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.

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

The Much-Needed Nature Therapy

Nature’s such that you can visit the same place a hundred times but each time it looks new and completely different. The best part of being in Shillong has always been the impromptu drives I undertake, either with my cousin or with my brother-in-law. I have written several such posts in the past on the various places we have explored.

My being home this time is, however, not the same as other times. My life has been turned upside down in the last one month and I am not sure if those carefree days of being home will ever be back. My personal circumstances coupled with the pandemic makes for a very tumultuous situation this time.

Pic 1: The characteristic clear blue Shillong sky. Potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower cultivation seen here.

This Sunday we woke up to a gloriously bright and sunny morning. The surprising part was it remained that way for the rest of the day. The light breeze that complimented the bright weather made for a heavenly day. And, if you know Shillong, you can tell that such days aren’t in plenty.

My cousin wouldn’t let such a day go wasted, especially with me being around. Like most people, she loves to drive around the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Getting away isn’t an elaborate affair in a place like Shillong. A 15-20 minutes’ drive is often enough to escape to tranquility, away from city traffic. Shillong has been under very strict pandemic protocols. As a result, cousin wasn’t able to indulge in such drives for quite a while.  

Pic 2: A romantic afternoon of soft Sun, Pine trees, wisps of floating clouds, rolling hills, and green meadows.

My initial reluctance stood no match to her insistence and I just had to give in to her coaxing and cajoling. Glad I relented.

So, late afternoon, well after lunch we drove towards Upper Shillong to one of our favourite spots. We’ve been there multiple times and really enjoy the drive all the way up. Especially that section constituting narrow and winding well tarred roads with forests and meadows on either side. The huge ferns that sporadically hang out right onto the roads is something else that allures us. We are never tired of seeing these ferns, so what if we have seen them hundreds of times.

Pic 3: The fluffy clouds continuously changed shape forming amazing patterns.
Pic 4: The day was so clear that we could see Umiam Lake, which is located in the Guwahati-Shillong National Highway. Do you spot the lake in the picture?

I had been here last year in the month of May and had enjoyed an amazingly resplendent sunset. The sunset this time was good too but not as gorgeous as it was in May. This time, however, there were myraids of flowers in pinks and yellows and whites and purples. These weren’t there last time.

We were quite surprised to find more people than we had expected. Sunday afternoon must be the reason. However, the place didn’t feel crowded and maintaining social distance was easy.

Pic 5: The sky just before sunset.
Pic 6: The sky at sunset.

Basking in Shillong’s unparalleled beauty, we found a place for ourselves in the green meadows where we lay down in solitude watching the bright afternoon slowly and steadily dissolve away.

The lockdown which unlocked the shadows

The apartment I live in shares one of its boundary wall with a well-known school. As a result, my balcony opens to the school field. With the ongoing pandemic and schools being indefinitely shut the field is being renovated. Children in India and in many parts of the world are attending classes from home – one of the many positive outcomes of technology, even though it doesn’t replicate the experience of being physically present in class.

This reminded me of my school days when we had a similar experience in my hometown, Shillong. We could not attend classes for one whole year. Those were days before the mobile phones and the Internet had happened. Perhaps, television and landline telephones were the only technology we were exposed to. I remember collecting assignments from school, completing them at home, and then submitting for evaluation.

With this thought, today I share Shonali’s story, which outlines why schools didn’t happen for one whole year. This post is part of the series of personal stories I am bringing to you in context of the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, the community that has been been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam more than seven decades ago. (Read my previous post for context.) As mentioned before, my aim is to raise awareness about this marginalized community. Over the years, atrocities spread beyond the Bengali to all non-tribal, in general. However, the fact remains that it is the Sylheti Bengali, who remains homeless and stateless. I do not intend to paint a loathly picture of my hometown Shillong and its people. Shillong is too dear to me, it’s my home, the place where I was born and raised. But, these are my stories. Stories that need to be told.

Shonali writes, “We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permanent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.”

Read on…

ShowerScape

woman wearing brown shirt inside room Photo by Felipe Cespedes on Pexels.com

A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It…

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Once upon a time…

My previous post was on my hometown, Shillong, described in the context of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis – the community that has been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. It’s a tragedy that most of my fellow countrymen don’t know about. I had mentioned that I would share few stories written by other bloggers. These are my stories. Stories that I would have told. My aim is just to raise awareness about this marginalized community through these posts.

Today I share Sharmistha’s story. Her story reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s family. They lived in Shillong for generations. My grandmother and her siblings were born and brought up in Shillong. Every single person from that family has now moved out of Shillong. The last member left just 2 years ago. Same is the story of an aunt (father’s younger brother’s wife) and several other relatives and friends.

