Sometime deep into the night, rain fell noisily on the metal roof of my room, in Mawlynnong. It took me a while to wrap my head around the sudden pitter-patter, as not too long ago, I had tried to capture a sky full of stars, through my camera.
A peep outside my window confirmed it. In a quick glance, I noticed that the leaves were glistening.
I pulled the blanket right upto my chin, wrapping the edges tightly around myself. The breath seemed to be filling my lungs after passing through an icicle that seemed to have replaced my nose. I had half the temptation to touch the tip of my nose to feel how cold it was, but the thought of taking my hand out of the blanket nipped it in the bud.
I lifted my head a bit from the pillow to peep out how hard the rain was. It was little more than drizzle (the metal roof was amplifying the effect), but the view was still very clear. As if everything was being viewed in HD (High Definition), as opposed to Instagram-ish (hazy, with some tone or the other, depending on the season) view back home.
I checked my phone for the time.
The rain stopped after ten minutes. After pulling the blanket tighter, I turned to face away from the window to sleep some more.
Just when I was hitting the sweet spot in the timeline of my shuteye, a 120 decible, soul splitting, right-next-to-my-ear-kind-of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ stunned me awake.
I could hear only my heart thumping madly. This time, my brain was too stunned and awake to go back to sleep easily. I checked the time again. 3:35am.
Unbelievable! Who gets up at 3:35am?
Rolling my eyes, I tried to roll myself back to sleep; hoping it to be one odd happenstance for that night.
Approximately, five minutes later, a whole village full of roosters decided to hold a crowing-fest. Simultaneously.
These things don’t wake you up, they just don’t let you sleep. You will understand the difference between these two phrases, like I did.
The ‘cock-concert’ didn’t seem like to be ending any time soon, thereby forcing me out of the bed at an unearthly hour. It was 4:15am, and I had never been up this early; not in the last decade, at least. I could not decide whether I was furious, or stunned. Or both.
Strolling out of my room, I decided to experience the day-break in the horizon. Most of the north-eastern states follow the Bagan (बागान) Time Zone, which is an hour ahead of the rest of the country, and two hours ahead of the western border, Rann of Kutch. The sun rises early in this part of the country, and sets early too. At 5:00pm, it is dark.
After enjoying the crisp morning breeze, I came back to the room, and decided to get ready. Phillip, my friend from the village, had offered to take me for a guided walk around Mawlynnong at 6:00am. I was ready much before than that.
To while away the time, I took a stroll around the place I was putting up. Roosters, cats, dogs and ducks crossed my path merrily. Amongst them, was a camaraderie and acceptance that is no longer seen in human beings.
Almost each house had its premises adorned with a huge rock, that had a pit in it existing naturally. Later, Phillip told me that it is a specialty that is found only in Mawlynnong. In fact, the village derives its name from the combination of these two words:
‘Maw’ means rock/stone.
‘lynnong’ means pit/crater.
Mawlynnong has aptly been said to be the ‘God’s own garden.’
At 6:00am sharp, Phillip showed up, and we walked towards the village church, and the football field.
Just as we passed the foot-ball field, we saw a group of kids hurrying towards it.
“They will go to school after a round of football.”
These guys have their priorities sorted.
This clearly isn’t the typical village that constitutes the basic DNA of India. It is the village, the kinds of which should have been aplenty and ought to have been the foundation of the nation. It was very different from my experience in Nongriat, the valley-village at a distance of approximately 90 kilometers, where I had spent my two nights before coming to Mawlynnong.
We decided that we would visit the balancing-rock, first. On the way, we passed one of the two churches that the village has. 100% of the population in Mawlynnong is Christian, I am told. “Missionaries have made tremendous contribution towards education, healthcare and holistic well-being of the village, as well as the life of individual folks,” he shares.
[I hope that RSS, Shiv Sena and every other political and religious, Hindutva-leaning fanatic (or for that matter, any politically obsessed, power-hungry soul) is reading this.]
“How did the cleanest-village-honour happen; did someone hold a campaign so that Mawlynnong could get recognition?” I asked.
