The First Day of 2021

An unplanned visit to Horsley Hills

It was the first day of 2021. We didn’t have any definite plan unlike every other year when this day would effortlessly sequence into our elaborate year-end travel or trek. Times are no longer the same and the first day of 2021 was just another holiday at work. My sister and I were not in Bangalore though. We were at a small town called Madanapalle, situated in Andhra Pradesh but just about 125 Km. away from Bangalore, spending the last day of 2020 at The Satsang Foundation.

A friend happened to mention that Horsley Hills was close by and we could go visit it. I knew about this place but didn’t know that it was located very close to Madanapalle. A quick googling and yes, it was just about 27 Km. away. So off we went to explore Horsley Hills. Happy that we were doing what we love doing on the first day of the New Year.

Named after W.D. Horsley, a British collector, Horsley Hills constitute a series of hills located in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. W.D. Horsley had built his home at this place, possibly because of the cooler temperature compared to the hot and dry surrounding. Located at 1,265 m. from sea level, Horsley Hills is fondly referred to as ‘Andhra’s Ooty’.

The driver of our rented car informed that we should have planned an early morning visit as that’s the time for the best views from the top. We agreed but that wouldn’t have happened as we had other plans for the morning.

As we approached the entrypoint, we were greeted by cops who stopped our car and thoroughly checked everything we carried with us. It being New Year, the authorities were extra vigilant. Also, we could see dozens of bikes parked all over. I recalled a friend mentioning that Horsley Hills was an ideal place for bike trips. Soon we learnt that bikes were not being allowed past the gate on that day. In all selfishness, the prospect of lesser people up in the hills delighted us quite a bit.

As the car slowly made way through the well-paved and winding road the surrounding hills and valley looked breathtakingly beautiful. Huge rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes interrupted the lush green hills. The naked rocks and boulders seemed to be in perfect harmony with the strikingly divergent green foliage. In some places, the well-tarred road barged through jungles of tall trees unabashedly intruding nature’s personal space. Soaking in the freshness, I lowered the car window and looked up at the blue sky sharply contrasting with the various shades of green. The first day of 2021 felt perfect.

Gali Bandalu or Wind Rocks

This is the most frequented place at Horsley Hills. Gali Bandalu literally translates as ‘Windy Rock’ and that’s exactly how this place is with strong gusty winds blowing all day long. It’s a single huge hill rock that slopes very gently into the valley. One can easily walk down the slope for a significant distance before it drops while enjoying unhindered views of the surrounding hills as strong winds keep you company. We were not wearing appropriate shoes and hence didn’t dare to walk beyond a certain point. Though we had taken off our shoes, we had to exercise extra caution walking bare foot lest we stepped on something undesirable.

The Microwave station located near Wind Rocks is supposedly one of the oldest Microwave stations. We discovered a trail beyond the Microwave Station and climbed up a relatively easy rock face. The wind was gustier here and there was nobody other than the two of us. Our new year was certainly made!

We missed the View Point, which was supposedly behind the Governor’s Bungalow, but didn’t feel too bad about it.

Kalyani – The Eucalyptus Tree

A 150 year old Eucalyptus Tree with a height of 40 m. and a girth of 4.7 m. is situated inside Van Vihar Park and is said to be the oldest Eucalyptus Tree. Wrapped in layers of stories and history this tree was planted by W.D. Horsley himself.  Located behind a forest bungalow inside the park, we could locate the tree only after asking around. This is no ordinary tree, it won an award too as was mentioned in a board displayed against it.

Pic 4: Kalyani, in all her glory.

Besides Eucalyptus, Horsley Hills also boasts of Silver Oak, Mahogany, Coffee, Jacaranda, Allamanda, Gulmohar, Red Sanders, and Sandalwood.

Van Vihar Park also houses a mini zoo with some birds, deer, monkeys and crocodiles. It also has a viewpoint. We were here, however, only to see Kalyani.

Gangotri Lake

We wondered why this name, which conjured up images of the Himalayas in the far North. Also, we remembered spotting at least one more lake, then why does this one have a name? Is it because it seemed to be larger? No answers to our questions. And, the lake with its still green waters, soaking in the warm sunlight peering through thick foliage, couldn’t care less. Later we got to know that the other lake we had seen is known as Mansarovar.

