Virgin Forests of the Khasi Hills

Our article on Mawlynnong and the Living Root Bridges appeared in The Eclectic Times (http://www.eclecticmag.com) October, 2012 Issue.

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Mawlynnong is known to the world for being the cleanest village in Asia (as rated by the travel magazine Discover India), and the unique living root bridges in the neighbouring villages. Mawlynnong and the other small villages surrounding it in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya remained hidden and unexplored until just a few years back. It took us only about an hour after leaving Shillong, to realize that we were in a different world all together. It was monsoon and we were where it rains the most. The hilly road, with its share of parabolic turns and slippery slopes, was covered with dense white clouds and the pitch glistened due to the slight drizzle.

Now what does ‘the cleanest village in Asia’ actually signify? Well to cut the suspense, the village paths are beautifully planted with flowers and every home is a small garden painted with wonderful colours. The people take good care that the village and its surroundings remain clean all the time. The outsiders are supposed to take back all the junk they bring along.

Mawlynnong lies very close to the Bangladesh border at Dawki and statistics claim that the village has a 100% literacy rates. There are no beggars either, and they welcome tourists, both national and international, quite heartily.

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Mawlynnong – The Village

By the time we reached our guesthouse at Mawlynnong it was raining torrentially. We realized that our city umbrellas were miserably insufficient for the world-famous rains here.

The guest house that we had booked was a small cosy bungalow with two rooms and a wooden restaurant adjacent to the bungalow. Just next to the restaurant was an around 30-feet high view tower from which the plains of Bangladesh could be seen. We walked up to the top of the bamboo structure, taking a chance of the few minutes of clear sky. Balancing ourselves on the narrow bamboo stairs we reached the platform at the top - lo and behold, the green plain of Bangladesh was spread at a short distance from us. There were dark black clouds sailing from the infinite horizon over the stretched out greenery and water bodies. On straining our eyes, we could see tiny lights twinkle like stars, spread over hundreds of miles of plain land. Our cameras were in the room and we knew that if we go to get it, by the time we return the clouds would devour the skyline. And so it happened. Just in the next five minutes.

At night, while having dinner in the restaurant, we got introduced to Leaderfield- a jovial young Khasi fellow and our guide in Mawlynnong. It was decided that early next morning we would trek to the Wahthyllong living-root bridge along with Leader.

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The Wahthyllong Living Root Bridge

In order to reach Riwai (the village which houses the Wahthyllong Bridge) we had to trek for a little more than half an hour, through the sloppy terrain of the region. Further, we had to descend steep-slippery-natural-stone stairs lined by moss and algae due to the monsoons for the next ten minutes. Leader informed us that such stairs are very common in Meghalaya and the locals are quite used to it.

As we followed the sound of a gushing mad river into the forest area, suddenly out of the clouds emerged a massive structure, the living-root bridge. Two banyan trees were planted on the two sides of the river, and their roots from all sides held together a narrow path made up of stones and gravel. And below the bridge flowed the Wahthyllong River flowing in cascades and jumping eccentrically all the while creating a deafening sound.

Typical only to the Khasi Hills region of Meghalaya in the world, the story of the living-root bridge is something like this- around 700 years ago, natives (“our fore-fathers” as our guide called them) planted two banyan trees on the two banks of the river and around fifty years after that, when the roots came out properly, they tied it together with long bamboos, and thus the living-root bridges were formed. In broken English, Leaderfield described the living-root bridges as “a natural bridge shaped by humans”. They grow in strength with age as the growing roots become more prominent. While some parts of these roots give strength to the whole structure, the other parts are weaved into handrails used for walking on the bridge.

If you wish to witness it the way we did, you have to go there first thing in the morning; else you will find hordes of tourists during the daytime.

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The Berdaw Fall

Leaderfield and our guest house owner, Rishot, told us that if we really wanted to witness what the Khasi hills are all about we should visit the Berdaw Fall in this season. Meghalaya is well known for its falls. Cherrapunjee and Shillong boast of a number of them but the manner in which our hosts told us about it, our curiosity crossed all limits. “I don’t think you have seen anything like this ever before”, said Rishot.