“No. This is how we have been living for decades. Our parents and ancestors have repeatedly stressed on benefits of cleanliness. It only got recognized in 2003.” (I wanted to tell him that my parents too have repeatedly stressed on the same, but I doubt I can even make it to the list of cleanest house in the locality. I am sure this habit calls for a different set of skills/specialization which is different from sitting on the couch for the whole day). “We have a community-service day, monthly (sometimes twice a month), where we all get-together to clean the village. Throughout our childhood, we have seen our elders take great efforts to keep every bit of the village clean; this is how we have learnt,” Philip shares. There!
On the days that are not “community service days”, the village has designated cleaners, horticulturist and gardener taking care of its upkeep. All through my stay at the village, not once did I come across even a single string of web (back home, I can feel myself tearing through strings of web while stepping out from our driveway every morning; it takes them just 12 hours to make those!).
We walked on the narrow, winding road, leading towards the balancing rock. The road meanders its way into seemingly wildly growing shoots of some kind. “It is broom-stick; that is what we grow here”, says Phillip, pointing at these shoots. I am glad he told me this, for I had conveniently assumed it to be bamboo, and that is what I would have written in this blog-post.
After fifteen minutes of leisurely walk, we found ourselves outside the premise that houses ‘the balancing rock’. The family that owned it has handed it over to the village authority for maintenance, upkeep and managing the income. A nominal fee is charged for the entry. The earnings go towards paying for the guard’s salary, keeping the place clean and maintenance-work like trimming the grass around the area, ensuring smooth drain channel, and keeping the place litter-free.
On more than one occasion, I heard Philip say “…so the village authorities decided…”. It surprised me much as to how does one entire village of 400 people arrive at a consensus, when back home, me and my roommate can’t seem to agree amicably whether we want to sleep with the air-conditioner switched on, or off!
On our way back, we crossed now-deserted football field once more. The children had left for home to get ready for school. The school is till standard 5th, after which, the students go to Shillong to study furthur.
A queue of three chicks (the winged variety), lead by a hen, tottered haughtily ahead of us. The trees were laden with fruits. It is a village which is surreal in inexplicable ways. It is an experience that needs to be lived.
Philip dropped me home and left. (The evening before, he offered to walk me back to my place, and I replied in my most urban, Miss Know-It-All tone, “I’ll manage. Thanks!” Twenty minutes later, I was back at the place where I had left Philip, explaining my plight to him. I had failed to locate my homestay not once, twice, but thrice!) But believe you me, this village is a beautiful place to get lost in!
Just as I was about to enter my home-stay, I heard a school bell go. Suddenly, children from all around rushed to what I earlier assumed to be someone’s home, right next door to our homestay. I had heard this kind of bell after ages. Probably, the last time was when I was in school myself. I walked upto it to see where it was placed, because it could easily be heard in the entire village.
This ‘old school’ thing was tied to a tree right outside the school, and brought back many fond memories in just a single instant.
So did the late-comers outside the classroom:
A #Sustainable Life
#Sustainability has many footprints, for it is a beautiful path in itself. Mawlynnong is one of the villages that practices sustainable living, and one of the acute challenges of ‘living gently’ is the ever-confronting question: ‘what to do with the non-biodegradable waste-material’?
This is how Mawlynnong does it:
Anything that can be recycled, is recycled. Discarded containers become planters, honey (cultivated in the village) is packaged in used water bottles that are left behind by tourists, discarded tyre-tubes become containers to grow plants in and most of the kitchen waste goes in making compost for farming.
As a part of conscious-living, the village uses bamboo extensively. It is used to create dust-bins, stair cases, tree-houses, doors, outdoor-furniture etc. Most of the things made out of bamboo, have to be replaced every year, after the monsoon season. The land of clouds (that is what the word Meghalaya means) witnesses heavy showers, thereby washing everything thing down. Despite the whole exercise costing this village effort and money to rebuild everything, year after year, this is how the village chooses to stay close to the Nature. It is easy to make everything for once and for all in metal with its ever-lasting alloys, “but the process of rebuilding generates employment and keeps the village self-dependent”.
It is time we picked up a leaf or two from Mawlynnong’s books.
The village has dustbins (like the one in the image below) after every few steps.