Pic 5: That’s Lake Gangotri.

Horsley Hills also has a couple of temples. So engrossed we were in the natural surroundings that we decided to skip the temples.

The best part about Horsley Hills is that all the places of interest can be visited by walking as everything is within a radius of 2 Km. It has the best recipe for a one day trip from Bangalore.

Pic 6: A beautiful shimmering lake we came across somewhere while driving back to Bangalore. Maybe this one deserves the name Gangotri or Mansarovar!

Reminiscing 2020

The Year That Was

It’s that time of the year – time to write my usual year end post. As I sit here reflecting on the year that’s gone by, I am finding it difficult to fathom all the things that have happened. It feels like I’ve been engulfed in a hurricane that hasn’t died down yet. Overwhelmed is maybe how I feel right now. It’s not just me, everyone is probably feeling the same way. I am also finding it difficult to demarcate the good and the bad. It’s like salt and sugar mingled in equal proportions. I cannot pick one from the other. Every good had its associated bad and vice versa. There was no gray. Everything was in sharp contrast. Yet, it’s hard to pick one without the other. That’s how life happened to me personally in 2020.

Here’s a summary of the year as it was for me – the weird and one-of-a-kind year.

  1. 2020 has to be an unforgettable year for me. The reason is my father, who suddenly left for his heavenly abode. He was blessed and fortunate to have been able to leave this world as easily as he did. However, not a single day goes by when I don’t remember him. Getting used to his absence is something I am trying hard to learn.
  2. 2020 has been the year of pandemic lockdowns. We’ve been confined to our homes for a significant part of the year. It provided an opportunity to discover and appreciate joy derived from the small things of life – things that we otherwise overlooked. It was also an opportunity to contemplate and be cognizant of all those things that we had taken for granted in life.
  3. 2020 was supposed to be a no-travel-year for everyone. I have been privileged to have traveled quite a bit throughout the year, including an international travel too.
    • Bhadrika Ashram, Himachal Pradesh, to start the year.
    • Miami, USA on an official visit.
    • Madurai, Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi with my parents – turned out to be the last trip with my father.
    • Number of places in Meghalaya – Shillong, Nartiang, and Cherrapunjee.
    • Number of places in the outskirts of Bangalore, including Mysore, BR Hills, and more.
    • Some beaches and temples in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
  4. 2020 was supposed to be a year of no treks but two treks happened to me, both in the outskirts of Bangalore. No Himalayas this year.
  5. Circumstances led to spending a lot of family time together in our Shillong home. Not just the immediate family but extended family too. Also, this was the first time in many years that I got to spend quality time in my father’s garden that he had painstakingly built over several years.
  6. Again, it was circumstances that led me to participate in our family Durga Puja after a gap of 20 years.
  7. The pandemic led me to revisit my hobby of stitching as I hand-stitched masks for myself and also for family and friends.
  8. Hit by a pandemic related downsizing at work, I had to leave the job that had me engaged for 8 years. However, destiny presented me with another job offer and I was employed in less than a month’s time. (My father’s blessings I’d like to believe.)
  9. It will be unfair if I miss mentioning those few people who went out of their ways to do things for me. People, who are not friends, people who I just causally met or interacted with. These people left me speechless and made me wonder if at all I deserved all of those acts of kindness!  Sometimes I feel inspired to be the same, sometimes I feel indebted not knowing what I could do in return.
  10. The year ended with my cousin visiting me and working from my home in Bangalore for the whole of December. It did leave me very busy as I struggled to manage home and the expectations of a new job. But the joyful moments I have been having at home is priceless and inestimably precious.

2020 – the year like no other – has been as tumultuous as it can be. However, there is no room to complain. My year has been like a garden of roses when compared to the untold sufferings people world over have had. I can only express my gratitude and pray to the Almighty to keep me grounded, judicious, and steady in 2021 and beyond.

Privileged

“The word, Privilege, has to be the most over-used word of 2020,” a friend remarked the other day. And I quite agreed with her. We were in the middle of a routine ranting session. Such grief outpouring sessions happen once in a while when we feel all the wrong in the world is happening to us. Almost always such sessions find no merit and either of us is quick to point out how grateful we ought to be for all the privileges we enjoy.

