“The narrow winding lanes of Yazali were decked up with the bamboo poles, and they called it ‘Tori’ engraved with simple yet artistic designs. Traditionally dressed men and women were lined up for the procession. While the women hung the ‘Tokris’ (a bamboo basket), the men carried the ‘Toris’ with a chicken tied to them. The Nyokum songs were played at the highest volume today but the thumping sound of the gong overpowered the music played on the modern technology. The women and men of the Nyishi Tribe walked in two parallel lines clapping and altering their dance moves with each musical note, singing “Nyokum Bo Taba Debe”. The rain god also joined the celebration by showering the watery arrows on the Nyishi land..
Suddenly, the hooting of a group of men was heard, we could see them chasing away a man clad in black by shooting arrows and other weapons at him. He was painted as dark and horrific as an evil. While the people in their off-white dress painted the town in the colors of happiness, this man was like an evil tainting the positivity of the auspicious event. Yes, that is what he was! A representation of the negativity and evil spirit.
The Nyishi men dramatically warded off the evil spirit from their region and danced their way to the festival ground. The women too joined the ever-expanding dance circles holding hands of the others. They drank and offered ‘Apong’, a fermented drink or the red millet wine and danced on the beats of the drums. The animals tied in the center, on an altar, were curiously observing the rituals and probably hearing the ancient mantras chanted by the shamans asking for forgiveness as the animals were being sacrificed for the betterment of all. The extravaganza of the Nyokum Yullo Festival was at its peak when a Nyishi Man came forward with a chiseled axe. Hooting and dancing suddenly picked up and reached the zenith of the rhythm.
The bison’s head was slayed off his body; his guts were taken out for the rituals and then went off his horns. Surprisingly, it didn’t move even a bit before the first slash of the sword, denoting a good omen for the future of the tribe. The blood and the white rice flour were sprinkled on the dancing crowd; as if sprinkling the blessings in the form of some holy sprinkles. The goat and a number of hens tied with the bamboo poles were followed in the process of sacrifice. Tribal dances continued in order to celebrate the occasion while the shamans continued his chanting all through the day praying for the peace of the sacrificed soul and the prevention of any natural calamity in the succeeding monsoon that can harm their agricultural produce.
A Nyishi Lady is serving an Ooju (a ladle) of Apong (Millet wine)
The main rituals of the grand Nyokum Yullo Festival were over; the men and women prayed for the fertile land and an immense production. Apong (the local wine) consumption was at its peak now, almost hundreds of barrels were consumed. The happy souls sang and danced forgetting all their tensions of the future year. And were enjoying being in the harmony with the Mother Nature’s happiness that was going to flourish their lands with an abundance of produce.”
Witness the flamboyant Spirit of the Nyishis in this video.
A long- tiring journey from the west-end of Indian subcontinent brought me to this least explored tribal land where I would be left awestruck by the culture of a few of the oldest tribes of the Himalayas. The topsy-turvy roads in the eastern-most state of India kept us entertained with its scenic frames moving in slow-motion along with us. The huts, hills, the river, and the sunny sky made it look like a fairyland. And finally, the Sun had left us turning off the visuals playing around us. But, the music of nature kept playing throughout the night. A simple but comforting hut right at the riverbank ensured that the swooshing Panyor and the rustle of the tall bamboo tree leaves lulled us to sleep.
The next day started with a breakfast in a Nyishi House that had invited the participants who were qualified for the dance performances and the sports events of the Nyokum Yullo festival for the meals. The rehearsals suggested that it was going to be a grand and a joyous meeting of the Nyishis from all the villages and all the other tribes of Arunachal.
The Ceremonial Extravaganza of the Nyokum Yullo Festival
Nyokum Yullo, that literally means ‘coming together to celebrate’ is a pre-cultivation festival of the Nyishi Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. The chanting of the Mantras, rituals and the sacrifices are made to invoke and please the Mother Nature or Goddess Nyokum who is supposed to bless the land with rains, fertility, and production and also save them from the wrath of nature in any form viz. famine, flood, drought or infections to their crops. The prayers also aim to seek the safety of the Nyishi people from any accidents or unforeseen circumstances.
The festival is also an opportunity for the Nyishis to meet others and cherish the proud heritage of their declining culture. It is a way for the Nyishis to preserve their ancient religion of Donyi Polo during the time of modern influences and prevalence of other dominating religions.
