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#MEGHALAYA: Fifty shades of green. A photo-essay. #travel #travelogue

BY JUGAL R PUROHIT & SAPNA NAIR-PUROHIT

A discussion involving a trip to India’s north eastern region often stalls on two grounds – poor connectivity and the lack of availability of vegetarian food options. If you read this piece, perhaps you will raise your hand and beg to differ the next time you find yourself amidst such talk.

Meghalaya is known to most Indians as the Sanskrit term for ‘the abode of clouds’. Flanked by the state of Assam to its north and east and Bangladesh to its south and west, this cool, clean, calm and captivating destination needs no endorsement.

Our story begins differently. For us, Meghalaya was never the option.

Troubled by the unending strife in Jammu and Kashmir, we began looking for alternatives as the date came closer. While most destinations were ‘out of bounds’ because of the rainy season, Meghalaya was ‘open’ exactly on that account.

Since Meghalaya has no full-fledged airport (Shillong has one which does not operate regular flights), we took a flight to Guwahati. Upon landing, we hit the National Highway (NH) 40 which connects the city to Silchar (also in Assam), poking in and out of Meghalaya along the way. The joy in driving on a road like this was soon upon us – Assam was on one side of the highway and Meghalaya on the opposite. While at the former’s end there was nothing but homes and wilderness, the latter’s side brimmed with activity, petrol pumps, liquor shops and commercial enterprises to which people were flocking to. “Thanks to the lower taxes in Meghalaya, the Assamese cross the highway to make purchases,” explained our driver.

As the highway snaked out of Guwahati, chaotic streets, bogged down with vehicles gave way to a well-made, four-lane highway dotted with a sheet of tall, slender and distinct-appearing betel nut plantations on both sides. Cute, colourful stalls set up by locals selling organically-grown pineapple, banana and home-made pickles jostled for space in the lush landscape.

For those who may want to schedule a meal along the route, wait for Byrnihat, a town along the NH40. Our driver led us to a restaurant called ‘JIVA’ which served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive. We’d happily recommend it to anyone.

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They served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive.

As the sun was receding, we were inching closer to Shillong.

Whatever little we saw of it, we did not like. Narrow streets, endless traffic, littering and a town appearing quite worn down, it definitely was anything but love at first sight.

Meanwhile, our destination was a place few haven’t heard about – Cherrapunjee.

With the altitude rising, the road thinned out. The low-hanging clouds reduced the visibility. Does that cause a worry? Peek out of the window into the neatly-built colourful homes and the abundant fruit-bearing trees. For a ten rupee note, the locals will even allow you to pluck a few, juicy wood apples.

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With the altitude rising, the road thinned out.

The chill was setting in. The rainfall, however, was nowhere around.

At the end of a seven hour-long road ride, we broke the journey 15km from Sohra, the name the locals use for Cherrapunjee. At the base of the town is a hamlet called Laitkynsen and in the wilderness there is the simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where we stayed. All we needed was a warm wash, a simple meal and a bed to call it a day.

 

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The simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort

The next day was slated for ‘sight-seeing’ (not a term we fancy too much).

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The Khoh Ramhah or Maw Trop is a 200 ft high, giant natural rock formation which resembles a huge, upturned conical Khasi basket. Legend has it that this is a fossilised stone basket belonging to an evil giant who was eventually poisoned by the people. The plains lying further from the rock are on Bangladeshi territory.

Sohra, by the virtue of its heritage, by now has a list of places to see which includes waterfalls, vantage points, caves, churches dating back to the 19th century and gardens. If you find yourself interested in these, make sure you do not venture out around the weekend as the rush can be immense as we found out. Of all the places, we enjoyed our time at the sprawling Arwah Lumshynna cave complex the most.

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That’s us!
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And that is Kishore, our wonderful driver cum guide.

We gathered that the villagers in Laitkynsen were developing a bridge by entwining trunks of betel nut trees or bamboos with living roots of the Indian rubber tree (botanical name: Ficus Elastica). It isn’t as easy though. Apart from leaving matters undisturbed, it can anywhere between ten to fifteen years for even a small section of those roots to firm up. However those in Meghalaya aware of the state’s rising tourism profile are realising it is an investment worth the wait.

