The previous day had ended well. Following a bit of confused wandering around Ranikor after dark, I managed to snag a room at a clean, spacious, government rest house, which was an incredible bargain at only Rs 200 per night. But as I awoke the next morning in a strange remote town on the western fringe of the Khasi world, I felt unsettled. The fact that I was completely alone and knew next to nothing about my surroundings was beginning to sink in. 

Looking at a cached map on my phone, I could see that Ranikor was a long, narrow, strip of houses between the base of a 1200-meter plateau to the east and the Ranikor/Kynshi River to the west, with the Indo-Bangladesh border only a few kilometers to the south. Nobody I knew from Sohra had spent any significant time in the town, or could tell me much about it, though one friend had given me a few bits of worried advice about the area despite having never gone there himself. He was of the opinion that one should “never trust a Plains person, or any border people like in Ranikor. They are cheap and smart. They are not all bad people, but they will trick you out of your money, and their women are always horny because they live in a hot place.” At this point my friend segued into a theory which he had developed that held the warmer the weather, the looser the sexual morals of the people who lived in it. Needless to say, he resided at a high, chilly, altitude.

Beyond that doubtful nugget of advice, I had little to go on when it came to exploring Ranikor. Yet, simply determining where to begin my long walk east meant learning about the border town, meeting some of its people, and finding out what was around it.

There is, unfortunately, little in the way of firmly established written history that describes the early days of Ranikor, though what few scraps can be found are exceedingly interesting. The town is thought to have been established by a female Khasi ruler named Ka Wan, whose kingdom appears to have incorporated not only Khasis, but also various plains peoples and Garos. The “Rani” in the name “Ranikor” is a Sanskrit-derived word that translates to ‘queen’ in English and will be familiar to anyone who speaks a mainland Indian language.

Queen Ka Wan governed the Maharam kingdom, a culturally, politically, and linguistically distinct sub-grouping of the Khasi people. Sadly, there appears to be no firsthand documentation of her story. Even my main source on her, Hamlet Bareh’s U Tirot Singh, furnishes little more than a handful of laudatory but vague sentences (e.g.: “She was loved by her own people and by others in the neighboring kingdoms”), which suggest that the collective memory of her rule was badly faded even when Bareh was writing in the 1970s and 80s.  While I was in Ranikor, nobody could tell me anything about her beyond: “She was a very good queen more than one hundred years ago.” This dearth of information is lamentable because the fact that there was a queen in the Khasi Hills is in itself noteworthy.

The Khasis are famous for being one of the world’s few matrilineal societies. In their system of inheritance, a family’s property is passed on through the youngest daughter, while a husband takes his wife’s surname when he gets married. Yet, while this undoubtedly does give women a large amount of influence within Khasi society, women were nonetheless rarely accorded political power. Even today, women continue to be excluded from most decision-making posts in traditional village councils.

But the fact that there was for a time a “Rani” of Maharam makes one wonder whether, long ago, women could take political power under certain circumstances such as during wars or times when the male-dominated lines of succession were broken, or if the system of denying women decision making authority just wasn’t quite so rigid in the distant past.

The problem with looking any further into these matters is that Queen Ka Wan pre-dates the arrival of the written word in the Khasi Hills. She ruled sometime before the warfare between the British and Khasis occurred in the 1820s and 30s. It was around the time of those events that the first significant written accounts of the area, from Englishmen and missionaries, come down to us, and they, at least to my knowledge, make no mention of her. It seems that all that’s known about Ranikor’s mysterious namesake is derived from half-remembered folktales.

