Khublei Khasi Hills

#1 May 2nd, 2010, 14:17
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#1
Ever since our return from Meghalaya, I have wanted to write about our experiences there this March. Khublei in the Khasi language means "Hello", "Goodbye", "God Bless" and "Thank You", so it is a most useful word!

We flew into Guwahati from Kolkata with Paramount (a newish, budget domestic airline), a very comfortable short hop of 65 minutes. A pre-arranged cab and driver were there to meet us and drive us to Cherrapunjee via Shillong. Laitnoh! (Let's Go!) This rather exhausting ride took us almost five hours. The landscape was at first blighted by construction of a new bypass but soon the distinctive features of Meghalaya came into view. This part of the North East is unlike any other that I have seen so far. (I have already seen parts of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and a corner of Assam.) It is by turns welcomingly green and then frighteningly stark. Soon the traveller's eye is drawn to the huge monolithic stones called mawbynna, which look a little like the menhirs of Brittany or the standing stones of Stonehenge.

At this point in my story, I would like to mention the mythic tales surrounding Ki HYNNIEW TREP (the celestial origin of the Khasis). The golden staircase from Heaven to Earth is, according to legend, situated not far from Umiam Lake. Via this golden staircase, seven of the sixteen celestial families came down to Earth. However, nine families stayed permanently in Heaven after God shut the Golden Stairs. The Khasis believe they are originally from these seven families ("Ki Hynniew Ha Tbian"); but the nine other families are always in their prayers ("Ki Khyndai Hajrong").

This story is very different from the Garo myth about creation (more about that later).

We had passed by Umiam Lake and felt the cool breeze and sensed the abundant pine trees long before we started ascending the Shillong plateau. Our journey by-passed the town itself as we continued southwards in the direction of Bangladesh. After Cherrapunjee (Sohra in local parlance) we were headed for the tiny village of LAITKYNSEW, which was to be our home for the next couple of days.
Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 2nd, 2010 at 17:42..
#2 May 2nd, 2010, 15:09
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Nothing in the reading I had done before coming here was adequate preparation for the sheer beauty of this far-flung off-the-beaten track village. The owner of Cherrapunjee Resort, Dennis, and his wife Carmen, as well as their daughter Angela, made us feel part of village life. The first evening we were exhausted from the trip and slept for a solid twelve hours. The next morning we learnt that the heavy rain we heard in the night was nothing compared to the terrific storm they had witnessed the previous night (while we were safely abed in Kolkata), during which the rain entered the building horizontally and blew a few fuses. We were fortunate indeed that this pre-monsoon shower had settled the dust on the trails we were about to follow in search of the Living Root Bridges.

"I am NOT a trekker" was my mantra before arriving at the village. At breakfast I surreptitously scanned the tables for real trekkers. I did not see a single one! This was comforting... There were sari-clad ladies who swiftly departed with their extended families for a jeep tour of the surrounding villages, a chance to view the Sylhet Plains and tour the "cleanest village in Asia". We did not want any organized tour or trek! So, without informing anyone, we set off blithely down to the Sunday-morning-sleepy Laitkynsew village. Our progress was slow. At every step we encountered mobs of eager children with whom we exchanged Khublei! Khublei? Khublei! and snapped some lovely photos for posterity. The village was either asleep still or in church. We found the silent green lushness a balm to our senses. (We were still attempting to free our lungs of the coal dust inhaled during the previous day's journey from Guwahati). At the exit of the village we met Quincy, a wild-haired, grinning, middle-aged lady, who asked us (in sign language combined with excellent English - she could not fathom what we were up to!) where we were going. As we ourselves had no clue, we vaguely pointed in the direction of some interesting looking stone stairs. She cackled. This was all the 'encouragement' we needed...
#3 May 2nd, 2010, 15:37
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Four hours later we found ourselves back in the village, after a fascinating ramble which took us through the jungle, in the company of dragon lizards, past abandoned limestone mines, underneath fallen branches encrusted with lichens, by traditional irrigation schemes, next to marine-life fossils in the stones (most of which had been removed by chisel), watched by waterfalls.