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More and more people are now aware of the state’s rising tourism profile and do not mind the times it takes
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Trivia on living root bridges courtesy Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort

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The locals, from the Khasi tribe are gentle though largely inward-looking. From our discussions with the resort owner (a Tamilian born in Meghalaya), we learned how they were initially against the idea of letting tourists come closer. “They were happy selling potato chips and waving good bye to tourists but we are trying to make them realise the worth of what they have here,” he said. He began his resort after fierce opposition in 1998 and has employed several villagers in full and part time roles.

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Sohra by the day.

We welcomed the cool evening with some wafers and coffee. As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors this time in the company of a shy lot of local musicians who strummed up some wonderful melodies only for us.

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As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors.

The next morning we bid the staff farewell and began our journey for Tyrna. This village was the starting point for a trek up to the wonder called the ‘Double Decker Living Root Bridge’. As the name suggests, it is a two-tier bridge made of living roots which spans a waterfall. Located in a village which goes by the name Nongriat, the route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.

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Sapna pointing towards Nongriat from Tyrna, moments after starting our trek

The villagers have built wide steps out of concrete which is good and bad – good since it is easier to navigate and bad because the rains can make the surface slippery. Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings! Our companions, apart from each other, were bamboo sticks – a must for hikers – which we rented from the “Bros N Two Sis’s Shop” for Rs 20 each. (This shop is closed on Sunday, by the way).

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The route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.
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Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings!

Once in Nongriat, where the locals utilised their time in making and selling honey, we couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us.

To our advantage, we learnt our home-stay was hardly ten steps away from the double decker! Some hot ‘chowmein’ into our bellies, we spent the next few hours swimming in the gentle pool of the waterfall or reading and relaxing by it. The comfort and facilities on offer were minimal. There was another couple in there with who we exchanged notes about our exploration hitherto.

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We couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us

For all its allure, life in Nongriat was hardly as good. With no roads, no market or even a medical facility, just about everything in the village meant trekking nearly 5-6 hours in and out of Sohra. “Everything has to be carried on one’s back. If someone falls ill, things become really difficult”, said Charlie, who owned that home-stay.

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There are trekking destinations further from Nongriat however our schedule did not permit us to undertake them. So we lazed around longer and then started back to Sohra. It was drizzling and it made our journey muggier. However, we were back where we started this time completing the route in less than two hours!

We were definitely hungry by now!

 

 

 

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The Sohra market.

An ever-smiling Uttam Koch was the manager at Nalgre’s restaurant, a by-the-road eatery in Sohra. The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food. Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to. Mr Koch, on the day we were leaving Sohra, told us he was building rooms to stay in which would be ready soon.

Our journey thereon turned eastwards.

Heard of Mawlynnong? A Google search will tell you it is a known destination in Meghalaya because of the tag it earned – that of being, “Asia’s cleanest village”. None of the locals could explain the antecedents of this tag but more on that later.

Brightly-coloured bungalows, both big and small, neat streets, roads lined by pretty, flower-bearing plants – it looked like a postcard. We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.

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We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.

About 2-3km from Mawlynnong is Riwai and its living root bridges. The reason Riwai stands out is because that is where we learnt that the locals would charge us money to enter the village and funnel a major chunk of earning into beautification and maintenance. “The government doesn’t come into the picture. The better we maintain, the more tourists come and better we earn,” said a villager.

The manager of our home-stay, a college drop-out named Khrew was a talkative fellow. At our request, he called in the newly-elected village headman of Mawlynnong. “We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule. While most people clean their homes and surroundings, everyday a fixed number of us also do community cleaning,” he said. When we quizzed him about the title of cleanest village, he replied, “Ah you can do Google search. Even I am not sure”.

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“We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule”.

It no longer matters.

Mawlynnong, which even found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio talk in 2015, already has its hands full. There aren’t enough home-stays to accommodate tourists. The road, Khrew told us, “Needs to be widened for so many vehicles coming everyday”.

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Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, Dawki has nothing remarkable to offer.

