Tag Archives: Mawlynnong

15 reasons why India’s North East is unique

Standard

There’s more to the North East than pretty orchids, tea plantations and one-horned rhinos. It is a region of astonishing cultural and ecological diversity, geological wonders and unusual traditions, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY. 

Women's market DSC04760

Ima Keithel, Imphal’s all-women market
Long before Mary Kom, Manipur had shattered the glass ceiling through Imphal’s Khwairamband Bazaar, an age-old celebration of womanpower. Founded in late 16th century by Khagemba Maharaj of Manipur, the keithel (market) is run exclusively by more than 3000 imas (mothers), hence its popular name Ima Keithel. Forget men, even young unmarried women are not allowed to run a stall. Hawking fruits, vegetables, farm produce, fish and Manipuri handlooms, the tough mommas drive a hard bargain. A few thousand imas also run the Lakshmi and New Market complexes nearby.

Jet Airways flies to Imphal

Teer in Meghalaya

Betting at teer (traditional archery) in Shillong
Archery stakes are an ancient tradition in Shillong that evolved from a tribal sport. Held twice a day (except Sunday) at Polo Ground’s Saw Furlong, archers from various clubs of Khasi Archery Association shoot 1500 arrows within four minutes at a cylindrical bamboo target. Arrows that hit the target are carefully counted before an eager audience. Betters choose two numbers. Say, if you bet ten rupees and get one number correct, you get Rs.800, but if you get both right you pocket a cool Rs.45,000! This legalized betting earns the government tremendous revenue, provides employment opportunities to locals and is a unique experience for visitors and punters.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

Mizoram largest family

The world’s largest existing family in Mizoram
If you wish to meet the world’s largest existing family that has featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, head to Baktawng, a remote habitat in hilly Mizoram. On the town’s outskirts, Pu Zionnghaka or Ziona lives in a four-storied mansion with his 39 wives, 94 children, 14 daughters-in-law and 33 grandchildren, 180 inmates and counting. Ziona is the Chief of Chana Pawl, a unique Christian sect established in 1942 by his father Khuangtuaha that practices polygamy. His wives sleep with him in turns as per a roster. Ziona has named all his children and grandchildren and remembers every family member by name!

Jet Airways flies to Kolkata, which has direct flights to Lengpui Airport near Aizawl, from where Baktawng is 70km

Mawlynnong Asia's cleanest village DSC00660

Mawlynnong, the cleanest village in Asia
Neat rows of houses peep over floral hedges and the village road gleams in welcome. Mawlynnong, a small village of 600 people on the Indo-Bangla border is tagged ‘God’s Own Garden’ for good reason. A conical cane basket for trash hangs outside each home. Dotted with Presbyterian churches and Khasi sacred sites pre-dating Christianity, the area is ironically covered with phool jhadu or broom grass (thysanolaena maxima). Stay at Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan for your local explorations.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Shillong from where Mawlynnong is 90km on the road to Dawki

Dimapur phallic totems DSC04473

The inscrutable phallic totems of Dimapur
Located by the banks of the Dhansiri river, Dimapur was the capital of the Kachari kingdom in 10th century before the Ahoms invaded it in 13th century. Not much of Rajbari remains, barring the brick gateway, with strange phallic totems in a fortified complex that have baffled archaeologists and historians alike. Topped by a mushroom-like hemispherical capital, the towering pillars bear ornamental bands, carvings of swords, daggers, flowers and geometric patterns. These Chessman Figures are believed to be fertility symbols or graves that represent ancestor worship.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur

Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya DSC01594

The living root bridges of Meghalaya
In Meghalaya’s remote hill tracts, Living Root Bridges are innovative modes of crossing mountain streams. Fast growing roots of the ficus elastica tree are entwined to create a mesh bridge across rivulets. It is an unsaid rule that any passing villager diligently twists fresh tendrils around an older root, allowing it to entangle and strengthen over time. Some root bridges are so strong they have been lined with stone pavers! Meghalaya has many centuries-old root bridges including a double-decker root bridge at Laitkynsew near Cherrapunjee.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

Gibbon Sanctuary DSC04166

Spot India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon
Owing to the overlap between the Indo-Tibetan, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Gangetic gene pools, the North East is blessed with great diversity. Besides rare birds and mammals, it is home to an exclusive wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the Hoolock Gibbon, the only ape species found in India. The Hoolongopar Gibbon Sanctuary is also a good place to spot troops of Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Pig-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Slow Loris.

Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, from where the sanctuary is 27km

Kohima's Keeda Bazaar DSC04770

Kohima’s (in)famous Keeda bazaar
Kohima is the bustling capital of Nagaland but nowhere will you find the crowd as lively as its Supermarket or Keeda Bazaar (Insect Market). Wriggling and buzzing wasps, woodworms, silkworm larvae, eels in tubs, frogs zorbing inside plastic packets and insects hatching in the hives, this is ‘live’ action on full blast. The creepy-crawly bazaar is a top draw for tourists. Curious about what they taste like? Catch a local who will cook it fresh at home as restaurants don’t usually serve them.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur, from where Kohima is 69km

Khonoma Semoma Fort DSC04796

Semoma, the ‘strongest fort in the North East’
Walking through the 700-year-old Angami village of Khonoma near Kohima, the sight of a small fortification of rough-hewn stone makes you wonder why the British called it the strongest fort in the North East. Originally built in 1825, it staved off British attacks in the first Anglo-Naga war in 1850. In 1879, the killing of British political agent GH Damant resulted in the Battle of Khonoma. The villagers booby-trapped the mountain and escaped to the top. After a stalemate, the British settled for a peace treaty, ending half a century of fighting. Each time the fort was destroyed; it was rebuilt (in 1890, 1919 and 1990) and rose phoenix-like, in defiance, a proud symbol of Naga pride.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur, from where Khonoma is 73km

Guwahati Kamakhya temple_Anurag Mallick DSC00061

Ambubachi Mela, Kamakhya temple’s tantrik festival
Guwahati’s Kamakhya Temple is a revered Shakti pitha (seat) where a subterranean rock cleft is worshipped as Goddess Sati’s yoni (vulva). During the rains, the swollen Brahmaputra causes the rivulet flowing over the stone shrine to turn muddy red, symbolizing menstruation. During the fertility festival Ambubachi Mela or Ameti, the sanctum is shut for three days, scriptures are read and devotees do not cook or farm. After a ritual bath, the devi regains purity and angadhak (holy spring water) and angabastra (stained red cloth) are distributed as prasad. Aghoris, babas and tantriks attend the four-day mela in June to alleviate their occult powers.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati

Touphema headhunting village DSC04556

Headhunting village of Touphema
Right near the entry to Touphema village in Nagaland stands a large tree called Terhütsiibo (War head tree) where enemy heads once hung as war trophies. Local guide KV explained that in the old days of headhunting collecting the scalp of your enemy meant you gained his power. The village community runs an ethnic resort with wood huts bearing Naga symbols like mithun and goblets that represented vigour and prosperity. Sekrenyi Festival (25-27 Feb) is a nicer option than the more touristy Hornbill Festival.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur and a 2hr bus ride from Kohima leads to Touphema via Botsa

DHR 

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Built between 1879 and 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is the oldest of India’s Mountain railways. It was also the first of the lot to be declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. The 88km narrow gauge from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling chugs along at 12 km/hr, a charming journey of loops, reverses, spirals and zig-zags past tea plantations and views of snow-capped peaks. Creak past Agony Point to Ghum, India’s highest railway station as the track bisects fruit stalls in its magical ascent to Darjeeling.