Sharmistha writes, “Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted. No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.”

Read on….

Shillong: Reflections and remembrances

A book that I like to read time and again, specially in these troubled times, is Rahul Pandita’s “Our moon has blood clots”.Browsing through this memoir of emotional turmoil in strife torn Kashmir took me to disturbed times in my hometown,Shillong.

The year was 1979 ; it was the month of November. Although I cannot recall the exact date, I do remember that something happened on that day which changed our lives forever.For the first time in our lives we heard words like “outsider”, “non-tribal”, “curfew” – words which made the air heavy with hatred , animosity , confusion and uncertainty.

Schools had shut down, final exams were cancelled (We were in class 8 then ) and only ICSE examinees reached school amid heavy security . Curfew was imposed in the city and there was tension all around. The desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali in the Laitumkhrah locality…

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The Place I Belong to, Yet I Don’t

Shillong is my home. No other place, I can ever call home. Though I live in Bangalore now and have been here for the past 10 years, after having spent a couple of years in Kolkata and Hyderabad. Bangalore can be my second home and for two reasons at that – first, this is the longest I have stayed at any place outside Shillong; second, this place has given me a job and I have invested in buying a house here. My heart however beats only for Shillong – the place of my birth and the place where I grew up. My parents still live there.

But every so often, in different ways, I am told that Shillong is not my home. The reason being I am a non-tribal. More importantly, I am a Bengali – a Sylheti Bengali. Why? Because certain thoughtless leaders had decided my fate by signing some papers, years before I was born. They had conveniently divided the country into two nations, which later became three (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Everyone knows about the great partition of India that had happened through the two provinces of Bengal and Punjab. Hardly anybody knows about the third province, which was also affected by partition. The province of Assam. In this case the wrath of partition fell upon the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis. A lot has been talked about the sufferings of the people from Punjab. Not many are aware of the sufferings of the Bengalis from Sylhet.

Who are Sylheti Bengalis: The Sylheti people are a Sylheti-speaking Bengali sub-group which originated from the Sylhet region of the Indian subcontinent. Current population is divided between the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh, three districts of the Barak Valley and in the Hojai district of Assam in India. There are sizeable populations in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura in North Tripura district and Manipur. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The merciless act of drawing a line across the map of East India affected the sub-community of Sylheti Bengali like no other. That the line was drawn by cheating the community at large, based on what suited the vested interests at that time, is a different piece of history altogether. While the country jubilantly celebrated its independence from 200 years of British Rule, this small community had lost everything. Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, belonging to Sylhet district of Bangladesh, were displaced from their homes and became refugees in their own country. Not only did they lose their assets like property, homes, and other material wealth, they had lost their identity. Their sufferings had just begun. Many of them had moved to the state of Meghalaya (part of Assam at that time), as that was logistically the easiest. Moreover, in many cases, friends and relatives were already living there. Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972. Just a few years later, trouble started with the indigenous tribes wanting the non-tribal Bengalis out of their state. The Bengalis suffered atrocities and alienation in many overt and covert ways.

The community, docile and meek by nature, silently accepted all the atrocities and humiliations hurled upon them. They never protested about being made to feel like encroachers in their own country. Instead, they chose to focus on the upbringing of their children, provide them with good education, and equip them with all they could for a better and brighter future. Fighting the stigma of being refugees and facing hardships with their limited resources, they were putting back pieces of their lives together as they tried to settle down. Starting life from scratch, some managed to buy land and built their own homes before the Land Act was passed (according to The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Act, 1971, only tribals are allowed to buy land in Meghalaya).

Their choice of selecting meekness to aggression did not quite work in their favour and the ghosts of partition continued to haunt them. Over a period, in the hope of finding peace and to protect themselves, many left to other parts of the country. Those that had to leave their own houses and property lament that they lost everything for a second time just in two generations. Many preferred to stay on, still facing alienation and humiliation, as that is home to them.

It’s been a little over seven decades now. The ghost of partition still rears its ugly head every now and then. The Hindu Sylheti Bengali remains displaced forever. They are Indians that are strangers in their own country and have no place to call their own. The community continues to struggle in their 3rd and 4th generations down the line.

Recently, I came across a couple of blog posts that are individual stories of this marginalized community of people. I will share a couple of them in the hope that some of you will care to read even though you might not completely relate. They’re written by other bloggers, but they are my stories – stories that I would have told.

Click the links below to read the stories:

Some Mornings are Magical

The morning sun mildly breaks through the cracks and lights up the dirt path. Dry Pine needles scattered on the ground crackle under our feet. We don’t feel any wind but the tall Pines swish-swash compelling us to stop intermittently to gaze up and look at their canopies. A distinctive aroma fills in the air – the sweet organic fragrance of Pine forests. Colourful butterflies hang around our way as well-orchestrated bird songs flow in from every direction.

