Type Music Festival   Time November (Dates Shift) Location Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh

The long drive from Guwahati to Ziro is a tiring one, even during the best of times. And the roads in Arunachal, especially after months of heavy showers, aren’t really at their best. However, to wake up to a misty world with all 22 shades of green does take one’s breath away. When I reached early on the second day of the annual Ziro Festival of Music, I should have been knackered, sleep deprived and hurting in a dozen places. And I was, too. It’s just that the sight of the valley – golden paddy fields framed against undulating forested hills – and the rain-washed scent of the earth had left me feeling strangely rejuvenated.

Ziro is home to the Apatani people, a non-nomadic, agrarian tribe. The Apatani people are an environmentally-conscious community who practice wetland cultivation, instead of the dry land one, which involves the burning of forests. The paddy farms double up as fish cultivations, with farmers using traditional irrigation methods to rear fish in knee-deep water.

UNESCO has even proposed for the Apatani cultural landscape’s inclusion to the list of World Heritage Sites for the tribe’s high agricultural productivity and unique conservation practices.

I made my way past the pools of mud to a little rise where a small tent village had sprung up. Across a bamboo bridge and past bright little pennants fluttering in the breeze, I met Anshul, one of the people in charge of the tents. Two old Apatani women, incredibly well-kept, were moving about the tents, selling small cups of tea to the dishevelled urban denizens emerging groggily from their tents. Anshul showed me the way to my tent, which was basically a tenthouse with three separate two-man tentlets around an enclosed courtyard.

There was a young couple fast asleep, half outside their tent. I unpacked as silently as I could and headed out for a quick bath. It was a gorgeous day, and I was in no mood for the confines of a tent.

Apatani women
Apatani women

The venue was a small hillock overlooking the wide valley of paddy fields yellowing in the sun. All around, fringing the valley, rose ridge after pine-clad ridge. The fields were punctuated by low Apatani houses. The town of Ziro lay a good 10km away, along with a cluster of small villages that make up the greater Ziro area. It had rained the previous night, and much of the ground was covered in thick, slippery mud. As a result, there were quite a few people walking around in impossibly bright gumboots.

I later learned that shopkeepers in Ziro have been building up a fairly lucrative gumboot business in the past three years of the music festival’s existence.

Not for nothing has Ziro been garnering a reputation for being India’s Glastonbury, smaller perhaps, but far prettier. It was an overcast day, and Ziro was bathed in a beautiful aquatic light. The Superfuzz from Delhi were doing their sound check when I left to find friends of mine who’d travelled from Kolkata for the festival. It was a happy reunion, and some of us trudged off to Ziro town to look for gumboots.

We walked off the forested hillock where the festival was located and onto the straightest road I’ve ever seen. Stretching for a kilometre through the fields, it’s the kind of road that compels you to take photographs, even though they would never convey any real sense of its awesomeness. So we took pictures of the road, of the fields, of the stream running through the valley, talked to a couple of bemused Apatani farmers, and marvelled at the spectacular vistas and the clouds floating low across the sky.

Bibek Bhattacharya
Tent accommodation in the midst of verdant mist-covered hills
Tent accommodation in the midst of verdant mist-covered hills

Even the scarecrows dotting the fields were distinct from those in other parts of the country – bamboo sticks with “eyes” made up of what looked like eggs – more totem than scarecrow. If I was still coming to terms with my 20-hour journey from Delhi to Ziro, any connection with the outside world was firmly severed when I saw a sign warning people against disorderly conduct. The punishment for doing so was to forfeit either a “full matured cow or a mithun”.

Our search for gumboots led us to a charming covered market in the main chowk. Apatani matrons sat beside neatly stacked piles of fresh vegetables and mounds of wriggling silkworms. The Apatani, like many of the other indigenous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, are famous for their culinary habits. So I asked one of the women how the silkworms were meant to be eaten. She smiled and said, “fry, eat.” The silkworm pile wriggled in agreement.

