A distant dream

High Spirits

Nature Calling : The Mawsmai Falls in Cherrapunjee. Photo bharati motwani

Even if he didn’t know it, Bob Dylan had his 69th birthday party in Shillong this year. Long-haired, tattooed musicians played Dylan’s timeless anti-war anthem Blowing in the wind. Standing on a makeshift-stage, 60 year-old Lou Majaw, Shillong’s best loved-musician  and Dylan addict said, “To Bob, wherever you are …”, before launching into Everybody must get stoned. Hundreds clapped, cheered and sang along, blocking traffic at a busy roundabout. And that is the spirit of Shillong. A town of pretty, sloe-eyed Khasi girls, pink-cheeked Anglo-Indians, and boys lounging rakishly at street corners, hair gelled, earlobes pierced — dressed to celebrate the evening, the weather, youth and life.

Local wares

Everywhere there is music — thumping out of restaurants and small jadoh stalls, wafting out of churches, reflected through posters for rock-concerts, musical talent hunts, through a retired tea-planter thrumming his old guitar in the backyard and a silver-haired old lady dreaming over the keys of a burnished Steinway. To slip under the skin of this entrancing town, take a ride to Burra Bazar on a local bus.

Squeeze yourself between many betel-stained, rotten-toothed grins; mind you don’t get your bottom pecked by angry, but still lecherous roosters trussed up in a basket; avoid making eye-contact with the severed head of a pig riding in the lap of a little boy. Though it’s only 9 am and a little early to start drinking, it’s okay to accept a swig of gin from the hip-flask so generously proffered by a smiling school teacher. She’s late for class and possibly tipsy, but hey, welcome to Shillong!

The travel brochure says Burra Bazar is a good place for tourists in search of local colour. Here, at a butcher’s section, huge beef carcasses hang from big meat-hooks, mounds of intestines, gizzards and entrails sit around slimily. And in the middle of each stall, framed by all the gore, there sits a pretty local lass, dressed to kill — high heels, bright lipstick, and scarlet nails. Indeed, the Khasis eat pretty much everything that moves, wriggles and slithers.

Another section of the market has tubs full of water-snakes, hornet larvae, maggots and beetles, all alive. A sweet, old lady gave me a recipe for oak-tree maggots sold at Rs 800 per kg, fresh and crawling. Just boil the critters for three minutes, sauté them lightly in butter, add a dash of salt and chilli and serve hot.

There are mounds of fresh kwai or betel nut that locals chew all the time. It warms you up in winter but will leave your ears burning and head spinning. There are baskets of reed, grass and beautifully crafted bows and arrows used by the locals at the Archery Stakes. The old tribal sport of archery has metamorphosed into a major gambling event, with daily stakes at Saw–Furlong and Polo Grounds. Archers from local clubs participate, while bookies scurry about placing bets that run into crores.

The British in India were always homesick for the rolling greens and shifting mists of Devon and the Cotswolds. Here, in Shillong, they rediscovered Scotland and promptly set up shop, making it the administrative headquarters of Assam in 1874. They built cathedrals, laid parks and created a township of winding lanes and mock-Tudor houses with gardens adrift in phlox, pansies and briar rose. Having done that, they laid themselves to eternal rest in shady graveyards.

For memories of the Raj, visit Ward Lake with its curving promenade and Lady Hydari Park with its pine groves (the native Pinus Khasiana that are the signature of these hills). Shillong’s beautiful 18-hole golf course is often compared to Gleneagle in Scotland, and is one of the oldest and most perfect natural golf courses in the world. A short drive away is Umiam Lake, a favourite haunt for Shillong’s  high-spirited youngsters.

The tribes of Meghalaya — the Garos, Khasis and Jaintias — are matrilineal. Women wield considerable authority, but Khasi men are fiercely territorial about their women. All three tribes are essentially animistic despite having adopted Christian and Hindu practices. All over the Khasi hills are Stonehenge-like obelisks called mawbynnas, that mark the burials of ancient warriors. At Smit village, at the edge of town, we visit a liquor till, where we quaff a tumbler or two of the staple Khasi tipple — kakyat, a kind of rice beer. 

Driving out of Shillong into the countryside, you begin to really breathe in the essence of Meghalaya — home of the storm clouds. The rolling fog is thick with legend, for the locals believe that all things have an indwelling spirit  — every waterfall is a sorrowing maiden, every green hill is a brave warrior, every rock-formation the accoutrements of a giant.

Of waterfalls and caves

Just short of Cherrapunjee is Krem Mawsmai, a cave passage into the maw of the hill. The surreal shapes created by thousands of years of calcite sedimentation are believed to be the “marrowless bones of a giant”. Krem Mawsmai is located in the middle of a silent, sacred grove, so thick that light does not penetrate to the ground. Here, one must tread softly so as not to offend the trees. Not a branch must be broken, not a flower violated. The passage at Mawsmai once led all the way to Bangladesh, but the tunnel collapsed during the earthquake of 1894. It is believed that a local king once hid his entire army inside Krem Mawsmai during a battle with the British.

At Cherrapunjee, now unseated by Mawsynram as the wettest place on earth, are the milky Mawsmai Falls, hurtling down a cliff-face. Laitkynsew in Cherrapunjee is a sight straight out of an Enid Blyton story. It has a bridge made out of the secondary roots of a tree, an absolute marvel of bio-engineering and tribal wisdom.

The roots are stretched and planted on the opposite bank. It takes about 30 years for the bridge to gain the requisite strength, growing and regenerating. There are several such living root bridges in the area and they are unique to Meghalaya. Some are over 200 years old and have outlasted conventional bridges.  

All of the area is dotted with caves, waterfalls and strange rock formations. Everything is impossibly green, moist and alive. The spirits of the forests have whispered their enchantments into your ears, and your life in the city feels dreamlike. “Why go back?” they whisper. 

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