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Apatani Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 15/04/2014
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Arunachal Pradesh
Coordinates: N27.32 - 27.37 E93.48 - 93.52
Ref.: 5893
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

Surrounded by blue rolling hills and topographically cut off from the rest of the populated areas of the region, Ziro Valley presents an example of how co-existence of man and nature has been perfected over the centuries by the Apatani civilization. The valley, inhabited by the Apatani tribe, lies tucked in the lower ranges of the eastern Himalayas in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India. It comprises of about 32 km2 of cultivable areas out of 1058 km2 of plateau, undulated by small hillocks at an elevation of 1525 MSL to mountain tracts ranging from 1830 to 2900 MSL.

The Apatanis, one of the major ethnic groups of eastern Himalayas, have a distinct civilization with systematic land use practices and rich traditional ecological knowledge of natural resources management and conservation, acquired over the centuries through informal experimentation. The tribe is known for their colorful culture with various festivals, intricate handloom designs, skills in cane and bamboo crafts, and vibrant traditional village councils called bulyañ. This has made Ziro Valley a good example of a living cultural landscape where man and environment have harmoniously existed together in a state of interdependence even through changing times, such co-existence being nurtured by the traditional customs and spiritual belief systems.   

The hallmark of the valley is judicious utilization of limited land area. The relatively flat land in the valley is used for wet-rice cultivation where fish also is reared. This systematic land-use pattern ensures high level of biodiversity in the area and efficient conservation of crucial watersheds ensuring perennial streams flowing into the valley to meet the needs of the people.

The community has evolved a unique skill of rice-fish cultivation where along with paddy, fish is also reared on the fields. This is further supplemented with millet (Eleusine coracana) reared on elevated partition bunds between the rice plots. The agro-ecosystems are nourished by nutrient wash-out from the surrounding hill slopes. Nutrient loss with crop harvest is replaced by recycling crop residues and use of organic wastes of the villages so that soil fertility is sustained year after year. 

The landscape development in the valley would date back to the time when the Apatanis are said to have settled down at Ziro. In the absence of any written record, the exact time is shrouded in mystery, but oral history traces back to at least twenty generations after the tribe migrated from mythological Wi and Wiipyo Supuñ, via Miido Supuñ to Siilo Supuñ, the present habitation bringing with them seeds of pine, bamboo and mustard. Tibetan and Ahom sources indicate that the central tribes of Arunachal mountains, of which the Apatanis are one, have been inhabiting the area from at least the fifteenth century, and probably much earlier. The first reference to these tribes appears in a geographical text attributed to the eighth century but which probably dates from the twelfth century; several thirteenth-century references are mentioned in later historical works. The Apatanis are said to have settled down in Talley Valley for some time before shifting base to Ziro. The Ziro valley was initially a swampy wasteland inhabited by prehistorc reptile called buru, the last of which were killed by a kind of brass plate (myamya talo) which are being preserved even to this day. The development of the valley to the present status testifies to sheer hardwork and continued human struggle for survival against the infinite might of nature.  

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Related to the Apatani cultural tradition/civilization:

The Apatanis, the tribe inhabiting Ziro valley are known for their effective traditional village council called bulyañ, which supervises, guides and have legal oversight over the activities of individuals that affect the community as a whole. They work by addressing to the conscience of the people rather than by instilling fear of the law, and by promoting prevention of unlawful activities rather than by punitive actions. Preservation of such an effective socio-legal system is of special value when the formal justice systems of modern times have often come up for criticism.

The Apatanis are among the few tribes in the world who continue to worship nature. It is their relation with nature that regulates their cultural practices. All the traditional festivals are, in a way, celebration of nature. Such a system designed for nature, culture and man to mutually support each other has timeless universal value.

The traditional customs and practices of the Apatanis are crucial for maintaining sustainable system that exists today. The established system to approach any important issue of the society as voluntary groups is the foundation of these practices. This arrangement ensures participation of each member in community works and fosters strong sense of ownership. At a time when the world of social science is struggling with ways to mobilize community involvement in developmental works, the system followed at Ziro Valley has immense universal value. 

