We usually have no fixed plans regarding where to go next, we try to “go with the flow”. Being totally relaxed about the itinerary is not so easy, when one has an extremely expensive permit that is valid for one month only, and a huge area to cover by bicycle. In Arunachal we had to become a bit less lazy and being tired after cycling over the Himalayan passes in Tawang was not an excuse to stay in one place for too long. Since there was only one way leading from the West of Arunachal to its East, we had no other option than follow the main road.
Right before we entered the district of East Kameng, we had been informed by the locals, that a big celebration would take place in a village called Bana. We checked where it was and discovered, that we could manage to get there on time!
The road leading to Bana was mostly in a very bad condition (like most of the roads in this part of India), and its last bit was unpaved and very dusty. We arrived in the afternoon, shortly after the opening ceremony. Tired, sweaty, hungry and covered with dust. We were surprised by the number of locals dressed in their traditional clothes and the very positive vibe in the village.
We wanted to find a safe place to leave our luggage and bikes and take a shower before visiting the site of the festival, but the only guesthouse in Bana was full, so we went to check the festival straight off the road, with our fully loaded bicycles.
The reaction of the locals was amazing! Right after we entered the celebration ground, we were welcomed by the head of the committee and informed that we should now relax and enjoy, because we will be celebrating the Sarok Festival for the next 3 days together with the people of the Aka tribe!
We got bamboo “glasses” filled up with a local beverage called “sai” and rice with beans as snacks. We had no chance to explain, that first we would like to at least wash our hands and faces and find a place to sleep. There was simply no way out – we got a VIP status straight away!
We were quickly surrounded by a group of new friends, who showed us around and explained, that Sarok is celebrated once a year and is an opportunity for all the people from the surrounding villages to come together and simply be happy.
We put on some traditional outfits and enjoyed the party!
The evening program consisted of several presentations of traditional songs and dances of the Aka people from the area. We were welcomed like celebrities, people wanted to take pictures with us and treated us with more and more local alcohol. We were introduced to Noko, a local medic, who took care of us during the entire festival. During the first night, due to the lack of food and persistent hosts we got heavily drunk and barely found the way to our new home…
Well, it was not hard to predict, that the next day would be rather tough. With heavy heads we went out to explore Bana a bit, meet the villagers and take some pictures of and with the participants of the festival.
Volleyball is the sport number one in this part of India. It is treated very seriously, and pretty much every village has a team of skilled players, so the festival was also a place of sport competition.
Together with our new friend Noko (who served us as a guide), we visited a lot of local bamboo houses. People of Arunachal lead a rather uncomplicated life, sharing a living space with all the members of the family. Since we were the only Westerners at the festival, all the people of Bana knew about us and wanted to meet us, so we had a day full of hand shakes and mobile phone snaps.
As we were informed, the animal number one for the people of this part of India is Mithun – a semi-domesticated kind of a huge jungle cow. Its horns are much more massive than the horns of a cow and are often displayed on the walls of the bamboo huts.
The local alcohol (“sai” or “apong”) is made by pouring boiling-hot water over fermenting rice mixed with millet. The rice-millet mix is placed in a cone basket, that acts as a funnel and the rice wine is collected at the bottom of it. Cheers!
The atmosphere of the festival was great (probably thanks to the rice wine), we liked the spontaneous way the traditional culture was displayed. We could feel, that it was not fake or “festival only”, but rather a part of every day life.
Even though some of the young people in Arunachal Pradesh follow the modern way of life, the old habits and traditions are still kept alive by the older generation.
We were stunned when one of the older ladies decided to show us her traditional dress and jewellery! Wearing the face tattoos – a tradition in this part of Arunachal, she looked so glamorous!
Originally the dominant religion of Arunachal is Donyi-Polo, the animistic cult of Sun and Moon. Sarok is the time of sacrificing animals and bringing a good fortune to the community.
Mithuns, pigs and chickens are being sacrificed during the time of the festival. Even though Christian missionaries are working hard to get rid of the long-existing beliefs, traditional faith is still present.
The third day of the festival was special – the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh landed with his helicopter and visited Bana. The village was full of soldiers that day, so the children could play a bit with the guns (scary).
We had our 5 minutes with the Chief Minister – he asked us about our journey and wished us all the best.
His presence required a special protection – provided not only by the Indian army, but by local warriors as well, who used the opportunity to display their skills and power.
On the final day of the festival it was time to sacrifice the animals. The entire village (including kids) gathered to watch the death of the animals stranded to a bamboo altar,
The meat is traditionally cut into pieces and distributed among the members of the community.
Some of the organs (here: lungs) are being used to foretell the next harvesting season – as we were told.
Watching the slaughter of the animals was really tough but to be part of Bana and the people who follow the ancient traditions was worth more than just 3 days of our permit. We had an extremely rare opportunity to witness probably dying traditions; thanks to being the only foreigners at the festival and our local friend, we were treated like VIPs (while being more two hobos) and were allowed to participate in this community event. Definitely an intense, but special and hard to forget experience!