Ziro Festival of Music is Sustainability’s Top Ticket

Every year the pristine Ziro Valley, home to the Apatani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, brews euphonious melodies, gallons of Apong and a lesson on environmentally-conscious living.

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Farms owned by the indigenous folks also house resting cabins for labourers, cattle shelters and styes, and ponds for fishing.

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My journey to Ziro unfolds with tea estate panoramas in Assam, and hairpin turns that reveal peaking wild bison and mountains at every turn. The valley, tucked in the Apatani plateau of the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for housing the Apatani community.  The chilly late September air holds the promise of harvest for locals here. We cruise past the golden paddy fields, kissing the feet of rolling mountains, and farmers at work to reach the Ziro Festival of Music.

The Ziro Festival of Music is hosted annually by the Apatanis, a tribe noted for their literacy, agricultural and land-use proficiency. Music runs through the community’s heritage. The Apatanis sang hymns and marched down from the Talley Valley and entered Ziro through Hari Rantü to call it home for centuries to come, owing to its fertile land and favourable weather conditions. “We worship nature for protecting us and lifting our tribe to prosperity,” says Punyo Tana, an Apatani. “Each of the seven villages housed by the Apatanis consider the tallest tree in their region as the guardian angel that protects their people.” he elaborates and graciously invites me to the annual Myoko festival in the upcoming spring, where the tribe gets together to pray for a successful cultivation and the wellbeing of the villagers. This year, the Apatanis hosted the 9th edition of Ziro Festival of Music after a two-year hiatus.

 

 

 

Ziro Festival Of Music Is Sustainability’s Top Ticket

Crowds engulf the Signature Danyi stage amidst Ziro’s picturesque grassland-carpeted slopes. Photo by: Sudrisha Goswami

 

Kiwi plantations on both sides of the trail lead the way towards harmonies that draw me into the gates of the festival. A stroll on a bamboo bridge follows, surprisingly sturdy to carry the weight of many eager festival-goers, like myself, marching to the beats. As the sun passes the baton to the moon, the sky dims for the festive lights to set the mood. Crowds cluster near the main stage and sway to the alt-rock tunes of Takar Nabam, a singer song-writer from Itanagar.

Ziro’s biggest act for the wider world is its commitment to sustainability. I notice that all infrastructural facilities at the festival are carved out of locally-sourced and reusable materials. The Signature ‘Danyii’ stage and the Simba ‘Pwlo’ stage are constructed with bamboo and pine or oak wood, as are the connected stalls and the food court.  The design element is borrowed from local bamboo weaving. With attention to details, bamboo light fixtures replace fairy lights, notorious for exuding carbon emissions. Once the festival is over, the materials used are stored safely to be repurposed next year. The local wood has properties unique to itself that make it a durable support for the festival. In fact, traditional Apatani houses, which have sheltered the tribe for centuries, are also built with wood sourced from the surrounding forests.

Ziro Festival Of Music Is Sustainability’s Top Ticket

Paddy fields in Ziro’s Bulla village are lined with artfully-arranged luminous flowers.  Photo by: Sudrisha Goswami

Gaining recognition as the greenest festival in India has attracted partnerships with corporations that want to contribute to its ecological endeavours. Signature, ZFM’s sustainability partner, is determined to only leave a ‘positive signature’ in Ziro behind. Elaborating on the overlapping synergies with the festival, Ruchira Jaitly, Vice President and Portfolio Head, Diageo India, says, “We believe we are at our best when we are our natural selves. Authenticity and owning our unique identity should be our signature, our calling card. Ziro Music Festival is also all about celebrating this unique signature—right from the music they celebrate and the audiences they draw.”

In an initiative to manage waste disposal, the brand organises a plogging activity. I pull up my sleeves, put on my gloves and hop on-board to part-take in the venture. Armed with biodegradable disposable bags and hawk eyes, we set out on our hunt. “There is not much to clean!” remarked a plogger after a couple of rounds around the ground, earning giggles from us.

The eco-friendly spirit of the local community graces all things in Ziro. The townsfolk-led ‘Clean Ziro Green Ziro’ campaign ensures that campsites in and around the hamlet do away with plastic indulgence. They also shoulder the responsibility to routinely clean local water bodies. I fall into a restful sleep while the sound of karaoke sessions throughout the night ease the rookie nerves of my first tent stay.