Practices of agro-forestry in Ziro valley with definite areas as grazing ground, sacred groves, plantations areas, etc. has helped optimal utilization of limited land to produce various resources while sustaining agriculture with improved yields. Such traditional ecological knowledge has special value in today’s world.

Availability of irrigation water, making wet rice cultivation possible at Ziro, is due to efficient conservation of the forests around the valley, which forms the crucial watershed for the streamlets flowing down the fields. This is possible due to strict customary laws governing utilization of forest resource and hunting practices. Traditional reverence for nature play significant roles. Such practices are of immense value in a world where blatant exploitation of nature is a major concern.

The traditional relations with fellow tribesmen of other villages (biiniiñ ajiñ) and with other neighboring tribes (manyañ) are unique among the Apatanis. Duties towards such relations are considered sacred. At a time when the world is seen to be falling apart and individualism threatens to break the fabric of the society, such veneration of human relations is of universal value.

Related to traditional human settlement and land-use:

The Apatanis are known for their judicious utilization of limited land area that evolved out of century old experimentation. There are separate areas for human settlement, wet rice cultivation, dry cultivation, community burial grounds, pine and bamboo gardens, private plantations and community forests. It is an example of highly successful human adaptation mechanism to the rigor and constraints of upland regions and so of outstanding universal value.

Traditional practices of harvesting forest resources of the tribal people, well known for its sustainability but fast dwindling in other parts of the world, are still seen among the Apatanis. Continued existence of strong customary laws and spiritual beliefs has kept these practices alive. While even stringent regulations often fail to enforce such practices, the Apatani traditions have not only helped man optimally harvest the resources in the forest, but also have helped their effective conservation. They are of universal value as they set examples of sustainable management of natural resources.

The wet rice cultivation system at Ziro Valley is extensive, especially when compared to the surrounding tribal regions, where shifting cultivation is practiced. In spite of limited water resources the entire expanse of the cultivated area in the valley is well watered by a network of meticulously engineered irrigation channels. Such an ingenious traditional system sets valuable example, especially in the face of impending global warming and threats of water scarcity all over the world.

Criterion (iii): Ziro Valley bears exceptional testimony to the cultural traditions of the Apatani tribe that is responsible for maintaining the landscape more or less in the same state for centuries together. It is largely the strong traditional institutions, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs that have guided the Apatanis in their characteristic wet rice cultivation and management of other natural resources. 

Criterion (v): The settlement pattern of the Apatanis in the Ziro Valley is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement in an upland area and of the fact that man’s incessant struggle for survival makes it possible to make even most adverse environment habitable. The way the Apatanis have brought Ziro Valley to the present status is representative of their culture and belief systems that have been the guiding principle of all their activities. These systems themselves are examples of how they evolve out of interaction between man and environment.  With globalization, ideological onslaught from outside the area, and subsequent changing values in the society, these systems are under serious threat. Though they have demonstrated its ability to adapt to the changing world, subtle changes are taking place, which has the potential to disrupt the very fabric of the system unless appropriate actions are taken in time.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

As a living cultural landscape, the Apatani civilization has proved itself capable of sustaining its core values even in the face of external influences in the past few decades. With increasing population, some satellite villages have come up. However, the overall landscape seen a century back is still maintained. Canopy cover of the mountain ridges around the valley has increased. The paddy fields are as placid as it was and so are the bamboo gardens. Apart from widening of traditional narrow streets, the old charm of the villages is intact. Characteristic socio-religious structures like lapañ, nago and babo are still the centers around which life revolves. Wherever there are adequate numbers of people from a particular clan, these structures are constructed even in newer villages.

The traditional sustainable farming methods of the Apatanis are not only continued, but actually being strengthened. Use of animals or machines for farming elsewhere has not influenced the traditional manual farming. Bamboo and wooden agricultural implements are still used even while incorporating some metallic implements. Fertility of the soil is maintained by time-tested traditional methods without yielding to the temptations of trying chemical fertilizers. The needs for indigenously produced food grains in most customary practices and religious rituals have ensured continuation of traditional wet rice cultivation.

The traditions and customs of the Apatanis which have ensured mutually dependent co-existence with nature is prospering. Festivals like Muruñ, Myoko, Yapuñ or Dree are celebrated as devoutly and colorfully as ever. All the formalities of maintaining the sanctity of traditional friends – buniñ ajiñ and manyañ, handed down from generation to generation are intact.