‘Privilege’ may have been an over-used word in 2020 but it is not for nothing. In many ways the pandemic has opened our eyes and almost everything that life has given to the likes of us feels like a privilege.

This thought was further emphasized when another friend shared his blog post with me. An avid traveller and trekker, who happens to be a scientist too writes about certain lessons he learnt this year. The one that struck me most was – Travel is a Privilege. It wasn’t something new to me. I have always been cognizant about this fact and never shied away from thinking or talking about how fortunate I have been. However, I think I hadn’t internalized it enough. As I read this point in his post, it felt like someone was showing me the mirror. (Here’s his post: 2020 – A year without Travels)

Again, a fellow blogger sent me an email the other day where he spelt out that he felt rather embarrassed to state that everything was going good in his life. His thought did make me ponder. Given the current circumstances, we almost feel apologetic if everything is working fine in our lives. We have never felt this way at any other time. I sincerely hope we never ever take anything for granted again in our lives.

I am reminded of a manager that I used to report to two years back in my ex-office. He would always keep reiterating that the benefits we receive from office are privileges given to us, we should never think of those as our entitlements. He would mean that we should respect certain things given to us, like flexible timing, birthday time off, and so on. I always appreciated his way of keeping us grounded and this thought is something I will always carry with me.

Being alive is a privilege by itself. Living well and being who you are, doing what you wish, in sound physical and mental health – if this is not privilege, then what is! Is there even room to complain?

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Ritika. She hasn’t blogged in a while though but her writing is worth a read copyandcoffee.

A Small Hike and a Soothing Afternoon

It was the month of February. The pandemic was already in the air, just that we didn’t know much about it.  The world at large wasn’t much affected till then. I received a call from a friend who informed that he had taken a sabbatical and planned to go to his hometown in Kalimpong. And, that he wanted to spend some time travelling in the North East. Back then neither he nor I had any idea that God had other plans and his sabbatical would not serve its due purpose. Before leaving Bangalore, he wished to go for a day hike somewhere in the outskirts of the city.

Achalu Betta

The following weekend, we were on our way towards Achalu Betta. Another friend had joined in and so it was the three of us. Achalu Betta, also known as Muneshwarana Betta, is a small hillock located in a sleepy village known as Achalu (‘Betta’ is a Kannada word meaning Hill). Just about 57 Km from Bangalore, this village has a temple that’s situated on the hilltop. The temple is dedicated to Lord Muneshwara, a form of Lord Shiva.

Pic 1: A ‘Nandi‘ idol at the hilltop overlooks the village.

Once we reached the village, it took us a little while to figure out the way up the hill. We could see a portion of the temple and a set of stairs going up but we had no intention of taking the stairs. There were not many people around to ask for help and not knowing the local language was another handicap. After a little deliberation, we did manage to find a trail that would take us up. A little more than an hour and we were up after a steady climb of about 3Km. The sun was shining bright making it a little tiring but the lovely panoramic view of the surroundings terrain more than made up for it. Also, there was nobody other than the three of us. It couldn’t have been better.

Pic 2: A villager with his bullock cart going towards the cultivation field located closeby.

Muthathi

After a quick lunch somewhere in a roadside eatery, we went towards Muthathi, a settlement located about 100 Km. from Bangalore.  Muthathi is situated on the banks of River Cauvery and remains surrounded by a dense forest, which is part of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. As the car speeded towards the sanctuary, the surroundings gave way to a fresh and verdant green. Tall trees of various kinds lined up both sides of the road against a backdrop of low lying green hills. Needless to say that it was an enthralling drive with dense jungle on both sides of a neat and well-paved straight road.

But the peace and tranquility of this stretch didn’t last very long. Soon we reached the riverfront only to encounter a chaotic situation. Hordes of people were all over the place cooking, eating, and merry making. They looked like people from the nearby areas. Though there were families and children, the crowd didn’t feel very decent. Feeling awkward and out of place, we left the place. We got to know only later that it was a festival day for the local people.

Pic 3: The calm and serene River Cauvery, though the water level was low at that time.
Pic 4: Another picture of the soothing river water.