Interestingly, while the aforementioned Lieutenant Yule, the first person to document living architecture, has little to say about the West Khasi Hills, he does happen to make a single, very specific, reference to the Ranikor area as it appeared to him in the early 1840s, though he doesn’t mention the town by name. He says that he traveled to a river called the “Jadukotta,” which is an alternative name for the Ranikor/Kynshi River around the Bangladesh border.  Yule briefly describes a spot on the banks, identifiable even today, that he visited: “On a little sandy beach where a tributary joined the main stream, were a few huts, the scene of a bustling bazar of exchange between the Bengallees and the Hill people. In the river’s course above this all was impenetrable and uninhabited thicket. Far beyond, said the Kasias, [Khasis] dwell a strange race, who eat men and snakes:—an obscure rumor, probably of the Garrows, [Garos] whose territory could not be far distant.”

Not long after I woke up, Biplab, the caretaker of the government rest house, swung by. With him came the local traditional headman, Mr. Arnold, who looked a bit worse for wear. Apparently, he had a minor flu.

The reason Biplab brought Arnold around was because the night before I had expressed an interest in obtaining some information about Ranikor. The caretaker, who I thought was probably a migrant from some other part of India, could passably speak a host of languages, including Khasi, the local Maram Khasi dialect, Assamese, Garo, and Bengali, but when it came to English, his was about as good as my Hindi, i.e., a tool to get by, but not to have complex conversations with. And, anyway, he professed not to know anything about the region.

Arnold’s English, however, was strong…though at the moment he was congested and his voice was horse, so he only talked to me for a few minutes before he stumbled back home to bed.

Still, in that short time I ascertained that Arnold knew a good deal about the current state of Ranikor. He informed me that up until a few years ago the border areas a few kilometers south of the town had been a hotbed of ethnic insurgency and organized crime, the two often blending into one another. Smuggling and illegal crossings were still occurring with some frequency, which resulted in a heavy police presence in the area. In Arnold’s estimation, Ranikor’s position next to a wide river flowing into Bangladesh made it an important sector of the international frontier because the expanse of open water constituted a weak point in India’s border security.

However, when it came to the less administratively pressing question of “How long ago was Ranikor founded?” his reply was, simply: “More than a hundred years back. We have some stories here about our history, but I don’t know them.” As to whether there was any living architecture in the Ranikor area, Arnold’s answer was a decisive “no.”

“You should go to Nongnah for that,” he told me. “I have heard they have one there, but I don’t think we ever made those living bridges here.”

That settled that.

“What’s the best way to get to Nongnah from here?” I asked.

“By road.”

“I mean, what’s the best way to walk there?”

“Why do you want to walk there?”

“You learn more that way.”

“Very true…just walk on the road.”

“Is there a footpath?”

“This I don’t know.”

One question that Arnold was able to answer was what sort of people lived in Ranikor. I was surprised to find out that the town, though it was founded by Khasis and is still politically dominated by them, is nonetheless ethnically majority Garo, making it a mixing zone between the two primary cultures of Meghalaya.

I was happy to confirm from Arnold that Ranikor was situated at the western fringe of what can reasonably be called the Khasi world, even if it is heavily ethnically mixed. In settlements further to the west the proportion of Garos only increases. I had picked the right place to begin my trek.

The conversation then turned to Biplab’s background. As it so happened, the caretaker was neither Khasi nor Garo, but instead belonged to a far more obscure group known as the Hajongs. These are a people who, the day before, I had never even heard of. From what I gather travelling in the rest of India, that’s typical.

The Hajongs are a group of predominantly Hindu wet rice farmers largely concentrated on the western borderlands of Meghalaya, though with significant populations scattered around Bangladesh, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. They seem to be minorities everywhere they go. Many have only arrived in India over the last few generations, sometimes migrating illegally after having faced religious persecution in Muslim majority Bangladesh. I pieced together during my time in Ranikor that many of the Hajong families residing there now were refugees, and that their status as recent arrivals without a similar language, religion, or culture to the Garos or Khasis did not always endear them to the hill people.

But when I asked Arnold whether Khasis viewed the Hajongs as ‘Dkhar,’ the universal term that Khasis apply to Bengalis and Mainland Indians, his answer, after some serious thought, only reinforced the suspicion I had that the Hajongs didn’t really fit in anywhere.