Considering the decline in celebration at the village level due to the time and religious restrictions involved in the separate functions in each village, the tribe-heads came forward in the year 1968 for a common celebration at Joram and after that, it became a matter of a grand celebration in the district headquarters at Yazali. In fact, it is a state holiday for the people in Arunachal so that they can be a part of the rituals pleasing the spirits of nature.
The rituals of the festivals continue for several days but the main gathering and the sacrifice take place from 23th to 27th February.
The Mantras and the Mystical Rains
The main rituals include the chanting of the age-old mantras by the Nyubh, the head priest of the Nyishi Tribe. It is said that the mantras are not written in any for anywhere and they can neither be memorized nor can be taught to anyone. The shamans or the priests are naturally blessed with the power of chanting the mantras for different rituals.
It is believed that the mantras of the shamans during the Nyokum Yullo Festival bring the rain especially on the day of celebration. In fact, the rain is also considered a good omen and evident of the fact that the shamans have performed all the ritual in a manner that would please the spirits protecting the community and their agricultural land.
Vigorous yet Graceful Dances and the Traditional Sports
The traditional dance performances and the songs are sung during the day as well as in the evening cultural program. The prominent among which is the traditional dance-drama ‘Nyem Khabnaam’ that resembles the famous composition ‘Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth. It is performed almost every day during the festival. It would give you a glimpse of the local culture, marriage ceremonies, and farming.
Nyem Khabnaam Prelude
War dance or Ropiy is another fascinating dance of the Nyishi Tribe that is also a theatric representation of warding away or killing off an evil spirit. The shamans also accompany the performers by chanting the ancient mantras for the war dance.
‘Topo’ is a war dance of the Adi Tribe of Arunachal. It is performed as a part of cultural representation by the other tribes in Nyokum Yullo Festival. Apart from this, the performance of Dragon dance is also quite intriguing.
Bamboo Dance, a peculiarity of the tribes in North East India can be enjoyed here during the festivals. It is interesting to see the girls matching the tapping of their feet with and through the beats of the bamboo stick.
Bamboo Pole Wrestling is one of the traditional sports of the Nyishi Tribe. The committee in charge of the festival arranges the rounds in almost all the villages of the district. The best 3 from all the villages are then invited at the district level in Yazali. The match between the top wrestlers who manage to reach the final round is truly captivating.
Pole Climbing: While the tribesmen here are genetically blessed with the art of tree climbing or pole climbing, Nyokum Yullo Festival gives them an opportunity to showcase their talent which, otherwise, doesn’t have any recognized platform.
Tug of War, a sport that reveals the strength of a group is also a core part of the Nyokum Celebration. The teams belonging to different localities or villages participate and bring laurels to their respective village by winning and showing their strength.
The Traditional Rituals
Warding Off the Evil Spirits and the Victorious Procession
A day before the sacrifice, the shamans help the households remove the bad luck or the evil spirit depriving them of their prosperity and luck. The mantra chanting does the main job while a man disguised as an evil is chased away just as a dramatic representation.
On the final day, the same ritual is performed for the whole region, where the evil is driven off from the region ensuring the positivity and appropriate vibes to please the Goddess and the spirits.
Pleasing the Spirits by Sacrificial Ceremony
The number and type of animals to be sacrificed are decided by the shamans or the Nyubh. The most common to be sacrificed are Mithun(bison), goats and the chickens.
When the shamans are welcomed to the festival venue, they carry along a thick bamboo stick called ‘Dapo’. The tribal religion Donyi Polo doesn’t follow the idol worshipping. But the bamboo stems are a major part of the rituals and are worshipped by the tribe by decorating it with leaves and chanting mantras near it.
The place where he fixes it would be cleaned and purified followed by a creation of an altar called ‘Yugung’ or ‘Yugie’ decorated with fresh leaves. It is a mere representation of different spirits that are supposed to be residing in them. The animals to be sacrificed are tied around the ’Dapo’. The shamans chant the mantras during the process of sacrifice that are addressed to the animals, land and the Goddess Nyokum.