The roads are lit with solar streetlights at night, and implementing solar power for homes seems to be the next on the list. In this aspect, this village beats metro towns hollow; the roads are well-lit, clean, with seating options after every few steps.
The village, however, struggles with what to do with plastics like packets of chips, various eatables, etc. Currently, the waste is burnt, but if you are a sustainability expert and would like to share the know-how of a better way out, the village more than welcomes you. Please feel free to write to me, so that I can put you in touch with right people.
Apart from Khasi cuisine, the eateries in this village have basic vegetarian fare available easily. In Meghalaya, most of the people are non-vegetarians, and they seem to love their pork.
Traveller Tip for Vegetarians: Mention your preference specifically, in the beginning itself. I remember, in Sohra, me and my two dorm-mates stepped out for dinner. One was from Netherland. The other one was from Morocco, and was a vegetarian. And we, by mistake, ordered (and consumed) an innocent-sounding dish, called ‘aaloo-chop’ ( potato-based dish, filled with ‘something’ was explained to us). We did not bother to figure out what that something was, as we were famished.
Turned out, it was pork. The Moroccon dorm-mate of mine was not only shell-shocked, but confused too, as apparently it is blasphemous to eat pork as per his religion.
Relatively, Mawlynnong seems to be entertaining tourist quite regularly. After being on road for more than two weeks, I had given up hopes of finding dal-rice before hitting Delhi. Imagine my surprise (and happiness) when my homestay in Mawlynnong served me the same for dinner!
Do try the Khasi thali, if you come across one. And the traditional Khasi chicken too.
The village has several mini-restaurants. Most of the homestays have an eating-area, but you can always hop across the fence to check out other people’s places. These informal set-ups claim some bit of the road at places. The set-up consists of a couple of table and chairs, with the name of the place handwritten in English and a family-kitchen that doubles up as commercial kitchen.
As you have your evening meal, you will be informally a part of children’s groups (well, almost) out to play. I went around the village clicking pictures and this little girl followed and nudged me. Smiling wide, she indicated that I take her picture. I did, and wordlessly she pulled my hand (and camera) down to check the display. Once satisfied with what she saw, she smiled even wider, and ran back to her friends.
While much has already been written about Khasi tribe which is a matrilineal society (Wiki: In a matrilineal descent system, an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as her or his mother. This matrilineal descent pattern is in contrast to the more common pattern of patrilineal descent in which a family name is usually derived from father’s lineage), there is definitely more to Khasi people, than these perpetually-betel-nut-chewing women being the inheritors and breadwinners. Or, men moving in with the girl’s family, post-marriage.
A family that was staying in my homestay, was travelling with a local driver. Post-dinner, while chit-chatting with him, I casually mentioned the societal norm of matrimony. He told me that most of the men leave for the cities/towns for better prospects, post-marriage. The spouse, at times stays back, and the man makes frequent visits to the in-law’s place, or at times, the woman too travels with the man (latter is same as patrilineal societies in the modern context).
If one has to learn how keep their house clean, (no matter how-so-ever small) then you go to Khasi women. EVERYthing in kitchen of the family I was guest with, g-l-e-a-m-e-d! Here is a pathetic image trying to convey the same:
A Word About The Phone network:
Please note: Even before I could set foot in the village, my phone beeped, and I received the following messages from the network operator/s, on my two phones (one has Airtel, and the other has Vodafone).
Horrified, I checked with the local people.
“Only Aircel works here”, they smiled. Both my phones were on international roaming, and were being charged accordingly for my entire duration of the stay.
Why was the network catching Bangladesh; how far is it? In case, you are wondering , here is an image that should explain you a bit about the aerial distance.
The sparse water body, beyond the greenery, is Bangladesh.
Mawlynnong has a couple of viewing points for the same. I clicked this one from Ila Jong viewing point. It charges Rs.10/person for entry, and the way up on the bamboo ramp is a bit rickety, but safe. This photograph is taken from that spot above the tree-house in the image below:
When one looks at the entire village from the viewing point up there, one can’t help but draw similarities between Mawlynnong and Auroville (minus the beach). The lush greenery; narrow, winding paths; tall, coconut-like trees (supari or betelnut, in this case); over-cast sky; sustainable-lifestyle.
How To Reach:
Mawlynnong is at a distance of 90 kilometers from Shillong. Shillong has its own airport too, called Bara Pani; but since very few people know about it, most end up landing at Guwahati.
These are your options for reaching the village:
1) Hire a taxi from Guwahati, in case you land there. Costs roughly Rs.2000/day.
2) Take a shared taxi from Guwahati to Shillong. And take an independent taxi from Shillong to Mawlynnong.
Guwahati to Shillong: Rs.300
Shillong to Mawlynnong: Roughly Rs.2000/day.
3) This one is the cheapest. I travelled solo and did this, but it involves some bit of trick:
a) Take a shared taxi from Guwahati to Shillong. Rs.300
b) Then take a shared taxi from Shillong to Mawlynnong. Approx. Rs.150
In case you choose the third method, please bear in mind:
a) That there are no shared taxis on Sunday. So in case you go to Mawlynnong on Saturday, coming back from there on Sunday on a shoe-string budget might not be an option at all.
b) There are no direct shared-taxis on the days it is the ‘market-day*’; which, I think, is a weekly affair. You take a shared taxi from Shillong to Pynursla, and then another shared taxi from Pynursla to Mawlynnong; sounds complicated, in reality it is not.
Shillong to Pynursla: Rs.70
Pynursla to Mawlynnong: Rs. 50
The tricky bit? That the shared taxi from Mawlynnong to Shillong leaves at 6:00am. I did not have the intention of making a fleeting trip. Therefore, I hitch-hiked my way from Mawlynnong to Dawki, Shillong and Guwahati with an amazing couple from Nabha (Punjab), who very kindly agreed to give me ‘a lift’ (if you are a non-Indian reading this piece, then this is what hitch-hiking is referred to as in India). In case you do not find yourself so lucky, request someone to drop you till the highway, which is the running road from Bangladesh border to Shillong. You should be able to get some mode of transport from there. Please understand that the public transport is relatively sparse in the area; so plan your journey accordingly.
This is that day in the week when people from nearby villages visit Pynursla to stock up on fruits, vegetables, meats and other things of daily need, for the whole week. The whole transport system on this day, is planned around this. People are hurrying and scurrying all around, shopping and exchanging pleasantries (the old school way; “Hey! this one has grown so tall.” “How is your tooth now?” “Why are you buying so much of XYZ?” “When is ABC visiting you?”). Time moves painfully slow; reminded me of the farmer’s market in the township I grew up in, back in the 1990(s).
In case, you need someone to show you around the village, you can get in touch with Philip. His number is +91 8256966935.
You can visit Mawlynnong for stay, as well as for a day trip from Shillong.
Traveller’s tip: I would prefer to spend all my time is places like Mawlynnong, Dawki, Sohra, Nongriat, and visit crowded places like Shillong and Guwahati fleetingly. In case you are looking for less touristy experience, you do the same.
Other attractions not to be missed:
Living Roots bridge: In southern part of the Shillong plateau, most of the villages seem to have their own living root bridges. The locals, while it is growing, train the roots of trees from the banyan family, ficus elastica to grow in a direction towards the other tree, interweaving the lattice with rocks and wooden logs and pellets.
Mawlynnong has its own LRB, and I gave it a miss because I had spent two fabulous days in Nongriat; a valley village with double root-living bridges.
A village, roughly 1.5 hours from Mawlynnong, on the road towards Dawki. It is on the river Umngot. It has such clear water that the boats seem to be suspended in the air. The village has an activity camp called Pioneer Adventure Tours, run by two brothers. It specializes in zip-lining, rock climbing, scuba diving, cliff jumping, canoeing, kayaking and water rafting.
This border is not as friendly and permeable one as India-Bhutan, but you can take permission from the checkpost and go till the area which is the no-man’s land between the two countries. Both the nations are separated by a thin stream of water. In the pic below, this cow is grazing on the India side of the divide.
The police at the Indian checkpost had warned us that if we crossed the no-man’s land, the Indian police would not be able to help in case something untoward happened. These berries were available on the Bangladesh side of the border, therefore we requested the berries vendor to hand us these berries at the no-man’s land, halfway-through.