“They are not Dkhar,” he said. “They are…like us Khasis, but not like us…how to explain? Dkhars are Bengalis, Assamese, Marwaris. People from Delhi or Mumbai or Dhaka. Hajongs are not any of those things. They are tribal, like us, but…” he shrugged.

The Hajong’s have taken on the trappings of mainline Indian culture, embracing them proudly and making the few Hajong dominated areas in Meghalaya little stranded bastions of Hindu Nationalism with non-Indo-European hill people on three sides and Bengali Muslims across the border. These enclaves are some of the very few places in the state where the BJP has solid support.

The language the Hajongs speak, a close cousin to Assamese, is entirely unrelated to those of the Khasis and the Garos. Yet it is believed that long ago the Hajongs spoke a now extinct Sino-Tibetan language, and so were probably more closely related to other Northeast Indian hill peoples such as the Garos, Nagas, and Mizos (but not, confusingly, Khasis).  However, over the centuries most traces of their linguistic ties to other hill tribes have vanished. Likewise, it is thought that the original religion of the Hajongs was something more like the traditional animism of the other assorted tribal groups in the region. But, like the nature worship of the Khasis, the Hajong traditional faith has come to be gradually dominated, though not completely replaced, by one of the world’s major religions, in this case Hinduism rather than Christianity.

For the Hajongs, this spiritual assimilation has resulted in their religious observances developing two parallel strands; they have fitted themselves into the caste system as Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, and engage in typical Hindu religious observances with the aid of Brahman priests, called Udhikari in the Hajong language, that would not appear out of place in Rajasthan. But at the same time, they call upon another group of priests, the Dyaoshi, to perform rituals to appease ubiquitous spirits which, just like in traditional Khasi animism, are thought to permeate the natural world.

My head was spinning from this uniquely Northeast Indian bombardment of different races, cultures, and languages. The ethnically mixed people of Ranikor were native speakers not just of three separate languages, but of three languages belonging to three entirely distinct language families. Khasi is a tongue which is more closely related to distant Cambodian than it is to its neighboring language, that of the Garos. Garo is a Sino-Tibetan language, one with a common ancestor to the many diverse Naga dialects, Burmese, and, further afield, Mandarin and Cantonese. And the Indo-Aryan Hajong tongue is more like English, a language which developed on an island off the opposite side of the Eurasian landmass, than it is to either Garo or Khasi.

I called this chapter Meghalaya Masala for a reason.

My experience travelling in Northeast India and trying to find things out has been that when information does come, it tends to descend fast and unexpectedly. It’s wise to record it as soon as possible, even if its vague or incomplete. You’re likely not to get a second chance.

Such was the case with my brief encounter with Arnold. I talked to him for, maybe, ten minutes. I learned a tremendous deal, though many a question was raised or went unanswered. Arnold told me that we would meet later in the day, that we would talk more about the history and cultural makeup of the region, and that he would bring along some old folks who knew more about these things than he did.

None of this came to pass. Arnold was laid up for the rest of the day with his flu. I never saw him again.

Ranikor, being mostly Khasi and Garo, is therefore mostly Christian, though the population is split among several denominations. It being a day of rest, almost everybody, except for the Hindu Hajongs, was at home. None of the shops or restaurants were open, and the streets were quiet.

Therefore, I decided to go out for a walk through the eerily deserted town and try to reach the river. Maybe I’d meet someone along the way who happened to know how to walk to Nongnah…though I didn’t have high hopes.

I had not gotten more than a few hundred meters from the guest house when I heard a loud honk from behind. I turned around and saw Biplab thundering down the road at me in a little car.

He pulled up beside me and rolled down the window.

“Where do you go?” he asked.

“Just walking to the river.”

“Get in.”