The mantra was now "I'm a trekker!"

The stone steps were a little slippery with moss. So Mr. T. fashioned bamboo walking sticks for us to help our progress down the hundreds of steps. We still had no idea where we were going. (This was evidently NOT The Trek that the village was famous for, since we had not encountered a single living human being since beginning our descent.)

Exhilarated beyond measure to be out in the primeval wilderness, slightly scared as to how we would retrace our steps upwards, we continued our downward plunge.

At some point we came across a road. By looking at the sun we guessed it would be the long way home (as opposed to the vertical steps which were the short cut) and we opted to take it. As the sun started to lose its heat and our sweat turned chilly we were slightly worried in case we were well and truly lost. However, comforted by the idea that half of the village had seen us as we set off earlier that day, we stoically plodded on. Not long after that, the faintest hints of life appeared, as we met children herding oxen, and we were back in Laitkynsew!

The real trek would be the next day....
#4 May 2nd, 2010, 16:24
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The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya are unique. Visitors from all over the world come to marvel at them. Our first taste of a tiny trek had whetted our appetite for this discovery. But we were not real trekkers, remember! So, Angela advised us to take a baby trek (only four or five hours at a slow pace, as opposed to a full day affair for the serious guys) to a recently discovered ficus-ficus living root bridge which we would be able to manage in spite of our advanced years and creaking joints. In the company of two other intrepid tourists from Perth, Australia, we set off enthusiastically, following the hand-drawn map provided by our host, Dennis.

It was well worth the effort. What can I say? You have to experience it for yourself. I am surprised actually that there are not more visitors. But of course it is not an easy place to access. Your discomforts at the sliding descent are soon obliterated by the sheer joy at being there. I cannot adequately describe the scenery. During the monsoons it will be even more spectacular, though also more slippery. The roots of the ficus-ficus are rubbery and extremely flexible. The villagers have trained them and fashioned bridges across the streams which will last for centuries.

One day we will return and see the splendours of the Double Decker Root Bridges, a full-day's trek, involving 2500 feet downhill. (The bridges of Nongriat are described as well as photographed by IndiaMike's mikeincairns: http://www.indiamike.com/india/other...ridges-t62959/.)

That evening, our last in the village, we were entertained by a group of local musicians, headed by Ronald Lyngdoh, from Cherrapunjee.

My review of the resort can be found here:
http://www.indiamike.com/india-hotel...village-h4755/

Next day we bid a sorry farewell and headed for Shillong, to discover the Archery Stakes; and to follow the trail of Verrier Elwin, whose writings were in large part instrumental in our desire to visit this fascinating part of the universe.
#5 May 2nd, 2010, 19:23
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Shillong, erstwhile favourite hill station of the British, dubbed the capital of "Scotland of the East", also famous for celebrating Bob Dylan's birthday and for its own indigenous rock and roll. It sits gloriously atop its pine-scented hills, an unexpectedly welcoming hodge-podge of horrendous traffic jams, friendly inhabitants and one of the most important archery stakes in India. The population has exploded here and the motor-car is king. Unfortunately this means that bumper-to-bumper traffic is the rule.

We stayed initially at the Tripura Castle Hotel (see my review in the Hotel Section of IndiaMike), which was a bit outside of the centre of town. On Day 1 we had two main objectives: the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures; and the Shillong Archery Stakes.

The museum is somewhat confusingly only viewable on a "guided tour". However, in practice this translates as a guide taking you to each floor of this seven story building and leaving you to peruse the exhibits. The Musical Instruments Gallery was fascinating. You may discover hitherto unknown instruments such as the Saridana violin used by the Bodo tribe of Assam. The Fishing implements were also most intriguing. On the top floor we sat down to watch a documentary about various aspects of the Seven Sisters. Some of it was well done, in particular the section about the dances of Mizoram. It is a shame that the museum was almost empty.

One query we had: why were none of the artefacts dated?

Next was our afternoon of Archery viewing at the Shillong Polo Ground. I was initially reluctant to accompany Mr. T and the other couple with whom we were visiting the sights. However, I found myself caught up in the general excitement and ended up taking about thirty photos of the participants as well as a video! The experts were well versed in the procedure. They could have hit the target with their eyes shut.

