It is said that the best vacations are often a bolt from the blue (ok, I totally made that up) and my trip to Shillong last month was just that. It so happened that toddler and I had been dumped at my parental home by hubby before he went on to brave another cruel winter in Leh. Now, the parents had plans to honeymoon in Malaysia and despite all the coaxing, cajoling and emotional blackmails, they refused to tag along any kind of progeny. A decision was made to dump me at the chachi’s house but as luck would have it, the chachi, who is Khasi, was traveling to Shillong to be with her family and suggested that I come along too. Without much deliberation thereafter, the tickets were hastily booked and before I knew it, I was on a flight to Guwahati. Now, I could have easily stayed home alone (being the full grown and rather middle-aged adult that I am), but the lure of visiting the Northeast of India for the very first time was just too hard to resist.
I felt a jittery kind of excitement as the plane prepared to land in Guwahati. I had heard enough about the unique geography, flora & fauna, culture and cuisines and just couldn’t wait to plunge right in.
The Guwahati-Shillong highway may look like a road to hell but don’t let that scare you. It’s twist, turns, bumps and scary traffic are the perfect recipe for motion sickness but the scenery begins to look beautiful once you have wretched your guts out a couple of times and popped a pill. Looking back, I can only be thankful to my stars that I had someone to entertain the toddler while I battled nausea and dizziness. We stopped at the small restaurant in Nongpoh for some tea and steaming pork momos which were simply out of this world, and which incidentally, turned the niggling nausea into a full-fledged puke fest so my first and most important advice would be to prepare yourself well for the journey. That aside, the restaurant stocks up and interesting inventory of pickled chillies, dried fish and bamboo shoots.
The Heritage Village And The Sacred Groves
The Khasi Heritage Village in Mawphlang is an ambitious project that showcases the unique indigenous culture of the Khasis, including architectural styles of traditional homes from ten different Himas (the Khasi sub-tribes), food, wine, music, traditional games, costumes, handicrafts and more. With prior booking, you could camp in one of these resilient and eco-friendly bamboo huts to get an authentic and lingering experience of a typical Khasi village life. The 5-acre wide village will also houses state-of-the-art amphitheater where cultural performances are held, a full-fledged museum and a food court serving up variety of cuisines from the North Eastern hills. The Heritage Village held its first ever Monolith Festival on the 25th of October and I have promised myself another trip to Shillong during late October just to attend this cultural extravaganza.
The Sacred Grove is a dense stretch of forest right adjacent to the site of the Khasi Heritage Village. The tribal folk believe these forests to be protected by divine deities and according to legend, anyone who hurts a tree or takes away anything from the forest will have his head turned backward! In fact, whenever a wrongdoing is committed within the forests, the tribes congregate near a particular rock (that looks like a king’s throne and on which the Chieftain takes seat) and offer an animal in sacrifice to the forest deities. There is also an interesting concept of “male” and “female” rocks, with the narrow erect ones being classified as the former and the flat lower ones being classified as the latter. So you can guess that during the long but extremely pleasant trek, I parked myself on many a girl-rock. These forests, with their unique flora and fauna, are also home to many medicinal plants and spectacular wild orchids. If you delve deeper into the forest, you may even spot a Venus Fly Trap or two.
Police Bazaar & Lehduh (Bada Bazaar)
Now, I had really worked hard at training my mind to NOT SHOP, but as always, the fine lines between needs, wants and desires blurred as I stepped into the bustling and colorful markets of Shillong. Right from the small packets of Grapefruit served with salt by the roadside to the fine handwoven fare at the Khasi Emporium, I stuffed my bags until I could pack in no more. And the shoes…Oh God, the shoes! There are so many of them that you’ll feel like you are in Footwear Fairyland. I was however saved from splurging by my oversized feet (by Northeastern standards) but I made up for it by buying a heap of pretty ones for the toddler. If you are not …err…big built like me, you might find some really fashionable clothes too. As for me, I felt like a giant in this land of petite people. But I did buy myself a couple of thingies hoping to fit into them later. The rather feverish shopping spree ended with a sumptuous helping of pork chow and momos at Lamee, and I picked up a few packs of Bhut Jolokia (the second hottest pepper in the world) for my spice-crazy mom before calling it a day.
