Arunachal Pradesh

Lodged in the sides of their noses, the black nose plugs stand out on the weathered faces of the Apatani women in Arunachal Pradesh, India.

These stunning photos are the work of Cezary Wyszynski, who was given unique access to photograph the women carrying out their daily lives. As with their dark facial tattoos, the plugging of an Apatani woman’s nose is a right of passage carried out once a woman has had their first period, marking them out as an adult. The Apatani tribe live in a small village in the Ziro valley, deep in rural Arunachal Pradesh. Also known as the Tani, the Apatani tribe’s ritual of plugging the nose and tattooing the face of women is a dying tradition, which has not been practiced since 1970. It is believed that the strange practice was historically done to all adult Apatani women in a bid to deter tribal raiders. Each time the tribe was attacked, their women would be kidnapped and never seen again. The Apatani leader decided that the most beautiful woman should have large circular nose plugs, known as yaping hurlo, placed into the sides of their nose. As well as the nose plugs, dark tattoos were etched on to the faces of the women. The tattooed lines were designed to go vertically down their face, from the top of their forehead to the bottom chin.

Both practices were deliberately designed to try and make the women’s faces look less beautiful in the hope that raiders would take one look and decide not to steal the Apatani women.  Situated in the fertile wetlands of Arunachal Pradesh, the farming of rice paddies remains one of the tribe’s main sources of income. As well as rice, fish are also farmed in the paddy fields, enabling the tribe to enjoy a protein diet despite their remote location from civilisation.  The tribe practices its own religion, known as Donyi-Polo, where they pray to the Sun (Donyi) and the Moon (Polo). 

The modern era has meant that the tradition of nose plugging has not been carried out since 1970 on an Apatani woman. Now it is only the elderly ladies of the tribe who bear the physical hallmarks of a bygone era, providing a hint at the fascinating history of the tribe.