On reaching the village which housed the waterfall, Leader told us that we would have to trek for another half an hour. He added that this trek would be through thick forest filled with all sorts of insects, snakes including King Cobras, lots of slippery steps, and the omnipresent invisibility.

In about 20 minutes, we reached this picturesque surrounding. There was a bamboo-wooden bridge hanging on concrete structures on either side of a river. A small tributary joined the river under this bridge. With the thick forests covering the rest of the area, it seemed as if it was straight out of a movie sequence. As we kept on moving ahead, a very loud gurgling noise came from the interiors and it seemed as if some rocket was being launched. We kept on walking behind Leader and from the smile on his face we could make out that very soon he would reveal his trump card.

We walked on for a couple of more minutes, and then, the sight which met our eyes was simply unbelievable. Imagine this- a massive waterfall say of the height of a twenty storied building is flowing with all force, and you are standing behind the fall (yes, we mean the inner side of the fall) say at the tenth storey of the building. Yes, that is what it was. A narrow pavement was carved out through the hill to walk behind the waterfall. Seeing our jaws dropped, Leaderfield smiled and bowed. Raising his voice above the sound of the gushing water, he screamed, “This fall ceases to exist in the winter, and no tourist dares to come here during monsoons. You people have made it!”

In that tumultuous stream where the water fell, a couple of locals had caught fishes and got a fire prepared for smoking the fishes. We joined them. Sitting by that waterfall with the locals while they enjoyed their meal, and chatting with them, was a once in a lifetime experience!

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Rishot Khongthorem

The full name of our guest house owner was Rishot Khongthorem, a thin mid-aged farmer, who also ran this small guesthouse and restaurant. He had never been out of Mawlynnong except to Shillong a couple of times. His knowledge about ‘India’ was mostly out of textbooks and atlases. He knew about the ‘Indian rivers’, the capital of different states, and Rahul Dravid (because the cricketer had visited his guesthouse once), though he doesn’t know anything about Indian cricket, whatsoever. From his ideas about the heartland of the country, one can easily guess the sense of estrangement that most Khasis carry about the country. They have a world of their own- peaceful, beautiful and free from the trials and tribulations of the modern life, which haunts our urban lives so often.

Rishot said, “Before the arrival of Missionaries to this part of the world, we were divided and sub-divided tribes- jumping from tree to tree, killing animals for meat and killing each other for dominancy. But the introduction of Christianity into our lives changed everything- from bringing peace to making us aware of cleanliness. Mawlynnong’s cleanliness is not new; it has been like this for a long time.”

His lack of worldly experiences didn’t limit hi sense of understanding about life and society. Emphasising on the uniqueness of North Eastern India, he proudly said, “Precious things are not found close-by, but in the corner”. We talked about for an hour or two on issues of matrilineal aspect of the Khasi society, the role of the village headman of the villages, and how he thinks national and international tourism is beneficial for Mawlynnong.

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As Ethereal Colours, we aspire to travel around the entire world one day- picking up stories and clicking photographs here and there; we dream of exploring unknown lands, rainforests and deserts, we want to bring out the stories of the common people and perhaps raise a voice for them someday- but whatever we do ahead in life, Mawlynnong and it’s warm hearted Khasi people will always occupy a very special corner of our hearts.

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Reaching Mawlynnong: You have to either take a direct taxi bound for Mawlynnong from Shilong or one up to Pyrunsula- a relatively urbanised small town, acting as a juncture for going to different inner parts of the district- and from there another one up to Mawlynnong. The taxi fare is minimal but they prefer local people before filling up the taxi more than tourists. Alternatively, you can drive your own vehicle up to Mawlynnong. The village has a reserved parking place for the tourists, in front of the village community hall. Most of the visitors keep it as a one day affair for visiting the magnificent Wahthyllong Living Root Bridge only.

Staying at Mawlynnong: The village has few guesthouses and it is advisable to book them beforehand. The Sky View Guest House is a good option considering the serenity offered by its secluded location. You can contact D.D. Laloo & Company in Police Bazar, Shilong for the bookings.

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