“I wish I could go honey hunting.”
Decades after his last honey hunting expedition, Chumbi Megeji still has everything that he needs today: the basket to collect the honey, the indigenous rubber which seals its insides, the headgear to protect him from the bees, and also, the will.
But the former 83-year-old honey hunter of Arunachal Pradesh’s Sherdupken tribe knows that age is not on his side. Gone are the days, when he would set out on days-long expeditions into deep forests, make ladders from wild vines, hanging precariously from cliffs, to collect the sweetest of honey, as swarms of bees buzzed threateningly around him.
Today, there are only six honey-hunters left in all — the practitioners of a tradition at the risk of fading into oblivion. They are now the subject of a documentary, Chi Lupo, which recently won ‘best documentary’ at the 10th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival Awards 2020 announced on April 30.
“Only three out of six honey hunters are active,” says Kezang D. Thongdok, on the phone from Rupa, a town in Arunachal Pradesh, “Give it two years, and this tradition will disappear. That is why I thought it was imperative to make this film, documenting the last of the honey hunters.”
What is honey-hunting?
Honey-hunting is an age-old skill practised by the Sherpduken tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, which primarily resides in twelve villages of the state’s West Kameng district. As the 26-minute-long documentary portrays, the skill involves the Chi Lupo or honey hunters (‘Chi’ means honey, and ‘Lupo’ means hunter in Sherdupken) taking courageous journeys into the forests to collect a special kind of honey, found only on hives hanging from rocky hilltops.
The honey, the Sherpdukens believe, is of a special variety, extracted from very large honey bees. “In our area, the bees rarely make hives on trees, but instead choose the sides of rocky hills,” explains author Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, a writer from the Sherpduken community, who was awarded the Padma Shri earlier this year. “The hives are huge. As children, we would watch honey hunters at work. Their craftsmanship, their bravery and how they would collect honey in copper pots would awe us all.”
Similar tales from his grandparents, who were honey hunters too, inspired 35-year-old Thongdok to make the film. “Growing up we heard a lot about honey hunters. Back in the day, they were very respected because honey was a necessity — for food, for medicines,” said Thongdok, “But now, honey is available in stores and traditional medicines are not as important. As a result, honey hunting is not considered crucial. Not even one young person is interested in this skill.”
In Nepal, too, where honey is ‘hunted’ from Himalayan honey bees by the Gurung tribesmen, the practice faces similar threats.
Through June and July 2018, Thongdok and his three-membered crew accompanied a group of honey-hunters on an expedition to the Shra Numah hill near Thongri village. “It took a little convincing but the hunters agreed — they felt documenting this was is important,” says Thongdok, explaining that honey hunting usually happens in two seasons: October-November, when the rhododendron flowers are in full bloom, and June-July.
The shoot was wrapped up in four days, including the travel. “We documented them along every step of the way,” Thongdok explains. “The first place we reached was the base camp, after a two-and-a-half hour trek. Here the equipment from the journey is made: traditional ladders or Jong La, from wild vines.”
This intricate process, a group activity, is captured in detail in the film as the hunters laboriously weave vines together to make a long rope ladder.
“This is a ladder about 40 feet,” says one of the hunters in the film. But it could very well be longer. “It depends on the height of the mountain: the higher the mountain the longer the ladder.”
While the ladders are made on location, the honey-collecting baskets have been preserved by the hunters for years. “In fact, the one we used in our film is 40 years old,” says Thongdok.
A language spoken by 4,000
The documentary is narrated in English, with music by traditional Sherpduken folks singers. Thongdok feels that while the film has won an award, it does not necessarily translate to commercial success. “But we do get a lot of appreciation from our community and that means a lot,” he says.
The Sherpduken tribe speaks a language (also called Sherpduken) with no written script and roughly 4,000 people speakers.
While a few films have emerged from the tribe in the last five years, Thongdok feels that more needs to be done. He runs a Facebook page called ‘Sherptuken Entertainment’ which has films on a variety of subjects, including “video albums”. “These are basically songs in Sherpduken. It could be a love story, a comedy, a family drama, and so on,” he says.
His next film is on the Kai ching po or the traditional human messengers of the Sherpduken tribe. “Yes, they still exist out here,” he says, adding, “Most people don’t know where Arunachal is. To expect people to know about Sherdupken practices would be unfair. That is why I am making such movies.”