Even today I can clearly feel the unparalleled soul soothing peace of those mornings in the Pine forest.

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Pic 1: As we enter the forest.

Morning walks and Pine trees are things that I associate with my Shillong home. Shillong mornings are synonymous with morning walks. I had written about that before. (here)

Last year, this time I was at my Shillong home. I was there for the whole of May and a part of June. Every day would inadvertently begin with those ritualistic morning walks. Most of the days those walks would happen in the Pine forest, just about 1-2 Km. away from my home. The forest has always been there, and I have passed by its periphery countless times but had never ventured into it. Back in the years Shillong was consumed by ethnic violence and such kind of adventures were unthinkable. My cousin, who introduced me to this enchanting place, had discovered it quite recently.

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Pic 2: Somewhere on the trail, we would cross a fallen tree trunk.

There was a simple routine to our Pine forest ritual – I would walk to a certain point where my cousin would join me. We would then walk into the forest, spend about an hour or so and then go back to our respective homes.

In the forest, we would leisurely walk through the undulating trail for about 3 Km. upto a certain point. Thereafter, we would retrace our path and walk down through a narrow passage to a bowl-shaped glade that was cordoned off in one part of the forest. There the forest floor would be blanketed by a thick carpet of crisp brown Pine needles. Could we resist laying down in a place like that! Time stood still as we would gaze into the deep blue sky that was visible in patches through the oscillating canopies of the lofty Pines. The forest felt mystical and spellbinding as the swishing canopies rustled gently, nudging, and coaxing each other. Breathing in the sweet aromatic fragrance of Pines needles, we often felt a sense of kinship with the elegant Pines. We and the Pines and everything else seemed to be in a perfect harmonious blend.

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Pic 3: As we watched the swishing canopies laying on the forest floor.

Sometimes we would play some light music on our phones while watching the trees rhythmically dance away to our music. My cousin would often come up with her own theories of how the trees might be gossiping about us – humans, maybe they are chit-chatting about their families, or maybe discussing the well-being of their kids – the Pine cones, maybe they’re just chilling with our music. Those were freeze frame moments when life felt flawless, moments where we could remain forever and ever.

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Pic 4: At the bowl-shaped glade with cousin and a friend from Bangalore, who had visited Shillong during that time.

Some days, we would climb up a steep slope in the forest. It wasn’t an easy climb by any means as we would keep slipping through the dry Pine needles strewn all over. However, all the trouble was worth it for our sweet spot on top, which was a huge rock shaped in a way that gave the feel of a couch or a bean bag with the perfect backrest. We would sit there listening to the birds as the trees would dance away in a world of their own. Down below through the thick foliage of greens and browns, we could spot tiny roads and tiny houses. The forest felt like where we belonged, it comforted our hearts, and it would take quite an effort to get up and leave. This we usually did on weekends as it would take up more time.

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Pic 5: Our sweet spot, the huge rock with the perfect backrest.

If things would have been normal and there would be no Covid-19, this is exactly what I would have been doing every morning at this time, this year too.

To Nature – My Best Teacher

Today I was scanning my mailbox, looking for a specific email, when I came across an email I had written to a dear friend. It made me nostalgic and took me back to that rainy morning at my home town of Shillong. I remember exactly the reason why I had written all that to him.

A part of that email I thought I would share here as it reminded me of the fact that Nature is our greatest teacher. Nature has hundreds of life lessons for us, only if we choose to be her students. And, this is just one of those.

So, here it goes – an excerpt from the email that I had written to my friend.

This morning it rained, not heavy rains but good enough to drench you. Other days, I would have happily tucked inside the quilt and gone off to another round of blissful sleep. But today being the last day that I would walk these lovely roads, I stepped out with an umbrella. It was wonderful, hardly anybody around - the usual morning walkers I mean. I had the entire road and all the trees, the flowers, the ferns, and the greenery to myself. On the way back, I sat on a roadside culvert for a while just to soak in the surroundings which I will badly miss in Bangalore. After sometime, I closed my eyes for a while and concentrated on the sounds. The small and large raindrops falling on my umbrella, the birds of various kinds calling out, the brook behind me gushing away....every sound was distinctive, yet like a well-coordinated orchestra. It was music and it was beautiful. Nature is God! My mind was blank and I was thinking of nothing. Then something I had read somewhere about learning from nature came flashing by.....The brook behind me was gurgling away and it was the loudest sound at that point of time forcing my attention towards it. I thought to myself, doesn't it gurgle the same way whether it is a bright sunny day or a gloomy rainy day. What if it would say, "I am not upto myself today, I will not gurgle today. It's a gloomy day, let the sun shine and then we'll see." Shouldn't we strive to be like the brook in our daily lives? Good days and bad days will keep coming and the cycle of life will continue. Does that mean we pause in our path and stop doing what we do?