Mawlinnong: God’s Own Garden & Shameless Gluttony
Mawlinnong is touted as being the “cleanest village in Asia” and I wasn’t about to return without visiting it, even if it meant going at it alone. But what was originally planned as a solo cab drive quickly turned into a community affair with some near and distant relatives (with a couple of complete strangers thrown in) wanting to tag along. Such is the bonhomie and bonding within the Khasi community – in fact, it is almost infectious! So there were two SUVs packed with human beings of all sizes, shapes and age groups, and food weighing more than all the people combined. Truth be told, I had never seen so much meat in my life, atleast not in a single sitting. Each one of the ladies had cooked up her family favorite – there was home-style chicken curry, smoked pork in pumpkin gravy, beef, pig’s intestines stuffed with blood, a mix of organ meats cooked in green sauce, tungambra (a smelly but delectable chutney made of fermented beans), green pumpkin curry and what have you. My favorite was Tirso – a stew made of pork and tender mustard leaves. Mawlinnong is a pleasant 90-km drive away from Shillong and we picked a quiet spot by a stream for our picnic. For me, it was more like a Khasi food festival, especially laid out for me. I don’t know how much we hogged, but by the end of it, the toddler wasn’t able to lift her weight off the mat.
As for Mawlinnong, the place truly lives up to its title. Poverty is no excuse for filth here and it isn’t uncommon to spot a child taking a moment out of playtime to pick up a piece of paper and put it in one of the many bamboo bins that dot the village. The pretty cobbled streets are lined with flowers of all kinds and the humble homes made of thatched bamboo look like they have some straight out of a painting. It is quite apparent that cleanliness and a sense of esthetics runs in the blood of the villagers here. I wish I could take some of this spirit back for the rest of India.
There are a lot of fun activities too, despite the idyllic setting. We climbed up the “Sky View”, an 80-feet high bamboo machan that offers a panoramic view of the dense sub-tropical forests of the East Khasi Hills on one side and the Bangladeshi plains on the other. Mawlinnong also boasts of a small but picturesque church tucked away between a canopy of trees. However, the most breathtaking of all was the Living Root Bridge, which is a 10-minute trek away from Mawlinnong. Not only does it make for a spectacular sight, it is also a bio-engineering marvel. I am told that there are several of these, including a double-decker one near Cherrapunji, but it is long, hard trek away.
While I would have loved to spend a whole day enjoying the sights and sceneries of Cherapunjee, I had to make do with a touch-and-go drive down to the place and back, which wasn’t bad at all in itself. The drive from Shillong to Cherapunjee offers breathtaking views of the mountain ranges and valleys, and right next to the bridge, there is an adventure spot where you can indulge in some serious zip railing for a quick adrenaline rush. Just short of Cherapunjee is the “Ka Bri Ki Synrang” or “The Garden Of Caves” which makes for an ideal relaxation spot with its natural rock formations and gushing waterfalls. Like all other visitors, I was especially fascinated by the heart-shaped pond and it became the subject for many a solo and group photographs. There are also some caves around the area which you can explore at your own peril.
Things That I Missed But You Shouldn’t
For most part of my vacation, I was so busy making trips out of Shillong that I really didn’t get a chance to explore what was within. I had reserved the last day of my trip for local sightseeing, but we were forced to stay indoors because of a bandh. When you go there, don’t forget to visit the Don Bosco Museum. I am told that this well-preserved, three-storeyed building is a storehouse of Northeastern culture. Also visit the majestic Elephanta Falls and the Wards Lake. I managed a fleeting glance on my way back to Guwahati but I really would have loved to spend some time loitering around on the manicured lawns that surround this oblong lake. If you are a lover of flora, check out the Lady Hydari Park, which houses a variety of flowering plants and several species of orchids, along with a mini zoo. I also couldn’t have enough of Bara Paani (or the Umiam Lake) which is a vast expanse of water beautifully nested in the midst of lush green mountain ranges. I don’t know when I will land up again in that oft forgotten part of the country, but I do know that what I have seen and experienced is only a tiny fraction of what lies there…