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While growing up in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district, Kezang D Thongdok remembers hearing stories about the honey hunters from his father and grandparents, who would recall going on hunts themselves as youngsters.
Part of a small and unique tribal community of Shertukpens, Kezang had always been fascinated by the age-old practice of honey-hunting, which was once an integral part of their customs and traditions.
“However, I had never witnessed it for myself,” says Kezang, speaking to The Better India.
“With the advent of modernisation, honey hunting is rapidly fading away. Within three or four years, this unique practice will fade out. The young generation isn’t interested in hunting and harvesting for honey because it’s rigorous work. This practice is under threat,” he adds.
Perhaps this was Kezang’s inspiration behind a 26-minute-long documentary called Chi Lupo (‘Chi’ refers to honey, while ‘Lupo’ refers to hunter), which spectacularly documents this skillful practice of collecting honey from hives perched on rocky hilltops. The documentary recently won ‘best documentary’ at the 10th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival Awards.
The Quaint Life of the Shertukpens
Located within the eastern fringes of the Himalayan ranges in Western Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district is a conglomeration of nearly 12 villages that the Shertukpens inhabit.
Despite their long lineage of Tibetan ancestry and inheriting Tibetan Buddhist culture, “the Sherdukpens [although phonetically speaking the community prefers Shertukpen] are more inclined to their pre-Buddhist animistic traditions,” according to this study.
Making them particularly unique are their very small numbers. There are barely 4,000+ speakers of their native tongue also known as Shertukpen which has no written script.
The Shertukpens were also known for the now dying skill of honey hunting.
Take the example of Chumbi Megeji, a man in his early 80s, who has been a honey hunter all his life. Briefly interrupted by the Chinese aggression in 1961-62, it’s what he has done all his life.
“Nowadays, the younger generation do not take interest in honey hunting. It is a part of our culture. I wish to go honey hunting, but my old age doesn’t permit me. I wish the younger generation would learn the art of honey hunting and keep this tradition alive,” says Megeji despondently. You can see the sadness in his eyes when he says it.
Compelled by the thought of the art of honey hunting breathing its last, Kezang, a public relations officer working in a private hydropower company with a passion for documentary filmmaking, began his journey in June 2018 to follow a few honey hunters deep into jungles of Shra Numah hills near Thongri village perched at 6,000 ft above sea level.
The native hunters were from Thongri village and Jigaon village. For Kezang, the drive from his hometown of Rupa to these villages barely takes 25 minutes.
As of today, according to Kezang, there are only three active honey hunters left in the community, but even they don’t hunt and harvest regularly. The other three honey hunters are beyond the age of 60 and can’t perform these physically rigorous tasks.
“After the release of the documentary, I was surprised to receive so much feedback from youngsters in our community either living or working out of state. They were surprised to learn about the prevalence of this practice in our community. This goes on to show how far this practice has faded away even within the community,” he says.
“Also, honey is now easily available in stores and modern medicine has lessened the relevance of traditional medicine as well. The respect that these honey hunters once garnered no longer exists,” adds Kezang.
Whatever tools they use to harvest and hunt honey are prepared indigenously. Everything is collected from the wild, vine for rope ladders to tongs and spatulas for harvesting honey. Even the bamboo baskets in which they collect honey are made locally. The inner side of the basket is sealed with locally found rubber to make it waterproof.
“In the plains, honey is harvested from trees or the roofs of homes. In West Arunachal, we find these honeycombs on mountain cliffs, the face of a mountain rock or sides of rocky hills. You find it on trees as well, but those combs are small. On hills and mountains, they are very large. These honeycombs can weigh as much as 200 kg,” says Kezang.
In the documentary, Kezang follows the hunting party through dirt tracks in the jungle, crossing river streams and meadows. They even cross mountain tops and move into the dense forest. Including trekking to their spot, the shoot took roughly five days. Immediately after touching base camp, the hunting party begins their preparations for the hunting programme which requires preparation of rope ladders and other materials.
“The ladder we are using is only 40 feet long. Yes, we can extend it beyond 40 feet as well. It depends on the height of the mountain. The higher the mountain, the longer the rope ladder we have to prepare,” says the man leading this hunting party in the documentary.
On the fourth day of the hunting expedition, they proceed to climb up the hill. Being Nature worshippers, once the hunting party reaches the top, they pay homage to her for providing them with food and an abundance of natural resources.
Before they begin climbing up to collect the honey, they wear locally-made protective gear to cover themselves up so that they don’t get stung by honeybees. However, before this happens a series of small fires are lit up to create smoke that would drive some of the bees away.
This hunting party is divided into two groups. While one climbs up on top, which includes the leader and his assistant, the other remains on the foot of this rock face. From the top, the leader and his assistant throw down the rope ladder, which will be used for climbing down the mountain and harvesting the honey from the face of the rock.
Once the leader of the hunting party reaches the spot, a basket is also pulled up where he deposits the honey. Using a spatula and tongs, he breaks and removes all of the wax capping. Once all the capping is removed, he uses the tong to scrape all the semi-solid and raw liquid honey into the basket.
This is an extremely taxing job physically, dangling mid-air on a rope ladder to harvest the honey. When the leader of the hunting party gets tired, his assistant takes over. Throughout this process, there are swarms of bees buzzing all around him with his hand exposed. There is no question they suffer multiple bites. Approaching multiple hives, this goes on for hours.
By the end of it, they have collected 25 litres of honey. They return to their villages with the honey which is further refined and stored.
“In Himalayan regions, the honey is very rich in Vitamins and it has medicinal properties. In our area, the honey is harvested annually twice–once in June/July and the other in October/November, when the Rhododendron flower is in full bloom. It can be used in cough syrups as well. But the process of harvesting it requires real skill,” informs Kezang.
Besides documenting the practice, Kezang also looks to preserve his community’s precious dialect as well. The documentary is dotted with Shertukpen folk songs appreciating and thanking mother nature. One song that stands out is sung by his mother Yeshi Dema Thongdok, which praises beautiful snowcap mountains, the journey of rivers and blossoms, while there is another one sung by Dinglow paying homage to honeybees for producing rich honey to his people.
Deep down, Kezang hopes that the government and the younger generation within the Shertukpen community take up a larger role in preserving this unique practice.
It would be a real shame if it quietly faded away from their collective conscience.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)