As I read this, I thought to myself if at all I practiced what I had preached. A few moments of deliberations and I think I do, but sometimes not always. The roller-coaster of a ride that life is, I hope I will remind myself to be resilient and patient like Nature is – always and NOT sometimes!

Ever Heard of Sohphie?

The small basket with green and red roundish-oval fruits on my desk was everybody’s object of curiosity that day at office. My colleagues were intrigued as they had never seen fruits like these before. With subtle warnings of the extreme sourness and tanginess of the fruits, I encouraged everyone to try them. “Start with the red ones, they are less sour compared to the green ones,” my valuable tip to everyone. I had also kept a small bowl containing a mixture of salt and red chili powder to counter the tanginess of the fruits – that’s how we usually eat the raw fruit.

The reactions evoked by the fruits as people popped them into their mouths was priceless – squeezed eyes, numbed tongues and near chattering teeth. A colleague captured every single person’s reaction as Boomerang video clips making the fruit-tasting activity into a laughter exercise for all.

These green and red fruits are exotic and unique fruits from Meghalaya, locally known as ‘Sohphie Bah’ and ‘Sohphie Nam’ respectively.

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The green Sophie – ‘Sohphie Bah’. Note the mixture of salt and red chili powder in the top right.

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The red Sohphie – ‘Sohphie Nam’

If you are in Shillong during the months of April through July, it is hard to miss these attractive and colorful fruits in cane baskets sold by roadside vendors almost everywhere. If you don’t have a tongue that can appreciate tanginess and sourness, this fruit is definitely not for you. I once prodded a friend from Bangalore to try them and the poor girl landed up with tiny blisters inside her mouth.

Sohphie (‘Soh’ meaning fruit is Khasi) marks the arrival of spring in Meghalaya and lasts through the summer but the fruit has a very short shelf life of just 2-3 days. The scientific name for Sophie Bah, the green variety, is Myrica esculenta and that of Sohphie Nam, the red variety, is Myrica nagi. Belonging to the Myricaceae family, these fruits grow all over Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills. Variants of the fruit are also found in other places of the Himalayan region at altitudes of 1,300-2,000m.

Enriched in phytochemicals, Sohphie has several medicinal properties. Rich in Vitamin A and C, Sohphie is anti-allergic, anti-diabetic, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory. The bark of the tree is used as an aromatic, a stimulant, an astringent, and as an antiseptic in indigenous medicines. It is also used to cure asthma, fever, chronic bronchitis, lung infections and toothache. The leaf and roots are used in indigenous medicines to treat worms and jaundice.

The fruit is not only relished raw but used to make pickles and jams. Sometimes you’ll find the pickles being sold by roadside vendors, where you needn’t buy the entire jar but they give you some in a piece of paper to be devoured then and there. Now, the very thought of that makes my mouth water and I want some right away!

By the way, have you heard of Tree Tomatoes? Read here.
Some Other Exotic Fruits From Meghalaya

Sohiong (Prunus nepalensis)

sohiong - Zizira Explorers
Pic credit: explorers.zizira.com

Sohiong, which literally means ‘black fruit’ in Khasi, are delightfully rounded, marble-like, purple coloured fruits. These seasonal fruits are available only for a very short period – from late August till mid-October. Rich in nutrients and antioxidants, this fruit can be eaten raw though the jams, desserts, and wines made from the fruit are more popular. The raw fruit leaves behind a stain of deep purple on the lips and tongue. As kids, we would paint our lips purple and play grown-ups wearing lipstick. And that used to be our primary reason for relishing Sohiong. Nostalgic! The colours can be extracted to make natural edible food colours too.

Sohshang (Eleagnus khasianum)

Sohshang The Scrappy TravellerIt’s weird but Sohshang just reminded me of Barbie dolls. Perhaps it’s the somewhat transparent light pink colour with minute white dots all over it. These oval-shaped pulpy fruits are again seasonal and available only during March and April. They are a rich source of vitamin C and minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus. Sohshang is eaten raw as well as pickled.

Sohphlang (Flemingia vestita)

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‘Soh’ means fruit in Khasi and ‘Phlang’ means grass. Whether Sohphlang is a fruit or a vegetable is perhaps debatable as it is actually a tuber. This pale white, shapeless fruit/vegetable is somewhat unattractive as compared to the other fruits and berries of this region. Rich in phosphorus and proteins, it has a crunchy taste. It can be eaten raw or cooked and is available from October to May.