Jet Airways flies to Bagdogra Airport at Siliguri, from where New Jalpaiguri is 17km

Majuli Auniati satra DSC03643

Majuli, one of the largest riverine islands in the world
One of the largest riverine islands in the world, Majuli’s ecological and cultural landscape is unique. Its geographic isolation and serene atmosphere attracted Vaishnava reformer-saint Srimant Shankardev (1449-1568) who set up Majuli’s first satra (monastery) at Belguri. With patronage from Ahom kings, these spiritual centres flourished and ignited an artistic revolution in Assam. However, each year, the Brahmaputra consumes chunks of Majuli’s riverbank, shrinking the island from its original 1,200 sq km to half its size. Belguri has long sunk into the Brahmaputra, but Bhogpur is Majuli’s oldest surviving satra, established by Shankardev in 1528 while Garamur, Auniati, Kamalabari and Chamaguri satras are also noteworthy. Visit during the annual Raas Leela (Oct-Nov).

Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, 12km from Nimati Ghat, from where ferries are available for Majuli

Apatani woman IMG_7849

The fascinating Apatanis of Arunachal
With distinct facial tattoos and cane nose plugs, the Apatanis have intrigued the outside world. The disfigurement was done to make Apatani women less desirable to neighbouring raiders! Unlike other nomadic tribes, Apatanis are settlers who cultivate permanent terraced wetlands instead of jhum (slash and burn) cultivation. They don’t till their fields but use an ancient irrigation technique. Surplus water drains off from one terrace to the next while a nala (drain) running through the fields is stocked with fish. This paddy-cum-fish farming ensures year-round food supply. Hong, 6km from Ziro, is the largest village of the Apatani plateau. During the annual Myoko Festival in March, revellers swing high in the air on jungle vines tied between babos (festive bamboo poles) erected by every clan.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, from where Ziro is 450km

Mawsmai caves DSC01373

Meghalaya, India’s top spelunking hotspot
Not many know that Meghalaya is among the world’s Top 10 destinations for spelunking or caving. Record rainfall and a profusion of limestone hills in the south of the state have blessed it with 1350 caves, formed over thousands of years. Running over 400 km, the caves are among the deepest, longest and largest in the Indian subcontinent. Explore an underground realm of stalagmites, stalactites, cave curtains, candles and cave pearls. Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills is easily accessible while Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills is riddled with cave passages like Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

The dothos of Sikkim
The northeast bubbles with hot sulphur springs used as traditional medicine for soothing nerves, body aches and joint pains. Sikkim is known for its ethnic hot stone bath called dotho where stones are heated and infused with Himalayan herbs in a hot tub of menchu, or medicinal water, in the local Bhutia dialect. Neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh has a place called Menchuka, named after these medicinal springs. In North Sikkim, enjoy a natural bath at riverside huts at Yumthang on the River Lachung, Yume Samdong near Donkia-la Pass (25km from Yumthang), Reshi (25km from Gyalshing) on the Rangeet River and Kah-do Sang phu (Cave of the Occult Fairies). Soak in a dotho while staying at Kewzing Bon Farmhouse and Biksthang Heritage Farmhouse.

Jet Airways flies to Bagdogra Airport at Siliguri, from where Gangtok is 126km

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in the March 2018 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Advertisements

Meghalaya: Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chase the monsoon across the Khasi hills to Shillong, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee while relishing local cuisine

DSC00697_Anurag Mallick

A gnarled bridge made entirely of roots spanned a swift flowing stream in our path. The surreal setting was Tolkienesque to say the least, as we wondered what adventures lay beyond. It was as if some sorcerer had cast a spell, leaving us speechless and transfixed. While we took in the dreamlike scene, two kids chirpily ran across the heavy bridge. Roughly paved with mud and stone, it swayed ever so gently, and the reverie was broken.

This was no ordinary bridge. It was a ‘Living Root Bridge’ of Meghalaya, locally called Jing Kieng Jri, shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. In these remote hill tracts, long before the availability of cement and steel, these were age old modes of crossing streams. It was an unwritten rule that anyone passing by would diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones to strengthen the latticed structure. It was CSR taken to another level.