There are rivers in Meghalaya that are almost supernaturally clear, in which one can’t tell where the air ends and the water begins. Leaves seem to levitate downstream. Boats glide across an unseen medium, barely disturbing it as their dark shadows crawl along the smoothy polished rocks below. These rivers tend to support vast amounts of life, including the huge Catfish and Golden Mahseer that lurk in the deep, cold, pools, and schools of smaller fish that thrive closer to the near-invisible surface.

Alas, the Ranikor River is not one of these extra-clear streams. This was immediately apparent as Biplab and I walked out onto a wide beach just south of town. The water ahead was murky and had an odd, chalky, bluish-green coloration that reminded me of a long-expired sports drink. When I enquired about fishing from the beach, Biplab sighed. Whenever I asked anyone else from the region about the condition of the river, they all began their answers with exactly that same sigh. The story of the Ranikor River, I soon gathered, was a sad one.

That is not to say that the spot was ugly. Far from it. The beach was wide, and we could walk for a long time both up and downstream. On the other side of the river was a tall wall of black stone with an arching rocky over-hang. Above this, dark tangles of thick jungle loomed, just as they had when Yule visited 180 years prior. A cool wind blew down the valley from the uplands to the north.

But the wind smelled weird; probably like whatever was turning the water that strange color.

The Ranikor River is said to be a major tourist attraction, but at the time, the afternoon of a gorgeous Sunday at the height of the tourist season, there was not a day tripper in sight. The only company we had was a single local boat over by the opposite bank, and the man sitting in it didn’t seem to be catching anything. He was more interested in watching what this Hajong was doing with a Phareng than in his fishing rod. The entire time we were out there, the man kept his boat completely stationary while he silently stared at us.

I suspect the lack of tourists is connected to the discolored water. The view in Ranikor is unanimous: The river is horribly polluted.  My host told me that the cause was coal mining upstream. There seemed to be something too this. Biplab reached down to the sand of the beach and pulled out a big piece of black coal embedded in it. As we walked towards the river, these bits of coal became more numerous, until we came to a large stretch where the whole surface was underlain by a layer of the black material; so much that the beach crunched underneath us. According to Biplab, this was a recent development due to runoff entering the river from mining facilities upstream.

He also said that, periodically, waves of dead fish and reptiles would unexpectedly come floating down the river. This, the folks I spoke to in Ranikor allege, is a result not of coal mining but of Uranium extraction occurring to the north. The government denies that the Uranium is what killed the fish, though the fact that the fish all suddenly died is incontrovertible.

 It wasn’t always like this. According to Yule, during his trip to the western Khasi Hills in the early 19th century he observed “a splendid river of the first class, with still, deep, and clear waters.” While he and some associates visited, they: “witnessed the mode of fishing in the river. About thirty skiffs forming a circle dropped their large net, and each holding a cord from it, diverged in all directions. When they had reached the end of their tether, they again began to converge, smiting the water with their oars, beating with sticks on the gunnels, and howling like a hundred jackalls [sic]. Gradually they came on, making the hills ring, and hauling on their lines till they were formed round the net again. Then the result began to appear; as the net gradually contracted, the whole circle became alive with fish, and at least one boat was heavily laden with the spoil. The river must be inexhaustible in its supplies, for this operation is repeated many times a day by several similar companies, besides smaller parties.” Clearly, in the late 1830s, the river was as clean as any in the region and positively bursting with life.

I am told that as recently as a few decades ago, someone visiting the river would have seen roughly the same sights as Lieutenant Yule. But then the die-offs began. It seems that sometime during the 1980s or 90s, the majority of the wildlife in the lower parts of the river was killed off. And whenever it began to slowly regenerate, another round of die-offs would sweep down into Bangladesh.

Nowadays, apparently one can find the occasional fish in the depths of the river, and the consensus in Ranikor is that whatever the ongoing issues, the situation has improved greatly in the past few years. There’s reason for hope. But the days of the river being “inexhaustible in its supplies” are long gone and won’t be back for quite some time.

