'Bascon 3.0 is a plastic-free zone' read the board that greeted us even before we had entered the festival premises. There was a 'water station' next to it. Women dressed in traditional Galo attire sat inside this station with baskets full of bamboo tumblers. If you had plastic bottles, they collected those here and emptied the water in the bamboo tumblers. The tumblers had a long sling, also made of bamboo, so you could carry them easily over your shoulder.
This strategy had clearly worked wonders, since even after three days of the Basar Confluence, we didn't see a single discarded plastic bottle anywhere in the big open festival ground.
The first time we heard of the Basar Confluence, the line 'It’s an organic festival with a No Plastic Tag' intrigued us. Doni Riba, a resident of Basar and a member of GRK - Gumin Rego Kilaju, had written to us telling us about Basar Confluence. We had never heard of Basar before, neither had our travels ever taken us to North East India. The idea of a community-organised festival in a remote, unknown corner of India was reason enough for us to head towards Arunachal Pradesh, where Basar is located. We made our plans, still sceptical about how this 'No Plastic Tag' was going to play out.
A flight to Dibrugarh and a ferry ride across the massive Brahmaputra river at Bogibeel (the 4.3-kilometre rail-road bridge hadn’t been inaugurated yet, making us among the last tourists to use the ferry service here) got us on a road lined with tea estates on one side and golden rice fields, ready for harvest, on the other. Fragrant aromas from these fields filled the air as we glided ahead on the smooth Assam roads.
However, by the time we reached the Assam-Arunachal border at Likabali at 5 pm, pitch darkness had descended and the smooth roads of Assam had completely vanished. As we ascended the mountain roads, all we could make out was a dense forest surrounding us. And no matter how much distance we covered, questions about how much longer it would take would always be met by the same reply: “Just a couple of hours more."
The exhaustion of the previous night’s travel vanished as soon as we opened the window the next morning. Right in front of us was a house made of bamboo, standing on stilts. A lone tree laden with oranges stood in a corner, hens and their chicks were running around, a pig stayed locked in its pen. Surrounding this straight-out-of-a-picture-postcard house was a thick bamboo forest that went all the way up the hills, now shrouded by clouds.
This was Basar. The next few days looked promising indeed!
The beginnings of Basar Confluence
A few years ago, some residents of Basar got together and formed a society called GRK, with lofty goals like creating a society that is equal for all, education and sports development of the youth, nature conservation, and economic development through sustainable tourism.
Basar Confluence — Bascon for short — was conceptualised as a means of promoting tourism in Basar. However, they were clear about not allowing the influx of tourists to damage their natural resources and ecosystem. That’s how the idea of a 'plastic-free' festival came about.
Another interesting and unique angle they introduced to this festival was the artist residency program. Six artists were chosen from over a hundred applications. These artists had spent a month in Basar before the festival. They had spent time in the villages, observed the life here, interacted with the people, tried to understand the Galo story from the elderly, and spoken to the children about their aspirations.
Artist Imon working on his installation
At the Basar Confluence, these artists — a writer, a musician, a painter, a filmmaker, a photographer and an installation artist — all displayed their interpretation of Basar and its people through their work. A little 'artist corner' was designed by the artists with the help of the locals, which added a factor of coolness to Bascon.
The Galo people have traditionally used bamboo for all their daily needs. One of their biggest achievements is they have successfully managed to pass this knowledge down the generations, right up to the present one. It was decided that bamboo would be the main component of the Basar Confluence.
The involvement of the local people — and an abundance of bamboo
Since local intelligence was easily available, they didn’t need any external companies to build the infrastructure or handle the event.
What started on a small scale with just two villages participating in the first edition has now grown to a full-fledged three-day extravaganza of culture, art and music with all 32 villages of Basar taking part.
Each one contributes their time, effort, knowledge and money, voluntarily. The sense of ownership they feel towards the Basar Confluence is palpable.
They chose an open ground at the confluence of the Hei and Kidi rivers flowing through Basar as the venue. While the rivers flowed on one side, the venue was lined by a thick bamboo forest on the other side. Rice fields were spread out in between.
The presence of rivers on two sides meant that bridges would be needed for people to access the festival grounds. Here too, everything was eco-friendly, devoid of any artificial material. The bridges over both the rivers were made of bamboo. Benches that lined the riverside for people to hang out at were also made of bamboo, as was the main stage of Bascon, where the dances were performed. The media watchtower, enclosures for the invitees, as well as the food court were all made of bamboo.
Bamboo bridge at BasCon
Ahead of the festival grounds, a tree house had been constructed where one could enjoy a quiet, relaxed moment. You could order barbecued meats and Poka from the food stall next to it, climb up the tree house and soak in the moment, looking at the paddy fields and bamboo forest all around. The tree house, the passages connecting its different sit-outs and the steps to climb up to it were also all made of bamboo.
This was a serious commitment to being ecologically responsible, putting all our scepticism to rest and replacing it with admiration. On the first day itself, we knew there was a lot to learn from the Galo people.
A life in sync with nature
On the first day of Bascon, as we were returning from lunch (served on leaves which were placed on tables, of course, made of bamboo), we were informed of the agrotourism sector of the Basar Confluence. By the time we reached, the Galo women were already busy harvesting the crop in rice fields. They even let us participate in the activity. They showed us how they would husk the crop and eventually store for use through the year.
Galo ladies working in the field
The people of the Galo tribe are mainly into agriculture, with rice being their main crop and staple diet. The usually cook the rice inside the bamboo, rendering a distinct, sweet flavour to the already aromatic rice.