DSC00940_Anurag Mallick

We were at the root bridge at Riwai, a 2km walk from Mawlynnong, a remote village in the East Khasi hills on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Our guide Henry explained that his village was named after the rocks hollowed by rainwater – maw was ‘stone’ in Khasi and lynnong meant ‘cavity’. After all, this was Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, home to the rainiest place on earth, a title that had passed from Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. With Cherra as our next stop, we were hoping to find out…

For now, we just wanted to float forever in the tranquil sun dappled pools but Henry promised to take us to a better spot. The jump from a little stream to a 300m cascade was definitely an upgrade. The Wah Rymben river tumbled over a wide rock face as Niriang waterfall, ending in a deep pool fringed by reeds. Having a waterfall all to yourself is a rare luxury in a populous country like India. With butterflies for company, we lazed around for what seemed like hours.

DSC00641_Anurag Mallick

On the way back, we stopped at Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock, an ancient Khasi shrine that existed long before the arrival of Christianity. A trio of monolithic stones or Maw-byn-nah stood outside every home or in the fields to honour ancestors. In the old animist traditions of Meghalaya, stones, rivers, forests, all life forms were sanctified and nearly two centuries of proselytization had not eroded these beliefs. Sacred groves like Mawphlang were still zealously protected as sanctuaries.

The road was lined with broom grass, what we commonly call ‘phool jhadu’ (Thysanolaena maxima). A cash crop for locals, they harvested the inflorescence, which was made into brooms. Not surprisingly, Mawlynnong was pegged as ‘the cleanest village in Asia.’ The locals were indeed sticklers for cleanliness and we noticed cane trash baskets outside every home. Flower-lined pathways led us past Balang Presbyterian Church before we returned to our bamboo perch at Mawlynnong Guest House and Machan.

DSC00633_Anurag Mallick

All of a sudden, a crack of thunder boomed with the severity of a giant transformer bursting in the sky. We stepped out to witness nature’s sound and light show in all its fury. Flashes of lightning in the dark foreboding clouds above looked like explosions of some inter galactic battle, lighting up the plains of Sylhet below. There was a terrifying beauty to the whole experience.

When we reached Cherrapunjee the next day, it had already received a fresh coat of rain. But then, it almost always rains in Cherrapunjee. And when high rainfall, humidity and elevations of 1000 m rich in limestone come together, you get caves! With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Driving through the mist, negotiating dizzying bends, we reached Mawsmai Caves.

DSC01338_Anurag Mallick

It was a good introduction to the subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, formed over thousands of years. There were all sorts of shapes – candles, cave curtains, grotesque shapes and cave pearls. It was apparent why Meghalaya was becoming a spelunking or caving destination with adventure enthusiasts heading to the Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills that holds Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

The bounty of nature was apparent everywhere. Waterfalls like Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls plummeted from high perches into aquamarine pools. It was the scenic beauty and cool climes that prompted the British to set up their first base in the North East at Sohra or Cherrapunjee. David Scott, Revenue commissioner of Assam and agent to the Governor General came from the plains of Sylhet and died here in 1831.

DSC01725_Anurag Mallick

A stone memorial noted his contribution to society. The first missionary to arrive at Cherra was Rev Thomas Jones in 1841 and the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church was built by 1846. A tablet marked the centenary of the Welsh Mission in the hills. Ramakrishna Mission’s lovely old building dated back to 1931.

After our local sightseeing, following quirky yellow signs, we finally reached Cherrapunjee Resort at Laitkynsew. Our host Dennis Rayen had painstakingly collated meteorological data over the years, with rainfall patterns and weather charts lining the walls of his reception as decor. It was a great base for birdwatching and long trudges into the valley to see more root bridges. But nothing could prepare us for the double-decker bridge at Nongriat.

DSC01617_Anurag Mallick

Rising water levels in the stream had forced locals to build a second bridge a little higher than the old one, hence the name. Knowing that we would soon be back in the urban sprawl of Shillong, we lingered at the pools, allowing tiny fish to nibble away at the dead skin of our tired feet.

