Celebrating Reh Festival with the Charming Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh

Assam Plains, Brahmaputra Valley, Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh, Lohit River

It’s been a while I sat down and wrote something. Work has kept me busy. In the first week of February, I had visited Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh; a state in Northeastern India. It was an incredible experience and makes me want to share it. It was a short two day trip where I’d gone to be a part of the Reh Festival of the Mishmi Tribe. I’d heard about the festival for a while now, and Mishmis, being one of my favorite tribe, was enough a reason for me to pack my bag and drive down to Tezu. Accompanying me for the trip was Cardo, a friend and an enthusiastic tour leader with Greener Pastures.

Our journey started late in the day from Dibrugarh, a tiny pretty town located in eastern Assam. The drive consisted of crossing the usual scenery of tea plantations and Assam’s fertile countryside, until arriving at the foot of majestic mountains that make up Arunachal Pradesh. It was dusk by the time we reached the hills. Not in a mood to drive in the night in remote mountains, we ended up halting in the tiny settlement of Wakro. Located at the very foothills and famous for its orange farms, Wakro appeared dead and lonely at just six in the evening. A very basic government run guesthouse was the only accommodation available and accordingly we got ourselves a room there. I paid the manager a little baksheesh to arrange for us some firewood, rum and meat. The night was young, the weather was February cold and when in the faraway lands of Arunachal Pradesh, the stars always shine bright and plenty. The night was spent in good conversation until retiring to the comfort of our beds.

Unlike the last time I had been in Wakro, I was not woken up by the calls of the endangered Hoolock Gibbons, which is the only ape species found in India. The manager or daju in local language was kind to prepare some refreshing tea for us early in the morning, soon after which we continued onwards to Tezu. It was a beautiful sunny day. The warmth felt comforting in the cold winter weather. Though it was just a 2 hour drive to Tezu, we stopped at Parsuramkund a few kilometers from Wakro to feed breakfast to our hungry stomachs. A holy pilgrimage site for the Hindus, the wind was frenziedly blowing around Parsuramkund, creating a somewhat magical atmosphere. The road ahead of us was hilly for an hour, taking numerous u-turns in the foothills to eventually start descending to the plains where Tezu lies. It was a scenic drive and a lovely morning. The entire region appeared forested with breathtaking greenery. And the foothills opened up to provide absolutely gorgeous panoramic views of the vast plains of Assam, where the many rivers and rivulets appeared in the sun’s rays, like golden snakes on their way to the ocean. Tezu turned out to be a charming town. Spread out in a large area with small spacious houses and situated in fertile plains overlooked by the Mishmi Hills; a part of the eastern Himalayas, the town is quite a sight, filled with charming lazy tribal people who belong to the 3 sub-tribes of the Mishmi Tribe, namely Idu Mishmi, Digaru Mishmi and the Miju Mishmi. Not interesting in wasting time, upon arrival, we drove directly to the festival venue, having had a hard time finding it.

Old Mishmi lady at the festival.
Charming Mishmi man in traditional attire.
The priest hut had a lot of interesting tradition with Mishmi shamans performing rituals, healing and chanting.

The venue was bustling with the Mishmis. Men, women and children, all walked around with pride wearing their elegant and colorful tribal attires and ornaments. The atmosphere was lively and filled with the sound of sweet tribal music. Though the main stage was in an indoor setting, there was enough outdoor space for a small flea market, where ethnic Mishmi clothes, ornaments, weapons, crafts, food and drinks were on sale. It was all very sustainable – produced and handcrafted locally. The ethnic food consisted of various meat items cooked in herbs with little use of modern spices. The drink was equally exotic – rice beer served in bamboo glasses. Indoors in the main hut, the crowd gathered was enthusiastic and consisted of VIPs, locals, tourists and other visitors. Elaborate dances were being performed and songs were being sung by both young and old members of the tribe. Most of the events portrayed and told about Mishmi folklore and history. One such dance was about how the tribe learnt to weave by copying the patterns found in nature. There were also the boring times, when some the VIPs gave utterly long lectures, during which I went exploring the shaman’s hut, which I found utterly interesting. Inside, ritualistic dances and singing was being performed by the shaman and his subordinates. Called Igu in the local language, the shaman wore a traditional dress along with bones and ornaments. The rituals were being performed to appease Nanyi Inyitaya, the great mother deity of the Mishmis, asking for prosperity and peace. One ceremony was particularly interesting, where the Igu performed a dance to heal many of the sick persons who had come to see him from faraway. By afternoon, I, like the rest of the crowd, was drunk, had a full stomach and had a smile on my face. The event had ended soon after. We decided to find ourselves a room and ended up in a budget hotel which offered good rooms at a cheap rate. Once dark, there was nothing much to do except listen to the peaceful silence of these remote lands, overshadowed and empowered by the ever majestic Himalayas.

