Ziro Festival of Music

A wanderlust in Arunachal Pradesh ends on a musical note

Music is a part of all cultures from ancient times. Though Rock or Pop music is borrowed from western culture, the North-Eastern part of India is definitely leading in this type of music, especially Meghalaya. Unofficially, Shillong, the capital of neighboring state Meghalaya is also a capital of this western music. In every lane or locality of Shillong one Rock full-fledged band with a singer, guitarist, keyboard player and drummer exists. When I was riding in Meghalaya in 2011, met many riders from Shillong and were crazy about Western music. They even arranged and performed one live band night for us, who had ridden all the way from many parts of India. In that performance, one of our rider friend’s 8-year-old kid was playing keyboard at ease as if like kids of that age tries to copy some cricket stars batting or bowling skills in other parts of India. If you would like to attend a small musical fest, you should visit Shillong stadium on Sunday. One or multiple bands perform for the audience free of cost. That is a love for North Eastern states’ towards music.

Actual stage of the morning turning into a cluster of music in the night

Cashing on the young and middle-aged generation’s love of Western music, some musicians started this festival in 2012 with Arunachal Pradesh Tourism Board’s support. This is food for people who are starved for good music and has to be satisfied with Western music available on digital platforms or some shows arranged in big cities scarcely.

First glimpse of the Festival

For every construction Bamboo was the base material

The first day, I was eager to witness this spectacular display for which I had traveled so far. After completing all formalities of obtaining all days pass from my campsite reception, moved in a group to the actual festival ground.

The first site of the venue, itself was breath-taking for the nature lover in me. A classic example of the simple field on a small hillock can be converted for something big like this with locally available material. The stage was at the backdrop of blue sky and mountains with green paddy fields making it a super color combination of a natural canvas. If nature has decided to offer this canvas, the organizers painted in a form of a stage and strokes of music to paint and making it a breathtaking painting.  Ziro Festival is one of the unique festival in terms of eco-friendly parameters by using locally produced material to create its infrastructure. With two stages named after Sun and Moon and in local language those are called Sonyi and Polo respectively. The stage is created with the help of locally produced bamboos and made by local artisans. Exploring further with organizers, came to know this style is inspired by the animist Donyi Polo faith extensively used in the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Also, the good news about this festival was a zero-tolerance plastic policy and encourages attendees to be responsible for leaving behind no waste. Exactly the same philosophy, we mountaineers follow – ‘Leave nothing but footprints when a mountaineer returns from a jungle or mountain’.

A full exposure of the festival:

Cheers of rice beer from Ziro in bamboo glass

Exploring further, checked the Line up for the next 4 days and mentally made a note, which I would like to attend. Actually, wished to attend all of them, but had to cover other things in the vicinity for which Ziro valley is famous, so had to sacrifice few bands. That call could have been taken as the festival progresses.

The ground was open for anyone to perform like this artist

Also as mentioned earlier, there were two stages, one for day performances – Donyi and Polo for evening performances.

Ziro Festival of Music is popularly known as ZFM, opened with the predictable ceremony of tribal dance by a local tribe.

Here a mention of the local tribe is inevitable. Ziro valley is also famous for its tribe and the unrivaled beauty of this tribe’s women. Apatani women have flawless beauty and glowing skin, even if they grow old. In earlier days, when there was no central rule and various tribes rule the land, to avoid abduction of the tribal women by British soldiers or other tribes, elders from the tribe make it compulsory for women to wear bamboo nose plugs on their both nostrils and tattoos on their face. I felt it was a kind of Oxymoron. These nose rings can be jewelry if worn in a proper way as well as to reduce the beauty of woman so that attention is diverted. This practice of nose plug was discontinued in the 1970s when a government bans the tradition. At the venue, I met a woman from this tribe, who is an ageless beauty despite being 40+ years old.

Coming back to ZFM, Finally, the moment had come of start ZFM. With a traditional dance by the Apatani tribe and joined the rhythm and steps by visitors from the outside world. Everyone soaked in the local culture. It was the start of 4 days of musical spectacle for which everyone was waiting eagerly.

Musical extravaganza:

 every day, 4/5 bands play one after another captivating audience for one hour per band. These bands are from various parts of the world and far-off countries like Lithuania as well as Indian bands joining hands with a couple of local bands. Taking a look at the line-up, it had a variety from International bands like Japanese psychedelic band Acid Mothers Temple to OUZO BAZOOKA from Israel, Lithuania, Indonesia, Korea. When local bands from Arunachal, Shillong, and Imphal with local compositions in rock rhythm joined hands together became the epitome of Western culture meeting East. Rock and Indipop bands from Metros brought city music to ZFM brought a treat to music lover’s ears.

Foregone king of Bollywood but NE’s most favoured musician

Finally, Bollywood’s Lucky Ali, with his distinctive music style and also for his untrained voice pushed ZFM’s uniqueness to its apex height. When he was performing on stage, I got a chance to stand close to the stage barricades and witnessed his entire performance. A spellbound audience wasn’t allowing him to leave the stage. People had traveled all the way from Delhi, Bangalore, and other metros to listen to him and left the next day back home. During the performance, when I took off my eyes from stage to one side I was slightly taken aback, a pretty lady next to me, had tears in her eyes. In a break taken by the singer, who was curious to know the reason behind tears, asked her. That Apatani local girl told me, she literally grew on Lucky Ali’s songs. After his performance, this group immediately left as if for them ZFM was over.