It wasn’t the best way to return the favour, but soon we were nibbling on fish at our lakeside retreat of Ri Kynjai 15km from Shillong. The stunning resort, located on the banks of Meghalaya’s largest lake Ummiam or Barapani (Large Water), used Khasi architecture and décor in cottages built on stilts. We relished the Khasi feast of dohshaiin (chicken meatball appetizer) served with tungtab (spicy fermented fish and garlic chutney), kha rang (pan fried dry fish), doh sniang khleh (pork salad), jadoh (rice flavoured with local turmeric) and Cherrapunjee Chicken, a peppery chicken curry.

DSC00415_Anurag Mallick

Ri Kynjai was a great base for trekking to Lum Sohpetbneng or The Navel of Heaven, the most sacred mountain for the Khasis. As per local spiritual beliefs, while the Khyndaitrep or Nine Huts people remained in their celestial abode, the Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts people of East Meghalaya descended to earth – interestingly, using a golden vine bridge atop the sacred peak. A repository of ancient wisdom and values, the peak was an umbilical cord to the Divine. An annual pilgrimage is held on the first Sunday of February.

Shillong, despite being Meghalaya’s bustling capital, had its own charm and all the trappings of a ‘hill station’ – bracing climate, a water body with a jogger’s park in the form of Ward’s Lake, viewpoints like Shyllong Peak, landscaped gardens at Elephant Falls and a clutch of museums for the visitor. Don Bosco Museum, part of the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures, shed light on local culture.

DSC00298_Anurag Mallick

The Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah, a private collection of the Wankhar family, showcased a dazzling array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum was a piece of history by itself. Built in 1928, it was used as a small arms store by the British, in 1944 it housed Japanese POWs during Second World War and was called Dungeon Lines, the 1/8 Gurkha Rifles used it as a magazine and after independence it lay abandoned until it was converted into a museum in 1998-99.

There was a lot to Shillong. Historic churches, stunning architectural gems like the Brahmo Samaj building dating back to 1894 and small tidbits of history. Arundhati Roy was born here. Arthur Llewellyn Basham, author of the tome ‘The Wonder That Was India’ lies buried here. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore lived here. His summer residence Mitali was being used temporarily as a State Legislative Assembly.

DSC01145_Anurag Mallick

Tagore’s writing desk and chair adorns the Maharaja suite of Tripura Castle. The erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, the castle was built in the 1920s and renovated into the first heritage hotel in the North East in 2003! Shillong had lovely stay options like Rosaville, a delightful colonial era bungalow with old furniture and photos.

In the evenings menfolk met at the Polo Ground for betting over the age old sport of teer (archery). The younger generation sported funky hairdos and blasted rock music from their Made-in-China phones. With visits to this little nook in the north east by iconic bands like Mr. Big to MLTR and Scorpions to Sepultura, tiny Shillong was giving major metros a major complex. We polished off a Khasi meal of pork and rice at Trattoria ‘Restauranto Khasino’, a local joint before hiring a cab back to Guwahati. As we walked out, the mist rolled in. Like the Cherrapunjee Resort sign said ‘Heads in clouds, feet firmly on ground’…

DSC01234_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Shillong is 100km/3hrs south of Guwahati. From Shillong, Cherrapunjee is 56km while Mawlynnong is 81km via Pynursla off the road to Dawki.

Where to Stay
Tripura Castle, Shillong http://www.tripuracastle.com
Rosaville, Shillong http://www.rosaville.in

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake http://www.rikynjai.com

Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew http://www.cherrapunjee.com

Mawlynnong Guesthouse http://www.mawlynnong.com

DSC00347_Anurag Mallick 

Contact
Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong 793001
Ph 0364-2226220

Nakliar Tours
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

For more info, http://www.megtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

Meghalaya: A Walk in the Clouds

Standard

The quietly beautiful East Khasi Hills are just an indication of the magic that the rest of Meghalaya can weave, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

Image

At Shillong, the air was crisp and cold with rock music riding the wind, wafting out of street cafés and mobile phones. The 3½ hour drive from the plains of Guwahati to the mountainous expanse of Meghalaya was mesmerizing. Every so often, we’d stop to click old churches, charming colonial bungalows and women in traditional jainsen and blouses. Near the Polo Ground we watched men wager at the age-old game of teer (archery) before digging into delicious Khasi cuisine of jadoh (red rice) and pork in Trattoria, a local joint.

