Tapyo: Why Does The Apatani Tribe Make Its Own Salt?
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About a hundred years ago, Gandhi was quoted as saying, "India lives in its villages." After the country welcomed globalization in 1991, it has been rapidly moving towards urbanization, which invariably translates to industrialization. Being modern is synonymous with being tech-savvy and using science as a tool of constant verification. This is far from Gandhi’s glorious vision of India, which kept self-reliance at its forefront, but if he were to be alive today, the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh would have made him beam with pride.

The Apatanis live in the Ziro Valley in the Lower Subansari district of the state. This valley has also been tentatively included by UNESCO as a world heritage site for its unique way of wet rice cultivation without the use of any tools. If we break the word down, "apa" refers to a display of affection, and "tani" refers to the human race.

To distinguish themselves from others, their nose and chin are tattooed with dark green lines as a mark of identity. Along with the face tattoos, Apatani women also wear nose and ear plugs to enhance their beauty, although there are reports that claim otherwise. Some say that this was done by women to avoid any possible violence caused by their beauty, so whether this practice was forced or not remains debatable. Since the group lives remotely in dense forests, they have developed methods to sustain themselves with the natural resources surrounding them.

The production of Tapyo, an alternative for salt, is one such method. It is prepared using local herbs, such as Pepu (Phragmites karka) and Sarshe (Eleusine coracana). Pepu is not only sourced for salt, but it is also used as fodder for cattle, rope and carpet preparation, home decor, and an antipyretic drug, which has led to its decline. It also contributes to the conservation of forests in the Ziro Valley as the grass restricts soil erosion by binding riverine soils. So, the need for restoration programs to conserve Pepu in its natural habitats is necessary.

The process of producing Tapyo takes about four days. It starts with two to three hours of sun drying of about 300 kilograms of base plant (Pepu, Sarshe, etc.). Then it is immediately burned to ashes, which are collected in a cone-shaped bamboo apparatus with a small opening at the bottom for the filtrate to start dripping. It is again accumulated and placed on fire for five to seven hours with the gradual addition of water to attain a depth of 3 cm. Once the solid solute has cooled, it is wrapped in a leaf from a plant colloquially known as Lolly (Molineria capitulata) and kept on top of a vessel containing rice beer for three days. At the end of this period, it will have absorbed the vapors of rice beer. The last step is to heat this wet substance again for it to become ready for consumption.

The final product weighs around one kilogram and bears a resemblance to dried red clay. Each kilogram of the salt is priced at roughly 300 rupees. This herbal salt is preferred over mineral salt since it has been used in traditional recipes for a long time. It is known to enhance the appetite and taste of rice beer.

The most fascinating aspect of this salt, however, lies in its protection against an iodine deficiency disease that plagues many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. Tapyo not only helps in preserving the Apatani culture, but it also shields them from goiter, an irregular enlarging of the thyroid gland located at the base of the throat. Furthermore, since the salt is made using traditional methods, it is relatively more environment-friendly than large-scale mining and processing.

Since salt was once a rarity in Arunachal Pradesh due to its scarcity, the tribe’s ability to make its own salt became a source of empowerment.

One of the threads that holds a community together is a collective goal. However, even the Apatanis are not immune to the desire to be on the same pace as the rest of the world, which is making Tapyo a lost art. In a world that values adaptability, the preservation of skills and knowledge becomes difficult, especially in places such as this that depend on oral history as their source of information. This tussle between modernity and tradition is present in the Apatani youth’s reluctance towards continuing a 100-year-old practice, which is raising concerns regarding its survival.