A little ahead, we found a quiet place by the river. Excited, we parked the car and headed out to the river. Locating a nice spot, we opened our shoes, dipped out feet into the cool and soothing river water. In less than 10 min, a forest guard appeared from nowhere asking us to leave immediately. Apparently people are allowed only in the picnic spot that we had just left behind. Our attempts to convince him went in vain and we had to leave.

Pic 5: My friend goes scouting for a place deep enough to swim.
Pic 6: The afternoon was hot but the water was cool and this place had fishes swimming all over.

Further ahead we located a place that looked like a government guest house. Eager to spend more time in the river, my friend promptly went in to seek permission. He was told prior booking was mandatory. However, a little bit of convincing worked in this case and they allowed us to spend time beside the river though it was chargeable.

Once again, it was just the three of us. We had the soft flowing Cauvery just to ourselves. We spent a leisurely afternoon. While I chose a flat rock and sat there dipping my feet, both my friends swam around in the water. The afternoon slipped by as tiny fishes nibbled at my toes and soles. Evening descended sooner than we thought and it was time to leave for Bangalore.

Pic 7: The three musketeers in one frame!

I’ll miss you Room ‘M…’

You’ve wanted to be out of this place for a while now. There’s nothing to hold you here anymore. You’ve been longing for someplace else. The time has arrived and you are on your way out. You should be happy but you aren’t. You turn around and look back one last time. The name that has given you an identification of sorts over the last eight years stands out. You think about it for a moment. Is this what’s making you sad? Are you attached to it so much that parting hurts? No, it actually doesn’t. What is it then? It doesn’t take you long to identify what’s pricking you at this moment. It’s the memories associated with this place. Eight years isn’t a very short time.

The memories are associated with the people. Yes, there you are. It’s all those people you leave behind. That’s affecting you.

These are the people you have bonded with over the years. This is your comfort group. These people you trust. They have supported you, loved you, been with you all through. They understand you, they accept you as you are, they care for you. Due to the pandemic, you haven’t been physically together for months now but they’ve always been a part and parcel of your life. It’s a virtually connected world now. Feels like ages since you’ve been together in that ground floor room of Building 13. You miss the incessant chatter, the chai breaks, the lunch times, the small celebrations, and all those fun and laughter.

These are thoughts that play in my mind as I walk out of the gate after having submitted my laptop and taking care of the last of the formalities. I had resigned from my job a few weeks before this day. This was not a voluntary resignation. It was another one of those collateral damages of the pandemic that I had to deal with. The company had decided to do away with some roles and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are probably going to outsource the job I did – I guess. There’s work to do and someone has to do it.

As I walked out my mind kept returning back to the close circuit of people, the people I care about.

I know these people are not out of my life. Over time, they have become friends from colleagues. At the same time, I am practical enough to know that the connection henceforth will not remain the same. I can no longer contribute to the office-related conversations. And, I will certainly miss all of that. All of this reiterates the fact that a place is made by the people and not the other way round. It’s the people who make a place dear to you. It’s only the people that matter. The place you work at may or may not be a reputed one, your paycheck may or may not be a great one, your job role may or may not be an enjoyable one. But if you have a gang of people that you click with, you may just be okay to make those compromises.

I will miss you Room ‘M…’, Ground Floor, Building-13.

A fun picture from last year Christmas, though not everyone from Room ‘M…’ is in this picture.

Walk of Life

 Calm, poised, and unperturbed

 Alone but not lonely, it rides the tides

 Greenish yellow with serrated edges

 Light and weightless, it bounces along

 Savours everything that comes its way

 Dances through the turbulent hill stream 
 
 Drifts across the glassy placid lake
 
 Sways in the graceful murmuring river 
 
 Doused by water, sparkling and murky
 
 Not sodden nor shaken, it glistens and shines

 Tumbles into the vast limitless ocean

 Rises and falls, plays with the waves

 Infinite happiness and boundless joy

 Home at last, it smiles in peace

 Doors have opened, time has come 

 It wilts, it fades, it withers away!
   

Nohkalikai Revisited – Pandemic Perks

Shrouded in a mist of white, we stood there staring at nothing. There was nobody other than the five of us. The gushing sound of water, arising out of nowhere, echoed in the background as if trying to hush our overexcited voices.  A row of empty shacks lay behind us. The entire place looked completely different – peaceful and serene. If I minus the shacks and the ugly green building, the place looked exactly like how I had seen it more than 15 years ago. We were at the viewpoint of Nohkalikai waterfall, the tallest plunge waterfall in India at a height of 1115 feet.

