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Published Monday, March 9, 2015

The Stretched Nostrils of the Apatani Women

A woman carrying baskets. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

The legend says that the Apatani women were the most beautiful women in any of the surrounding tribes. Raiders would ride into Arunachal Pradesh, the large state in Northern India where the Apatani live, and kidnap them. In response, the women began tattooing their faces, and stretching their nostril piercings out until large plugs could be fitted in.

The tattoos and nostril plugs are now worn only by the older women in the tribe. The tradition hasn’t been practiced on anyone new since the 1970s. Whether the legend is true or not (The Apatani have no written history) the piercings came to symbolize a sense of collective identity and unity among the women. Their facial tattoos – a single line running from the forehead down the nose, and breaking out into a fan shape on the chin – all match. It’s also notable that stretching in general is prevalent in the community, with many of the men and women also having stretched lobes.

Over time,

The nostril plugs, called yaping hurlo, came to be seen as a sign of beauty and strength.

According to Takhe Kani in The Advancing Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, the piercings were originally made with a piece of sharpened bamboo, when a girl was five or six years of age, and then over time they were stretched by putting a series of either pine plugs or round pieces of bamboo into the holes to enlarge them. When they were large enough, decorative wooden plugs, or even plugs of gold and silver were put in place. Large copper rings and woven tubes can also be worn. The earlobes of both Apatani men and women are often stretched in the same way.

There are nearly...

These are some of the greatest sustainable farmers in the world. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Thirty tribes living in the Arunachal Padesh with the Apatani, and the legends of tribal raids are not a thing of antiquity. As late as the 1940s, some degree of slavery still existed in the Apatani tribe and the surrounding tribes. One photo of a captured tribesman taken during the 1940s shows him with a large log on his foot to prevent him from escaping.

The British, who controlled India for much of their modern history, had outlawed slavery but made only minor changes to the Indian slavery systems they found in place. Slavery, whether by contract or otherwise, was beneficial to the East India Trading Company, and parliament tended to turn a blind eye.

In Apatani culture, people could be born into slavery, purchased or captured in battle.


Traditional marriage for the Apatani is based on clan membership. A man or woman would not be able to marry someone from their father or mother’s clan, unless it can be shown that there is no blood link between them. In practice this would rarely happen, and a marriage would be between people of unrelated clans.

Sumi Krishna,

One of the elder women of the Apatani tribe (Photo credit: Wikimedia)
In her Women’s Livelihood Rights, says that Apatani women, particularly in the modern day, face a difficult life. Young Apatanis – male and female alike – driven by poverty, leave their ancestral lands to find low paying government jobs in Itanagar – the state capital – and as young people leave or become educated the burden of food production on the farms has been shifted mainly to the older women of the clans. Apatani society is fiercely patriarchal, and women have few rights. They are never supposed to be idle, and so spend long days working in the fields. A wife is considered a financial investment, and it’s easy, under the clan rules, for a husband to divorce his wife and get a new one.


The practice of stretching nostrils is at an impasse. It was once a way of protecting oneself from kidnapping, and has now become something for which older Apatani women are world famous. Tourism guides to Northern India list the largest Apatani villages as destinations, and specifically tell when the best time will be to see these older women out and about in the village. These woman have become local celebrities of a sort, almost living museum pieces. But they’re also being increasingly recognized for their sustainable farming practices, which helped make the Ziro Valley, where the Apatani live, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Specifically of interest is their ability to grow rice and fish in the paddies, using runoff from forests above the valley that also fertilize crops of millet. Using their unique method, these crops can grow year after year without erosion or damage to the environment. This, along with their unique piercings, is causing more people to seek out these older women, who have become the caretakers of this knowledge developed over twenty generations of experimenting.


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