The betting procedure goes thus: more than a thousand arrows fly in the space of four minutes, shot by sixteen to twenty archers, belonging to four distinct archery clubs, from a distance of fifteen to twenty metres. The number of arrows which are on target in the straw drum are then counted and the LAST TWO DIGITS of the total number of arrows are the winning numbers in the Lottery.

The Khasi name for this event is SIAT KHNAM and the venue is SAW-FURLONG.
#6 May 2nd, 2010, 19:49
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By some quirk of fate and serendipitous chance encounters we had been invited to tea at the house of Lila Elwin, widow of Verrier Elwin, the famous author. This was the highlight of our trip to Meghalaya. If we had gone to India with a set itinerary and inflexible travel plan we would never have been able to follow up the lead from an English traveller we met in Sohra, via Bill (former chief of police) and his wife, which led us to the home of the Elwins. As Lila speaks no English, her sons were on hand to interpret for us. We were surrounded by mementoes of Verrier's travels in Chhattisgarh, where he had lived with the Gonds and written extensively about them; his explorations of Arunachal Pradesh (especially Siang Province); and his travels throughout the most unexplored places in the Seven Sisters. He had retired to Shillong shortly before his early death in 1964. Ever since picking up his autobiography ("The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin") in the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop in London, back in the autumn of 2008, I had been keen on visiting all the places about which he had written so eloquently, and on meeting the people with whom he had fallen so violently in love that he relinquished his British nationality and became an Indian. The younger son of Verrier, Ashok, was happy to show us his father's photographic archives. That was thrilling for us! I cannot thank all the people involved enough. I doubt whether any of them are reading this, but if they should chance to do so then I can only express my heartfelt gratitude.
#7 May 3rd, 2010, 16:35
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#7
Khublei yyam
you guys seemed to have had a tour de force to trekdom!

them living root bridges must've been an exotic find. snonymous - i hope you have located this thread!
reading that one has trek all the way downhill - will leave it for my next life.
uphill is a can-do... downhill which is why i never make it to hill / hillock / mound


to have met lila elwin and her ilk, must've just about wrapped up your travels as a month-long momentous one


thank you for the write-up. that bougainvillea is lovely!
:brishti
#8 May 3rd, 2010, 17:06
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#8
Brilliant write-up theyyam, it sounds absolutely wonderful.

Lovely new avatar too
#9 May 3rd, 2010, 17:11
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What about the Garo myth of creation?
#10 May 3rd, 2010, 17:29
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Thanks very much Brishti and Julia for your kind comments.

Nayan, I am working on the Garo section....... which is more of a compendium of advice and contradictory, conflicting information which we stored up for the next trip.

Since you asked for it, here is the Garo version of the Creation Myth:

(I have taken this from a guide book to Meghalaya which I found mouldering on a shelf in a homestay in Shillong, rearranged into my own words; I am not making this up!)

Once upon a time, the earth was a vast watery plain surrounded by darkness. Then the Sun and the Moon were placed in the sky. After that Air was sent to fill in the open spaces. Earth was dressed with clouds as her turban and petticoat. She was given hair in the form of trees.

The first animals were created, the Monkey first of all, followed by the Frog.

Meanwhile, the Earth was totally dried up by the rays of the Sun. So flowing rivers were created to water the Earth. As well as thunder to announce the coming of rain.

Then the first man, "Sani", and the first woman, "Muni", were created, from whom all Garos are descended.
#11 May 3rd, 2010, 19:12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by brishti View Post Khublei yyam
you guys seemed to have had a tour de force to trekdom!


reading that one has trek all the way downhill - will leave it for my next life.
uphill is a can-do... downhill which is why i never make it to hill / hillock / mound [/I]


:brishti
Brishti,

By the way, I really am incapable of long walks downhill too. But, when it was SO interesting I somehow found myself capable of it. It was actually a revelation to me. Mr. T. even more so. He hates even the word "trek"; which was why we set out on our ramble as a short stroll to the village. Actually, the first walk where we didn't know where we were going was far more exciting than the prescribed trek to the root bridge. There was an element of fear and of the Great Unknown about it. Hard to describe!