Entire ZFM was so energetic and left deep memoirs in my mind.

The only disappointment was the cost factor of whatever available inside the ZFM premises. Everything was exceptionally costly compare to local shops right out of the gate which includes food, drinking water, and liquor.

Advise while attending this festival. Whenever you are thirsty or hungry or would like to get high on trance mood on liquid diet along with music, right out of the gate or at a walkable distance from the venue, there are few garden bars that serve both – beer/liquor as well as food.

In my whole travel to this area, my ears were craving to listen to some local songs, but I wasn’t so lucky enough. All taxi guys or I should say, almost the entire North East is crazy about Bollywood music and never leave any opportunity to play them.

Ziro valley’s Zeroism beyond ZFM:

Ziro valley: A kaleidoscope of multiple colours
Apatani tribeswoman with pierced nose

Right from entering Ziro valley, I was in love with this valley’s fresh air and blue sky with lush green paddy fields, white water of a river, and tall pine trees. A perfect analogy for this setting will be, a jugalbandi between a master painter an orchestra of a handful of musicians. The genius painter creating a masterpiece with strokes beyond imagination on a blue canvas of sky only with 2/3 colors of green for paddy fields and pine trees, white for a bubbly stream, and black or brown for a road. This creation of a masterpiece equally supported by a set of handful musicians using very limited musical instruments and creating a perfect symphony of wind blowing through pine tree jungle and burble of a river as it traveling along its bed, bubbling over rocks.

Ziro valley is not only about music, but famous for fish farming, Apatani tribe with unique culture and beautiful tribe women as mentioned earlier. It also houses Hong village which is in limelight as Asia’s second-largest village in terms of area.

An Apatani village:

A picturesque house at the backdrop of pine tree forest

A small walk led our group to this village. Though campsites where you stay, arrange a tour to this village on a cycle along with a lunch in one of the houses, we decided to explore on our own. With traditional houses, a noticeable marking at every household had a lamp post standing tall with one or two chained balls handing on it. This is a sign of the latest generation’s male population. The chained balls represent a number of sons in the latest generation.

Trophies of Mithun heads PC: Disha from Quitters
Peculiar kitchen style
Ziro village-house

While strolling in the village, noticed a large house. Thinking that house might offer meals with payment to the travelers, enquired. With one look at a couple of us, an elderly person invited us inside. When I told him about the group, everyone was invited in. That was a perfect sign of how hospitable the region is. They offered us soft drinks and roasted meat. An interesting tradition of this community unfolded. We noticed lots of bullheads decorated and hanged on one large wall. These heads represent how many ‘Mithuns’, wild bulls in the jungle were hunted by the family. The meat of hunted bulls, skinned, roasted, and preserved in a gap of interesting looking chimneys or in today’s kitchen equipment – Hoods above the cooking fire. It remains warm and preserved. We spoke to the younger generation who were educated and well-groomed. There was no sign of a rustic village.

Music in air:

At every campsite throughout festival days, ZFM’s stipulated time didn’t silence the music. Every campsite had jamming stations and sessions around the campfire with grooming musicians who came as attendees from across India enchanted with the atmosphere were requested to play a couple of songs. Not a single night session was stopped a couple of songs, but it went on till the wee hours of next day mornings. So days always started with late wake-ups.

A campsite which gave me shelter for 5 days

At the back of our campsite, was a big stream and beyond that, I had noticed a jungle and as if not happy with the tented campsite under pine trees, on one early morning went on to explore alone. I had the same feeling, the way I felt while exploring Andaman’s jungles. The only difference was trees in Andaman were full of a variety of species with huge trunks and in Arunachal, there were pine trees standing like an army keeping a distance between them with their raised lances, ready to face a marauding enemy. It was again like a ‘Lord of Rings’ jungle or not yet seen, ‘Amazon jungle with a thicket of bushes and trees. Walking on that mushy land wearing gumboots. Forgot to mention these gumboots. In this season and to attend ZFM, in must carry items, gumboots are mentioned high in order due to leaches and sleeper ground because of muck everywhere. I had picked my pair of camouflage ones from Bum-la border’s military shop and loved them so much that, I carried them all the way back to Mumbai. 

Music lovers from all corners of India:

One night of jamming up at campsite

Coming back to exploring the jungle, though the jungle doesn’t have much wildlife, due to tall trees creates a different pressure on your mind as you cannot see beyond a certain point in any direction and not even a glimpse of the sky at many places.

All good things don’t last for long and our. Yes, our because when I entered this intrigued and enchanted place alone, but while leaving made lots of friends from every walk of life. Met a writer blogger and a biker from Mumbai, a biker and a famous tattoo artist who uses bamboo thorns as the needle to make tattoos from Nagaland, a couple from Jorhat who drove with their friend from Gujarat, a mother from Delhi with her over-enthusiastic and inquisitive teenage son, not to forget doctors from all across Indian states. I always asked them, whenever met, how they get so many days leaves? It seems, they too need breaks to relieve their minds from their hectic life and get back to serve society with freshened minds.