Poka, or the local rice wine (not the rice beer which is more easily available across North East India) is the main drink of Basar. Every food stall at Basar served Poka by the litres, all in bamboo tumblers, obviously!
The two main components of Poka are rice and bamboo, the main product of this region, making it an easy drink to prepare for everyone, irrespective of socioeconomic background. Certain herbs foraged from the forest are added while making the drink, rendering a certain medicinal value to the brew. How much of these herbs to add is decided by the lady of the house, giving the Poka of each home a distinct flavour. Essentially, Poka is a social equaliser of the Galo tribe, and the Basar Confluence gave us a chance to experience this special drink with the Galos themselves.
The morning session on the second day of Bascon had shifted to a village named Gori. It was the traditional fishing day on the Si river.
Traditionally, the Galos have always had a non-industrial approach to fishing. A tree named taneer is found in some forests of Arunachal Pradesh. The bark of the tree is pound into a soft pulp. A section of the river is blocked with stones and this pulp is added to this blocked section. Properties of the taneer bark numb the fish temporarily, making them rise up to the surface. The women then hold their baskets in water and catch the fish.
Traditional fishing at Basar Confluence
This way, you only fish from a certain section of the river, and fish only as much as you need. The taneer trees, however, are not many in number, and very few people can now identify these trees, making it difficult to continue this traditional fishing technique. But if mindfully practised, this could be a healthy all-natural fishing practice that does not damage the ecosystem of the river.
Learning about the Galo way of life through art and performance
The performances at the Basar Confluence gave us insight into the way of life practised by the Galo people of Basar.
Galo Ponu, a welcome dance, was performed by the women, while Nyida Parik was a war dance performed by the men. The most spectacular dance was the mega Galo performance by over 200 women from all over Basar. These women were split into groups of 10-15. Each group of women was dressed in a differently coloured skirt, known as gale. Each group had a 'commander' who monitored their movements and signalled a change of actions. These 200 performers were spread all over the Bascon grounds, moving rhythmically in sync – a multi-coloured spectacle. This mega dance was a strong metaphor for what the Basar Confluence represented: growing forward together.
Mopin festival performance
A group enacted the rituals of Mopin, the biggest festival for the Galos. Another group showed us the wedding rituals performed in the groom’s family while reciting the 'mantras' known as yaan in the Galo language. Another yaan we got to hear was a beautiful lullaby sung by a grandmother to her grandson. We also witnessed some traditional games that the people of Basar have played for generations. These were not performances though, and teams of different villages competed fiercely with the others.
The first game was called Nyarka Hinam. A fat bamboo, roughly five feet long, was held at the two ends by the two competitors, standing inside a circle. Each would try to shove the other out of the circle by pushing the bamboo.
Then there was traditional archery, know as Geppe Abnam in the Galo language. The target for the archers was an egg kept in the centre of a hole in the mud wall in front. If they made the egg yolk run, they would be the winners. It was fun seeing the archers, young and old, try their hand at breaking the egg, but none succeeded.
Traditional sports at the Basar Confluence
The event which witnessed the fiercest competition was the tug of war. Groups from different villages of Basar – Gori, Nyigam, Bam, Padi – participated. The referees had to keep a strict watch on the lines to make sure both teams were competing fairly. Amidst loud cheering by the surrounding crowds, the teams fought hard to make their village win.
Besides the Galo performances, artists from other districts of Arunachal Pradesh also showcased the traditions of other tribes. There were troupes from the Ziro valley, the Tirap district as well as a Snow Lion dance performed by a troupe from Tawang. These human-lions running around the Bascon grounds had us in splits. Artist groups from other states of the North East – Assam, Manipur and Tripura – had also come to perform at the Basar Confluence.
By evening, the venue would transform into a concert ground where we swayed to Galo numbers. There is a sweetness to this language and though we didn’t know a word of the lyrics, we were one with the music. As David and the band belted out rock versions of traditional Galo folk songs, the crowd went berserk. It was only after his performance did we realise that our throats had gone dry as well, yelling and chanting his numbers. We hadn’t even realised at what point we had turned from silent spectators to an enchanted, roaring audience. While Nikom Riba’s romantic numbers turned everyone’s hearts gooey, Jeli and the band’s energy was electrifying. Despite the highly excited audience, when the organisers disallowed a Bollywood number, it was confirmed that the people behind the Basar Confluence had their hearts in the right place.
A confluence of hearts
All through the festival, we enjoyed the company of the local people of Basar. Learning about their way of life, understanding their traditions and dancing to their music – with them – was a special experience. We weren’t just attending a festival in a remote region, we were having conversations and making friends.
People of the Sago village
They were as curious about us as we were about them. They wanted to know where we were from, what we did in our lives back at home. They would invariably ask what we thought of Basar: if we had visited their village, gone for a trek in the forest or hill, or seen the river or the waterfall of their village. They were aware that nature had gifted them abundantly and they knew this had to be celebrated. When we spoke of the places we had visited so far in Basar, the hint of pride in their eyes was unmissable.
Wedding yaan being sung and performed
The lack of plastic (or any) trash stood out conspicuously in each village we visited during our short stay in Basar. Just like they did at the festival ground, each village had bamboo dustbins. People were actively and happily involved in keeping their villages clean.
They wanted progress for themselves and their region, and they knew that protecting nature was the key.
This air of overall positivity was endearing and addictive.
The Basar Confluence turned out to be a confluence of hearts – of the people of Basar and ours. When we returned from the Basar Confluence, we wanted to keep it a secret all to ourselves. So it would stay just the way it does right now – in our hearts. But then, what would we have learnt from the people of Basar and their labour of love!
Sandeepa and Chetan are full-time travel bloggers and photographers. You can follow their work here.