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The Unsettling Story Behind the Nose Plug Tradition

by Alema Ljuca about a month ago in Historical
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How fear scarred the Apatani people for centuries.

An Apatani woman wearing the tribe’s signature nose plugs, Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh, India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In India’s green Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh lives the peaceful Apatani Tribe. For centuries, the Apatani people have been practicing a lifestyle of harmony and oneness with nature. They have resisted modernization and stuck with their longstanding ways and traditions. But one of those traditions is dying out.

The Apatani people are best known for two things. The first one is their agriculture. The Ziro Valley is known for flooded fields called paddy fields. The Apatani people used their centuries-long ecological knowledge and mastery of natural resources to systematically grow rice in paddy fields. And they did that with no machines or animals.

Due to such “extremely high productivity” and the preservation of ecology, UNESCO has proposed the Apatani Valley to be included in the World Heritage Site.

Apatani woman working on a paddy field where rice is farmed, Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The second most prominent characteristics of the Apatani people are the nose plugs and distinct face tattoos of their women. In recent history, those two face modifications have been seen and practiced as beauty symbols and tribal marks. But their origin is much darker.

The Apatani Tribe was never the only tribe living in Ziro Valley. They coexisted with many neighboring tribes with different customs and characteristics. But among all of the women, the Apatani ones were known as the greatest beauties.

With time, the men from other tribes started abducting and forcefully marrying the Apatani women. They were known as tribal raiders, and once they kidnapped a woman, she was never seen again.

To prevent that from happening, the Apatani elders came up with an unusual solution.

Apatani women with nose plugs and face tattoos (Both images from Wikimedia Commons)

On the day an Apatani woman reached puberty and had her first period, her face was inked, and her nose plugged marking her as an adult. Such face modifications aimed to make the woman unattractive and undesirable to the tribal raiders.

The plan worked but not without a cost.

Firstly, the wooden nose plugs called “Yaping Hullo” were not placed in the nostrils but pierced on each side of the nose. The initial pain was terrible, and so was the discomfort.

Secondly, the process of getting a face tattoo was perhaps even worse. The tattoo of an Apatani woman, “Tippei,” is a thick black line that goes from the top of her forehead, down the entire face, and splits into 4–5 lines on the chin. The tattoo is done by a thorny plant that is dipped in a mixture of soot and pig’s fat. The thorn is placed on the skin and then hit with a small hammer until the face is inked. The bleeding is abundant, and so is the pain.

Ultimately, agonizing as the whole process was, the women were safe. But after some time, an unexpected thing happened.

Apatani women in their traditional attire and jewelry (Both images from Wikimedia Commons)

The nose plug and face tattoo practices that were intended to make the Apatani women unattractive became an important part of the tribe’s culture. The women did not only not rebel against the changes but were proud of their unique looks. The modifications were even seen as beauty symbols and were desired by the Apatani tribesmen.

But it was not to last.

In the early 1970s, the Indian Government imposed a ban on nose plugs. It was said that they made the Apatani women easily recognizable and therefore prone to discrimination. The ban was not well received by the tribe. But eventually, they made their peace with it.

Today, less than 30.000 Apatani people are left. And whereas the younger generations are leaving the villages to work in towns, the elders are keeping the rich Apatani culture alive. Many of the women reminiscence about the old days when every dress had to be handmade and call their nose plugs and face tattoos beautiful. They take pride in standing out and being recognized as members of the Apatani Tribe.


Sources: Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities & Atlas of Humanity.

This article was originally published on Medium.


About the author

Alema Ljuca

Through variety to clarity. International business student with a focus on strategy and innovation.

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Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (2)

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  • InfiniteFlameabout a month ago

    Loved this story! A Glimpse of diversity within India.

  • Monica Leigh Frenchabout a month ago

    I really enjoyed this story! I actually love learning about other cultures, so I found this fascinating. Your writing style just sucked me in. My only complaint is that I wish it was longer!❤️

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