Wednesday, March 19, 2014

God's Own Garden

Road to Heaven: From Shillong to Mawlynnong
Mawlynnong is a paradise in its own right. Even before the term 'Swachch Bharat' was coined by the present Government, people of this village have implemented it in true letter and spirit. Far from the hustle bustle of city life, here is a destination that has everything that a tourist wants―tranquillity, adventure, nature's beauty―and to top it all, cleanliness. Unlike other tourist destinations that are often ill maintained, this is a village where cleanliness is a norm that every villager abides by. Yes, the village is extremely clean and has hidden treasures within. Read on to know more about the enriching experience that Mawlynnong can be.

Nestled barely four km from the Bangladesh border and 90 km away from Shillong - Mawlynnong - is the nearest I could get to paradise. A paradise in true sense of the word.
Even as there are many interesting places in and around Shillong, my choice of visiting the small, picturesque village of Mawlynnong was not random. For, the village has earned the reputation of being the ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’. It was accorded the status in 2003 by the Discover India magazine. After reaching Shillong, I and three of my friends set out for Mawlynnong on a Sunday morning in a taxi. The journey, I must say, was as beautiful as the destination. The road was relatively empty that day so we stopped on a ridge overlooking the Sohra plateau. We climbed onto top of this small hillock and got an eagle's eye view of the terrain below us. I wished I could get on a glider to enjoy the view.


After around three scenic hours of driving through meandering narrow roads, we arrived at Mawlynnong. ‘God’s Own Garden’ – the sign at the entrance of the village read. Inhabited by people belonging to the Khasi tribe, we were awestruck by Mawlynnong’s cleanliness and aesthetic beauty. The village was dotted with small houses each sporting a colourful neat garden.  Clean concrete walkways and beautiful flowerbeds all along marked the village that is home to 87 Khasi households. Interestingly, there were no fences between the houses and huts. The village was spotless with no debris on the ground and no littering of any sort. The paths were also dotted with dustbins made of bamboo. Plastic bags are completely banned and waste, at the end of the day, is thrown into a pit dug in a forest near the village where it is left to turn into compost. There is a small tea stall at the entrance of the village. We stopped here for a cup of tea and our guide Henry was there to receive us. He then took us to the Mawlynnong guest house, rather a tree house, which Carol Nongrum, a member of the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum, had booked for us in Shillong.

Large rocks with deep craters in them can be found in every corner of the village. The name Mawlynnong actually means Cluster of Stone. These craters are used by villagers to store rain water.
The house, entirely made of bamboo, had two cosy rooms on both sides and a central area. Outside, there was a machan that looked onto the jungle and a small waterfall beneath. The machan was suspended at least 80 to 100 feet in the air, supported and constructed by bamboo on stilts. Connecting the verandah to the first machan, was a narrow bamboo bridge.
Staying in a tree house like this one was indeed a childhood dream come true. The rooms had comfortable double beds also made of bamboo, clean linen and blankets, mosquito-nets and squeaky clean bathrooms.
We quickly placed our luggage in the house and set out to explore the nature’s marvels that Mawlynnong had in store for us. Henry took us to Riwai village which was 10 minutes drive away from Mawlynnong. Riwai housed one of the most interesting and unique creations of nature, a living root bridge formed by roots of Indian rubber trees. It was a 20 minute trek to the root bridge from the village. About 150 years old, the roots of two trees have been entwined by villagers to grow into a natural bridge. A gurgling stream flanked by dense forest flows below the root bridge giving the finishing touch to the postcard picture setting.

The Living Root Bridge
The small stream beneath
Next, we proceeded towards Niriang Falls located amid thick forests on the outskirts of Riwai. The roar of falling water, butterflies fluttering around and the mist – the sight was astounding at the bottom of the falls. We were sweating after the difficult trek to the falls and dipped our heads into the water to get some respite. The trek uphill was the perhaps the most tiring thing I had done in the recent past.

