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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.