An unplanned trip coming to an end:

My whole trip to Arunachal Pradesh was so impromptu and ended with the same note. Didn’t have any return train or cab bookings in my hand. With struggle and help from newly made local friends managed to reach Naharlagun station in Itanagar in again a crowded jeep, but this time, without a crib as the mind was occupied recalling so many memories. Also As mentioned earlier why I travel alone because I can make new friends every day. This travel to Naharlagun and further to Guwahati was no exemption to it.

Met a couple who was hesitant in asking for help because they didn’t carry any cash in today’s digitalized world of cashless transaction and was in a fix after finding no ATMs or network. I had forgotten about this couple till I reached Andaman for the job. They met me in Havelock and every evening spent time with them. Once you make friends at difficult times, that friendship is never forgotten.

My next trip planning was also made in that cab journey when another couple was talking about their Nagaland exploration.

About my unplanned journey, as usual, my guarding angels from Mumbai came to the rescue to book a train seat from Naharlagun to Guwahati. Another journey and more friends.

A brush with celebrity:

The journey to Mumbai ended with an interesting incident.  Met three Marathi film celebrities on a train, who were without reservation. One of the female stars didn’t have a data connection, so requested to share my data connection through the phone’s hot spot. I obliged. After settling, I told them my profession and we continued chatting about their experiences on their first scuba dive. On another side of our sitting, a couple of Maharashtrian girls from my campsite was pretty excited and requested selfies with them. I was clueless about these celebrities’ identification. This wasn’t new about me as I have a fish memory that lasts not more than 15/20 minutes. One of those girls, in a hushed tone, told me their names – Sai Tamhankar, Lalit Prabhakar, and Mrunmayee Godble. Still, I was clueless as I am not a music buff. After reaching Guwahati, I googled them and found who was there. They were indeed today’s leading stars and had come to ZFM on short notice with only flight bookings in hand like me.

At Mumbai airport, Sai approached me again for data sharing. This time couldn’t resist, but to ask a selfie with her.

On a high note, this entire journey to a mysterious land of valleys came to an end, but again with a vow to come back to explore the unexplored of the state which is also famous for another festival, Orange festival of adventure sports in another beautiful valley of Mechuka.

How to reach the Ziro valley?

By Air:

Jorhat is the nearest airport that is connected to Guwahati and Kolkata and local flights operate from these two airports. The nearest airport from Ziro Jorhat, Assam Ziro is 98 km away. Another airport is Lilabari, which is at a distance of 123 km from Ziro. The nearest international airport of Ziro is Guwahati at a distance of about 449 km.

By Rail:

From two railway stations, Ziro can be reached. Naharalagun at 100 km and North Lakhimpur (117 km). A regular train from Guwahati and another train from New Delhi ply to Naharalagun which runs once in a week.

By Road:

For Ziro you can take a night bus which starts from Guwahati. Apart from this bus another state department run four days a week. Alternatively, a shared a taxi form Naharlagun and North Lakhimpur is a direct option which I took.

Where to stay in Ziro?

Ziro has homestays as well as to lodge options another season than ZFM. During ZFM, stay in a sharing tent by two-person costs about Rs. 6000 onwards for 5 nights and more. This cost includes stay, breakfast, and dinner. 

Where to eat:

There are few small temporary dhabas and garden restaurants during ZFM and also a few hotels on other days.

What to see:

1.         A visit to Hong village is a must which is 4 km away from Ziro village.

2.         Talley valley wildlife sanctuary – roughly 17 km away. A home for many endangered species.

3.         Meghana Cave temple

4.         There are lots of hillocks that can be trekked to witness a vast expanse of Ziro valley.

Required permissions:

For Indian nationals, Inner Line Permit is a must which you will get at Guwahati, Tezpur, Kolkata, New Delhi for Rs. 100 and carry 3/4 copies with you along with your photo id card.

For foreign nationals, Protected Area Permit is required which you can obtain from all these places mentioned above for ILP.

When to visit:

March to October when the weather is pleasant and drizzling sometimes throughout the day.

Clothes to carry:

Warm clothes, but do not forget to carry rainwear and gumboots if you are planning to visit in the monsoon.

Nomad’s plans are always impromptu with an outline of the rough plan.
One journey’s end leads to exploring another green pasture. The destinations are never-ending.

4 Replies to “Ziro Festival of Music”

  1. Very interesting to know so much about Zero Valley and the Music Festival..!!I loved how you described..”The stage was at the backdrop of blue sky and mountains with green paddy fields making it a super colour combination of a natural canvas ..!!!👌👌👌👌
    What an AWESOME experience..!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting Article as usual. All click’s are superb . Get detailed information about Ziro fest.👍👍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ZMG has been on my bucket list for so long. I can’t wait to visit NE once things are better.

    Love the photos. It’s nice to hear that people are hospitable and welcoming since I plan to travel solo. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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