The secret waterfall

Nature's Balancing Rock
Henry took us to another spot nearby which defied the forces of nature, The Balancing Rock or Maw Ryngkew Sharatia as it is locally called. A huge flat rock lay balanced on a much smaller rock and has been so for how many years, none knew. It is believed to have been an old Khasi sacrificial altar.
After the tiring trip, we went back to our guest house to freshen up and have a late lunch. The caretakers, whose hut was on the guest house premises, served us local chicken, fish curry, rice and fresh vegetables that were seasoned with Khasi herbs.
Our evening at Mawlynnong was spent in lazy walks around the village and a visit to another attraction – the Sky View Point or the Hanging Bridge. The bridge was made out of bamboos spanning across two trees. Atop the Sky View, we could clearly see the flooded plains of Bangladesh as far as the eyes could go.
Henry told us that Mawlynnong's reputation for cleanliness has even earned it a place on the State's tourism map. “Our village is a 100 years old, and we have learnt to maintain cleanliness for generations,” he said. There is a fine imposed by the village council for anybody found to be throwing litter around or cutting trees. Besides, children are taught to collect litter at an early age and regular inspections are carried out by village council on sanitation facilities in each house. True to his words, cleanliness seemed like a way of life for villagers here.

Our Lunch: Rice, Dal, Chicken seasoned with local herbs
Since it was a long day for all of us, we returned back to our house early and decided to relax at the machan under a star-studded sky with doses of Khasi beer till it was time to retire for the day.
The next morning greeted us with a sunny smile. The village looked like a colourful canvas decorated with flowers of various hues. We finally said bye to Mawlynnong with this mesmerising sight in our eyes.

Here's my quick guide on Mawlynnong:

1. Valleys of East Khasi Hills

The drive through cloud-kissed valleys from Shillong, nicknamed Scotland of the East, to Mawlynnong is a surreal experience. There's a saying that the journey is as beautiful as the destination in this part of the country. The meandering roads from Shillong are surrounded by hills with small cascading waterfalls on both the sides―a postcard picture setting. Mawlynnong is located 90 km south of Shillong.
There are a number of view points en route that provide a glimpse into the spectacular green valleys and the breathtaking landscape that accompanies the traveller till the entry point of Cherrapunjee. Here, the road bifurcates into two directions―while one goes towards Cherrapunjee (locally known as Sohra), another turns left towards Dawki-Tamabil route, which is the border crossing point to Bangladesh. Mawlynnong is only one hour drive from here. After crossing the hilly routes, the road to the village is a stretch of curvy plains covered with long grass. Visitors can hire taxis from Shillong and for those looking at budget options can take shared taxis to reach the village.

2. Mawlynnong Village

This small picturesque village, which overlooks the sylvan plains of Bangladesh, is unique in more ways than one. It has earned the sobriquet of 'God's Own Garden' and the Discover India Magazine had accorded Mawlynnong the status of being 'Asia's Cleanest Village' in 2003. The achievement might be an old one, but the village folks continue to live up to it. The lush green village, located in Pynursla block of East Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya, has around 87 environment-conscious families who make sure their abode is spic and span round-the-clock. Villagers take turns to clean the concrete roads, which are decorated with colourful creepers, natural stone structures and flowering plants of varied hues. In front of every house, there is a large rock with deep crater in it, which is used by villagers to collect rainwater.

At every 30 metres of the roads, there is a bamboo basket placed where people can throw in the garbage. The garbage collected throughout the day is thrown in a large pit on the outskirts of the village and left to turn into compost. Littering is a punishable offence and plastic has been banned here. The cosy houses on stilts are primarily built with bamboo and straw and all the households have a small garden of flowering plants and fruit-bearing trees. For tourists, the village has just one small eatery, Halathygkong, which serves tea, local noodles, puffs and pastries.

