Suraj Bagang’s weather-beaten face contorts in make-believe concentration and his eyes squint as he simulates a kill — there, in the near horizon, is a speck of nearly-fluorescent brightness, an imaginary hornbill. Bagang lets go a faux arrow, which splits through the pretend air and spears through the false heart of the fantastical hornbill. “I very rarely miss,” says Bagang, his statement to be taken as the absolute truth.
Fact is, from being a hunter of hornbills — colourful birds which get their name from their long and heavy bill — Bagang is now a proud protector of them. His tribe, the Nyishis of Arunachal Pradesh, once hunted the hornbill for its meat, and for its beak, which they wore as headgear. Now, ever since the Nyishis became involved in a process of conservation five years ago, Bagang, for the enticement of a monthly salary, has found himself locating hornbill nests, cleaning or repairing them if required, looking after roosting birds, and in a clear break from the tradition of hunting he picked up from his grandfather, acting as one of 11 such nest protectors from neighbouring villages here.
The conservation effort called for a celebration and when thousands of Nyishis gathered around for the Pakke Paga Festival, held between January 16 and 18 at Seijosa in East Kameng district of the state, the centre of attraction, but of course, was the hornbill, four species of which — Wreathed, Great Indian, Oriental Pied and the endangered Rufous-necked — are found in the forests of this beautiful district.
Held in a large, open field at Seijosa, it became apparent from the first day itself that this was a festival like no other. In India, a successful effort at nature conservation is often a closed-door celebration among NGOs and activists. But here, Pakke Tiger Reserve, Nature Conservation Foundation, Ghora-Aabhe Self-Help Society and Help Tourism, the four co-organisers of the event, ensured that the Pakke Paga Festival resonated among a wider family of stakeholders: the people.
From once being a well-known hunter-warrior tribe, the Nyishis demonstrated at the festival that they have a future in song and dance, often to Bollywood-like beats. While other tribal groups like Apatani, Khamti, Boro and Mishing were also represented in the cultural show, the Nyishi hosts dominated on stage and off it too. When not participating on stage or manning dozens of food and handicrafts stalls that fringed the field, Nyishi women sashayed along the festival campus in their beautifully hand-woven and delicately colour-coordinated traditional skirt (the pari galley), long, beaded necklaces and metal waistbands that produced a soft cowbell sound as they walked.
At one of the food stalls, a young Nyishi girl showed us the traditional method of cooking bamboo rice: she neatly arranged the uncooked rice on local leaves as broad as banana leaves, folded it into a rectangular shape, inserted the leaf with the rice into the hollow of a short bamboo piece and placed it next to the fire. Depending on the strength of the fire, it takes a few minutes for the rice to cook — considerably faster than pressure cookers or rice cookers. “Byas, that’s it,” the girl tells us cheerfully as the rice is ready to be eaten in under two minutes. Each stall displayed rice varieties like juha, lai and aijung, and the bamboo rice went down especially well with the local-style boiled pork. To slake the festival-goers’ thirst, stalls stocked at least six varieties of the local rice beer called apong. Ah, I plead guilty to the brew’s effects, and the merriment of the starry Seijosa nights huddled over the hurriedly rustled-up camp fire and the off-key singing around it.
Competing with the various attractions at the festival was the hornbill, or rather, allusions to it. Other than plywood cutouts, a giant inflatable bird bang in the middle of the festival field, T-shirts and caps with hornbill imprints and lots of posters and brochures creating awareness on protection, the crux to the hornbill conservation story at Seijosa happened to be the headgear many Nyishi men wore at the event. The bopia, as the Nyishi helmet is called, would, till a few years back, not be complete without attachments of colourful hornbill feathers and the beak of the bird, one of the reasons why hornbills used to be killed in large numbers. When the Goan Buras (the elderly village headmen) suggested a ban on mass hunting, says Takum Nabum, chairman of the Ghora-Aabhe Society and secretary of the festival, they faced stiff resistance from Nyishi men. The ban only became effective after the Wildlife Trust of India, along with the state forest department, led by the very efficient and widely-respected DFO, Tana Tapi, devised and popularised Nyishi headgear with fibreglass or wood hornbill-lookalike beaks. The birds, subsequently, got to live out their natural life spans.