Dawki is a border town on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border and located at an hour’s drive from Mawlynnong. Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, this town has nothing remarkable to offer. We particularly recall the pathetic state of roads, the resulting dust and catching glimpses of the people in the corresponding town across the border. Of interest to us was a village, 8km from the town, which went by the name Shnongpdeng. The village is located on the banks of the Umngot river which we heard flowed with crystal-like clear waters. The bumpy ride turned out fruitless as heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit. Anyway, we hired a boat and the 30-minute exploratory ride even though under the 12 noon sun, turned out an enjoyable experience.

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Heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit.

On our way back we crossed many posts manned by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF). The name of one such post struck me and we stopped our car. Pyrdiwah was the first in a series of Indo-Bangladeshi border posts involved in skirmishes in the summer of 2001 which led to the loss of 16 BSF men. Back then Bangladesh forces walked in and claimed the post. Happy to report that today not only does an Indian flag fly atop but also the BSF reported very cordial ties with their Bangladeshi counterparts. One point to ponder about though – the BSF, raised in 1965 and stationed there for decades, still operates out of tin roofs and shanty-like structures. The government hasn’t been able to acquire land for them or build decent facilities. When we were around, the temperature in those tin-structures felt way higher than outside. Couple this with the earlier-mentioned condition of the road in such a sensitive region. Questions our nationalistic netas must answer.

Back in Mawlynnong, we noted the sun’s descent from the confines of an open to air wooden gallery, a part of a tree house where also greeting us were gentle strokes of cool breeze. To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.

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To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.

Those in Mawlynnong have always lived a quiet and compartmentalised life, we were told. Notwithstanding the influx of tourists, six days of the week are alike even today. On Sunday, time is devoted to the church and community issues.

Something we had not encountered before – the place of our stay, (a home-stay by the name ‘Ilajong’ which means my own), had a lake in the middle. “Anyone can come, pay us Rs 100 and fish in this water”, said the owner.

Our stay in rural Meghalaya came to a close. Before we reached Guwahati for our flight back home, we wanted to closer look at the capital, the hill city we’d earlier crossed en route Sohra.

Rejecting the ‘to-do’ list, we gave Shillong Peak and Elephant Falls a miss and headed to the shopping zone of ‘Police Bazaar’, located in the heart of the city. The prices are negotiable especially where handicrafts are concerned and for about Rs 2500 we purchased a hell lot of material. Lots of restaurants offering varying cuisines, including the local Khasi, are co-located so the meals were taken care of.

Once done, we checked into an old, large bungalow in a quiet corner of the city. In addition to an affable air about it, Bo-ville also had a small garden and a fireplace.

At sundown on that Saturday evening, some research online showed Café Shillong Heritage, perched atop a hill overlooking the hill town, as the place to be. We did enjoy the fare but the ambience, the live performance left a lot to be desired.

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The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery.

Our last morning was meant to take us to a village by the name Laitlum outside of which was said to lay the most breathtaking place Shillong had to offer – the canyons of Laitlum. An hour’s drive from the city, we reached early in the morning, thanks to the humble staff at Bo-ville who packed in some hot parathas and tea for us.

Green, vast meadows, views of endless mountains emptying into a splendid valley, low-hanging clouds, plants and insects of a magnificent variety and a tiny village at the bottom as our destination, the trek at Laitlum could not have been more welcoming. The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery. A couple of close calls and mounting pressure on our knees, we decided to call of the trek. That was not the time.

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Plants and insects of a magnificent variety at Laitlum

Of course the villagers used that route daily for supplies. There was in fact a rickety pulley from bottom to top so as to lug their heavier items.

In a state known for its spices and condiments, a visit to Shillong’s Bada Bazaar, howsoever damp and filthy a place it may be is a must. And thus when we reached there, we returned with lots of spices and of course the famous Khasi red rice.

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Our journey through Meghalaya

On our final evening, we did not want to leave the quiet environs of Bo-ville. Sitting in the porch with coffee and the puttering of raindrops on the roof punctuating the conversation, we relived the minutes, the hours and days we’d spent in the lovely state of Meghalaya.