“Thanks for nudging me to come here,” quipped BIL, my bother-in-law, as we waited for the clouds to clear. My nephew and sister had taken up their respective vantage points, all set to capture nature’s delightful drama that was expected to unfold soon. BIL and I walked around, making the most of the empty surroundings. Everyone patiently waited for the surroundings to clear. We all knew that having Nohkalikai just to ourselves was once in a lifetime opportunity – perks of the pandemic.

Pic 1: A prominent notice at the entry gate and all shops and shacks remain closed.

Three years back when I happened to pass by Nohkalikai while trekking to Nongriat, I was in for a shock. (Read my trek story here.) The place was teeming with tourists and backpackers. There were vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of shops selling all kinds of local wares were lined up on one side of the viewpoint. A restaurant with a direct view of the waterfall bustled with activities adding to the already cacophonous situation.  All of these completely doused the brilliant gorgeousness of the waterfall. It was a complete contrast to how I had seen the waterfall several years back, when tourism was yet to take off in North East India. Tourism boosts local economy and needs to be encouraged but tourism with no focus on sustainability is sheer foolishness, and that’s just what’s happening in Meghalaya. I do hope the authorities take control of the already deteriorating condition.

Nohkalikai is the pride of Meghalaya tourism and is located in Cherrapunji, about 2 hours away from the capital city, Shillong. Cherrapunji, also known as Sohra, is one of the wettest places on Earth. Its lush green layered hills and low hanging clouds appeals to your senses evoking a frenzied sense of ecstasy. And, I say that with no exaggeration, whatsoever! However, it remains overcrowded with tourists throughout the year. As a result, it’s been over a decade that we stopped visiting Cherrapunji. This year was different. Due to the pandemic, Meghalaya had shut its borders and there were no tourists in the state. Tourist places remained closed for several months and opened up in mid-October, but only for the locals. This was our opportunity and off we went for a drive to Cherrapunji. As expected, it was deserted and we had all the fluffy clouds, the winding roads, the tall pines, the layered hills just to ourselves.

Pic 2: Clouds kiss the ground here.
Pic 3: Layered hillocks in varying shades of green.

Nohkalikai, however, happened only because I insisted. Other family members were not too keen as everyone felt, “How many more times will we see Nohkalikai.” I knew with nobody around, Nohkalikai would look completely different. The glorious waterfall would dazzle like it did several years back. And, right I was! There’s no denying that Nohkalikai is one of the most stunning waterfall in India.

Getting a clear view of Nohkalikai is quite often like the roll of a dice given the fickle nature of Meghalaya’s clouds and rains. This time it was no different. It was 4.00 PM by the time we arrived and the thick clouds didn’t seem to have any intention of clearing at that time of the day. However, knowing the weather like we did, we decided to wait for a while. There wasn’t much hope as it was the fag end of the day.

Pic 4: The clouds recede steadily revealing the waterfall as a thin strip of white.

But it turned out to be a very fruitful wait as nature rewarded us with the most spectacular show. The clouds started moving slowly, the sun popped up once again, the green hills started gently making their appearance. The show was turning out to be way better than we had anticipated. The curtain was raising and it was like a drama unfolding in nature’s amphitheater.

Pic 5: And there it is….

The sparkling white beauty made a glamorous entry cascading on the stage of green forested hills. The reflective white strip singularly stood out plunging amid a dozen shades of green. The clouds moved further and then disappeared altogether while displaying the still pool of turquoise down below. It seemed as though the mighty plunge needed some much deserved rest.

We stood there gorging on every single act, not a word from any of us. Slowly the clouds came back, the curtains were drawn, the show was over, and once again we were staring at nothing. “Let’s get going,” said someone.

Pic 6: The clouds start coming back and eventually covers the waterfall completely once again.

‘Kola-bou’ – The Banana Bride

The red benarasi sari was quite heavy because of the zari embellishments and I had to wrap my arms around it to make sure I had a tight grip. Kola-bou was just dismantled and someone had handed over the sari to me. I stood there with a heavy heart watching our Durga idol being immersed into the stream, a portion of which was temporarily stagnated for the purpose. The intoxicating divine fragrance emanating from the sari was impossible to ignore. Not surprising, this sari was draped around Kola-bou who was worshipped for the past four days. I thought I could quite literally smell the Goddess.

