By Kalpana Sunder
“Welcome to Mawlynnong or God’s own garden,” says a simple metal board. All along the drive I spotted neat rows of brooms made from the locally grown soft grass, laid out in artistic configurations to dry in the winter sun. It seemed a terribly appropriate introduction to a village that is billed the ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’!
Mawlynnong, in the Khasi Hills, is a picture-perfect village in India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, close to the Bangladesh border. In this remote corner of India inundated by heavy rainfall, transport is skeletal, markets far flung and locals measure distances by the time they take to eat a Kwai - the local betel leaf with lime and areca nut! Since 2003, this little village has held the title of the ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’ with recognition from a travel magazine, Discover India, and later reinforced by National Geographic and the UNESCO.
My driver Bado is Khasi, belonging to a matriarchal tribe where woman power is stellar and property passes to the youngest daughter. Khasis are mostly Christians – the result of the work of Welsh Christian missionaries who came here in the British era. Narrow stone paths meander through the village, church spires loom above. There are natural stone basins with depressions in front of many homes to collect rainwater. We walk past spotless yards and neat hedges with bright bougainvilleas and orchids as well as birds-of-paradise spilling over the sides, and village homes made from bamboo and timbers. Fresh laundry clipped neatly on the clotheslines, conical cane baskets provided all over the village to collect litter, this sure looks like something out of a storybook. Mawlynnong is an environmentally conscious community of about eighty families who take turns in maintaining the roads, weeding, sweeping and cleaning. The primary school, which is English-medium, has no dropouts and the village boasts of a 100% literacy rate.
The Khasis are also known for their worship of nature and conservation of forests. On the way I visited one of the seventy odd ‘sacred forests’ of Meghalaya called Ki law Adong, where the people have not been allowed to pluck any leaves or cut any branches for centuries. If anyone takes something from here, he has to clean the whole village to atone for his ‘sins’. Khasi women have this obsession with cleanliness and I notice them either hanging out clothes to dry or sweeping their yards with the soft brooms.
For a spot of adventure we climb the Sky Tower, an amazing structure built of bamboo sticks tied together stretching across the branches of five or six trees. It’s an amazing feeling looking down at the sylvan treetops and the inundated Bangladesh plains far away. It’s an eco- friendly structure that uses no nails and gives us a wonderful view from the top. I have tea at the local tea shop chatting with Lurshai Pyngrope, a local resident who tells me all about the village and its ethos.
“How does this village have such a Utopian look?” I ask him. The village council imposes a fine on anyone littering or destroying trees. Children are taught to keep their surroundings clean at an early age. All the rubbish is dumped in to compost pits and polythene is completely banned. The village has a zero litter policy; every person has access to a toilet. Villagers are born cultivators – they have learnt to care for the land and forests from childhood and derive their income from broom grass, bay leaves, pepper, honey and betel nut as well as fruits like oranges and pineapples. Tourists from all over the world now visit this village and donations from tourists are used in projects like building a guesthouse or a tower.
What about medical facilities, I ask. “That is still a problem. We have to travel at least two hours to the nearest medical facility,” he says. Lurshai takes us to the Mawlynnong Guest House, a Tolkienesque bamboo-and-cane hut on stilts with a back porch and a sit-out overlooking the forest and river. There are two cozy bedrooms, a living room with simple décor, blankets and mosquito nets for tourists to stay overnight and enjoy the tranquility of the village with the soundtrack of cicadas and the babble of streams. Here, simple Khasi food and lack of big city entertainments are the unique selling points.
Most people flock to Mawlynnong to see the famed root bridge at Riwai. The living root bridges of Meghalaya are famous now – feats of bio-engineering where organic bridges were inventively built by natives which would not deteriorate with time but instead grow stronger. We follow a stone path from Riwai village where a young Khasi youngster sells us a ticket for just ten rupees so see these bridges! This path, called the King’s Way, linked Khasis villages to each other and helped them to trade in betel nut; it has sharp inclines and drops, which test our city-slicker fitness levels! The first sight of the living roots bridges simply takes my breath away.
“How did they build these bridges?” I ask.
In the monsoon the river becomes a furious torrent and crossing it became impossible for the villagers. So the wise men of those days grew two rubber trees on either bank of the streams and extended their secondary roots through the hollow trunk of the Kwai or betel nut tree to reach the other side. Once the roots were entrenched, they wove the handrails and support vines till it became as strong as a concrete structure over many years.
Some root bridges are as old as five hundred years. The ideal bridges to bear the onslaught of the heavy monsoons, these look like a set out of Avatar or the Lord Of The Rings with their lattice of twisted roots and filled with rocks and stones on top to actually look like a constructed bridge! Sustainability, environmentally-friendly, recycling are now modern buzzwords... the Khasi people have lived their lives for centuries in perfect harmony with nature, following these tenets.
Kalpana Sunder is a a Japanese language specialist, blogger and travel writer based in Chennai, India. Follow her travel writing at her blog