective of the tough life in the forest. In a Tarzan swing, one has to negotiate a stretch of land by hanging on to just reeds or wild ropes. There was archery, stilt race and the “wife-saving” race in which one needed to run with his wife on his back. The antics looked fun but were not so easy to do when I tried my hand at it.
“In the jungle, one needs to run with children and females on the back, climb slippery trees to avoid encounters with wild animals or manoeuvre a difficult terrain on reeds hanging from trees. Walking on bamboo stilts is good to learn balance and overcome the fear of height,” said Pagjum Doke, member of the traditional sports committee at BasCon.
The food, too, was reflective of the Galos’ hunting background. Food huts mainly served non-marinated roasted country chicken, pork, fish and mithun with salt and chilly. The vegetarian fare included wild mushroom, tubers and steamed rice cakes. The most popular fare was the irresistibly sweet apong. All stalls used tora, a long banana-like leaf, to serve the food in.
For community fishing, a part of the Ego river, about 27 km from Basar town, was dammed and a wild bush, locally known as taneer, was immersed in water. Taneer is said to make the fish unconscious, making it easy to catch them. Galo men and women vigorously upturned stones to find their catch — and each catch called for a sip of apong. My four-year-old twins were thrilled to hold their first fish catch and would not let us roast them later. The Galo culture is all about working as a community, be it fishing, house construction or shifting cultivation, but, over a period of time, this bonhomie has eroded, thanks to material advancement, said Digbom Riba, chairman of the non-profit Gumin Rego Kilaju, the main force behind BasCon. “The main motive of BasCon is to protect the values of our forefathers and regain confidence in our culture while evolving out of customs like hunting and killing animals for sacrifice,” he said.
Each village in Basar took the responsibility to host the tribes who came to perform at the festival from other parts of Arunachal. We could not resist tapping our feet to the Sherdukpen tribal dance from Bomdilla. The monotone song of Ponu, a dance performed by a large number of Galo women, had us transfixed. Most tribal dances are generally slow, the reason I feel is so that everybody can participate. A complete contrast was the dance by the warrior Nocte tribe that is performed to celebrate headhunting. The Galo language has amazing singers of all genres, including rap and rock music. To retain the folk flavour, no Bollywood songs were allowed on stage.
Basar is a hikers’ paradise as we discovered in our long walks during the day. We crossed a stream on foot to reach Joli, the sacred grove, and climbed a steep trail of a regenerated forest. The EB project hill is named after the man who revived the forest and thus a stream that feeds the downhill village. About 17 km away in Padi village is one of the many tapen penrus (bat caves) of Basar. We couldn’t go to Odi Putu (about 14 km away) — it is said it witnesses the country’s first sunrise.
The festival ground had a treehouse that kept our kids busy and off our sight for quite long. They were awestruck to see men carrying Orok (the long multipurpose knife carried in a sling bag by all Galo men), hunting traps and the fishing and agricultural tools exhibited at the venue. Groups that displayed their wares included a co-operative that collects and sells handicrafts, a young hearing-and- speech-impaired artist and a local organic tea producer, besides joy rides for children. Interestingly, the last was the only business from outside the region.
Winters mean picnic time for the Galos. “The huts and tree houses would be kept intact for the residents to come and bask in as long as they don’t litter the place,” said Minjo Basar, one of the organisers. The show must go on.
Ravleen Kaur is a homeschooling mother and an independent journalist in Assam. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Whispering Reeds’.
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