Thursday, 19 April 2012

Travel: Mawlynnong ~ the cleanest village in Asia

Walkway to the sitout at the guesthouse

MAWLYNNONG is just another name on our three-state Northeast India tour itinerary when we arrive in there in March 2010. Krittika, Markus and Christopher are from Berlin, while I’m Bangalorean. GypsyFeet Travels has sent us a brilliant guide ~ the witty, knowledgeable young scholar, Mirza Zulfiqur Rehman.

The stars are out in a dazzling, welcome sky when we arrive at Mawlynnong in the East Khasi Hills, about 90 km from Shillong. That’s after a three hour drive in a Toyota Innova through the scenic, winding hill roads of Meghalaya (‘abode of the clouds’). Our road-weariness vanishes as we looked up in disbelief. In our smogged-over, polluted cities, we have almost forgotten how seductive, how sensual, the night can be.

Mirza: a view through the bamboo

We trail Mirza down a long, narrow path. It leads to the community guesthouse on stilts, made of local material ~ a thatched roof, cosy rooms with mosquito-netted beds toppd with checked blankets. Beyond a bamboo walkway, we reach sit-out overlooking rocks below. We hear gushing water.

Where is the river? Or is it a mountain stream? The stars cannot quite spotlight the source. Mysteriously, this makes the play of water and wind seem even more musical to our ears. On a second soundtrack, unidentifiable creatures whistle, tweet and sing in the night air.

It is mid-March. But we city-dwellers wrap ourselves in extra fleece jackets, socks and even gloves, much to the mirth of Mirza and our local Khasi guide, the ever-smiling Henry, both in flimsy cotton T-shirts. We are soon warm enough to tuck into a feast cooked by Monthila ~ Henry’s sister ~ in the cottage next door: hot pulao, dal, chicken, and more. 

We sleep easy until dawn breaks at 5.15 a.m. over Mawlynnong, which is hailing distance from the plains of Bangladesh.

We wake up to a different village. Or so it seems at daybreak. Toothbrush in hand, we look out at neat, zigzag tarred pathways, with cane garbage baskets every few metres. Not a sweet wrapper mars the impeccable flower beds; not a cow wanders the streets. No men or women hawk phlegm by the roadside or squat for a loo break by the hedges. Every house in Mawlynnong has its own toilet.

Dressed for dinner!
A clean, green village pathway
    Its roads are swept clean at least seven times daily, partly by paid cleaners, but often by village volunteers. The local council or darbar fines anyone who litters the village or dares to cut trees. Even children at primary school are taught to keep their surroundings clean and green.

Though the fine could be just Rs. 50 (US$ 1), those fined are too embarrassed to repeat the offence. They behave better to ‘save face’ among their Mawlynnong peers.

What else does the darbar do? It inspects the sanitation facilities in each home. It even organizes workshops about global warming.

The local Khasi tribals are known to be nature-worshippers. They feel no one should be allowed to take from nature without ensuring that the forest cover remains intact. Naturally enough, the villagers take care of the sacred community forests in the vicinity.   Naturally-hollowed local rock formations encourage rain-water harvesting.   

Are we still in India, we wonder. Apparently so. For this Meghalaya hamlet was declared the cleanest village in India in 2003, and the cleanest in Asia in 2005, by Discover India magazine.

What makes this possible, an unimaginable feat in waste-cluttered India? Some facts spring into relief as we listen in to local stories. All the 82 families (or 500-odd people) in scenic Mawlynnong are literate. These church-goers are determined to be in charge of their own lives, no matter the shape of India beyond their space.
Graceful Monthila: a superb cook, and lovely hostess

Or could it be because Meghalaya is a matrilineal society, where property is handed down by a female line of succession, through the youngest daughter? Does woman power dictate common sense and better cleanliness levels?

And so, whether a villager is the elected head of the local darbar or a toddler en route to school, they are groomed to pick up all litter and dispose of it sensibly. All plastics are banned from Mawlynnong. So is smoking. Biodegradable waste is tossed into a pit, where it turns into compost or manure. Villagers are not allowed to use detergents in the village streams ~ and are fined if they do so.

*         *       *

WE climb up the Sky View, the highest point in Mawlynnong, constructed entirely by local villagers. Once local schoolteacher Rishot Khongthohrem’s concept was realized, visitors and residents alike are offered an unforgettable experience. Bamboo steps and mini-ladders crisscross through five trees, gently gaining height until we are about 18.28 metres high. In the tallest tree in the forest is a machan-like viewing platform. All conversation stops. We have no words for the emotion that we feel.

Comfortably perched, we look at the clouds floating by. We peer down at treetops. We tune in to the whistling wind in our ears. Through the dense foliage of Meghalaya’s forests, we look out over the plains of Bangladesh on a clear morning.

Krittika climbs up the steps to Sky View

Once on terra-firma again, we wander around the village. Shiny-eyed, rosy-cheeked children wave at us. Some tug at our sleeves, signal that we must wait a minute. They run home ~ to return with a bunch of red tamol or betel nut, their precious local gift to us. We have nothing at hand to give them. Do they need books to write in? Or pencils to write with? Yes, yes, they nod, their pigtails flying. 

Our new friends at Mawlynnong
We find some at a tiny store made of kerosene drums hammered flat. Its stocks include boiled sweets, matchboxes, erasers, onions. Our return gifts? Unforgettable smiles.

All around, our eyes rested on Birds of Paradise, pitcher palms, and other greenery. For, to the inhabitants of Mawlynnong, greenery is life.

*        *        *

HENRY and Mirza alike insist that we should check out the wonders around Mawlynnong. As we hover around the Innova, a soft-spoken, mild man stops to chat with us. He is Reverend Lumlang Khongthohrem, the local pastor. He invites us to attend the evening Khasi service at their century-old church. Should we?    

Off we drive. We first stop by a huge rock that balances perfectly at an absurd angle on a smaller rock. We try to push it, shoulders to its base. Heave- ho! It does not move a millimeter. No clue why, though.

Next stop? Near a thick clump of trees. Follow me, says Henry. We do, in single file. We pass through settlements, where children slide down stacks of hay, giggling and chasing each other. We smile at village elders, who offer us wild berries. 

A living root bridge

The others are way ahead of me. I run to catch up. Down fern-edged narrow forest paths we plod. We push our way through brambles and tangled branches. We steady ourselves, clutching at slippery rocks.

We remember that Meghalaya is probably the rainiest place on earth. The state’s average annual rainfall is 1200 cm. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mawsynram in the state is the wettest place ever now, wetter even than the famed Cherrapunjee of our school geography books. The local monsoon is mainly between May and October.

Are we in danger of being rained in? Not that March. We trudge on. Krittika or Markus lend me a hand, whenever I need one. Water gurgles far away. A waterfall? A stream? A pond?

In about 45 minutes, my eyes rest on one of Meghalaya’s famed living root bridges across a gurgling stream in the Riwai area. Khasi women from neighbouring villages chat as they splash water on their faces or do a little laundry, then settle their carrying baskets on their heads and walk on, and on, and on. For these forests are far too dense for vehicles.

Henry by the forest waterfall

 These living root bridges, often centuries old, are never complete in a single lifetime, says Henry. A grandfather may instruct his son, or grandson, how to nurture the living roots of a banyan fig tree (Ficus Benghalensis). Knitted across sticks, logs, and stones, these roots gradually and naturally weave their way across the river to the other side. These bridges have been carbon-dated 1100 years.

These bridges are the pride of the Khasi community. Everyone pitches in to maintain them through the seasons. Once the roots have grown over basic bamboo supports, stones are inserted for strength. Steps and handrails are added later.

It could take upto 15 years to complete a living root bridge, Henry adds. Some bridges in Meghalaya span over 100 feet. The completed bridges renew and self-strengthen as their roots thicken. They have been known to last between 500 to 600 years. We mull over all this as we dip our toes into the forest stream under the bridge, watch fish appear and disappear down the river, feel the sunshine on our faces.

*       *       *

BY evening, we decide to walk to Rev. Khongthohrem’s church. We can hear the lilting Khasi hymns even in our guesthouse, close by. Service has begun. We slip into our seats as inconspicuously as we can, but not silently enough, we find. For after the hymn, the good father dedicates the service to us in English (our faces turn red).

The choir harmonizes powerfully, enhancing parts of each hymn seamlessly. A strong tenor soars above all the other voices. He looks familiar. Who is he?

The young tenor turns out to be the padre’s nephew, Remdom. Where have we seen him before? Giggling now, we join the dots. But, of course. He is the teacher in the single-room Mawlynnong school we popped into that morning, with students upto Class 8. Remdom has completed school ~ and is now in charge of ensuring that the village remains completely literate.  

The century-old church at Mawlynnong

Charmed, we invite Remdom and his uncle to join us at the guesthouse. More village lore unfolds over dinner. The gentle, witty Khasi people charm us with their spontaneity and warmth.

On our last morning, I’m busy cramming my backpack at the guesthouse once more. When I reach the Innova 15 minutes later, I find Rev. Khongthohrem came by to wave us off and wish us well. He left behind elegant, short brooms of local rushes. One is for Krittika, one for me.

Mine hangs in my kitchen in Bangalore today. That corner is forever warm with memories of magical Mawlynnong.  


  1. Why did the rock not move a millimeter? Am fascinated by the root bridges. Hope to see them someday. Very nice piece, thanks!

    1. Thanks. Will find out for you ~ and cue you in. Hope you make it there soon. It's so pristine ~ both the people and their surroundings.

  2. Such an evocative piece! And now I know the right answer to 'Which is the wettest place on earth?'

    1. Thanks, Asha! I only learnt the answer on that trip to Mawlynnong. :-)

  3. Wonderful piece! and love the photograph of Monthila!

    1. Happy to share this with you, Malavika! Thanks! So wish you'd been with us at Mawlynnong. We missed you.