This Durga Puja I was home after 15 long years. Quite surprising, given that this is the most important festival for Bengalis. A few of these years I spent in Kolkata, a few in Bangalore, and the rest I traveled and trekked. I hadn’t realized that so many years passed by and I did not visit our Shillong home during this time of the year. This wasn’t by chance, though. Rather a choice attributed to certain personal reasons. This year circumstances forced me to be here, and I attended our family puja after a very long time. As a result, my Durga Puja celebration turned out to be quite good, while most people had no celebrations at all. Thanks to the pandemic.

Pic 1: Ma Durga with her children. Sons – Ganesha and Kartikeya; Daughters – Laxmi and Saraswati.

Durga Puja is a 5-day event entailing a host of rituals and celebrations. Ma Durga is the most powerful and fearless Goddess, who slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura to protect the earth. She is the supreme power created by combining the powers of all other Gods. The Mother of the Universe, she ensures creation and preservation. The Destroyer of Evil, Ma Durga’s mythology revolves around victory of good over evil. The word ‘Durga’ literally means impassable and inaccessible. It is believed that earth is the maternal home of the Goddess and she comes here every year with her children – Ganesha, Kartikeya, Laxmi, and Saraswati. People celebrate the Mother Goddess, characterized by her ten arms carrying various lethal weapons with the lion as her vehicle.

There are many fascinating aspects of Durga Puja. One of these is the Kola-bou, which is a young banana tree dressed like a Bengali bride. Kola-bou is also known as Nabapatrika – ‘Naba’ meaning nine and ‘Patrika’ meaning plant. It consists of nine plants that are symbolic representations of the nine forms of Ma Durga.

  • Banana plant – represents Goddess Brahmani
  • Colocasia plant– represents Goddess Kalika
  • Turmeric plant – represents Goddess Durga
  • Jayanti (Jubilee) plant – represents Goddess Kartiki
  • Wood apple leaves – represents Lord Shiva
  • Pomegranate leaves – represents Goddess Raktadantika
  • Asoka (Saraca) leaves – represents Goddess Shokarahita
  • Arum plant – represents Goddess Chamunda
  • Rice paddy – represents Goddess Lakshmi

In olden times, Kola-bou was a symbol of Mother Nature herself and worshipped by farmers for a good harvest. As Durga Puja gained popularity, Kola-bou or Nabapatrika got inducted into the ceremony.

Pic 2: Kola-bou or Nabapatrika is always placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga.

The ritual of Kola-bou in our family puja constitutes the sanctification of all nine plants on Mahasashti, which are then carefully kept aside. The next day, on Mahasaptami, these plants are tied together using yellow threads and twigs of Aparajita (Clitoria) plant. Kola-bou is then draped in a benarasi sari and orna, (dupatta) and dressed like a bride. There is another ritual of ceremonial bathing of Kola-bou in River Ganges, which is not followed in our family puja.

Kola-bou is then placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga. The position of Kola-bou could be associated with Lord Ganesh being considered as the creator of the eighteen medicinal plants, for which he is also known as Astadasausadhisrsti. Maybe, that’s why some people consider Kola-bou as Lord Ganesha’s wife.

On the last day of Puja, Dashami, Kola-bou is dismantled and immersed through chanting of mantras. The dismantling of Kola-bou needs to be done in seclusion. The Immersion Ghat remains crowded with people. Hence, a large cloth is used to form a barrier that covers Kola-bou from all sides while the priest and head of the family perform the ritual of dismantling. This is interesting as Kola-bou is Ma Durga herself and her untying and uncovering needs to be done respectfully. The idol is immersed in the water only after Kola-bou immersion is completed.

Monoliths of Jaintia Hills

Meghalaya is home to monoliths and megaliths that are spread across the state. They are quite literally scattered everywhere. And, if you take a drive in the countryside, you can’t miss them at all. Whenever I see them, I can’t help but wonder how they would have landed into such positions. Some are certainly manually placed, especially the ones in the city of Shillong. But, what about the others? Those that I see randomly placed in the meadows and hills?

