In Perfect Harmony: The Pakke Paga Festival 2017
Deven Gandhi chronicles his three-day experience at The Pakke Paga festival— Arunachal Pradesh’s only wildlife-themed festival.
Photo: Trishant Simlai.
An expensive flight to Guwahati, a crowded bus to Tezpur and a bumpy 60 km. cab ride lead me to my destination — Seijosa, a little town nestled in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. Stepping out of the cab onto a streetlamp deprived road, I instinctively looked up at the starlit sky. Welcome, the night whispered.
Located on the bank of the Pakke river, Lower Seijosa is one of the 43 villages spread across Pakke Tiger Reserve’s buffer zone. It is primarily inhabited by the Nyishi tribals, a community of skilful individuals. I wondered if I would have ever come here if not for my nomadic wildlife conservationist wife, who had been working in Seijosa for the last two months. My wife, hanging off of a bridge, battling bad reception would make occasional phone calls back home, imparting knowledge about the wonders of this place. So when she asked if I would come to Seijosa for the Pakke Paga Festival I couldn’t help but agree.
Upon reaching Seijosa I moved into a traditional Arunachal home-stay, giving up the option of tents or the forest guest house, modestly priced and organised exclusively for the festival visitors.
Day 1: Dance, Food and a Promise of Change
I woke up to announcements blaring from the festival ground. Rushing through the morning ablutions, I followed the sound and came upon a huddle of dance groups lined up to inaugurate the festival. A tune poured softly from the speakers and one by one the groups moved in a coordinated tribal dance towards the stage, raising a cloud of dust.
After witnessing the enthralling performance, I strayed towards the stalls. There were 20 in all, 15 of which were food and beverage stalls offering smoked pork, mithun (wild cow), potato chop, noodle soup, traditional lunch and dinner spreads along with freshly brewed Marua Apong (millet beer) and rice beer. These local delicacies were served on banana leaves placed atop bamboo benches at the back of the stalls.
A chopper escorting the chief guest created quite a hubbub, with crowds gathering around the landing to witness the spectacle. The chief guest, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, spoke last after a string of speeches that followed his arrival.
In the past, promises to build infrastructure in the area had been made, but to no effect. The chief guest, in his speech assured people of development. He reasoned with the crowd pointing out the inevitability of change as the present government at the centre and the state belonged to the same party. The silence following his speech was broken by the whirring blades of the chopper announcing our chief guest’s departure.
I then resumed my pursuance of the stalls and came upon one selling traditional merchandise, including glass-fibre hornbill beaks. This glass hornbill beak is now being exchanged for the real hornbill beak that the locals wear as a part of their traditional attire. At the adjacent stall run by the NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation), I learnt that the hornbill was endangered because of hunting by locals who use hornbill beaks, feathers and flesh for ornamental and traditional purposes. I was also introduced to their intriguing Hornbill Nest Adoption programme. Humbled by their work I decided that I too would adopt a hornbill nest.
After the morning festivities, we returned to our homestay to gear up for the night. We reached the festival site at five in the evening. “The night is still young” had taken a very literal meaning at Lower Seijosa.
The stage was lit up and the anchor, with his compelling sense of humour, kicked off the cultural programme. The audience cheered as a shy-looking girl took the stage and broke into a Bollywood song. The traditional dance and singing acts that followed included performers from different parts of North East India. The audience unable to resist joining in the revelry, formed little chains and went up the stage dancing and cheering.
Photo: Trishant Simlai.
Day 2: Of Local Sports and “Hoga”
Despite my ambitious plan to take part in the festival marathon at six in the morning, I woke up to the noon sun beating down upon Seijosa. The second day of the festival was heavy on sports and activities. I was spoilt for choice at the registration desk. Going down an extensive list: jeep/elephant safari, bird watching, butterfly walk, trekking, rafting; I reached the local sports section – Segia Ganam, Lepa, Kolo Hignam, Narmin Sunam, Segia Duknam, Metewk Hiknam – and decided to stay behind.
As the anchor announced the names of the participants, a 25-foot bamboo pole was erected in the middle of the ground. The crowd moved from the Segia Ganam (arrow shooting) event towards the bamboo for the Segia Duknam (pole climbing). The first participant to go up the pole slipped right down the second he took his feet off of the ground. The bamboo had been oiled, as otherwise it would have been too easy for the agile locals. Amidst shrieks of laughter, I shouted out suggestions and encouragement along with the crowd. The women’s category saw five Nyishi women dressed in traditional attire, rise impressively to the challenge.
The Narmin Sunam (stick wrestling) drew an even bigger crowd with the local champion being challenged by a Hungarian visitor in the final. Life in the wilderness had kept the locals in good shape. The other local sports were equally competitive and displayed the sporty spirit of the people.
By then I had picked up some local jargon. The people would interchange gender and tense to speak a very distinct dialect. The word used most frequently was “Hoga”, which could mean “yes”, “possible”, or “have more”, depending on the context.
The evening progressed and driven by hunger, we entered one of the stalls to get some potato chops. We settled around a bonfire where the locals cooked and brewed their fresh millet brew. I took a swig of the deceptively smooth liquid served in a hollow piece of bamboo. Eventually, more people poured in, grabbing bamboo glasses for themselves. Within an hour I had guzzled down half a dozen glasses. Shouts of “HOGA” pierced the night as we danced around the fire.
Photo: Trishant Simlai.
Day 3: DJ Night and more “Hoga”
The next morning I woke up in a daze. Realising the time, I hurried out to assist with the kids activities as promised. At the festival, these school kids learnt about the local flora and fauna and the dos and don’ts in the common event of a snake bite. NGOs along with the Pakke Tiger Reserve organise similar events round the year to create awareness amongst the young ones and get them ready to defend nature in the future.
A felicitation programme drove me back to the rice beer stall. Sipping on my brew, I struck up a conversation with a couple of strangers and found out that the festival had over 500 visitors, twice as many as the first time it was held in 2015.
Later, I joined a group of wildlife conservationists for dinner along with my wife. I tried to keep the conversation light but gave up soon enough as they spiralled into a debate. The much-anticipated closing day party took place at the main stage. A popular DJ from Shillong had come down to make people of Seijosa dance, not that they needed any more encouragement! In my experience the people here could break into a dance at any point. I let myself be pulled to the dance floor by total strangers, I did not have the heart to let them down. Exhibiting my motor skills I timed my favourite local word to the beats: “HOGA!”. Three days were not enough, my heart wanted more.
When I told my friends I was going to a place called Seijosa, they took time to get the pronunciation right, finally settling on calling it “Seducer.” In retrospect, as I drove past the landscape, with the forest fading away behind me, I realised how befitting a name my friends had chosen for this place. Seijosa had seduced my spirit. Here, the people lived in perfect harmony with nature. They were generous, cheerful and warm, yet at the same time they were also principled and headstrong. My ignorance had hidden from me this nest of untouched nature, its compassionate people and their contentment with simple living.
Seijosa had breathed new life into me. I returned, carrying with me the warmth of the people in my heart, the taste of brew on my tongue, and a four letter word on my lips: HOGA.
A closet writer, and an admirer of Northeast India, Deven Gandhi is the co-author of Sochu, an illustrated book series for kids.