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I Trekked to Meet the Reclusive, Mystical Forest Spirits of Joli. They Weren’t Happy to See Me

PHOTO: Ruth E. Dsouza

The Yapom is a spirit clan that can shower prosperity on those they bless—or rain havoc on those who anger them.

A pristinely beautiful mountainside, untouched foliage washed afresh with the night’s rainfall, mist lifting as the sun tries hard to shine through–these are the scenes you wake up to in Gori Etur, a village in north-east India in the town of Basar. Our cold hands warmed around a cup of laal chai (red tea in Hindi), and we quickly perked up when our host asked if a trek to meet Yapom, the forest spirits of the haunted woodlands of Joli, would be of interest.

Joli is 1.86 miles away from Gori and is among the innumerable virgin forests that dot the 32,333 square mile expanse of Arunachal Pradesh. It’s an Indian state that remains relatively untraversed as carving out roads in its mountainous terrain has been understandably slow. This makes traveling to even the nearest village an arduous journey, constantly threatened by potential landslides. The two nearest airports are in the neighboring state of Assam—Lilabari Airport is 45 miles from Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal, and Dibrugarh Airport is 121 miles away.

Basar is 74 miles from Dibrugarh by road. With the construction of the Trans-Arunachal Highway—a 1,242 mile stretch connecting eastern Arunachal to the west via the central regions—visiting many unseen parts is now a possibility. The roads test the suspension of your vehicle and the lubrication of your joints. All you have to take your mind off the jarring drives are the breathtaking (and terrifying) mountainside views—one wrong turn and you could easily steer right off a cliff. It is a journey for the adventurous but worth every moment of it when you step into Gori.

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Ruth E. Dsouza

Most people of Gori belong to the Galo tribe (one of 26 major tribes in Arunachal, each with their language and many animistic, following the Donyi-Polo religion). All tribal folk have a strong belief in the spirits of Nature, of which the Yapom are believed to be forest dwellers. Joli is one such forest abode for the Yapom.

“We believe the Yapom are a clan and have a society of their own, deep in the forest,” says Minya Basar, the youngest brother of our host, Minjo Basar. “The good ones bless people with prosperity and the nasty ones cause bad luck and even kidnap you.” The belief is that if one desecrates Yapom territory by dirtying it, fishing in their waters, or cutting down trees, bad luck will befall them. Stories range from people being pelted with moss-covered stones to sightings of double-headed cobras (a rarity in themselves) to even kidnapping, transported rapidly above trees and deposited on faraway hills. Those kidnapped have found their way back after days, often half-naked with no recollection of what happened or who took them.

But one tribe, the Ango, is believed to be favored by the spirits, as they’ve been fishing and foraging in Joli for generations “We have heard that the Ango would leave their babies in the forest unattended while they fished and foraged, and the children were cared for by the spirits,” says Jummar Basar, another of Minjo’s relatives.

The spirits supposedly have a kind side to them, even toward those they don’t favor—they feed their captives unbelievably delicious food, which is brought by women who seem “more beautiful than Katrina Kaif” (a popular Bollywood actress), as one account goes. “No one has seen the Yapom but we believe that it has a female form,” says Minya, adding that when kidnappings take place, the Nyibo (priests in Galo language) negotiate with the Yapom for the release of the person, often in exchange for an animal sacrifice. The kidnappings and bad luck are not as common as they used to be; nevertheless, the Yapom are always accorded respect.

Now it was my turn to visit the Yapom. Minjo and his uncle drove us in a battered hatchback over a slushy road for 1.2 miles. We had to walk the rest of the way. After a mile of mud and stepping over concrete reinforcements placed for road construction, Minjo suddenly turned right into what looked like a wall of green. Our small group looked for a pathway as we followed but there was none. In a few minutes, the walking turned to slipping and sliding over rocks until we got to a wooden barricade, which we were told the Ango put up to keep intruders away, but the folks of Basar were allowed to pass through. Minjo used his Orok (a large hunting knife, similar to the Nepalese kukri) to cut thick vines and small bushes out of our way.

We hugged the mountain wall following Minjo, who seemed to forge ahead as though playing hopscotch. A river appeared to our left and we saw Lepum, a structure of flat rocks placed one over the other in the water to form a pyramid to capture fish. We were now in ankle-deep water. The only sounds were our breathing and the flowing, crystal clear water over pebbles. Looking around, the trees seemed tall, maybe even unusually so, with thick vines hanging from them. Trees from either side of the gorge we were in seemed to knit themselves together. It was early afternoon and the silence around was deafening.

We were guided to a blink-and-miss confluence point of the rivers Hie and Rukin and then shown a moss-covered shelf on the hill. We had to wade in waist-high water, climb up to what looked like a shelf, and walk to where we would see a deep body of water teeming with fish. “No one knows how deep that pool is or the kind of fish in it,” explained our guides. Since the pool is in Yapom territory, no one has been willing to jump in and find out.

Ruth E. Dsouza

After some time looking around, we headed back up to the non-existent pathway. Each time I anchored the thick branch I was using as a walking stick into the river bed I wondered if I was harming the space in any way. Minjo stopped to hack away yet again at a red-stemmed creeper. Eat, he said, handing over some bukuchulu, a leaf that relieves babies of pinworms. I hesitated for just a second—we weren’t allowed to take from Yapom territory right?—one bite and the sharp tanginess of the leaf hit me. I barely had time to register the taste before I saw the group already making their way back to the barricade, which I had to then navigate almost on all fours. As I crossed over the wooden fence, for a split second it felt as though I was stepping out of a transparent wall of silence into a world where I could hear birds in the distance again and the drone of the earthmover a little ahead. My imagination seemed to be in hyper mode.

As the hatchback made its way back to the house, its wheel went into a deep pothole of slush right up to the rear bumper. It took six people—passers-by and the construction workers around—to get us out. Our host remained unfazed, though I couldn’t help thinking if this was a message from the Yapom. This thought resurfaced later that evening after a market visit when we were waiting in Minjo’s parked car while he ran errands. The car began to slip backward of its own accord and onto the road. Was the handbrake not pulled right or were the Yapom sending another message?

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