The tribe believes that animals, birds, trees, crops, land and all the other natural elements have the divine or evil spirits in them. Pleasing the divine spirits can bring the good fortune, and same is the logic behind the ceremonial rituals of the Nyokum Yullo. The tribe invokes a spirit named ‘Uyus’ that is supposed be the protector or destroyer of their crops. And the bamboo sticks and the leaves merely show its presence at the Yugung.
” The Rituals are not about understanding, it is about the faith and the experiences of the believer.” – Immortal Talks
Also Read: An Encounter with the Tribesmen of Andaman
On the day succeeding the sacrifice, the ladies who participated in the main rituals of Nyokum, carry fresh water from the flowing streams, river or a few homes. It is then sprinkled in their fields from where they also pluck the fresh leaves. The remaining water and the leaves are carried back to offer it to the ‘Yugung’ or ‘Yugie’. Then they wash or purify themselves by pouring the same water on their feet.
Teiyammch Hukmanan Tetap – Predicting the Future
The Nyishi men and women stood in line, they all had their ‘Likha’ or the family name as a descendant of the Nyishi Tribe. Only then can the Nyubh predict their future based on the measurement of grains in a patha (a bamboo mug). It was strange to observe that the quantity of the grains and the size of the vessel remained the same. When some of them poured the grain into the mug, it was brimming whereas it remained a little lesser for the others.
Tha Nyubh would declare the people with the brimming mug as luckier than the other one and that their year is going to be prosperous.
Post Ceremonial Rituals
After the days of rituals, the spirits of nature are left untouched to rejuvenate or probably to prepare for the abundance to be showered on the tribals that had pleased them. The people do not touch or disturb any of the natural elements, be it trees, animals, fruits, land, crops, vegetables or water. This ritual was followed strictly earlier when the tribes wouldn’t even bathe or wash any clothes to refrain from polluting the water, but with the changing times, they have been lenient with such rules.
Moreover, the people who have been a part of the Nyokum ritual can’t cross the Dapo after the purification process and that is the reason nowadays the altar is fixed in the festival ground which is then closed till the ritual restrictions prevail.
- How to Reach Yazali: The best way to Reach Yazali is to take the overnight train from Guwahati to Itanagar.(Would cost you 585 INR in Three-tier AC) There are direct trains to Itanagar from Delhi and Kolkata too. Though I traveled by a direct cab from Guwahati to Itanagar (1500 INR per person), the journey was quite tiring. From Itanagar, Yazali can be reached in shared taxis within 2 hours.
- Where to Stay in Yazali: If you wish to share the space in the local longhouse of the Nyishis (recommended), you can also opt for the family home stays. You can contact Chukhu Mamma (+919862830513), who is a professor at Itanagar Uni. And also a lead person managing the grand festival. However, if you need comfort and privacy, you can opt for a stay in Exotic Heritage Resort.
- What to Eat: The festival venue provides free food for all during the festival duration. However, do note that the food is very traditional that includes the steamed rice, salted and boiled meat of different animals (Mithun, goat, and Chicken, pork are main). Dried ginger, dried local spices are also available. The town of Yahali also has several restaurants that can provide you with basic veg food on your demand. Apart from this the festival ground has a few stalls that provide fruits, Maggie Noodles, fish, wild sweet potatoes, boiled sweet potatoes and other local vegetables.
- Red Millet or Raagi Wine(Apong) is also available at the venue. Even if you don’t drink, it would be a good experience to try.
- You can take some day trips to Ziro Valley to explore the Apatani Tribal Area or can do some treks, attend Ziro Festival (July/September) or Dree Fest if you are there during or after monsoons.
- Obtaining Inner Line Permit is a matter of 15-20 minutes through this official website for Arunachal ILP. Foreigners need to obtain PAP (Protected area permit which is also available in the locally approved Travel Agents. (Contact: Chukhu Mamma – +919862830513 ) or you can read more about it here.
- Read more about the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh — ARUNACHAL PRADESH: TRIBES & TRADITIONS
If you are impressed by the traditional Nyishi attire, you must read this:
Pint it Now, Read it Later
**It was an honour to be invited for the golden jubilee of the Nyokum Yullo Festival at Yazali, Arunachal Pradesh. And my heartiest thanks to Chukhu Mamma for his informative guidance and inputs about the Nyishi Tribe, the rituals and the culture throughout the festival.**