Shertukpens, Honey Hunters of Arunachal Pradesh – defying height and stings

Shertukpens, Honey Hunters of Arunachal Pradesh – defying height and stings

They dangle precariously off a thin ladder from the rocky face of the mountain while trying to gather as much as they can. And in the process, they also need to be careful of the honeybees that swarm in large numbers. This motley group of people is trying to revive an age-old tradition. They are the honey hunters of the Shertukpen community of Arunachal Pradesh. They are one of those honey hunters of India who take great labour and pains to collect honey for the community and village.

Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India is an incredible destination – a place that is so rich in tradition and culture. There are 26 tribes and more than 100 sub tribes in Arunachal Pradesh each having their own unique customs and traditions. This makes the state so vivid and vibrant with different experiences. In this post, we will talk about the honey hunting Shertukpen community of Arunachal Pradesh.

Shertukpen community of Arunachal Pradesh

The Shertukpen community is located in the eastern fringes of the Himalayan ranges. A group of 12 villages in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh constitute the Shertukpen community. These hamlets are beautiful beyond words. Surrounded by the lofty ranges and green forests, you will find the green fields swaying to the crisp and unpolluted winds. Agriculture is their major livelihood. They mainly harvest maize and millets along with horticulture products like oranges, kiwi and apple.

Honey hunting is an integral part of the custom and tradition of the Shertukpen community. Honey has been in use in the community since time immemorial as food and delicacies. Honey is also valued for its medicinal properties. But these days the ancient tradition is slowly on the verge of extinction.

Honey hunting expedition

“The younger generation is no longer interested in honey hunting”, reminisces Shri Chumbi Megeji, an octogenarian who was one of the best honey hunters in his time. He had been going for honey hunting from a very young age. Even when he is eighty now, villagers come to him for his blessings and advice of honey hunting.

Like most of the communities in Arunachal Pradesh, the Shertukpens also revere nature as their mother. They believe that nature is the ultimate provider and nurturer. Respect towards nature and cohabitation with nature is their way of life. These days honey hunting is a biennial event. The community goes for honey hunting once during October and November when the rhododendrons are in full bloom and again during the months of June and July.

Arunachal Honey Hunting Expedition

A typical honey hunting expedition of the Shertukpens

A honey hunting expedition is an event of much excitement and zeal among the villagers. They get ready for the expedition from days. For a successful expedition, the team members should be chosen with care. Only the best honey hunters are chosen and the leader of the hunting team is someone with a great deal of experience. The equipment that is needed for the expedition is also made indigenously. The basket for the collection of the honeycomb is made by the villagers. The inside of the basket is made waterproof by indigenous rubber. The tongs and spatula to collect honey and chunks of hives are also made by the villagers. So after obtaining the blessings of the gods and forests, the honey hunters are now ready for the expedition.

They approach the forest with anticipation and respect. And then begins the long arduous journey through the forest towards the mountain slopes. They have to pass the thick canopy of trees in the jungles, cross over brooks and streams, walk across meadows to reach towards their goal. With the baskets and equipment in their back, they may be tired, but they are not dispirited. They are excited to be a part of this great journey. After reaching the base camp, they stop for the night. But that does not mean they rest. They start their preparation for the next day’s hunting programme. They have to make rope ladders or Jong La, as it is locally called.

Honey Hunters of Arunachal Pradesh

They cut down branches of trees and wild vines. With these, they make the rope that is used for climbing the hills to fetch honey from the top of the mountain. The vines are used for making the framework of the ladder. They plait the vines into a long, tight rope shaped in a helical way. They cut the stems into pieces and that is used as the steps of the ladder. The footholds are then tied securely using knots made from the vines. Another vine is used to ties across the steps. It is used to secure the steps from sliding. The ladder is made as long as the height of the mountain! Now that the ladder is made and they have got their basket, spatula and tongs, they are ready for the next days’ hunting escapade.

The night is passed with singing and merrymaking. As I have seen in other parts of Arunachal as well, singing is an integral part of all the tribes. The morning comes with the rays of sun falling under the canopy of trees. They reach the mountain face and the leader stops for prayer towards Mother Nature to provide them sufficiently. After having sought the blessings of Mother Nature, the honey hunters get ready for the act. They fully cover themselves with clothes and also cover their face so that they can save themselves from the sting of the attacking honeybees. They cover their head by cloth, but the face area is made of some net-like material so that they can see properly.

Honey Hunters of India

After they reach below the mountain, a small fire is lit. They call it the Holy Fire. The small fire at the foot of the mountain causes a lot of smoke. The smoke slowly rises on the mountain. The honeybees are stunned and they move away from their hives thus making way for the honey to be harvested.

The leader of the hunting party along with a few members climbs up on the mountain. Once they are on top, they throw down a rope. The hunters who are below tie the ladder to the rope and they pull it up. This ladder will then be thrown down and used by the leader to climb down on the mountain face to collect honey.

honey hunters

With a sturdy grip, disciplined composure and belief in the forest rope, the leader climbs down the cliff. In this way, he comes across the hives of the honeybees. A single sting of these bees causes us so much pain; here the leader faces hundreds and thousands of these rancorous bees. Their home has been invaded. They are angry.

The basket, tongs and spatula are supplied to him from down by the others using a rope. He hangs on the ladder precariously. With one hand gripping tightly at the ladder, he hits the honeycomb with the tongs. He collects the honey and the part of the broken hive in the basket. He then uses the spatula to prod at the comb and collects more honey into the basket. All this is done in quite an acrobatic way, while the multitude of honeybees swarms and buzz around.

