Rural Arunachal Pradesh, Dec 2011
This was an encounter that took me by surprise and swept me off my feet! When I think back, it is difficult to imagine the odds of being blessed with such an encounter with a Shaman priest of the Danyi Polo religion, in the middle of a field who was conducting his ritual for a very short time.
The window of time-space in which our worldlines could have crossed was not really a window – but a thread-thin sliver…. and yet our paths crossed and I witnessed the glory of a Shamanistic ritual as he sacrificed the heart of a chicken to save a tribal man’s life! Am indeed fortunate to have witnessed this. The images follow…
But first a little about rituals of the Danyi Polo religion that is practiced widely among the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.
Ceremonies are conducted by Shamans or priests. And the markers of the ceremonies are large straw weavings and bamboo structures placed outside the home.
At the time of death, after the burial a tower is constructed around the fresh grave. The structural design of the tower varies from one tribe to another.
The following images shows the grandest burial tower I saw in those 2 weeks. The umbrella is used to protect the man in his after-life, just as it did when he was alive.
His favorite objects are placed on the structure so that he may use them in the after-life. His bison or mithun is sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies and the horns are placed on the structure. And his slippers are added to comfort him as he walks on into the next world.
All the above were simply present in the daily scheme of life of the many villages I crossed. And there was nothing – like a board or a reading or a tour guide – that drew attention to them. But the uniqueness of these structures aroused my curiosity and I stopped the friendly villagers to ask around and learnt about these. The journey of chance discoveries is indeed a delightful one.
In the same way, as I crossed a plateau from one village to another, in the middle of the fields on the plateau was a little hut with a single person performing actions in a curious way.The driver stopped and we walked through the field to find out what was going on.
We approached and even though we were within meters of him, the man paid us no heed and continued his activity.
It was only when I observed him for a few seconds from within 5 feet, that I realised what it was that I was witnessing!
This was a Shaman – a priest – in the middle of a worship ritual!!!!
I was in awe and wanting to be non-intrusive I stood in one spot without moving further and clicked the surrounding structure he had created.
I pretended that if I did not look at him directly, he would not see me either. And clicked whatever else was around.
All this while I could hear him murmuring chants but I did not dare to look at him directly in the fear that he might ask me to leave.
After the first few uncomfortable moments passed I gathered courage to look in his direction hoping to catch a momentary but direct glimpse of his face, his hand movements and the objects he held.
And once again I thank my stars that I looked when I did – or I would have missed the sacrifice altogether!!
He held a little chicken in his left hand and he had used his right hand to open it up and take out the heart (or liver maybe?) !!!!
Then, as he chanted his prayers softly he sprayed some of the ritual straw objects with blood.
The momentary glimpse that I had intended, had turned into a stare for as long as I was there.
Normally my camera clicks incessantly in any interesting event – so that I get to select the image with the best angle, the best sharpness, the best framing etc, later on. But of the actual sacrifice I have only 1 image…I was simply too mesmerised to click.
The Shaman finished his ritual and he packed up the remains of the chicken in a plain plastic bag. Even though we were the only people in the middle of this huge field that extended in all directions, he was totally disinterested in my presence. In the next few seconds, without a word or glance of acknowledgment, he finished, picked up his bags and left.
The entire episode from the time I arrived at this prayer hut to the time he left lasted about 4 minutes.
I had just witnessed a spectacular event. In its un-rehearsed un-staged splendour! No grand orchestra playing in the background, no dramatic build up to the finale. Just a flow of events, set in the silence of the huge field and accompanied only by the chill wind. An event that could so easily have gone unnoticed.
Even as I write this a month after the event, I am struck by the awesomeness of the probabilities that favored me and conferred upon me the chance to witness it.
This sliver of opportunity – is exactly like every other experience I had in Arunachal Pradesh. The experiences are all out there – waiting – happening silently – but it is for the traveller to seek them out and seize every potential sliver to make the most of the offerings of Arunachal Pradesh.
And of course, if the traveller believes in prayer – then she must pray for gifts from serendipity.
Added : A video I’d taken on my phone but forgotten about is available Here on youtube.
Antique Shaman textiles are available here on my antique textile gallery wovensouls.com
Other articles on Arunachal Pradesh can be found here: