Mawlynnong: God's own garden

quirky attractions

rarity Take a walk in the clean and green environs of Mawlynnong and visit the living root bridge, a centuries-old tradition in Meghalaya. photos by authorsThis tiny speck on the Indo-Bangladesh border of Meghalaya takes its claim as ‘the cleanest village in Asia’ quite seriously. It was like trying to find an illiterate Malayali in Ernakulam.

Soon, we chanced upon some yellow chocolate wrappers which we assumed a few errant schoolchildren must have 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 cosy 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. he explained. 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 two km to Riwai for yet another startling discovery.

Roots and wings

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 that 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 mts 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 Mawlynnong for an unhindered view. When a local told us to follow the steps past the graveyard, we hesitated. “I’ll take you,” he offered. “During the rainy season, it is even more intense, very scary,” he added. 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,” he replied. “71?” “Yea, I was named after the year I was born,” he revealed. “That’s pretty unusual,” we exclaimed. The local elaborated further, “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 like 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 bother about 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 are a ray of hope.

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