Our base Rosaville was an elegant heritage home in the suburbs, adorned with antique furniture and sepia photos. Over tea and cookies our hostess Trupti Bauri delighted us with stories of burrasahibs and colonial history. The Don Bosco Museum was an eye-opener on the cultural uniqueness of the North East. We hopped over to the privately-owned Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah nearby. Run by the Wankhars, SK Sircar’s splendid one-man-collection showcased a brilliant array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum, once an ammo store and dungeon for Japanese POWs in WWII, offered glimpses of the Indian Army’s achievements.

Image

We drove 10km to reach Shyllong Peak for a fantastic view of the East Khasi countryside. Vendors selling farm produce along the road startled us with the size of radish – each, an arm’s length and as thick as a dictionary! About 15km north, the rippling Umiam Lake (Bara Pani) was the scenic setting for the plush Ri Kynjai Resort, a delicate fusion of luxury and tranquility. On a whim we took a bus to Smit, 17km south of Shillong, the cultural seat and royal abode of the Khyrim Syiemship. The thatched wood and bamboo Lyngdoh House was a study in traditional architecture while a massive granary stood as a nostalgic remnant of a prosperous past. In the quiet untouched sacred groves of Mawphlang, conservationist Tambor Lyngdoh shared insights about endemic flora and Khasi animist traditions.

Back in town, the quaint horseshoe-shaped gate of Tripura Castle drew us into the erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty. Built in the 1920s by Maharaj Bir Bikram, it was renovated in 2003 into the first heritage hotel in the North East! Swaddled in luxury, we mulled over our next move when a chance meeting with Deepak Laloo of Nakliar Tours led us to Meghalaya’s best kept secret. Mawlynnong.

Image

We rolled the word on our tongues like a toffee, savouring its musical lilt. Was it really Asia’s cleanest village? The winding journey from Shillong to Dawki would tell us. We sped past open meadows where grass glinted like polished gold in the slanting sun. By dusk, we reached the quaint village with neat rows of houses peeping over floral hedges. Bright orange cosmos bobbed in greeting as Henry Kharrymba led us beyond the Balang Presbyterian Church and a rickety bamboo bridge to the Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan. Like baboons in a leafy canopy, we chattered in the balcony, sipping black tea listening to the stream murmuring below.

By morning Mawlynnong looked like a fairytale. Gardens were awash with dewdrops and the village road was clean as a whistle. Was it coincidence that the fields were lush with broom grass or Phool Jhadu (Thysanolaena maxima), which spawned Mawlynnong’s broom-making industry? Each home had a woven basket for trash and everyone from the elderly to elfin children ensured that the town lived up to its tag ‘God’s Own Garden’.

Image

Patting a boulder, Henry said “This hole is caused by rainwater. We call it ‘maw-lynnong’ in Khasi, meaning ‘stone with a cavity’ which gives the village its name.” Stones play a significant part in Khasi culture. Some homes had Maw-bin-nah, monolithic stones honouring their ancestors. Perched on a stone with the improbability of an elephant sitting on a lemon, the sacred Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock was an ancient Khasi shrine that pre-dated the advent of Christianity.

The 2km walk to Riwai’s Jing Kieng Jri led to a setting reminiscent of the movie Avatar. A stunning natural bridge created by gnarled roots of the Ficus elastica tree swung over a rivulet. In Meghalaya’s remote hill tracts, the Living Root Bridges are centuries old modes of crossing streams. Nurtured by villagers who diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, the intricate hardy mesh can even be paved with stones!