  • This journey was made in August 2016
  • The essay you read is based on handwritten notes made along the journey
  • We’d reached out to GREENER PASTURES for organising this trip for us. Their service we found was reliable and flexible even to last-minute changes. Mr Bornav was our contact. (+918404002125/+919435747471/www.thegreenerpastures.com)

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Jawans: ‘Our deaths becoming business as usual for govt’

An account of the unheard voices one picked up along the journey into the gruesome conflict zone this has theatre emerged as, yet again

The treacherous terrain which belongs to Latehar's Katiya forests. Photo: Jugal R Purohit.

The treacherous terrain which belongs to Latehar’s Katiya forests. Photo: Jugal R Purohit.

It was 1300hrs when their CO (Commanding Officer) started addressing them. Barely into the speech, his choked voice wasn’t the only one I could hear. Several of his men, who lost their ‘buddies’ were now sobbing. It was difficult not to get touched.

Almost as a ritual, the men shouted back ‘Haan’, when the CO asked if they were ready to fight the insurgents again. May be they wanted to avenge the deaths of their colleagues or may be had no option.

RELATED REPORTS FROM LATEHAR

With every occasion one gets to travel to a conflict zone, especially in the wake of an unfortunate tragedy like this one, the frustration among the ground soldiers becomes increasingly glaring. Frustration and morale are separate things and not to be confused, at least initially. What if frustration becomes repetitive? Would it then affect morale?

As I travelled to tell the story of the latest humiliation of the Indian nation in the jungles of Latehar, came the news from Dantewada of the acquittal of all those apprehended for the April 2010 massacre of 76 security personnel. “Such things affect our men deeply,” a worried CRPF Commandant told me later that day.

Those at the senior level concede to the feeling of frustration among men but tend to restrict it to a particular instance. Also there are those who think their troops enjoy high morale, almost always.

But what is one to derive when those operating on the middle level say that the administration failed to prevent corruption from taking away drinking water and ration from them when they were fighting on the battleground? This especially in a theatre where it is common for the enemy to poison wells and ensure villagers do the same if asked by forces. Try decoding the feeling when a junior officer tells you that in absence of any specific intelligence they were begging for intelligence from village to village, even as that helped rebels plan a successful ambush. Then there is one where a team of jawans sprinted across 3km with their injured colleagues, to get them evacuated by a helicopter only to find it gone because of ‘dust’, leading one of them to say, “You feel like pumping bullets into those glorified drivers (read pilots).” Another officer told me, “Jawans are ready to die because they don’t realize that for the government, it is business as usual once compensation money has been provided to the  family. The day when this realisation seeps in among jawans, you will have soldiers refusing to obey orders.”

A jawan who had fought on the ground in the present operation told me, “The danger in this operation was clear to all as this was no ordinary group. And yet our seniors did not ensure we had a UAV to provide us local intelligence.” Unmanned Aerial Vehicles of different types are available with the government as well as the CRPF. This jawan was referring to the mini-UAV Netra which can fly for over a kilometer and relay the picture. Amowatikar village in Latehar, Jharkhand. The bloody exchange of fire took place outside this village. Photo by Jugal R Purohit.

Amowatikar village in Latehar, Jharkhand. The bloody exchange of fire took place outside this village. Photo: Jugal R Purohit.

There are more such tales that men told me about, in the hope that a journalist can change what their seniors have not been able to.

This pent-up anger is acquiring newer manifestations.

Like the one which the Director General of the CRPF, Pranay Sahay encountered at Daltonganj last Thursday. In the recreation room of the battalion headquarters, he faced an emotional jawan who wanted him to explain the logic of withdrawing when they all knew of insurgents in a particular location. Why, he asked, the DG failed to mobilize more forces to cordon and finish the insurgents when they were holed up there for 72 hours. He was told they will re-organise and fight again.

I never found out what that jawan thought of his answer.

Adding layers of perplexities to the jawan’s mind were the brutalities inflicted on their dead colleagues – not new by any standards and insurgents wearing uniforms identical to the forces (actually to that of Jharkhand Jaguar – a state police special force) thereby using confusion to kill. I also learnt that the Maoists created a ‘favourable climate’ during this encounter by making women and children chant tribal sounds and burst crackers to win the psychological war.

