The Khasi Hills: Rugged and difficult at the edge of India

India, as a political entity, geographical concept, or civilization, is often described as a world unto itself. If that’s the case, then Northeast India, the place where South and Southeast Asia are in simultaneous cultural and tectonic collision, is its own world unto itself attached precariously to a different world unto itself.  And if that’s the case, then the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya is again its own world unto itself, inside of another world unto itself, which is attached precariously to yet another world unto itself. 

To make matters all the more difficult, Meghalaya contains within its narrow confines a veritable swamp of additional small but distinct worlds, all remarkably different from one another. As a foreigner travelling in that neck of the woods it can be hard to keep track of just how many worlds deep one has gone. I freely admit that I’ve spent a good portion of my time in Meghalaya wandering around the jungle in a perfect state of confusion. But I suppose if there’s not something in a place to confuse a person, the place couldn’t have been that interesting to begin with. 

The particular world unto itself with which this book is concerned is a region called Riwar. If you look at a map of the state of Meghalaya, preferably one that depicts the state’s topography, you’ll see that a few kilometers due south of the city of Shillong the whole landmass of the state seems to drop off in a series of huge canyon systems, running in a line from east to west, divided by long peninsulas of table land. Approached from the other direction, heading north from Sylhet in Bangladesh, a vast, rugged, jungle-clad escarpment rises abruptly out of the soggy flatlands of that country. This is the southern edge of a great geological and cultural island, the Shillong Plateau, which separates the valley of the Brahmaputra to the north from the plains of Bengal to the south. When, however many thousands of years ago, speakers of Indo-European languages flooded eastward through what we now call Assam and Bangladesh, the wave of Indic expansion broke against the rock of this huge upthrust chunk of the earth’s crust. Those who lived on this fortress in the sky, the ancestors of today’s Khasis and Jaintias, found themselves surrounded by Indo-Europeans, and yet thoroughly distinct from them. 

Riwar, the region of Meghalaya occupied by the Khasis and Jaintias just north of the border of Bangladesh, is the most formidable section of the great barrier of the Shillong Plateau. Here, the canyons are deepest, the waterfalls are tallest, and the rivers rage angriest. The land is so violently steep that every year the huge mass of monsoonal moisture carried up over Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal is temporarily stopped in its tracks and forced to let loose an inundation more intense than on any other spot on the globe. 

It’s not an easy place to live. Despite the lush jungle found in many parts of the region, much of the land is not especially fertile, the soil being rocky and not very deep. While world precipitation records have been recorded at Cherrapunji and Mawsynram, from around November to March it barely rains. In some places water is so scarce during the winter that locals must walk long distances and carry buckets up and down hills every day just to stay adequately supplied. Exactly the opposite problem presents itself much of the rest of the year. In the spring, day by day, clouds gather until they let loose in violent, nightly, pre-monsoonal storms, which increase in intensity until it’s finally the actual monsoon, and dark, misty, rainy, days turn to dark, misty, rainy, weeks without so much as a glimpse of the sun. 

It’s the violence of the land which has given rise to the violence of the weather. The canyons of the region are labyrinths of near-vertical walls cleft by fast flowing mountain streams and covered in vegetation which can just barely keep itself anchored to the sides. All the meters upon meters of intense rain southern Meghalaya receives get carried down immediately into the gorges. Watercourses that you wouldn’t even know were there in the winter become raging torrents and enter a state of sustained flash flooding. The canyons become giant basins into which thousands of cascading streams pour, intermingling and gaining strength, until they empty into the once placid rivers at the bottoms of the gorges that are now terrifying deluges that sweep away hundred-ton boulders the size of houses as though they were pebbles.

Remote settlements in Riwar that haven’t yet been connected to the outside world by precarious and environmentally dubious roads are accessed not by trails, but by endless stone stairways. These often take the fastest, but also most labor intensive, route from point A to point B, which is straight up the sides of the canyon walls. In perfect weather, carrying nothing but the clothes on one’s back, proceeding up these vertiginous walkways is a week’s exercise condensed into a few hours. In the rainy season, getting up the stairs is wet misery, but getting down them is even worse as algae grows on the stones and makes them slick as ice. Until you know the tricks to keeping your balance, a downhill journey is often a long slippery slope of harrowing life or death slapstick comedy.

Escalator to perdition. One of many in the Khasi Hills

Those who do make a go at living here will walk up and down the same slopes, day after day, often carrying giant loads of crops on their backs that weigh in excess of 70 kilograms. And they’ll still be doing this in their eighties. That takes a special sort of person; one that’s extinct in the part of the world I come from; a person who engages in brutal physical activity not for the lifestyle, the endorphins, the exercise, or to prove a point, but because they have no choice if they want to put food on the table. It’s impossible to visit southern Meghalaya and not be struck by its beauty, but life in Riwar is hard, and it takes a hard sort of person to live it. 

The rugged individuals who have carved out an existence for themselves in the southern Khasi Hills are sometimes referred to as the ‘War’ peoples. The derivation of the word is a subject of some controversy. In the 19th century, the people of Riwar were referred to as the ‘Warrior Khasis’ and ‘Warrior Jaintias’ by the British administrators of the region, who viewed them as particularly violent and troublesome (though also with a degree of admiration for being almost impossibly tough).  It’s most often claimed that ‘War’ is a corruption of ‘Warrior’, though many Khasis and Jaintias I’ve talked to have vociferously denied this and claimed that the moniker is taken from a local word, though different sources are liable to give different local words as examples.

Regardless of the derivation of the word, the term is only useful when grouping together a collection of people who, while distinct from everybody else, are far from a unified whole. Functionally, a War person can be considered anyone who lives on the slopes below southern Meghalaya’s higher tableland. One can speak a form of Khasi or a form of closely related Jaintia and either way be a part of the War group. The hundreds of settlements that may be considered War villages have as many dialects, while the mass of religious and cultural customs found therein is mind-bogglingly complex. Christianity may be the dominant religion in Meghalaya, but substantial tracts of War territory retain their ancient animist beliefs. While there seem to be standard currents of thought among the practitioners of the traditional religion, at least in the remote areas there is not a set doctrine, and therefore beliefs vary substantially from place to place. Add the entire weight of post-Reformation Christianity into the mix, and what you have in Riwar is a vast and unsolvable cultural puzzle that only an idiot would presume to have their head around.  

There is a conception of War as a sub-tribe of… something. Usually, a War person is referred to as either a War-Khasi or War-Jaintia, but the person in question may simply go with the prefix. Conversely, the person in Riwar may think of themselves as Khasi, but also Jaintia, which they view as a subset of Khasi rather than a separate entity, and they may have never applied War to themselves. Or, the person might not be especially bothered with any of these labels, and call themselves whatever they fancy at the time, which may happen to simply be their clan name, at which point the whole discussion will skew off in a completely new direction, the person launching into a lengthy disquisition on the whole separate universe of Khasi/Jaintia clan histories and distinctions, furnishing reams of interesting and useful information on subjects that have nothing to do with the original question. Or they might be Pnar, which is a whole other issue. The one sure thing is that I’ll be confused about all of this. I still am. That’s not a complaint.

I didn’t exactly plan this out.  If you had asked me a decade ago where I thought I’d be in 2016, I would not have guessed ‘Plankynshi’, or ‘in a betel nut plantation’ or ‘sleeping on a rock’ or even ‘at Mr. Shiningstar’s home’. Meghalaya was unknown to me. But, through a succession of coincidences which led me to Northeast India as part of a university program, I had the chance to make a quick daytrip to Shillong and Cherrapunji in the winter of 2010. 

The trip itself was rushed, almost entirely conducted from inside of a vehicle, and a disappointment. The air was full of a thick, depressing, smoky haze, the result of a combination of nearby shifting cultivation fires and dust coming up out of Bangladesh. Squinting through the brown mist, I could just barely make out that there was spectacular scenery to be seen in the distance, and that I wasn’t really seeing it. But those first faint impressions of jungle-canyon walls, their dark outlines only barely guessed at through the smoke and dust, stayed with me, and wereenough to let me know that another, proper, trip was called for.

I visited again with my brother Nick in 2011, during the most visually striking, though also most difficult, time to travel to Meghalaya: the middle of the monsoon. It was then that I saw my first living root bridge, and was duly impressed, though at the time I simply assumed, like most other people who had any interest in the subject, that the few examples around Cherrapunji were all that there was to the phenomenon.

But this trip also left something to be desired. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that most truly beautiful places, be they the high ranges of the Himalayas, the Grand Canyon, the Amazon Basin, all of the Earth’s oceans, the entire vastness of space, and therefore most of the universe, are also lethal to the human organism. Riwar, however lovely it may be, is no exception.  This point was driven home when one of the other guests staying at our hotel, another foreigner, died close to the nearby village of Nongriat.

 According to two of her companions who I talked to later the same day, she decided to take a dip in a swimming hole in the middle of a river just upstream from the village. While the water looked calm, and it was not raining at the time, it had been pouring only hours before. Despite the still appearance of the water, underneath the surface all the energy of the hundreds of powerful side-streams emptying into the river were being squeezed through a space only around thirty feet across. Apparently, the woman had barely dipped her foot in when she was sucked under and not so much as a trace of her was ever seen again.  

The first time I visited Nongriat, the place in the world now more than anywhere else associated with living root bridges, the villagers had organized themselves into search parties which, along with the foreigner’s boyfriend, were patrolling up and down the river trying to locate the corpse of the person my brother and I had been talking to only the day before. We ran into the boyfriend, who tried to be as positive as he could be under the awful circumstances, though he had clearly not slept since the incident. 

