I like off-beat travel. The kind that puts you in a time warp of some yesteryear space and time, or transports you to places where time seems to stand still. Places that luxuriate in their own cornucopia of simplicity. Birds chirrup, children play carefree, and dogs and men both call it a day just as dusk falls and the silence of the night takes over. Places not over-run by tourists, technology and television. Where the moment you set foot, the city exits your system. Add beautiful natural surroundings to that recipe and you have Mawlynnong Village.
Located in a quiet nook of the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, beautiful clean Mawlynnong is not your quintessential village nor is the Mawlynnong Guest House in the village your typical accommodation. Walking the well-tended garden paths of the village, with cane baskets placed along the way as bins, leading to houses with manicured gardens and ivy creeping up on walls, it’s not hard to imagine why Mawlynnong is cited as the model village of Meghalaya, as the ‘cleanest village in India’. No cattle or pigs roam the village and birds chirrup in the crisp air and squeaky-clean surroundings.
The guest house in the village is built in traditional Khasi style: two thatched bamboo huts stand on tall bamboo stilts with the floor, walls and furniture all made of bamboo deftly woven together with cane strips. The tree machan is perched at least 80 ft above the Wah Pura stream, which forms beautiful pools reflecting to perfection the dense tropical foliage of the surrounding rainforest in its clear waters. The machan itself is an extension of the main hut’s vast balcony, leading out over two suspended cane bridges. In its prime monsoon season, in the quiet isolation of this setting, every inch of hillside stirs with oversaturated hues of green swaying in the gentle tropical breeze while Bangladesh heaves with its over-flooded plains in striated shimmers to the south.
Above all, the Mawlynnong guest house is a laudable eco-tourism initiative which, now three years into its running, has proven to be a sustainable model. Initiated and funded by Deepak Laloo, a Shillong-based entrepreneur, the guest house is now run independently by the village’s ‘Epiphany Society’, and spearheaded by Rishot, the local school teacher, with profits going towards empowering the needy and development projects for the village. It gives the locals gainful employment as guides, cooks and caretakers for the huts.
In most of rural Meghalaya, you will find locals quite shy of outsiders but not here. In an otherwise backward area, this village has a strong church and boasts of 100 per cent literacy. Friendly greetings will come your way, people will invite you into their homes and urge you to take pictures of their pets, owls and parrots amidst other strange crossbreeds, and offer you kwai (local paan), a traditional mark of hospitality in Meghalaya. Strict rules are enforced by the village durbar. A sign in my hut went ‘Consumption of liquor only after permission from head man’. Drinking in public spaces of the village is forbidden.
It’s the kind of place you really don’t want to budge from, but then there are plenty of things to do and look up here. From the highway turnoff to the village, 20 km ahead, lies Dawki along the picturesque Umngot River, the last village on the Indian side and the border post at Tamabil leading into Bangladesh. Closer home are lovely walks. The living root bridge of Riwai village is a short 10-min hike away and worth a peek.
For longer forays, go past Thiep Ski Village to the dexterously crafted bamboo and cane bridge over the Jashar River. In a laudable community effort the curved suspension bridge is re-erected every two years when the bamboo begins to wear out; this is done in a day by close to 80 people. The trail over the bridge due west leads to Lyndew Falls. With a vertical drop of close to 3,280 ft, they are considered the longest falls of the region. A short detour along the route to the bridge takes you to the cliff-face living root spiral staircase, a 60- to 70-foot hair-raising descent done regularly by villagers who tend to their fields of broom grass and bay leaf below. The close-by Nairiang Waterfall makes for a refreshing swim.
Mawlynnong would make an ideal place to bring children.The experience is likely to be highly educative and enriching for the entire family. The food is excellent home-cooked fare tossed up by Mon, the local lady cook and caretaker from the village, over a wood-fired stove. Choose between frog’s legs, pork or chicken and try jackfruit seed soup, smoked mashed potatoes and other local delicacies.
By Ahtushi Deshpande
Ahtushi Deshpande is a freelance travel and documentary photographer, writer and ardent traveller based in Delhi.