Image

Nearby Niriang Falls, a 300m cascade of the Wah Rymben River fell in a deep crystal pool fringed by swaying reeds. In this paradise where bright yellow butterflies flitted and mud-puddled around wet rocks, we surrendered to the therapeutic power of the tiered cataract splashing upon us. Not satisfied with the day’s adventures, Henry insisted we walk up to Mawlynnong’s Sky View! “Now??” we groaned. He nodded vigorously, urging us up a wobbly ladder. He gestured at the panorama of green rice fields and smiled, “All that…is Bangladesh.”

But no trip to Meghalaya would be complete without halting at Sohra or Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places on planet earth. In this rain-soaked haven adrift with clouds, nature lovers come to track the Dark-rumped Swift diving along the misty gorges of the magnificent Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls and admire the limestone formations of Mawsmai and Mawsynram caves. Being the first British foothold in the North East, relics of Sohra’s imperial past lay scattered around the countryside – the David Scott Memorial (1831) and Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church built in 1846.

Image

At Cherrapunjee Resort, our host Dennis Rayen revealed that bouldering and caving were gaining popularity. His passion for the place was evident. He had painstakingly collated meteorological data and decorated his walls with charts indicating how Mawsynram had dethroned Cherrapunjee as the world’s rainiest place!

A long trudge into Laitkynsew valley took us to an ancient double-decker root bridge. We dipped our feet in aquamarine pools rippling over cradles of rock, indulging in the pleasures of a natural fish spa. As we drove past the resort’s quirky signboard ‘Heads firmly in clouds, feet firmly on ground’ we wondered, if just a portion of the East Khasi Hills held such intrigue, imagine what magic the Garo and Jaintia hills could weave…

Image

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published on 18 May 2013 in Times Crest newspaper. 

Mawlynnong: God’s Own Garden

Standard

Image

No candy wrapper. No gutka sachet. No crumpled packet of chips. Not even a cigarette butt. Try as hard as we could, it was impossible to find any litter at Mawlynnong. This tiny speck on the Indo-Bangladesh border of Meghalaya took its claim as ‘the cleanest village in Asia’ quite seriously. It was like trying to find an illiterate Malayali in Ernakulam.  

Aha, we exclaimed, running to the yellow wrappers some errant schoolchildren had recklessly thrown. To our surprise, the shiny wrappers wafted off magically like butterflies. In fact, they were butterflies! Nothing seemed out of place in this picture-postcard setting – flower-lined pathways, thatch baskets outside every home and roads that gleamed like they do on election eve or to welcome a dignitary. 

Our guide Henry Kharrymba took us past a green sign ‘Mawlynnong: God’s own garden’, the Balang Presbyterian Church and deposited us at the Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan. As we gingerly stepped on the creaky bamboo pathway, Henry’s disarming smile indicated this was an all-too-familiar routine. Emboldened, we walked into the house on stilts, with cozy interiors of straw, bamboo and thatch, a sit-out and an extended balcony. Through the dense foliage we could hear a stream below. Soon, our hostess brought in steaming cups of black tea and after a quick break we were all set for our tryst with Mawlynnong. 

‘Nice musical name’, we chimed. ‘Do you see those round cavities in the stones around here?’ Henry asked. ‘They are hollow depressions caused by rainwater and that’s what it means in Khasi, maw lynnong, stone with a cavity’. A few hundred meters outside the village was a gated enclosure where a large boulder sat precariously on a stone. Henry beamed as he introduced us to Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock. It was an ancient Khasi shrine that pre-dated the advent of Christianity in Meghalaya. We hiked 2 km to Riwai for yet another startling discovery. 

A flight of stone steps and a crude signboard with Jing Kieng Jri scrawled on it didn’t say much. But when we saw it, our jaws dropped. Spanning a gurgling stream was a natural bridge made up of knotted roots. Meghalaya is known for its centuries-old tradition of Living Root Bridges, used to cross streams in remote mountainous areas. The pliant roots of the Ficus elastica tree are entwined such that they grow into an elaborate lattice. Over time the bridge becomes so strong it can be paved with stone. It was an unwritten rule that if any villager noticed a new root, he had to weave it into the mesh. Before we could rip our clothes and jump into the water, Henry stopped us. He had a better place in mind. 