3. Experiencing Khasi Culture

Experiencing the lifestyle of Khasi residents is a must for every visitor to Mawlynnong. Here, the society is a matrilineal one where women take control of everything, from economy to managing household. The youngest girl in a household inherits the property and children take their mother's surname. Unlike other parts of the country, girls here are free to choose their life partner but within the community.
Interestingly, the village boasts of 100 percent literacy rate. There is a primary school in Mawlynnong which has maintained zero student dropout rate so far. Apparently, students are taught nuances of cleanliness in the classrooms from an early age. Agriculture is the mainstay and besides paddy, villagers grow cash crops like bay leaf, betel nuts and local spices. They also cultivate fruits like oranges, papaya and pineapples, which are sold in Shillong and often in bordering areas of Bangladesh. Their staple food is rice and fish, which is available aplenty in the local water bodies. While some villagers are also into fishing, there is a strict no to cattle and poultry rearing. Villagers reason that livestock rearing would create dirt in the village. While the entire village maintains a strict cleanliness regime, Khasi women can be seen either washing clothes or cleaning the village roads throughout the day.

4. Church of the Epiphany

Khasis in Mawlynnong are devout Christians. Surrounded by orange and palm trees, stands a 100-year-old church in the village called 'Church of the Epiphany'. Narrow stone paths with plants bearing orange flowers reach out to the Church, which is a black and white structure exuding an old-world charm. There are no houses that rise above the Church spire.
According to history, Welsh Christian missionaries came to Mawlynnong in the 19th century from Bangladesh and since then, the village has been following a strong tradition of Christianity. The government website of Meghalaya reads that the village was initially known as 'Ri Kharpangkhat' and it got the name of Mawlynnong during the Christian mission of Rev. G A Jones. Mawlynnong, meaning a Cluster of Stones, was derived from the fact that there are numerous rocks in the village that have craters in them. Interestingly, villagers link the tradition of cleanliness to Christianity. They say it is the missionaries that changed their lives and taught them ways to reach God through cleanliness.

5. Sky Walk to Flooded Plains of Bangladesh

Located a little away from the entry point to Mawlynnong, there stands the Sky Walk, a unique structure that gives a glimpse to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. It is an eco-friendly ladder-like structure that has been made entirely of bamboo poles tied to branches of six trees using jute and bamboo ropes. No nails or any metal has been used in putting the structure together. A visitor has to climb four circular layers of bamboo ladders―stretching across the tree branches―that extends up to a height of 80 feet. Atop the Sky Walk, there is a square platform, again made of bamboo, from where the inundated Bangladesh Plains can be easily viewed.

Climbing the Sky Walk takes around 30 minutes. The entire structure is surrounded by large trees with a small water channel in between which is often used by locals for cleaning clothes and collecting water. The villagers charge Rs 10 per person who is willing to climb the Sky Walk to witness the Bangladesh Plains and have a bird's eye view of Mawlynnong. From the top, the village looks like a green carpet dotted with colourful flowers. The money goes into making the structure afresh every year to ensure safety of tourists. No eatables packed in polythene sheets are allowed in the area.

6. Machaan, A Tree House

The village has limited accommodation options for tourists but one of the most beautiful options available is the centrally-located Tree House, an eco-friendly guest house raised in stilts and made of bamboo. Resembling a Khasi hut, the guest house has a small rock garden in the front decorated with blooming marigold, orchids and wild flowers. Inside, there is a verandah, two rooms with four beds on both the sides, a living room, dining area and a Machan (an elevated rectangular platform on the branches of a tree). While the dining area overlooks a beautiful forest on the outskirts of Mawlynnong, a small waterfall is located beneath the Machan and one can hear the gentle gurgling of the water. The Machan is connected to the dining area with long bamboo poles that have been tied up with jute ropes. The interiors of the guest house have nothing fancy, all the furniture are made of bamboo and even all the knick-knacks in the house including the ashtray are made of bamboo roots.

The guest house is taken care of by the local guide Henry Kharrymba and his family. As far as food is concerned, Henry's family cooks authentic Khasi cuisine that includes local rice, chicken or beef prepared with local herbs, dal and salad. One can also enjoy the local rice beer. There is another similar but small guest house to the left of the main structure. The guest house is a no smoking zone.

