“You must have another,” says the congenial man as he pours another glass of the cloudy drink and thrusts the potent concoction in my hand. In other circumstances, I would have firmly refused a fifth refill. But this was Reh, a celebration of the Idu Mishmi community of Arunachal Pradesh, and the drink their local rice brew, ‘apong’. I couldn’t say no, because after all, I was celebrating my return to the northeast after seven long years. And when a chance to explore the eastern part of Arunachal and attend a timeless festival popped up, I took it, hook, line and sinker.
I land in Roing, the main town cum capital of the Dibang valley in the eastern part of Arunachal, a day before Reh starts. The town is not festooned and the ambience fuss free; clearly it’s a small affair and I am yet to experience its sparkle. It’s only the following day when I sit cross-legged in the reko or sacred hut of a bear skin-clad igu or head priest, and apong flows freely amidst the dancing and chanting, that I understand its importance.
Believed to be the children of the divine mother Nanyi Inyitaya, the Idu Mishmis celebrate Reh primarily to invoke her blessings for their happiness and prosperity. Like a typical mountain goddess, it takes days of prayers, incantations, and offerings of sacrifices to appease Initaya. What initially started as an elaborate week-long festival has today been condensed into a three-day celebration that is cost effective, and goes back to the philosophy of festivals that encourage communal gatherings.
Being the largest settlement in the area, Roing has the most extravagant festivities, in terms of an organised fete. This is where I attend Andropu, or day one of the festival. My friend and northeast expert, Sunil leads me straight to the reko where we join the locals sitting around the fire as the head priest chants. Sporting a typical Mishmi haircut (straight fringes, closely cropped sides), bearskin, bone ornaments and teeth and claws of various animals and reciting chants in low but audible Mishmi intonations, he breaks into an occasional dance to the beat of ripu and other traditional percussions as apong flows incessantly. Below the reko, pigs grunt, waiting their turn at the altar.
While the idea of sacrifice may come across as primitive today, it needs to be understood in a very socio-cultural context. The practice of hunting is deeply rooted in northeastern traditions. However, what was once primarily a hunting community is today increasingly appreciative of the unique biodiversity of its region. Agents of change such as Mishmi conservationist Jibi Pulu have a huge role to play in this. People like him have been working in the Roing region to create awareness about conservation and its importance.
Another thing that is being conserved by the Mishmis is their language. Dr. Mite Linggi and Hindu Meme, in collaboration with linguists, have been working to create their own script and at this year’s fiftieth Reh celebration, they launch the Mishmi dictionary. As I move through the crowd, I wave at Jibi who is here with some wildlife enthusiasts and other guests curious about the festival. Men wander in traditional multi-coloured coats, with a dao or sword hanging on the side, and camera bearers chase the striking Mishmi women in traditional finery.
The second day, Eyanli, is when most of the sacrifices, including buffaloes and mithuns (the indigenous cousin of the Indian gaur), take place. Traditionally, it is on Iyili, the third and final day that the feasting takes place. But driving around and stopping at various villages to wish people a ‘happy Reh’, we are offered rice, meat and apong on all days.
On the evening that we drive far towards the bank of the Dibang river with Lingi and Meme, we stop at their uncles’ village that has only three houses. The families sit around a fire, laughing, chatting and sharing a modest dry pork and rice meal that I have a bite of. We thank them for the apong in the tall handmade bamboo glasses we are handed, and which I try to hold steady without spilling over the rim for the last leg of the bumpy drive. As we weave through dense forests of bamboo and wild banana interspersed with the omnipresent orange trees and watch the sun sinking over the Dibang, the sheer joy of the small, three-family village celebration plays out in my head. I know then that is what Reh truly symbolizes; a time for people to get together and celebrate life, and the joy it has to offer, even if the helpings are small.
All the images are by Shikha Tripathi