At the festival, amidst hundreds of revellers from East Kameng and neighouring districts and states, Nyishi men stood out with daos strapped around their waists and wood or fibreglass helmets on their head. One middle-aged man with betel-stained teeth made me wear his bopia and danced “like a hornbill” around me. Maybe his act was an impulsive response to how stupid and alien I looked or it could be his midday shots of apong. Maybe it was the man’s way of celebrating the return and reinstatement of hornbills to his part of the world in sharp contrast to neighbouring Nagaland, which hosts the high-profile Hornbill Festival each year but with fewer attempts at conservation — one state’s celebration to the other’s commemoration of the hornbill.
Despite the ode to the hornbill that the Pakke Paga Festival was, on the third day of the trip, we realised that we hadn’t seen a single bird in flight. Other visitors had been lucky to spot a few hornbills, but our photographer and I had been left to only imagine the beautiful winged creatures. It was getting a little desperate, so I decided to spend an early evening next to the Pakke river flowing along the festival campsite for a glimpse. I realised then too that the great hullaballoo raised by the festival pivoting around the hornbill could actually be the reason why they weren’t around. But the solitary moments at the riverfront refreshed me with the quaint landscape of the foothills, the gentle gushing of the Pakke river, and the possibilities within the Pakke Tiger Reserve sprawled across the opposite bank.
One morning, we decided to leave early for the forest, but our plans were soon derailed — there was no water available! A herd of elephants had trampled through the water supply lines in the forest, we were told. The incident led to more storytelling by the locals — about an apong-loving herd of elephants, a tiger that took away cattle, a leopard which intruded on a riverbank picnic — for the wild is a living truth and a bark away at Pakke. I enjoyed this vicarious travel through the wilderness even as our jungle safari got deferred.
The search for the hornbill took us on other trips around the area. Even though January isn’t prime hornbill season, optimism kept our eyes fixed on tree tops instead of the road. I particularly admired the coppery luminescence of the bhelu (Tetrameles nudiflora), a favourite nesting tree for the hornbill, standing bright in the opaque green of the forests.
A rugged road led us to the hilltop forest resthouse at remote Langka, from where we had a glorious view of the Dibru river making its way through valleys and gorges. I almost resigned myself to the consolation of great mountain landscapes when suddenly our driver applied the brake. “Hornbill! Hornbill!” We trod gently towards a tall tree in the distance, but the sun having set, we could only make out faint silhouettes of two birds perched on a high branch — with their long beaks facing each other, they seemed remarkably like old people ruminating on life.
It wasn’t good enough for Sandipan, our photographer, and early next morning we headed into the Pakke Tiger Reserve. On the way, we spotted a sambar and a barking deer — they would not do either. Deep inside the jungle, we ended up at the forest beat house in Khari, a well-known animal-watching zone.
I made myself a little home within rocks, lying around while the guide led Sandipan deeper into the forest, our photographer armed with the longest telephoto lens in his armoury. The small stream gurgling past my feet worked like a lullaby on my senses, lulling me to the point that I almost nodded off. This was a hiatus from the relentless revelry of the festival. The sun offered resistance against the biting January morning chill. I woke from my reverie to the sound of the hornbill’s coarse call. By the time I traced the call to the bird, it was just a flash of shrill yellow against the blue sky.
I remembered the endearing shape of the hornbill couple from the previous evening and, to that image, added the call and the colours from my latest sighting. There! I had just stitched up a composite picture of the hornbill and its future at Pakke.
The first annual Pakke Paga Festival was held on January 16-18 at Seijosa in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Visitors can arrange to attend via helptourism.com