ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chase the monsoon across the Khasi hills to Shillong, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee while relishing local cuisine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’…
Shillong is 100km/3hrs south of Guwahati. From Shillong, Cherrapunjee is 56km while Mawlynnong is 81km via Pynursla off the road to Dawki.
Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake http://www.rikynjai.com
Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew http://www.cherrapunjee.com
Mawlynnong Guesthouse http://www.mawlynnong.com
Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong 793001
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
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.