A short hike off the road brought us to the spectacular Niriang Falls created by the Wah Rymben River, which plummeted 300 m into a large deep pool. Luckily, we were the only visitors and appropriated the whole site. Henry sat patiently watching us make fools of ourselves. ‘Feeling cold?’ he shouted over the din of the cataract. We nodded. ‘How about some Khasi vodka?’ It was our quickest exit from a waterfall ever.  

We took a different route back to Mawlynnong via Maw Rym Song for some kyiad (rice beer). After glugging down a few glasses of the potent colourless brew, we headed back to the village, on wobbly knees. But instead of our bamboo hut, Henry took us to Sky View, a rickety bamboo perch with a panoramic view. It was a tricky climb and as we paused to catch our drunken breath Henry pointed at the green rice fields, ‘All that… is Bangladesh’. A strong wind blew in and dark clouds gathered on the horizon. It was time to head home.   

Back at the hut, a spread of hot pork, jackfruit, rice and dal awaited us. The wind whistled eerily through the cracks in the bamboo and we spotted white flashes of lightning outside. We decided to take a post-dinner walk and the great gig in the sky lured us further away to the edge of Mawlyynong for an unhindered view. When a local told us to follow the steps past the graveyard, we hesitated. ‘I’ll take you’, he offered. ‘In the rainy season, it is even more intense, very scary.’ In silence, we watched streaks of lightning light up the ominous clouds over the dark plains of Bangladesh. 

‘So what’s your name’, we asked? ‘Seventy One’. ‘71’? ‘Yea, I was named after the year I was born’. ‘That’s pretty…unusual’. ‘It’s nothing…in Meghalaya, people name their kids after anything that catches their fancy – Christian names, political figures, celebrities, countries or random English words. ‘For example’? ‘Truck, Bus, State, Reliance, whatever!’ We listened agape as Seventy One listed out Meghalaya’s eccentric nomenclature.  

Here, Frankenstein, Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill, Chamberlain, Lenin and Stalin fought for elections. Ulysses had sisters named England, New Zealand, Finland and Switzerland while another sweet trio were called Institute, Constitute and Prostitute! Boys weren’t spared too – a garage owner named his sons 1st Gear, 2nd Gear and 3rd Gear while Toilet Marbaniang didn’t give a shit to what his name meant either. The origin of this perplexing phenomenon goes back to the British occupation of the North East in the 1850s. The oral dialects of the Garo-Khasi-Jaintia hills in Meghalaya, like Nagaland, adopted English as their script and subsequent conversion to Christianity spurred the blind adoption of anything English.  

The next morning, we caught the only van out of Mawlynnong back to Shillong. As we rolled past fields of tall grass on either side, we casually asked what they were. ‘Thysanolaena maxima or broom grass’ said Pastor Henry. He thrust a small parcel wrapped in a newspaper into our hands. ‘Something to remember us by’ he smiled. The souvenir was a neatly crafted short broom. Ironic that in this tiny village obsessed with cleanliness, the most lucrative crop was broom grass! In a country notorious for its lack of public hygiene, places like Mawlynnong bring a ray of hope. 

Travel Info 

Getting there
81 km from Shillong. Lies on the route to Dawki (83 km) on the Bangladesh border. Just 20 km short of Dawki, turn right from Pongtung for an 18 km drive to Mawlynnong. 

Where to Stay
Mawlynnong guesthouse has two huts — the larger accommodates four persons and costs Rs 2,400 while the smaller sleeps two and costs Rs 1,000.  

Contact
Nakliar Tours
Deepak Laloo/Carol Nongrum
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong – 793001
Ph 0364-2226220

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 August, 2011 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition).