As a lonely Phareng (Khasi for foreigner) stumbling through the jungles of Riwar, it’s hard not to get noticed. Outside of a few very small areas, foreign trekkers haven’t become a common sight in southern Meghalaya. And the moment a local Khasi claps eyes on me, even if it’s from a great distance, he or she will instantly know I’m from elsewhere. For one thing, War Khasis and War Jaintias tend to be short and extremely thin, so well-fed six-foot tall American me will be roughly the size of two locals put together. The news will spread quickly, sometimes to villages I’ve not even heard of, that a big white man is lumbering about in the vicinity. Sneaking up on a village isn’t an option. There’s no fighting it; as I crash through the verdure of Riwar verdure, I’m going to be the center of attention, a nomadic curiosity and one-man travelling circus. 

But different villages react to me in different ways, depending on how remote they are and how much previous contact the settlements have had with Pharengs. The best way to figure this out is by paying attention to how the village children act when you show up. In some Riwar villages, the population growth rate is so explosive that the few full-grown adults seem like little islands of maturity in boiling seas of rowdy youth. A single grownup might have seven or eight screaming children in orbit. It’s common to see exasperated adults holding a baby in each arm, with toddlers clinging to both legs, with a further baby at their back, and maybe another one on their head, almost like they’re wearing a coat made from their offspring.  It can seem like the brats are the ones in charge. For germaphobes, or anyone who just didn’t like kids, a visit to the villages of southern Meghalaya would be truly horrifying. 

Khasi village kids are not to be trifled with

The adults in a given settlement are often quite reserved when an outsider shows up. If they’re shocked, they’re likely to tamp that reaction down, if not hide it entirely. The kids, on the other hand, show you what they’re thinking right away. If they don’t seem to care at all when you arrive, you know that plenty of Pharengs have been there before. This is a good indicator that you’ve wandered into a well-established tourism zone. If the kids stare, laugh at you, chase after you, and scream ‘Phareng! Phareng!’ from distant houses, you know they’re excited to see you, and curious, but not especially surprised. Probably they’ve seen Pharengs coming and going before, but not so many that the novelty has worn off. But if upon entering a village you hear little screams of horror echoing out across the houses, and if the children run from you as though they just saw the devil himself saunter by, then you know you’ve come to where giant Pharengs rarely tread. In those remote places, which are usually far from a road and must be getting rarer with every passing year, the local children might very well have gone their whole lives without seeing a single foreigner in the flesh. They tend not to like it when they do. Under these circumstances, I do my very best not to terrify the young ones, though the fact that when I reach such places I’m usually sleep-deprived, dirty, and several weeks unshaven, doesn’t help.

 I’d be scared of me.

Trekking for any distance in the jungle of Riwar is the same thing as trekking from village to village. Each settlement owns a large tract of land, which is further subdivided into lands owned by different families. The settlements proper, the actual houses, meeting halls, churches, etc. are just the core of a much larger area that can be referred to by the village name. The boundaries between two village’s land holdings may be lost on an outsider, given that they are just points in the jungle, but to the villages themselves they are hard and fast frontiers, not to be crossed without permission from the village’s governing body, the Durbarshnong, or village council. (‘Durbar’ is an Indo-Aryan loanword for ‘council’, while ‘Shnong’, is a Khasi word meaning ‘village’.)

Hence, long treks in Riwar can be described as a process of connecting the Durbarshnongs. In visiting each village, it’s customary to get the permission of the headman, or Rangbahshnong, to stay the night. In my case, it’s also important that the Durbarshnong know what I’m up to, and that they’re okay with me visiting their local jungle and root bridges.

The Rangbahshnong’s second in command is the Secretaryshnong. As the name implies, this is the person who handles the village administration’s paperwork, though in practice, if the Rangbahshnong is away, the Secretaryshnong often takes his place.  Another important person to seek out in any village is the ‘Nonghikai’, or village teacher (though there may be several, some villages having more than one school). In remote areas, Nonghikais tend to be trained teachers who have come from mid-sized towns such as Sohra, Mawsynram, Dawki, etc. But despite being from elsewhere, they will have lived in the village long enough to know the people and understand the local dialect, while at the same time speaking passable English. While a Nonghikai usually isn’t the best direct source of information on the village and the surrounding area, they’ll frequently be able to serve as translators for the people who are, namely, those who work in the jungle every day and often only speak the village dialect. 

Walking into a completely new village and finding a place to sleep and a plate of rice is a highly technical process of wandering around in circles repeating ‘Rangbahshnong?’ and ‘Nonghikai?’ for a while, usually to the amusement of the locals, who gradually put it together that I need to talk to someone. Asking for the Rangbahshnong can often result in meeting the Nonghikai, and asking for the Nonghikai can often result in meeting some random person who has a bit of English or Hindi, but can’t help all that much.

But things usually fall into place. Once a line of communication is established, it’s possible to obtain the Rangbahshnong’s permission to stay and to explain my work vis-à-vis living root bridges. You might say that this is to put myself completely at the mercy of a whole village’s worth of strangers, far out in the middle of the jungle. To this, all I can say is: sometimes that’s what it takes. But my experience of going from village to village has been one of incredible, almost embarrassing, hospitality. I just hope I’m a good enough guest to make it worthwhile for the villagers. I do try to entertain the kids.

Durbarshnongs have their strong points and their weak points. They are genuinely democratic, and it does seem like most families in any given village have a voice. This is a morally good thing, but it doesn’t simplify matters. Any Durbarshnong is only as functional as its Rangbahshnong. As far as I can tell, most headmen are good, or at least good people, but administering a Khasi village in the confusing 21st century, when technology is advancing, communications are improving, but the population is exploding and nobody knows how to make sure all the damn kids can find a job when they grow up, is tricky work. Not all headmen can cope.

The village administrations are therefore plagued by the essential problem of all forms of government, namely, that they must be composed entirely of human beings, and must deal entirely with human beings. If one could have a government without any people in it, it would undeniably run more smoothly. This is not an option in Riwar, and so the problems of keeping everybody in the village happy while at the same time dealing with other villages, not to mention the state government (which is often viewed unkindly) is a never-ending administrative headache. A good Rangbahshnong fights the good fight, a bad one shirks responsibility, and a terrible one uses the post to enrich himself, often through government grant money, at the expense of his people. Fortunately, the highly democratic nature of the villages means that if a Rangbahshnong has begun to do a terrible job, he’ll at least face political opposition. That said, if there’s no consensus that he’s a poor headman, and the village divides into camps, it may then split, one settlement growing two governments.

It’s complicated.

That some villages are far more remote than others due to the violent topography of the region means that settlements that are quite near each other in a purely geographical sense can seem centuries apart. Two people may be Khasi and yet separated by vast cultural gulfs. Before the 20th century, many individual villages had as little to do with each other as possible. They were suspicious of strangers, and vigorously defended themselves against any encroachment upon their lands. Some settlements were so isolated that they developed different dialects, and sometimes fully separate languages, from the villages around them. 

I didn’t fully grasp this going in, and on my first multi-week trek, I happened to begin in the valley of the Umngot river, which is a linguistic swamp even by Riwar standards. I would think I was being clever in picking up a few scraps of the local language, only to find my newfound vocabulary rendered useless by walking ninety minutes in any direction.

Here, people who call themselves War Khasis are merging into people who (sometimes) call themselves War Jaintias. On the left bank of the Umngot are the easternmost Khasi villages in the region, including beautiful Shnongpdeng, whose ancestors were driven here from the west as a result of a war fought long ago with the rulers of Sohra. After years of wandering, searching for a new place to settle, they gravitated toward the valley of the Umngot River, and found themselves colonists in a land dominated by Jaintias, who were similar in some ways, but worshipped different gods, had different customs, and spoke different languages.

The ancestors of Shnongpdeng, in particular the Syngkrem and Kongwang clans, ultimately managed to carve out a place for themselves in the region, though they had to make a deal with the local Jaintia king which stipulated that they must accept and worship one of the ruler’s gods. The resulting modern village of Shnongpdeng is now not so much a Khasi village as it is a transitional village, the Khasi Syngkrems and Kongwangs living side by side with families with Jaintia surnames such as Pohlong and Talang. Shnongpdeng has its own language in which, for example, the Sohra-Khasi word for frog, ‘Jakoid’, becomes something that sounded to me like ‘Japan’. As Shnongpdeng is situated on the banks of the Umngot, which here flows wide and clear and deep and is full of fish, the village has developed an aquatic, river-faring culture. This is unusual in Riwar; in most of the rest of southern Meghalaya, deep bodies of water are viewed with suspicion, and are often regarded as the abode of evil spirits, but in Shnongpdeng the deep waters of the Umngot are seen as a gift from God, and every villager is an expert swimmer/fisherman/boatman.

Only a few kilometers from Shnongpdeng, a mere two hours walk, is the equally beautiful village of Kudeng Rim. Much of the vocabulary one is likely to pick up in Shnongpdeng is here so much gibberish. An important word on my travels, ‘Jingkieng Jri’, the Sohra-Khasi word for ‘root bridge’, is here replaced by the completely dissimilar ‘Lao-ooh Tchra’. While the language in Shnongpdeng may be best described as a dialect of Khasi, the language of Kudeng Rim seems to be something else entirely. The people in Kudeng Rim are generally classed as Jaintias, though they tell me that their language is sufficiently different from that of most other people who go by the same name as to be unintelligible. Yet, this language, whatever it may be, is spoken in three different settlements, and in three subtly different forms. 

[Note: This obscure dialect may be most closely related to, though still distinct from, the language spoken in a Jaintia settlement to the east of Kudeng Rim called Amlarem. I’d be curious to hear from anybody who has knowledge on the matter.]

The three settlements are Kudeng Rim (Old Kudeng), Kudeng Thymmai (New Kudeng), and Pashum, which are all the offspring of a now abandoned unified Kudeng village, which once occupied a narrow ridge just below the present site of Kudeng Rim. In the great Assam earthquake of 1897, that village (along with much of the rest of Riwar) was destroyed. The survivors spread out to three different sites, Kudengs Rim and Thymmai settling not far from each other on either side of the gorge of the Amkshar river, but the other group of survivors going further afield, and claiming land to the west, across the Umngot, in what is now the East Khasi Hills district. Just as the clans of Shnongpdeng became Khasi settlers in Jaintia territory, the clans of Pashum became Jaintia settlers in Khasi territory.

Exactly like neighbors the world over, nearby villages in Riwar don’t always get along. In travelling from settlement to settlement, one often gets an earful of inter-village resentments; lengthy descriptions of territorial disputes that have never been truly resolved; suspicions that neighboring villages may harbor insurgents or be conducting human sacrifices; accusations that the next settlement over is corrupt and that its headman is cheating the state government out of grant money, etc. etc.  It’s impossible to tell who to believe. The water’s always so murky, and one gets the impression that many of the disputes go back centuries, the issues morphing over time but the hostility adapting itself to each new age. But at least the wars are over … mostly….

If what I’ve described so far sounds complex, multiply it by the hundreds of villages in Riwar, and then add in Indians, Bangladeshis, Brits, missionaries, and the state government, all working around the edges, and that’s the village history of southern Meghalaya. Looking out over a soothing vista of tall green hills, blue rivers, and little distant agricultural villages, the traveler in Riwar, unless he’s a total idiot, will appreciate a peaceful snapshot of a beautiful place. But it’s worth remembering that it is only a still image of a world that is very much in motion. In the same way, one might look at the surface of the ocean on a calm day and see nothing but docile simplicity, when under the surface thousands of currents collide and merge, and millions of creatures interact, all brought there by billions of years of natural processes so complex the human intellect can scarcely begin to grasp them.  Visitors often take from their brief sojourn in Riwar the notion that the lives of the villagers, and therefore the villagers themselves, are ‘simple’. As far as I can tell, they are anything but.  

Go here to read the rest of The Green Unknown 

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Laitiam village in the distance

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