…at the ends of the Himalayas: life in Spiti and Siang valleys
– Kulbhushan & Karthik
A dialogue that sparked off between us about which dried-meat tastes better; Mithun or Yak, instantly became a meaty confab beyond bovids that revolved around communities in Spiti and Siang valley and their practices. One look at the map followed by finger-pointing at each other’s study sites got us further excited since we had spent a decent amount of time exactly on the opposite flanks of the Himalayas.
Roots: Largely Buddhists, the Spitians of the Mongoloid stock are from Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh at the western end of the Himalayas whereas the Adis are animists (they practice the Donyi-Polo i.e. the Sun-Moon religion) of the Tibeto-Burman stock from Siang valley in Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas. The former are settled agro-pastoralists whereas the latter are hunter-gatherers practicing shifting cultivation over the last few millennia.
A typical Spiti / Adi year: While the shifting cultivation practice determines the annual activity pattern of the Adi community, the winter determines that of the Spitians. Spitians have small agricultural fields which are ploughed as the snow starts to melt in early-April, following which the crops are sown. The staple crop is barley, but is rapidly getting replaced by green peas, a cash-crop. After the crop-harvest in Sep-Oct, it is party time for the locals during the long winter from November to March.
The Adis clearfell forests in February, undertake sowing in March and reap harvest in October. In the months of Oct-Nov-Dec, Adis in the Upper Siang district scout into the surrounding forests and higher altitudes for animals to hunt, preferred species being Himalayan musk deer, Takin and Serow. Surprisingly, according to the Adis, one of the reasons they do not hunt during rest of the year or venture far into forest is due to the fear of snakes!
As you sow, so you brew: The staple crops of the Spitians and the Adis are barley and rice, respectively. Besides ensuring food-security throughout the year and seeds for the next year, one of the seemingly fundamental uses of these grains is to keep up their spirits! Chang is the Spitian barley-beer whereas Apong is the Adi rice-beer, the distilled version being called Ara and Nogin, respectively. Bonus points to Adis for also brewing millet-beer! A notable similarity amongst the two communities is that none of the grains cultivated are sold in a market and are reserved for subsistence use.
Bringing home the beef: Whereas Mithun is a ‘domesticated’ Gaur which is also considered as a hybrid between a wild Gaur and a cow, the Yak is a domesticated version of the wild Yak. Yak meat is mainly used for festive occasions and also forms an important part of the diet of the people during winters. Yaks are used for ploughing fields for cultivation, following which the yaks freely graze in herds in distant pastures for the next eight to nine months. Being unable to forage in more than half-a-feet snow, the Yaks are stall-fed during winter. Bringing the Yaks back is often an extremely exhausting exercise involving plowing through deep snow. Once located, the Yaks are rounded up, often done the cowboy way with lassos. This exercise sometimes lasts weeks as finding the Yaks in the snow-clad mountains can be a difficult task.
The Mithun is a unit of wealth and plays a significant role in the Adi tradition. Mithun meat is smoke-dried and stays edible for almost two years. The point to note here is that no self-respecting mithun has ever ploughed land, although the main reason for this is that there is little-to-no land available for settled cultivation. During festivals, bringing back home the Mithun is a tiring exercise that men in the village endure since they move singly or in groups of 2-3. All the Mithuns in the village are identified by a combination of ear-clips on the two ears. The men depend on footmarks, hearsay and other signs and often survey the entire home-range of the Mithun which centers around the place it was born. It is quite common to meet men coming back to the village with cane-lassos, empty-handed and empty-stomached!
We ended the conversation amazed at the similarities amongst the communities that are geographically separated by a beeline distance of more than 800 miles and with mutual promises that when each visits the others’ field site, meat, booze and local treks are on-the-house!