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STRIKING ROOTS

A walk in the clouds

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THE FAITHFUL: The Presbyterian Church is one of the most beautiful structures in Shillong

The quietly beautiful East Khasi Hills are just an indication of the magic that the rest of Meghalaya is capable of weaving.

At Shillong, the air was crisp and cold with rock music riding the wind, wafting out of street cafês and mobile phones. The threeand-a-half hour drive from the plains of Guwahati to the mountainous expanse of Meghalaya was mesmerising. Every so often, we would stop to click old churches, charming colonial bungalows and women in traditional jainsen and blouses. Near the Polo Ground, we watched men wager on the age-old game of teer (archery) before digging into delicious Khasi cuisine of jadoh (red rice) and pork in Trattoria, a local joint. 

Our base, Rosaville, was an elegant heritage home in the suburbs, adorned with antique furniture and sepia photos. Over tea and cookies, our hostess Trupti Bauri delighted us with stories of 'burrasahibs' and colonial history. The Don Bosco Museum was an eye-opener on the cultural uniqueness of the North-east. We hopped over to the privately-owned Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah nearby. Run by the Wankhars, SK Sircar's splendid one-mancollection showcased a brilliant array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum, once an ammo store and dungeon for Japanese POWs in WWII, offered glimpses of the Indian Army's achievements. 

We drove 10 km to reach Shyllong Peak for a fantastic view of the East Khasi countryside. Vendors selling farm produce along the road startled us with the size of the radish - each an arm's length and as thick as a dictionary! About 15 km north, the rippling Umiam Lake (Bara Pani) was the scenic setting for the plush Ri Kynjai Resort, a delicate fusion of luxury and tranquility. On a whim, we took a bus to Smit, 17 km south of Shillong, the cultural seat and royal abode of the Khyrim Syiemship. The thatched wood and bamboo Lyngdoh House was a study in traditional architecture while a massive granary stood as a nostalgic remnant of a prosperous past. In the quiet, untouched sacred groves of Mawphlang, conservationist Tambor Lyngdoh shared insights about endemic flora and Khasi animist traditions. 

Back in town, the quaint horseshoeshaped gate of Tripura Castle drew us into the erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura's Manikya dynasty. Built in the 1920s by Maharaj Bir Bikram, it was renovated in 2003 into the first heritage hotel in the North-East. Swaddled in luxury, we mulled over our next move when a chance meeting with Deepak Laloo of Nakliar Tours led us to Meghalaya's best kept secret, Mawlynnong. 

We rolled the word on our tongues like a toffee, savouring its musical lilt. Was it really Asia's cleanest village? The winding journey from Shillong to Dawki would tell us. We sped past open meadows where grass glinted like polished gold in the slanting sun. By dusk, we reached the quaint village with neat rows of houses peeping over floral hedges. Bright orange cosmos bobbed in greeting as Henry Kharrymba led us beyond the Balang Presbyterian Church and a rickety bamboo bridge to the Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan. Like baboons in a leafy canopy, we chattered in the balcony, sipping black tea, listening to the stream murmuring below. 

By morning Mawlynnong looked like a fairytale. Gardens were awash with dewdrops and the village road was clean as a whistle. Was it a coincidence that the fields were lush with broom grass or Phool Jhadu (Thysanolaena maxima), which spawned Mawlynnong's broom-making industry? Each home had a woven basket for trash and everyone from the elderly to elfin children ensured that the town lived up to its tag of 'God's Own Garden'. 

Patting a boulder, Henry said, "This hole is caused by rainwater. We call it 'mawlynnong' in Khasi, meaning 'stone with a cavity' which gives the village its name. " Stones play a significant part in Khasi culture. Some homes had Maw-bin-nah, monolithic stones honouring their ancestors. Perched on a stone with the improbability of an elephant sitting on a lemon, the sacred Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock was an ancient Khasi shrine that pre-dated the advent of Christianity. 

The two-kilometre walk to Riwai's Jing Kieng Jri led to a setting reminiscent of the movie Avatar. A stunning natural bridge created by gnarled roots of the Ficus elastica tree swung over a rivulet. In Meghalaya's remote hill tracts, the Living Root Bridges are centuries' old modes of crossing streams. Nurtured by villagers who diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, the intricate hardy mesh can even be paved with stones. Nearby, Niriang Falls, a 300m cascade of the Wah Rymben River fell in a deep crystal pool fringed by swaying reeds. In this paradise where bright yellow butterflies flitted and mud-puddled around wet rocks, we surrendered to the therapeutic power of the tiered cataract splashing upon us. Not satisfied with the day's adventures, Henry insisted we walk up to Mawlynnong's Sky View. "Now?" we groaned. He nodded vigorously, urging us up a wobbly ladder. He gestured at the panorama of green rice fields and smiled, "All that... is Bangladesh. " 

But no trip to Meghalaya would be complete without halting at Sohra or Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places on the earth. In this rain-soaked haven adrift with clouds, nature lovers come to track the dark-rumped swift diving along the misty gorges of the magnificent Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls and admire the limestone formations of Mawsmai and Mawsynram caves. Being the first British foothold in the North-east, relics of Sohra's imperial past lay scattered around the countryside - the David Scott Memorial (1831) and Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church built in 1846. 

At Cherrapunjee Resort, the passion of our host, Dennis Rayen, for the place was evident. He had painstakingly collated meteorological data and decorated his walls with charts indicating how Mawsynram had dethroned Cherrapunjee as the world's rainiest place. A long trudge into Laitkynsew valley took us to an ancient double-decker root bridge. We dipped our feet in aquamarine pools rippling over cradles of rock, indulging in the pleasures of a natural fish spa. As we drove past the resort's quirky signboard - 'Heads firmly in clouds, feet firmly on ground', we wondered, if just a portion of the East Khasi Hills held such intrigue, imagine what magic the Garo and Jaintia hills could weave.

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