It was turning out to be a fine, sunny day. A fairly large number of people had congregated at the natural amphitheatre that held the Danyii (Apatani for sun) Stage reserved for folk artists. The vibe was youthful, and stylish. A hungry crowd had gathered around the food and drink stalls. Although the official drinks partner was Godfather beer, everyone was making a beeline for the locally brewed rice and millet beers. I tried some millet beer, but settled for the apong (rice beer). Pork dishes prepared using a variety of techniques was on offer – barbecued, steamed, in a curry, on a stick – and all of them were delicious.

A young boy plays a harp
A young boy plays a harp

On the other side of the field, the merchandise stalls were doing brisk business selling Ziro bags and T-shirts, as well as merchandise from many of the bands, especially those with new albums out. There was a distinct air of DIY, with music bands travelling with their own merchandise, and often selling them directly to their newly converted ardent admirers.

I became a fan of not one, but three bands that evening. Mizoram’s Freddy’s Nightmare, Meghalaya’s Street Stories and Arunachal’s Yesterdrive delivered blistering sets high on excellent songs laden with hooks, great chops and fun banter at the Pillo (Apatani for moon) Stage. Yesterdrive were veterans at Ziro, having made their debut appearance the previous year. They released their eponymous debut just before their gig, and then ran through a breakneck set of hugely catchy songs.

Pezo, the guitar player and vocalist of Street Stories riffed on the fact that people expected gritty songs from them, given the name of the band. “But inside, we’re just little girls. We love love songs,” he said, drawing a huge roar from the massive crowd, high on apong.

Himanshu Rohilla
An eclectic mix of people lands up at Ziro to enjoy the music
An eclectic mix of people lands up at Ziro to enjoy the music

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Apong didn’t result in a hangover, but it did make me a little hungry. So I hopped over for breakfast to a neighbouring Apatani house. This household had entered into an agreement with Shoes on Loose – the travel company running the campsite – to provide free breakfast to the hungry hordes.

Unfailingly polite and doting Apatani women served us a hearty meal of puri-sabzi and multiple cups of tea. Thus fortified, I went for a walk around the hillock, through bamboo avenues and past a few really spooky graves, before hitting the venue. The Punjabi pop band of the Sajda Sisters was performing on the Danyii Stage.

Accompanied by a dholak and an acoustic guitar, the sisters produced a stellar performance. They were followed by the Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland. Mercy and Kuku brought the house down with their gorgeous harmonies and re-fashioned Li (traditional Naga songs). We had been on the same bus from Guwahati, and Mercy had enthused about how beautiful Ziro could be on a sunny day, so to hear them sing on a bright day in Ziro was truly special. Congratulating them on their performance, I went in search of some pork.

On an adjoining hillock, a large straw installation had been set up. Rumour had it that it would be burnt on the final day of the festival.

Rohan, a guitarist with The Supersonics, and I headed up to investigate. We found that it was an archery target where a person from the Arunachal tourism department was busy practising his skills. Of more interest was Adam, a friend of Rohan’s. Dressed in a military jacket and beret, he had been flying a drone with a GoPro camera attached to it over the crowds all morning. As we watched, he manoeuvered the drone out across the paddy fields. It soared high above the venue, and then swooped down over the heads of the audience, drawing loud cheer and claps.

That evening, it finally rained. I joined a crowd of people taking shelter under the Danyii Stage and waiting for the storm to pass. I could hear the Mumbai-based band Laxmi Bomb, raging through the storm on the Pillo Stage, and judging from the roar of the crowd, the rain didn’t seem to be getting in the way. The rain stopped as soon as Laxmi Bomb finished playing, and as rapper Feyago took the stage, we stepped out of our rain shelter and ambled over.

A mild-mannered Bengali boy from Kolkata, Feyago transformed into a hip-hop star with some alacrity, belting out Eminem tributes with great aplomb, even climbing off the stage at one point to dance in the mud. This set the scene for The Ganesh Talkies. This relatively new band from Kolkata has a penchant for dressing up in techni-colour Bollywood-style costumes, but their supercharged set, all melody and power and menace, set the stage alight. After their electrifying performance, The Ska Vengers’ ska grooves seemed a little tame.

While waiting for the afterparty to begin, Rohan, Ananda (also of The Supersonics), Your Chin’s Raxit Tiwary and I had a mini-afterparty of our own, singing along to Oasis and Rolling Stones songs on a boom-box with some apong for company. Raxit, who had performed earlier that day, was to play a DJ set at the party, but I can’t say how it went, as I ducked in for an early night.