Brutalities inflicted upon the bodies of slain jawans has caused deep resentment among the forces. Denying dignity to the dead is unacceptable, they said. Photo: Jugal R Purohit.
Brutalities inflicted upon the bodies of slain jawans has caused deep resentment among the forces. Denying dignity to the dead is unacceptable, they said. Photo: Jugal R Purohit.

Speaking from Delhi, a gallantry-award winning officer said, “CRPF’s mindset of operating in aid of civil police needs to change. This approach often allows us to not take responsibilities that we must and helps us in passing the buck.” There are other challenges that his seniors in the force pointed out. Be it unified command or availability and utilization of assets or providing legal support to the troops, there is not much that has happened which encourage.

A day before I left Jharkhand, I went back to the encounter site outside the Amowatikar village. After a brief discussion, a villager whispered to me, pointing towards the precise site, “Party (CPI Maoist) ke log aaye hai. Abhi kuch aur patrakar aaye the, unko bitha liya hai party walon ne.” As I kick-started the bike for a speedy return, it dawned upon me that while the forces had retreated, the rebels had returned.

Guess who won.

Goan diaries – II

Goa isn’t exactly known for its diaries but may be after I write, it will..

For those who do not know, I visited Goa between June 7 and 10. Since friends were busy and none of them was unlucky enough to be forced to join me, I made the trip alone.

Sunday June 8

I didn’t really follow the transition from June 7 to June 8. It all seemed like an unending, uncomfortable and, if I may add, unsuccessful, attempt to sleep in that bus. I almost saw the night through! Anyway, morning arrived as the bus stopped for chai and nastaa, near Kankavli. The dark clouds hovering above were making me nervous. They seemed like the dark-suited representatives of all those who said it was pointless going to Goa in the rains. With the fear of a washout looming over my head, I settled for chai. As I read the Goa edition of the TImes of India or let me be honest, Goa Times/Panjim Times or whatever it is called, I found an unexpected ally. On the cover of that paper was a ‘slimmer by 10kg Manisha Koirala’ who screamed out, ‘Goa is heavenly during rains’. Good morning, I told myself!!

The remaining few hours of the journey to Panjim were, well forgettable, as the buswala continued his streak of worse-follows-bad movies with ‘My name is Anthony Gonzalves’ after last night’s show of ‘Jannat’. But that gave me a chance to capture the wet reception on my lens

wet reception..
wet reception..

As the clock struck 10:30am, the wheels of my bus ceased to roll. I and Panjim were finally together! Thanks to an old rickshaw driver, I got a good room at a good hotel, Hotel Baretton. What more, I even managed a discount! Anyway, so I went up, brushed, took a bath, emptied myself of all the worldly belongings (actually Mumbai-ly belongings) and waited for Sylvester to arrive, which in a few minutes, he did.

Na..my door didn’t rattle when he knocked or I didn’t feel guilty for not going to the gym on seeing his physique. As I opened the room door, there he stood in front of me – all of 5ft, thin and smiling. The sweet guy that he was, he handed over to me the keys of the bike, which was to be my sole partner throughout the trip.

Sylvester gone, I came down and after briefly taking directions from the receptionist, embarked on the 40km journey to Arambol, which later seemed a little more than that. Why there? Well, Archie and family were there so I thought I would meet up. I have never felt it so strongly, as I did during my bike ride to Arambol, that in a sea of unknown faces, it can be a really tempting thought that of getting to see even one known face. Rains, lack of direction, cooperative Goans, they all helped me reached Archie’s place where I was treated to egg bhurjee, which was yummm! On top of that, little Ruhaan was there too….more yummm! Warm food, warm people and naturally a good time, what more can you ask for in an alien land! 

Later on, Archie showed me around the place, we visited the Arambol beach and returned. Since the rain clouds were all ganging up, I didn’t wish to take chances. Besides, I had only recently realised that rains and bike can stretch distances a tad too far.

Once inside the safe confines of Hotel Baretton, I washed my clothes and briefly went out to dine before I dozed off. Well, I had a lot of catching up to do there.