Due to their traditions and customs as well as robust spiritual values the sacred groves of the Apatanis are intact.  In addition, sacredness of some species of trees like banyan trees and animals of any cat family are maintained. 

Comparison with other similar properties

Of the 26 major tribes in Arunachal Pradesh and many more in the North-east India, Apatani is unique on many aspects. Till the early 1970s, the whole population of the Apatanis was confined to Ziro valley whereas others were spread over large geographical areas. The linguists describe the Apatani language as a relatively ‘aberrant’ member of the Tani subgroup of Tibeto-Burman, classifying it as an early branching member of the Western Tani branch. Despite it being a part of the larger Tani tribe, along with the Nyishis, Tagins, Galos, Adis, Mishings, etc., whose common ancestor is believed to be Abotani, the Apatanis have distinct cultural practices and customary laws. Periodic strengthening of relations by offerings of different parts of sacrificial animals during various occasions is such an example. In addition, it is the only tribe who practice sedentary agriculture in the midst of shifting cultivation all around by other tribes.

The landscape of Ziro valley of the Apatanis has some similarities with other Himalayan valleys like the Imphal valley of Manipur, Kathmandu valley of Nepal and Paro valley of Bhutan. Urbanization has completely changed the landscapes of Imphal and Kathmandu valleys. Though Paro valley still retains its charm, agriculture is minimal and mainly due to individual efforts rather than community activity as in Ziro valley.

Numerous cultural landscapes have been inscribed in the World Heritage Site, but Ziro Valley stands out from all of them due to the connection of belief system the local tribes have with the natural resource management and due to community approach to all activities. Among the properties proposed for World Heritage Site in the North-East of India, Majuli on tentative list is a river island with distinctly different value. As a cultural landscape, Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka has some similarities with Ziro Valley, but is not a living cultural landscape as Ziro valley is.

Some aspect of Ziro Valley such as rice cultivation is comparable to terrace cultivation of Ifugao in Philipines which is a testimony to a community's sustainable and primarily communal system of rice production and an example of land-use. However, the one in Philipines has steep terraced cultivation while Ziro has valley cultivation. Role of culture and belief system in agroforesty activities at Ziro also makes it special.

The Fertö/Neusiedler Cultural Landscape in Hungary is similar to the Ziro Valley landscape in so far as both are the results of evolutionary symbiosis between human activity and the physical environment. However, the later stand out because of its inhabitants’ deep spiritual belief that has played significant roles in guiding the practices that has shaped the landscape.

Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia that reflects a centennial tradition of coffee growing in small plots in the high forest and the way farmers have adapted cultivation to difficult mountain conditions is comparable with Ziro Valley where too farmers have adapted to the adverse environment and made an inhospitable valley habitable. Coffee is the main crop in the former while multiple crops are grown in the later, though rice is the main one. Ziro Valley differs in the way the limited land is efficiently utilized.

Like Ziro Valley, traditional methods of agriculture have survived unchanged for several centuries in Viñales valley. Again it is mainly tobacco that is grown in Viñales valley. Also similar are the rich vernacular tradition in its architecture, crafts and music. Role of socio-religious institutes and traditional cultural practices is more significant at Ziro Valley. 

Just as Ziro valley illustrates an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement and land-use, based on common values so does the stone terraces and the fortified towns of Konso Cultural Landscape of Ethiopia. As in Konso Cultural Landscape, the Apatanis also have a highly organized social system that has created the cultural and socio-economic fabric of the valley. In both the cases, the interaction with the environment are based on indigenous engineering knowledge and requires traditional work divisions, which are still utilized to consistently perform maintenance and conservation works. Association of plantation and forestry practices with agriculture is unique among the Apatanis. So does the role of spiritual beliefs of the Apatanis in shaping the social organizations and cultural practices.

Like the Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain, which is an exceptional spiritual landscape reflecting both Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs, the Ziro Valley too can be considered a sacred landscape since nature as a whole – mountains, forests, streams, agricultural fields, plantations and the social structures like lapañ and babo in the villages are revered and worshipped.