7. Living Root Bridge

At a time when the nation is speaking about science and innovation, here lies a man-made wonder that is also an apt example of bio-engineering. In the Wahthyllong hamlet, 10 minutes drive away from Mawlynnong, hangs a large living root bridge over a gurgling stream. Only found in this part of the country, the living root bridge is the result of innovation by the Khasi tribals. Locals say the bridge was constructed to cross the overflowing stream during monsoon. The thick roots of a variety of rubber tree (Ficus elastica), grown on either side of the stream, have been intertwined together by villagers and flat rocks and mud placed on them to make a path. The roots have grown for several years making the living root bridge stronger by each year. No one knows the age of the bridge, but villagers vouch for its longevity and strength. Interestingly, when any villager witnesses a new root even today, he/she weaves it into the bridge structure.

One has to take a fleet of steps downwards to reach the living root bridge. At the entry point, the villagers charge Rs 10 from each visitor willing to see the nature's wonder. The money goes into development of the villagers. While the one at Wahthyllong is a single-decker root bridge, a double-decker root bridge can be seen in Cherrapunji (Sohra). However, the one at Cherrapunji requires the traveller to undertake an extremely difficult trek.

8. Secret Waterfall at Riwai

Mawlynnong has little beautiful secrets hidden deep within. One of them is Niriang Falls, located around five kilometres away from the living root bridge. It is created by the crystal clear water of Wah Rymben River that falls 400 m into a deep green pool located amidst thick green forest. Getting to the spot, though, isn't an easy task; one has to take a steep trek through a slippery stone pathway to reach Niriang Falls. The journey is arduous, but a sight of the waterfall can leave any visitor wonderstruck. One cannot hear any sound other than the roar of the falling water and chirping of birds and crickets. Nature is truly at its best here. The magnificent waterfall attains its full glory during the monsoon when there is a massive flow of water.
The waterfall is a "secret" one, as put by the local guide, because people rarely visit the place due to the difficult approach road to it. Below the main waterfall, there are two smaller ones located to its left. The only problem one has to take care at the spot is the leeches that are stuck to the rocks below the waterfall. There is no entry fee.

9. Balancing Rock

On the outskirts of the village lies a balancing rock, a must see nature's wonder for science freaks. Enclosed within a wired fence, the spot has two stones, a huge boulder resting on a smaller stone. The structure has remained like that for ages and no cyclone or storm has been able to disturb the formation. The place, which is surrounded by bamboo plantations, is called Nature's Balancing Rock or Maw Ryngkew Sharatia, locally.
While some elderly locals say that this was the spot where human sacrifices were made 1000 years back to appease the presiding deity of the area, the local guide Henry informs that it was an ancient shrine of the Khasi tribals that was no longer used after the advent of Christianity in Mawlynnong and Riwai. There is no entry fee to the spot and unlike the living root bridge and waterfall, it can be easily accessible in a four-wheeler. Maw Ryngkew Sharatia is one of the few places in the country where balancing rock can be seen. A similar structure is Krishna's Butterball, which can be seen in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu.


Getting there: Mawlynnong is situated 90 km south to Shillong, Meghalaya. Taxis are available to the village from Shillong round-the-clock at the price range between Rs 1800 and Rs 2000. It preferable to hire the taxi for overnight stay and visits to the tourists spots nearby the village.

View of Flooded Bangladesh Plains from Sky View
Where to stay: Mawlynnong guesthouse has two huts — the larger accommodates four persons and costs Rs 2,400 while the smaller sleeps two and costs Rs 1,000 each. To book, call Deepak Laloo or Carol Nongrum (0364-2502420, 09863115302). The caretakers prepare tasty meals that include some interesting local cuisine using meats, jackfruit and Khasi herbs. One has to pay an additional Rs 250 for the tourist guide and Rs 100 towards community welfare and upkeep besides the food and accommodation charges.
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