Backpacking in Mawlynnong

Leaderfield by the bridge. Photograph by Ayush Dinker.

It was quite congested inside the Sumo. People were crammed up and didn’t understand English or Hindi. We were the only two backpackers in a jeep full of workers, traders and cultivators who were returning to their respective villages after a hard day of work in the capital city of Shilong.   


Within an hour of leaving Shilong for the deeper parts of the East Khasi Hills district, we knew we were indeed in the abode of snow. The Sumo would drop us off at Pyrunsula, a relatively urbanised small town, acting as a juncture for going to different inner parts of the district. The hilly road, with its share of parabolic turns and slippery slopes, was covered with dense white clouds and the pitch glistened due to the slight drizzle.

We were on our way to Mawlynnong- renowned throughout the world for being the cleanest village in Asia (as rated by the travel magazine Discover India), and the unique living root bridges in the neighbouring villages. Around 90 kms from Shilong (the capital of Meghalaya), this village lies very close to the Bangladesh border at Dawki and statistics claim that the village has a 100% literacy rates.  There are no beggars either, and they welcome tourists, both national and international, quite heartily. On reaching Pyrunsula we would reserve another taxi for Mawlynnong.

We had booked the Sky-view guesthouse at Mawlynnong, and on arriving, found out that, it was a small cosy bungalow with two rooms with a small wooden restaurant next to it. Just adjacent to the restaurant was an around 30-feet high view tower from which the plains of Bangladesh could be seen. We decided to walk up to the top of the bamboo structure, taking a chance of the few minutes of clear sky.  Balancing ourselves on the narrow bamboo stairs we reached the platform at the top, and lo and behold, the green plain of Bangladesh was spread at a short distance from us. There were dark black clouds sailing from the infinite horizon over the stretched out greenery and water bodies.

As we were having our dinner, a jovial Khasi fellow came and introduced himself as Leaderfield- a carpenter by profession, and who, if we wanted, would be our guide in Mawlynnong. He spoke a decent dose of English and Hindi.

It was decided that early next morning we would begin our trek to the Wahthyllong living-root bridge with Leader as our guide.


The Living Root Bridge.

As we made our way through the slippery road with little or no visibility at all, Leaderfield told us stories about Mawlynnong and himself. He added, “During monsoons, you can of course see the nature in its full vigour in Mawlynnong but winter is very beautiful- the clear sky and lush green forests; quite suitable for trekking and exploring.”

As we were trekking, a most abnormal sight greeted our eyes. Just by the side of the main road, guarded by a railing, a huge rock sat on a very small one. We were naturally quite amazed and asked our guide about it. He led us to the area and explained, “This is another peculiar thing you will find in Mawlynnong. No one knows how it was formed. But here it is, from hundreds of years, a massive rock comfortably balanced a very small counterpart.” He added, “In fact Maw means stone, and Lynnong means a hole in the stone. We will find hundreds of rocks and boulders in Mawlynnong with naturally carved out holes on them.”

There were large trees surrounding the rocks, and their dark green colour was layered by the grey clouds, and made the entire scene surreal.

We continued our trek and reached the Riwai village which housed the famous living root bridge. From here we had to descend steep-slippery-natural-stone stairs lined by moss and algae due to the monsoons for the next half an hour. This kind of stairs is very common in the East Khasi hills, Leaderfield informed us.

The rain gathered momentum and from somewhere far away came to our ears the roar of a wild river.

We kept on walking and out of the clouds emerged an unimaginably massive structure- a bridge. Two banyan trees were planted on the two sides of the mad gushing river, and their roots jutting out ferociously from all sides held together a narrow path made up of stones and boulders. And below the bridge flowed the Wahthyllong River flowing in cascades and jumping eccentrically all the while creating a deafening sound. Typical only to the Khasi Hills region of Meghalaya, the story of the living-root bridge is something like this- hundreds of years ago, natives (“our fore-fathers”, as Leader referred to them) planted two banyan trees on the two banks of the river and around fifty years after that, when the roots came out properly, they tied it together with long bamboos, and thus the living-root bridges were formed. In broken English, Leaderfield described the living-root bridges as “natural bridges shaped by humans”.


The Living Root Bridge.

After being blown over by the living-root bridge, we returned back to our guesthouse and lunch awaited us. While we were having our lunch, Rishot Khongthorem, the owner of the Sky-view guesthouse joined us. He and Leader came up with the suggestion that after lunch we should visit the Berdaw waterfall. On asking what was so special about it, both of them just smiled and Rishot said, “I don’t think you have seen anything like this ever before.”

On reaching the village which housed the waterfall, Leader told us that we would have to trek for another 45 minutes- and this trek, he added, would be through thick forest filled with all sorts of insects, snakes including King Cobras, lots of slippery steps, and the omnipresent invisibility. After around 20 minutes of trekking we reached a hanging bamboo-wood bridge over a stream in the jungle. The scene was quite picturesque – as if straight out from a movie sequence; the stream flowed vehemently and the downpour was strong; diagonally from the centre of the bridge you could see a beautiful waterfall and hills covered by thick forests enclosed the entire setting.  As we kept on moving ahead, a very loud gurgling noise came from the interiors and it seemed as if some rocket was being launched.  We kept on walking behind Leader and from the smile on his face we could make out that very soon he would reveal his trump card.

We walked on for a couple of more minutes, and then, the sigh which met our eyes was simply unbelievable. Imagine this- a massive waterfall say of the height of a twenty storied building is flowing with all force, and you are standing at a balcony on the tenth floor and seeing the water fall in front of you. Yes, that’s what it was. A narrow pavement was carved out through the hill for tourists to walk behind the waterfall.

Seeing our jaws dropped, Leaderfield smiled and bowed. Raising his voice above the sound of the gushing water, he screamed, “This fall ceases to exist in the winter, and no tourist dares to come here during monsoons. You people have made it!”


Rishot Khongthorem,

On returning from the waterfall, we still found Rishot working in the restaurant. He greeted us with two cups of steaming tea and said, “Today is Sunday no, lots of tourists from Shilong. How was the fall?”

We described to him our awesome experience and thanked him for the suggestion. And gradually, over the cups of tea, began a prolong discussion on Mawlynnong’s history and unique culture, its segregation from heartland India and financial exchange with neighbouring Bangladesh.

The tradition of cleanliness has a long history in Mawlynnong, of over 400 years, starting with the advent of Christianity in this region.  Rishot said, “Before the arrival of Missionaries to this part of the world, we were divided and sub-divided tribes- jumping from tree to tree, killing animals for meat and killing each other for dominancy. But the introduction of Christianity into our lives changed everything- from bringing peace to making us aware of cleanliness. Mawlynnong’s cleanliness is not new; it has been like this for a long time. “

We talked about for an hour or two on issues of matrilineal aspect of the Khasi society, the role of the village headman of the villages, and how he thinks national and international tourism is beneficial for Mawlynnong. We enquired about the taxis leaving Mawlynnong for Shilong, and Rishot in his typical Khasi accent casually replied, “Ah! You don’t worry about it. Get ready in the morning, have breakfast, and Leader will take care of it.”

We bade him goodbye as we wouldn’t meet him early morning before leaving, and accepted his offer to return again in December and go on trekking taking him as a guide, through, as he puts it, “the virgin forests of the beautiful East Khasi Hills”. 

This travel-story appeared in The Eclectic Northeast, October, 2012, with photographs by both Ayush Dinker and myself.

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