The Ziro Festival of Music started out as a local celebration but plunged into the global scene over the years to welcome visitors and artists from across borders. Today, the festival is a cauldron of thousands of music aficionados who pave their ways to Ziro, boosting tourism of the quaint town. Yet, there are two sides to every coin.  “Kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai.” Punyo Tana quotes a famous saying. “The festival provides employment to hundreds of local artisans and craftsmen and helps augment the local economy. However, it is undeniable that welcoming such a diverse crowd is a bittersweet blessing,” he says. Tourists flocking into the festival bring flourishing business and unfortunately, a ‘hippie culture’ along the way. Alcohol and drug abuse is a gloomy truth that most festivals in India and abroad are all too familiar with. The same has proved problematic for the local community of Ziro in the past. Today, festival authorities are firm about their stance against drug abuse at ZFM. Signs reading ‘Zero drugs Ziro’ aren’t hard to spot on the verdant field, a reminder for revellers to keep the merriment in check.

 

Ziro Festival Of Music Is Sustainability’s Top Ticket

A traditional Apatani home withstanding the course of time (left), piping hot bamboo chicken served in banana leaves is the go-to munch on a chilly day at ZFM (right).  Photos by: Sudrisha Goswami

 

With the scorching sun guiding my steps the next morning, stalls established by local Apatanis, Adi and Nyishi tribes, among others, covered in diverse exhibits of tribal handicrafts and tools catch my eye. Hand-crafted bags, traditional jewellery and clothes from different corners of the state piled up for sale. “These necklaces demand hours of continuous sewing; each bead is counted and sewed with utmost care,” says a saleswoman about the traditional neck adornments flaunting colourful patterns. Necklaces with coins dating decades back are also traditional to the Adi tribe of the state. Intricately woven geometric designs make a noticeable appearance as I scan through innumerable options of bags and clothes. “The angular diamond shapes represent eyes while the zigzag pattern is symbolic of the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh,” she explains.

Trotting deeper into the festival grounds, food stalls made out of bamboo and wood display a myriad of culinary choices, both regional and global. Soul-comforting local eats such as Ashumbi (a porridge-like dish made out of a variety of grains, chicken and mild spices), Sho Buoya (a scrumptious snack with a flaky shell of fried dough encasing shredded chicken and vegetables), chicken cooked in bamboo with banana flower and cuts of grilled meats coloured the local food scene. Not to be forgotten, fried grasshoppers and frog legs lure those on the look-out for a dare. East Asian flavours seep into the festival through Thukpa and varieties of Korean delicacies such as Bibimbaap and Korean fried chicken.

A trip to Ziro would be incomplete without an honourable mention of their local spirits. In new discoveries, the Kala Apong, cousin of the popular rice beer, Apong, is brewed with a mix of millet and rice. “The millet is first roasted to attain a dark shade, cooked and mixed with a starter mixture prior to undergoing fermentation. The longer the grains are left to be fermented, the better the beer turns out,” says the seller. Warm water is poured on the fermented mixture to achieve the liquidy goodness of Apong. The valley also proves to be the destination for winebibbers. Boasting some of the best kiwi cultivations in the country, the locals make the most of nature’s candies to make fruit wines. I sample kiwi wine, among a choice of peach and plum wines, served in a tall glass made out of bamboo. The sweet and sour drink washed down the heat of the Naga Chilli Chicken while leaving just the right amount of tingle in my veins. “The alcohol locally produced here never leaves people with ringing headaches,” says the vendor with a playful grin.

Ziro Festival Of Music Is Sustainability’s Top Ticket

Campsites scattered in the depths of the valley’s dense forests blend the perfect sip of wild lodging for festival-goers. Photo by: Sudrisha Goswami

Ziro has maintained an environment that’s mostly free of single-use plastic. Food is served on newspapers and betel leaf or bamboo cutleries for the most part. The festival area is dotted with freely accessible water stations that provide paper cups for drinking, however, attendees are encouraged to bring their own reusable water bottles to fill.  There are no plastic chairs, instead, benches made out of bamboo dot the grounds albeit the grass proves to be the fan-favoured seat.

“I never imagined such a festival existed in India,” says a friend who stumbled upon the fiesta on a bike expedition to explore the North East. The essence of community at the core of the Apatani custom moulds into a music festival where people from across the globe, representing different cultures, races, lifestyles and languages unite. The Apatanis, a tribe that pledges to protect their customs and traditions, welcomes people from across the globe with smiles and warm hospitality every year. The festival is a celebration of togetherness, with nature and with people. The lower ranges of the Eastern Himalayas echo hums of unison to Rabbi Shergill’s Bulla ki Jana, a timeless hit, as the sun bids its final adieu to Ziro Festival of Music, 2022 after mercilessly leaving us all with sunburns over the course of four days.

 

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  • Sudrisha Goswami hopes to connect people with engaging stories from spectrums of art, culture, design and communities. She can be spotted sipping a cup of hot chocolate on any given day with a book in her hand and her eyes scanning crowds for different journeys.

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