The Apatani are a tribal group of Tibetan-Burmese origin of about 60 000 members living in the Ziro valley in the Arunachal Pradesh state in northeastern India.
There are no written sources concerning the history of this ethnic group as they use only oral tradition as mean of history transmition.
Nowadays they practice the religion of Danyi-Piilo. They worship the sun (Ayo Danyii) and the moon (Atoh Piilo). They believe that bad events are caused by evil spirits and then try to appease them by sacrifing chickens, pigs, cows and other animals.
The Apatani are mainly farmer and are often praised for their sophisticated and extremely efficient agriculture, performed without animals or machinery.
One of the famous tribe’s traditions that is quickly fading into the mist of time is Apatani’s women nose plugs and facial tattoo. Nowadays worn only by the elder women, there was once a time when every woman had to wear these nose plugs and tattoo, but since the middle of the 20th century, the custom began to die.
The absence of any written record makes it difficult to give the actual reason for the practice of tattooing and nose-plugs. The exact reason is unknown for the Apatani people themselves. There are many myths related to this practice.
The 1st myth narrated by the elders of the community offer following explanation. During the villages’ wars when many people were killed, it was believed that the « ghosts » of those who were killed hunted and disturbed the villagers, particularly girls and women. The community’s « priest » encouraged members of the community to mark women’s faces with tattoos and nose plugs to create confusion within the « ghosts ».
The 2nd myth explains that the nose plugs were a way of protecting women against the surrounding tribes. Apparently, Apatani women were considered the most beautiful ones among the Arunachal tribes. Their villages were constantly raided by neighboring tribes and women were kidnapped. To make themselves unattractive to the invaders and avoid kidnapping, Apatani women started to wear nose plugs and tattoo their faces.
The last explanation is a folkloric story about a lady who was waiting for someone to propose to her for marriage. Unfortunately, time passed by and no one came forward and she lost her capacity to become a mother. That thought caused her sleepless nights and made her even older. So, she asked God how to regain her lost youth and beauty once again so she could attract a future husband. God advised her: “In order to regain your youth and beauty and capacity to be a mother, you must tattoo your face and wear nose plugs (Yaping Hulo) and earplugs (Yaru Hukho)”. As directed by God, she tattooed her face and put plugs in her nose and ears. As said, she became young and beautiful again. Her beauty attracted a man who asks her to marry him. They married, had a child and lived happily ever after.
From this last mythological story we learn that tattooing was adopted by this woman in order to restore her youth, beauty and fertility. Thus, there are reasons to believe that tattoos and nose plugs were practiced as tools of beautification and as a mark of arrival of puberty.
As the tradition of the Apatani nose plugs and facial tattoos hasn’t been practiced since 1970, this custom will probably soon be forgotten and nobody will really know the real story behind it.