Monolith is a geological feature that constitutes a single massive stone or rock. Megalith, on the other hand, is a structure made of large stones interlocking them in a way that does not require the use of mortar or cement.

Cherrapunji, in East Khasi Hills, has a monolith park. I would have most certainly seen the monoliths during my childhood, when going to Cherrapunji happened at the drop of a hat. I do not recall an organized park though. Guess, it would have been created recently to cater to tourists. Cherrapunji remains overcrowded with tourists, which significantly drowns the yesteryear romanticism of clouds, mist, and rains.

Pic 1: Random monoliths clicked somewhere during a long drive in the countryside.

There is another monolith park in Jowai, the capital of Jaintia Hills. This one had aroused my interest sufficiently because of its historical significance and because it has the biggest collection of monolithic stones in one single area. It also boasts of housing the tallest monolith in the state.

So, when cousin and I visited the temple at Nartiang recently it was quite obvious that we would visit the monolith park too. (Read Here) The park is located just a kilometer away from the Nartiang Durga Temple. We were running late after having spent a good amount of time at the village. Cousin was almost about to drop the plan of visiting the park promising to come back another day. I would have none of it, especially after going all the way from Shillong, and who has seen tomorrow! She agreed after I promised that we wouldn’t spend a lot of time there.

Pic 2: Entry gate to Jaintia Hills

It being the pandemic times, there was nobody around when we arrived at the park. The gates of the park were thankfully open. A prominent plaque and a Meghalaya Tourism signboard at the entrance provided a glimpse into certain historical facts. Most importantly, the monoliths were erected between 1500-1800 AD during the reign of the Jaintia Kings. The menhirs, or the single standing erect monoliths, are locally known as Moo Shynrang (meaning men). The dolmens, or horizontally placed flat monoliths, are locally known as Moo Kynthai (meaning women). The menhirs and dolmens are placed rather haphazardly in the park. Locals believe that each monolith marks a specific event or an individual.

The tallest menhir is about 8 meters high and 18 inches thick. It was supposedly erected by U Marphalangki, a trusted lieutenant in the Jaintia Kingdom, to commemorate his victory in a battle. There’s an interesting legend associated with this menhir. It is believed that Mars were giant sized men with exceptional capabilities. They could perform extraordinary feats and were patronized by the Royal Court of Jaintia Kingdom to defeat the enemies at the battlefield. Some say Mars would have probably been a rank in the Royal Army.

Pic 3: No stepping out without the mask whether alone or with others, a grim reminder of the times we’re in.

Legend Associated with the tallest Menhir

Marphalangki decided to seek God’s intervention after several failed attempts to erect the monolith. He performed Oomancy or egg divination (methods of using eggs for predicting future). Based on that he interpreted that a human sacrifice is needed to appease the Gods for the stone to stand tall. It being a market day, people had gathered to watch Marphalangki’s display of strength in erecting the stone. An idea struck Marphalangki and he pretended to accidentally drop the lime and tobacco gold container (locally known as dabi or dabia). When a spectator bent down to collect the container, Marphalangki dropped the huge stone over him. That incident is believed to be the beginning of human sacrifice among the Jaintia Pnar community. A practice that was later banned and ceased to exist altogether. (Story courtesy HH Mohrmen)

Legend Associated with the Dolmens and Menhirs

A Jaintia King by the name of Luh Lyngshkor was at a village called Raliang when it started raining. He requested an old woman to give him the traditional bamboo umbrella (locally known as knup). The woman refused saying that the king was a well-built man and could use the giant stone slab at the market to shelter himself. The king went to Raliang market, lifted the stone slab and used it as an umbrella to protect himself from the rain. He carried the stone umbrella, and reached Nartiang (Nartiang was the summer capital of the Jaintia kings). After that incident, Raliang market was shifted to Nartaing and that market continues to remain at Nartiang.

Nartiang’s Intriguing Heritage

I had heard about this place a million times but never had the opportunity to be here. While my cousin parked the car, I walked ahead and found myself standing right before the red-white unassuming structure. So, this was that temple! The corrugated tin-roofed temple looked extraordinarily simple and plain. No ornate carvings, no elaborate dome, no decorative entrance. If not for the brass bells, I would have thought it was somebody’s house. While I admired the unusual simplicity of the temple, my cousin walked up nonchalantly, and we went inside. She’s been here several times.