Continuing about our stay in Shillong:

The next day we continued our explorations of Shillong by a visit to Ward's Lake, an artificial lake for pleasure boats, set in a serene flower-filled park. Entrance costs a few rupees. It is a great place to escape the traffic fumes and watch the ducks or geese as well as take some snaps of the Gulmohars or the Palash trees.

We also wandered for a while through the alleys of Shillong Bazaar, admiring the way that such heavy loads could be carried by such diminutive bearers. In fact, we were looking to buy a bow and arrows, but we were looking in the wrong place. We did locate some later in a shop, after many hilarious attempts.

At the back of our minds throughout was the intent to continue our travels in Meghalaya with a visit to Tura in the Garo Hills, as well as the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve and the Balpakram National Park. We had done some research before setting out for India, but since it was inconclusive on the best way to reach Tura, we decided to ask at the local Tourist Office opposite Shillong Bus Station.

It was a most charming young girl who received us. She made loads of phone calls and wrote down names and telephone numbers for us. Unfortunately, most of her advice was due to be cancelled out a couple of days later when we visited the Helicopter Bookings Office and when we spoke to officials (who shall remain namelesss) who advised us that getting onto the said helicopter would be near impossible. In the memorable words of another charming young Shillong girl whom we met whilst trying to book a plane ticket back to Kolkata, after deciding to abort the Tura trip, for various reasons, "Flights are there"; "Seats are not there"...

The other troublesome factor was that I had developed an immensely itchy rash on my forearms and face after trekking in the jungle, exacerbated by the hot sun. I started taking antihistamines for it which of course made me sleepy and indecisive instead of raring to go. I suspect it was a kind of a Poison Ivy allergy. (Acutally, I have had this rash twice before in India: once in the jungle in Kerala; and once more in Kaziranga Park in Assam. Therefore, I think some kind of plant is responsible; I could be wrong.)

At this stage we were missing Kolkata. We decided to shelve the Garo Hills and keep it for another trip, preferably travelling there directly from Guwahati. By all accounts that would have been the most intelligent way to reach Tura.
#12 May 4th, 2010, 16:49
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#12
Well, i was never good at treasure-hunting - so discovered it much later. Excellently beautifully exuberantly written - just like the previous ones.

you seem to be a gifted travel-writer.
#13 May 4th, 2010, 16:53
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Thank you, mousourik, for your appreciation.
#14 May 9th, 2010, 13:44
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#14
Fantastic report Theyyamdancer!

I've been to NE India just once, back in 1979. We went to Shillong, Guwahati, Kaziranga, Darjeeling... train/toy train (Jalpaiguri.. New Jalpaiguri?) and car/jeep. You are bringing back a lot of memories from that trip.

Calcutta was our starting point, my uncle was in the IAF based in Barrackpore.. I remember the taste of Flury's and also the extreme horror of watching my aunt after she watched 'The Exorcist' in a theater on Park Street (I think).

Now you must tell us the story behind 'Theyyamdancer' and a future trip to the other end of India, Kerala?
#15 May 10th, 2010, 23:53
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Thanks Hyderabadi for your feedback! The story behind my avatar has been told before I think. Next trip of ours will be to AP, short for Andhra Pradesh, NOT Arunachal Pradesh, and to Karnataka. My very first visit to India had been to Kerala and to Tamil Nadu, and it is an area which I love. Well, let's be clear here, there is no area of India which I don't want to visit. But fortunately I have another few years or another few lifetimes to explore all the hidden corners of the subcontinent.

Kolkata remains my fetish, however. No trip is complete without a fix. The next one will be no exception to the rule. My next trip report on IndiaMike will have to be (yet again) in praise of Kolkata. I am working on it. (In between fighting malware on my computer.) And eventually I would really like to see all of the Seven Sisters. So many more trips to the North East are a high priority. As I said before, this trip to Meghalaya was itself incomplete.

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