Indian Honey Hunters

He collects the honey and sends it down to his mates waiting down. Then he gets down to the next hive and the process is repeated again. The entire process is quite tiring. So once the leader is exhausted, the second person in command climbs down.

After the honey is collected, they pour it in tin cans. With the honey, also come chunks of the hive and some ill-fated bees and larvae. The hunting goes on for the day, after which the hunters carry back their hunt in the village. The honey is further purified and stored. The honey is then shared among the villagers. The honeybees are revered in the Shertukpen community. The bees symbolize fertility and procreation. Thus honey bees and honey both form an intrinsic part of the customs and day-to-day activities of the Shertukpens.

Honey of Arunachal

With the effort of a few responsible people from the community, the tradition that is almost fading is now being revived. We hope their efforts are appreciated and people know more about this tradition of honey hunting by the Shertukpen community.

We express our sincere gratitude to Mr Kezang D Thondok for all the photographs and answering all our queries. You can check his Facebook Page Shertukpen Entertainment.

Honey Hunters of Arunachal Pradesh India

About The Author

NE Wanderer

We are a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts who have fallen in love with the exotic and unending beauty of northeast India. We are trying to bridge the gap between the northeast and the rest of the world by sharing experiences about the lifestyle of the indigenous people, stories and fables about their land and tribes, their colourful culture and exotic cuisines.

19 Comments

  1. Emily

    I had no idea this is how some people get there honey! It is inspiring to see traditions like this still alive. I hope one day the younger generation carries on the tradition.

    Reply
    • NE Wanderer

      Thank you Emily! These methods are used in a number of places in India and Nepal.

      Reply
  2. Paulina

    Oh this looks like such an incredible experience! I had no idea that people actually need to climb up that high to get this valuable good. I really liked the part that they see nature as their mother.

    Reply
  3. Follow my anchor

    The honey hunting expedition of the Shertukpens sounds like a very detailed ritual. Good to hear that this tradition has been revived. I would love to attend this event in person and hear them singing! It would definitely be a unique experience.

    Reply
    • NE Wanderer

      Thank you so much. Yes, attending this event would be a unique experience.

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth

    Never heard of “honey hunting” before. It sounds interesting and dangerous too! Seems like it would be a good community event. It is good that it is being revived.

    Reply
    • NE Wanderer

      Thank you Elizabeth! Honey hunting is done in this way in some parts of India and Nepal. This is an age old tradition.

      Reply
  5. Leah

    Very fascinating read! I haven’t heard of “honey hunters”, and I love that your post gives us insight into what they do and why they do it. It is interesting that the younger generation isn’t as interested in keeping this up. Thank you for opening my eyes to the world of honey hunting!

    Reply
  6. Jane Dempster-Smith

    I am so glad to hear that the activities of gathering honey in this traditional way is being revived. Although I fear it could be very dangerous, especially if stung, it is a fascinating tradition. Your photos were fascinating and the story very interesting. I have not heard of the Shertukpens before,

    Reply
    • NE Wanderer

      Thank you, Jane! Even I think that the process is quite dangerous, but this is being done since long!

      Reply
  7. Sana

    Wow that looks quite dangerous but so fascinating. There are so many great wanders in Northeast India and I’m glad your blog talks about these areas. I love that you also tell the story of what makes these towns so special like the honey from Shertukpens. I love learning about new cultures!

    Reply
  8. Rachelle

    What an amazing story about the honey hunters! I had no idea how cumbersome it was to collect honey, but it sure makes me appreciate it more. When I read about the Holy Fire, it reminded me about one of my ancestors. I grew up in an area that was famous for orange orchards. One of my ancestors was in charge of keeping the smudge pots lit at the base of the trees. The smoke was necessary to keep certain pests away from the crop. Such an important thing that we never really think about, huh.

    Reply
  9. Nicole Hunter

    That is amazing. I love the photos – how they bring to life your descriptions. It would be a shame for this tradition to disappear. I don’t think that I have ever seen exposed bee hives like that and then, sticking out of a mountain. Amazing. I bet the honey tastes delicious.

    Reply
  10. Daniel

    What a coincidence- I just visited this place a couple of weeks ago and had an amazing time! My girlfriend is from Arunachal Pradesh and she insisted that we should visit this place. I couldn’t find any articles about it online when I was searching but I’m glad you wrote one now.

    Reply
  11. Ara

    Wow! This is amazing! I haven’t heard of “honey hunting”. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information!

    Reply
  12. Candy

    This was such a fascinating read. I’ve never heard of hunting honey in this way. It looks like such a challenging skill to have and master. I’m so happy to hear that the tradition has been revived.

    Reply
  13. Lisa

    What a fantastic tradition to witness! I think it’s great communities around the world are keeping their traditions alive like this. They really make a fiesta of it, and it also brings communities together. A great read!

    Reply
  14. Suman Doogar

    I knew about the honey hunters of Nepal but didn’t know it’s right there in my own country. I have visited Arunachal twice but somehow missed this experience. Seems like another trip to the North East is due.

    Reply
  15. umiko

    Interesting yet dangerous way to get honey, in my opinion. But it’s been done for a very long time, so the villagers know how to do it the right way. It’s good to know that the honey shared among villagers. Looks like delicious!

    Reply

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