And so, the final day of the festival was upon us. It was another gloriously sunny day, and I spent most of it snoozing in the lovely sun, under an umbrella. The crowd had thinned a little as many people had departed in order to get back to colleges and offices the following Monday. However, some remained, determined to party.

Come night I would be on a bus bouncing my way to Guwahati, so I tried to get as much sleep as possible. Performances had already begun at the Danyii Stage, though with the exception of Rewben Mashangva’s gruff and seedy folk blues, it was all quite underwhelming.

Through the day, the real drama belonged to the scenery. Although the sun continued to shine in the valley, the mountains all around were covered with heavy clouds, creating an ever-shifting canvas of light and shade on the gorgeous pine-covered ridges. I was a bit sad that I didn’t have the time to hike in the surrounding mountains.

Crowds seated at the amphitheatre for an evening concert
Crowds seated at the amphitheatre for an evening concert

Bags packed and ready, I made my way to the front of the crowd for the evening’s performances at the Pillo Stage. Manipur’s legendary Imphal Talkies turned in a typically incendiary and politically-charged set around sunset, which had the music lovers bopping and cheering with gusto.

A little later, multi-instrumentalist Tajdar Junaid took to the stage, setting the venue alight with the cinematic soundscapes of his debut album. If his weeping guitar had the audience transfixed, We The Giants’ taut rock‘n’roll recreated the heady energy of the second day. The Supersonics took to the stage soon after and kept up the momentum with a set of ferocious rock‘n’roll songs, while we danced out front.

The songs kept coming, the frenzy grew, girls screamed and grown men cried. In the middle of the frenzied ‘Strawberry’, I heard a familiar hum. Adam’s drone, now glowing with UFO colours, was hovering over my head. Everyone screamed some more. But all things must pass, and after three days of lazy fun, the end to the festival was quick. As soon as The Supersonics finished their set, the buses back to Guwahati began to line up. I rushed to my tent and picked up my rucksack. We hugged and promised to meet next year, stuffed the buses with luggage and gear, and were off.

The Ziro Festival of Music traces its roots to 2012, as the brainchild of Anup Kutty of the music band Menwhopause and Bobby Hano, an Itanagar-based event manager. Despite the remoteness of Ziro, the music festival has grown exponentially over the years, and has managed to be fun and inclusive. This music festival also receives major support from the Arunachal Pradesh tourism department and the North East Collective.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Over the years, many hotels and homestays have sprung up all over Ziro. The main ones are Koj Hassang’s Ziro Valley Resort (Cell: 09856910173; Tariff: 1,200–4,000) in Biiri Village, offering spacious, well-appointed rooms. The hotel’s restaurant serves tasty Indian and Chinese fare.

Hotel Valley View (Cell: 09402031058; Tariff: 400–1,000) and Arunachal Guest House (Cell: 08794668775; Tariff: 1,200–1,500) are also good options.

The year 2014 saw Shoes On Loose (Cell: 09582153457; Tariff: four-day two-man tents available for 2,400 per person, including free breakfast; W shoesonloose.com) as the official camping partners, and the company did a great job, with a clean campsite, well-run portaloos and bathing tents. The premises were very well-kept.

FAST FACTS

Festival Organiser

W zirofestival.com

Tourist Office

Directorate of Tourism

Government of Arunachal Pradesh

Papum District, Itanagar

Tel: 0360-2214450, 2214745

Inner Line Permit

Deputy Resident Commissioner

GS Road, Rukiminigaon

Dispur, Guwahati

Tel: 0361-2412859, 2416720, 2412859

STD code Ziro 03788

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Lilabari, North Lakhimpur (100km/ 4.5hrs) is linked to Guwahati. Sumo taxis cost 4,500–6,000 a day

Rail Nearest railhead: North Lakhimpur (91km/ 4hrs) is linked to Guwahati. Taxi as above

Road From Guwahati catch NH37 to Kaliabor, NH37A to Tezpur, NH52 to North Lakhimpur, state road to Ziro via Kimin Bus State buses and shared taxis ply this route