We are up early the next morning. The sunny weather had given way to a dark cloudy overcast. Luckily, it wasn’t raining and the cool air felt refreshing. A bath and a breakfast later, we were off to spend the day exploring a few villages around Tezu. I was looking forward to this; to see where and how the tribes lived, and get a glimpse of their culture. It was a pleasure driving around Tezu. The roads were not that bad, the countryside looked all green even in winters and gigantic Himalayan hills rose a few miles away in the east to complete the picture perfect landscape. The villages turned out to be what I expected. The houses were all sustainable, made entirely from long lasting wood and bamboo, with either hay or tin roofs. The adults were not very bothered by our presence but the children seemed curious about us outsiders.

Opium Fields, Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh, Mishmi Tribe 1
Mishmi opium grower near Tezu.

Roaming around the villages, it was a big surprise to see that other then vegetable and rice, the tribe also harvests opium. It was the first time I saw poppy fields, and even though they looked wonderful with their pink blossoming flowers, I couldn’t help stop thinking how the beautiful looking flower could be the source to the world’s deadliest drugs. My curiosity led me to the house of one of the growers, who was kind enough to invite me in. He explained to me that opium smoking is an integral part of Mishmi culture and many of their ceremonies require its use. He assured me that the opium the tribe grows is entirely for local consumption – either to get high or for medicinal use, and that they are not smugglers or anything of that sort. I believed him. Many of the people I met in and around Tezu all seemed high in opiate dreams. He then showed me some instruments used in opium smoking and I couldn’t help buy a pipe from him as a souvenir, which functions more like a bong. His house was simple, and as with all other Mishmi houses, animal skulls and bones decorated the house extensively. They were all old ones. Though the Mishmis are one of the best hunters of the world, in recent times the tribe has started to become more conscious and have decreased their lavish hunting habits. This is something that inspires me – rural people all around the world taking small steps to make the world a greener and a better place to coexist in. If only the Chinese and Vietnamese could follow the same steps and stop eating the tigers, rhinos and other wildlife. The tribal guy invited me to smoke a pipe of opium with him, which was tempting, but I had to refuse as we had a long drive ahead of us later. We thanked him, left his house and strolled around some more. I got a chance to photograph some of the oldest inhabitants of the villages. Their old faces told stories, those which I will never get to live. I can only imagine and respect the life they would have lived, when tribal kingdoms ruled the mighty Himalayas and everyday of their life was an adventure. It is insanely unfortunate that I have ended up losing most of the Tezu photographs due to a recent laptop crash. It would have been a pleasure to show you guys the photographs of these last Mishmis who have lived a life unadulterated by modernity. It was almost afternoon by the time we finished touring the villages. Our stomachs were hungry and in search of a place to eat, godsend luck brought us to a post Reh party. Again, the people there were kind to invite us and served us all kinds of ethnic meat dishes. After the hefty lunch, we decided to leave for Dibrugarh. Though I would have loved to stay for months in a place like Tezu, I had work the next day and leaving was our only option.

landscape-around-tezu-panoramic-view-arunachal-pradesh-eastern-himalayas1
Panoramic view of foothills around Tezu.
Tezu landscape, Arunachal Pradesh, Reh Festival, Mishmi Hills
Lovely fertile plains.

During the drive back, we got absolutely gorgeous views of the sunset from the foothills; one of the best I have ever seen. The sky was insanely colored in shades of red, pink, purple and orange. The sun was just above the plains and the last light of the day glorified the entire landscape for one last time before the arrival of the night. Once dark, it felt like a long drive home. We eventually reached Dibrugarh by ten in the night. Tired, I retired to the comfort of my bed and dreamt away to the charm of the Mishmi Hills.

* This article was first published in the paper edition of Eclectic Northeast Magazine. Issue: May 2013.

The Reh Festival is celebrated in the first week of February every year. If you’re interested in visiting the festival, kindly contact using this form.

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