Sunday, November 11, 2007

Babo in Tanii (Apatani) culture

Babo’, or tall T-shaped wooden poles with thatch flags on the top towering above the roofs of houses, are a unique feature of Tanii villages. They play a prominent role every year during the time of Myoko festival when they are set up in front of the lapan and become the seat of various rituals. A few decades ago at this occasion men used to perform daring aerial acrobatics using the long cane rope (boha) tied to the tops of the masts. Young men in particular tried to demonstrate their skills by doing saumersaults over the rope. This activity was not without danger however, and for that reason the tradition has gradually fallen into decay. It seems that it has not been played on Ziro plateau since the 70’s or early 80’s. But the rituals associated with them continue to be performed every year during Myoko.

Two types of babo are erected :

  • a smaller one, santin babo, is set up by households for every male child and attached to the house front porch (byago), the number of poles varying from house to house according to the number of sons. The household head and male members of the family go to the forest and get straight tree trunks which are later decorated. Lacking the required solidity, these are not made for acrobatic activities.

A Tanii village lane along which santing babo can be
seen adjoining almost every house front verandah (byago)

  • a bigger type, akha babo, is erected on a clan basis and set up in front of almost every lapan. This mast is a solid wooden structure that may reach up to 15-20 meters high. The tree trunks are cut and dragged from the forests by a collective effort of male members of the clan. They are ceremonially pitched on the eve of the festival after having been decorated

The babo structure, i.e. the tree trunk holding the decorations which are attached to it, incorporates a fixed number of elements that are not only essential to its functioning but are also of symbolic or ritual importance :

· babo taper : 4 elongated planks of 5-6 meters long arranged so as to form a narrow twin-armed platform. They are first shaved with a dao and tied together in pairs with cane strips, then the two wooden arms are inserted horizontally into what will become the top of the mast. A space is left between the upper (ayo taper) and the lower structure (akan taper) for wrapping the cane rope on which acrobatics are performed.

· lako : a wooden stick inserted into each tip of the ayo taper and akan taper and joining them.

· lata : a long stick measuring approximately 2 meters tied horizontally at some distance from the top of babo.

· cholo : a wooden plank made in the shape of a machete (ilyo) on which designs are added by the use of charcoal, tied on the upper end of babo to what is seen as its ‘back side’. A decoration consisting of a bunch of bamboo sheaves or tassels hangs from the broader end.

· babo rinyo : basically a cane framework or rug-sized screen-like banners made of loops of cane (today sometimes replaced by some tissue or synthetic net) which is tied to and hangs from each tip of akan taper, in a manner that it sways rythmically in strong wind or when acrobatic performers apply a tensile load to the mast.

· rinyo pata : the lower part of of babo rinyo, a wooden plank of about 60 cm long attached to the loops of cane This element is usually decorated with geometrical motifs painted with black soots or charcoal.

· rinyo jompu (or rinyo some as called at Hari) : fine bamboo sheaves tied uniformly between the two pata, with one tip hanging down from the lower one. Altogether it makes up a kind of decorated panel.

· abyun-nanii : large wooden boards cut from the biggest trees of the forest which are manhandled to the village. Once packed tightly and stuck at the base of babo by means of wooden hammers, they serve as chocks to maintain the babo firmly into the ground. The wooden boards are fastened together with ropes (tiipii).

· boa (or boha): a cane rope wrapped around the mast between ayo and akan taper, first used to hoist the mast and then left hanging loosely from its top, on which acrobatics are performed. This rope is made out of a special type of cane called taser yaso (Calamus acanthospathus), in the same way mithun ropes are plaited. The lower end which is attached to a pole (botu) secures tightly to the ground at such a distance that the rope forms an angle of approximately 45-60° with the babo pole.

Erecting a babo

Due to its size and weight, the erection of an akha babo is a collective work involving the participation of 20 to 30 male members of the clan. It is interesting to note that the procedure has remained almost exactly the same since Prof. C. von Fürer-Haimendorf first shot it at Hong in 1944. The original video can be seen from this link.

The structure comprising the pole, taper and lata is erected first, then the other elements are added by someone escalating the mast. A dozen of long ropes are first tied to the taper structure and pole. Clan members act in three separate groups of about 10 people each : one group gets the mast hauled into position by pulling the ropes while a second one, holding bamboo poles, tries to lift the top of the structure. As the mast is being erected a third group sustains the base of the main pole and guides it into a hole that has been dig purposely. By means of wooden mallets the boards are hammered into position around the base of the mast to get it firmly tied into the ground.

Erecting a babo, Hong, March 2007 (Courtesy Ph. Ramirez, CNRS)

A man then scales the mast. Climbing is facilitated by the use of a rope which has been previously wrapped around it (see photo below). Having reached the lata stick and standing on it he can release most of the ropes from taper, leaving only the rope centrally attached to the mast (which will be used to performed acrobatics) plus one or two others at close distance from the mast. Then he climbs down the uppermost part of the mast and swings down the rest of the way on one of the remaining ropes

Securing boa around the mast, Hong, March 2007 (Courtesy Ph. Ramirez, CNRS)

In a very same manner the two banners (rinyo) are carried aloft and hanged at each tip of the taper structure. In Haimendorf's video a man then climbs up the uppermost part of the mast carrying cholo on his back and fix it to the end of the pole. In the 2007 scene, cholo is attached to the mast prior to its erection.


It is still unclear whether the proper name for this activity is boa be (boa = rope; be = to jump), boa behii (behii = to dive or saumersault) or boa beniin (beniin = jumping). Traditionally the strength and elasticity of the long rope were first tested by a few people who hanged from it and sprang onto it. The acrobatics performed were actually a kind of bobbling act using the tensile strength of boa, and the action basically consisted in pulling the rope down and letting it spring up. For the public performance two or three persons usually pulled on and handled the rope, impulsing an up and down movement, after what the rope was released and the jumper got himself propelled high up into the air. While swinging in the air he did somersaults on the elastic rope before an appreciative audience observing from below or from the various byago, as on the picture below. In those days where boa behii/benii was still popular during Myoko festival kids of both sexes often tried to participate to the game as they could by tiying small swing towards the lower end of the rope.

Apatani man performing boha behii/benii at Hari, 1954 (photograph by Verrier Elwin)

A scene showing the bobbling action from Haimendorf's silent film collection :


AG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AG said...

And hey! Nice template too.

AG said...

Good work on Babo and it's description.

Here I may like to add, I'm bit unsure if santing babo is erected for every male child of the family. What I came across was a single santing babo erected even if you had more than one male child in the household-but I may be wrong.

PB said...

@ Thanks for pointing out this mistake. I wish someone can confirm it and I will rectify accordingly.

richo said...

ayii..........aano aaya doke....sitang pa ako miije kendo ke.......:-)