The thousand-step trek to Nongriat is tough even when one is just focused on having a good time, but the boyfriend had done the same trek several times in the past twenty-four hours, in monsoonal downpours, and at least once in the middle of the night. I can barely imagine what he was going through. He instructed us to look out for bits of clothing, or whatever was left of the woman herself, which he in a matter-of-fact way suggested might be still pinned against a rock somewhere in the crashing waters of the river. But the stream had already visibly swelled and contracted several times in the rains of the past few hours, and I think we all knew finding the woman’s remains was highly unlikely.  It was under these macabre circumstances that I first visited Nongriat’s famous Double Decker root bridge. Even with the specter of death haunting the village, it was impossible not to be moved by the beauty of the place. I remember walking a short distance beyond Nongriat and seeing narrow paths through the emerald jungle that truly could have gone anywhere. But with sorrow hanging in the air, the time to explore them had yet to come. 

Nongriat in the mist

I would come back to Meghalaya. In 2012, I spent a week in Nongriat’s guest house during the tail end of the monsoon. Every day, I ventured a little bit further out from the village, going to its nearest waterfalls and, weather permitting, slowly familiarizing myself with the local network of trails. I saw the sights and explored as best I could. And yet, somehow, the village seemed like a cul-de-sac in the middle of the jungle. I knew that there were other, further, villages, where far fewer outsiders had gone, but I didn’t know their names, or even how to ask for them.

But I did get to know the people better. While the dominant Christian denomination in Meghalaya is Presbyterian, Nongriat is largely Catholic, and being a member of the Church of Rome myself, I was invited to an all-day church service. With the difficulty of reaching the village, combined with the number of villages they must travel to in total, priests can only meet with the congregation in Nongriat a few times each year. I get the impression that during those rare visits the villagers get as much Catholic business out of the way as possible. The day’s program, overseen by a South Indian priest by the name of Father Anthony and two nuns from Meghalaya, one a Pnar and one a Garo, seemed to go on forever, and included a jampacked papist lineup of religious education, baptism, first communions, confirmations, plus a long sermon that Father Anthony delivered in his own, recently learned, Khasi (which he humbly claimed was awful, though the nuns countered that it was perfect. Certainly, it was better than mine.)

After the service, I was invited to lunch with Father Anthony, the nuns, and the village elders, though only after being asked to accompany the priest on another one of his religious duties, which was to administer last rights to the village’s critically ill. It was an odd experience for me. Along with the priest, I was gladly let into the homes of families who had a member they thought was going to die soon. The sick individuals would be laying on a bed on one side of a room, with the priest and the adult members of the person’s family solemnly praying over them, and then on the opposite side I would be sitting there surrounded by loud, jumping, hyperactive, Khasi children, all of them super excited to have a real live Phareng (Khasi for foreigner) to play with, and possibly to torment. 

Given the seriousness of the occasion, my thought at first was to try and be as quiet and unobtrusive as I possibly could be and attempt to keep the kids from going completely nuts. But that proved both impossible and unnecessary. After a while, the adults, with more children in hand or in tow, would leave the side of the dying person, come over to me with smiles on their faces, and, usually without asking, deposit their children in my lap and start taking photos with their phones. I realized that the relatives of the dying person seemed to need the diversion of a ‘funny’ Phareng to throw their babies at, and I was more than happy to be of use. 

The same scene, characterized equally by prayer, weeping, and bouncing babies, interrupted by the occasional short tea-break, repeated itself several times as we went from house to house, and it was only until relatively late in the day that we finally settled down for lunch (and given that it was a special occasion, and that Khasis eat anything, it was quite a spectacular meal). As we talked during the feast, we got onto the subject of the local geography and where the priest had visited. I was surprised to learn from him that he did not view Nongriat to be an especially inaccessible settlement. Despite it being a solid ninety minutes to a road even for the strongest, fittest, members of the village (and that meant at least three hours for your average trekker) there were, in Father Anthony’s estimation, many villages nearby which were much more remote. Nongriat, for all the difficult walking it took to reach it, was an oddly cosmopolitan place. Due to the steady stream of tourists from the world over, it had recently undergone something of an economic boom. Education in Nongriat was much more widespread than in settlements a few hours deeper in the jungle. 

Father Anthony had gone to villages beyond Nongriat which were much less connected to the outside world. According to the priest, the Khasi and Jaintia hills were crisscrossed with a network of trails which you could take not only to the next village, but then to the one after that, and then the one after that, and so on, until the people started speaking Garo. It was never easy walking; the trails led up and down one steep ridge after another, and there was no flat ground anywhere between the Bangladesh border and the tops of Riwar’s giant plateaus. But Nongriat was not a dead end; it was a starting point. 

But at the time I had to leave and travel all the way back to America. The further villages would have to wait. Still, the idea of spending weeks, if not months, wandering from village to village was firmly implanted.

Go here to read the rest of The Green Unknown 

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Church in Nongriat

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