Biplab had work to do back at his house, so he left me to my own devices at the beach, where I lingered for a while. The Ranikor River, the border of the Khasi and Garo worlds, was the westernmost point of my travels in Meghalaya. From then on, I would be walking east, completely across the width of the Khasi speaking part of the state, until I struck the Jaintia Hills.

That was, of course, assuming I could find out where to begin. How to reach Nongnah on foot was yet to be determined.

Walking back into Ranikor, I saw that a few of the tea shops had opened. Much to the amusement of the curious local Garo youth, I went into one of these and ordered a light lunch consisting of a little bit of white rice and a chunk of pork fat. Then I resolved to wander around town some more on the off chance that I might find somebody who could explain how best to walk to Nongnah.

Instead, I bumped into Biplab again.

I was going down the road, roughly in the direction of Bangladesh, when Biplab shouted out a greeting to me from the window of a random wood and thatch house off to the right. Judging from his beaming face and unnecessarily raised voice, I could tell that he was working on getting good and tipsy, probably on rice wine, Northeast India’s beverage of choice. 

Greeting him back, I was soon ushered into the house and confronted with most of the Hajong men in the village, seated on the floor or on wooden chairs, who were all in varying states of intoxication (I was offered a drink myself, though I declined…it was too early for me). Apparently, in mostly Christian, mostly dry, Ranikor, drinking is what one does on a Sunday afternoon if you’re Hajong.

Biplab introduced me to his family and friends loudly and enthusiastically, and many of them, being significantly further along in the process of their inebriation than the caretaker was, greeted me emotionally, as though I was a long lost relative. There wasn’t much of the conversation in the little house that I could follow, but, from the bits of broken English and Hindi that were sent my way, I extrapolated that I had stumbled in on the tail end of a meeting of the Ranikor Hajong Village Council. And it was a boisterous one at that: Their tempers were high because they felt they were insufficiently represented in the town’s Khasi and Garo dominated politics. Happily, none of their ire was directed towards me, a complete outsider.

But however warmly I may have been received, it felt wrong to intrude, so I politely withdrew and decided to walk around town some more. Across the road from the house was a set of stairs which led up a hill to a small concrete Shiva shrine. There, a little alter topped with an old, rusted trident and lit by a brass diya overlooked the meeting house. Where I would be going in the coming days, deeper and deeper into the center of the Khasi Hills, the reminders that I was still in India would be few and far between. There would be no more Shiva shrines. But if I were to walk only a few kilometers south and illegally cross the border, instead of temples I would find mosques. The little Hindu enclaves of the Indo-Bangladesh border may feel more like India than virtually anywhere else in southern Meghalaya, but at the fringes of the Khasi Hills the Hindus are often seen as outsiders.  

Thus, the Hajong’s position on the very furthest edge of India, occupying a tiny strip of land between the bases of the Khasi and Garo hills and the border of Bangladesh, is a precarious one. Meghalaya’s Khasis and Garos make up a tiny percentage of the Indian population, but the Hajongs in turn make up a tiny percentage of the population of Meghalaya. They are a minority lost inside another minority.

I hope the local government listened to the Ranikor Hajong Village Council’s concerns. 

It was time to return to the rest house and relax. I had given up on finding any information on a walking route to Nongnah. Nobody in Ranikor seemed to go there on foot, at least nobody I was able to talk to on that quiet Sunday afternoon. The best I could do was develop a vague plan for the next day and pray it was more than wishful thinking. On the cached satellite imagery on my phone, I was able to trace a way forward, first along a road, and then along a wide, paved, trail to a Presbyterian church in a village called Mawlongbah. From Mawlongbah, it looked like there were footpaths leading north through grassy fields to Nongnah over the large plateau that separated the two villages.

That settled it. I’d just head to Mawlongbah and hope for the best.

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