Pic 1: The Nartiang Durga Temple

It was a late but comfortably warm autumn morning. We had driven 65 Km. from Shillong and arrived at Nartiang Village. The village is located in West Jaintia Hills. (Meghalaya comprises of Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills). Rich in coal reserves, Jaintia Hills is exquisitely beautiful and scenic. Our destination on this day was the 600-year old temple, located at Nartiang Village that was part of the Jaintia Kingdom. Dedicated to Jainteswari or Jayanti Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, the temple has interesting legends associated with it.

Jaintias or Pnars are the indigenous tribes of Jaintia Hills and their traditional tribal religion, known as Niamtre, is largely influenced by Hinduism. Nartiang Village is dominated by the Niamtres. In this village, the traditional Niamtre religion blends with Hinduism and the Hindu deities of Durga and Shiva are worshipped in tandem with tribal deities.

Pic 2: The temple deity – Jainteswari Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Durga.

Inside the temple, we sat on the clean marble floor as the priest conducted a puja for us. The marble floor did appear a little out of place though and was clearly done only recently. Originally the temple was constructed like a typical local house of those days having a central wooden pillar (locally known as dieng Blai) and a thatched roof. It was reconstructed by Ramakrishna Mission in 1987. The shrine inside the temple was again simple and unexceptional. The priest informed it was made of Ashtadhatu (also known as octo-alloy, it is a combination of gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, tin, iron, and mercury).

My cousin pointed out to a pit in the floor that leads to an underground tunnel, which in turn is connected to Myntang River down below. During the time of the Jaintia Kings, human sacrifices were conducted in this temple to appease the goddess. Through this pit, the severed head would roll down to the swift flowing waters of the river. An open window lay just above the pit. I looked out at the lush green hills dazzling in the bright sun, the air was crisp, and the sky clear. I could feel strong positive vibes all around. It was difficult to comprehend the rituals that would have transpired within the walls of this temple centuries ago.

Pic 5: Mynteng River flows silently through the village.

We walked through the village towards the Shiva temple, which is located in another hillock not very far from the Devi Temple. The houses in the village wore a pretty look and we were told that most of them were painted anew due to Durga Puja, which is just two weeks from now.

Pic 6: A pretty little village home. Grains of paddy rice spread out to dry in the sun.

The Shiva temple was nondescript but had a mysterious charm of its own. There were several small Ashtadhatu idols placed in a single row inside. Only one was that of Lord Shiva. The rest were that of Devi in various forms. Interestingly just behind the idols, lay a row of ancient cannons that belonged to the Jaintia Kings. The right place of which should have been a museum.

Pic 7: The nondescript Shiva Temple

There is a prominent pillar in both the temples. These pillars are supposed to be energy centers that are consecrated once in a few years. The pillar in the Devi temple had some inscriptions, not all of it is legible but it did have a date mentioned.

Interesting Stories Associated with the Temple

  • This temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas of Hindu mythology, Devi’s left thigh had supposedly fallen here.
  • King Dhan Manik of the Jaintia Kingdom had built this temple. It is said that the goddess had appeared in his dream informing him about the significance of this place and instructing him to build the temple. Nartiang used to be the summer capital of the Jaintia Kingdom.
  • The royal priests of the temple were brought by the Jaintia chieftains all the way from Maharashtra centuries ago. Apparently, priests in and around the region were not ready to conduct the ritual of human sacrifice. Three brahmins from the Deshmukh clan agreed to the ritual, probably because of their upbringing in kshatriya tradition. The temple is still run by the direct descendants of the Maharashtrian Deshmukh Brahmins.
  • Symbolic human sacrifice (locally known as blang synniaw) continues to this day in the form of a strange custom. At midnight of the second day of Durga Puja or Asthami, a spotless black goat is dressed as a human with a dhoti, turban, and earrings. A white mask with a human face is placed on the goat’s head and it is then beheaded. (See the mask in Pic-2 above). The head of the goat rolls down the old tunnel into Myntang River.
Pic 10: Nartiang Village as seen from the Shiva temple