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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
A narrow network of dusty lanes and by-lanes, sunlight trickling through congested concrete, intricately carved wooden pillars and doorways, half broken creaking wooden windows, dusty wooden doors some with shining steel locks and some that appear to have been shut forever – these are just few of the things that greeted us as we stepped in through the gateway of Hari Bhakti Ni Pol.
‘Amdavadi Pols’ had piqued my interest when I first read about them in a newspaper article. The article had mentioned that these Pols significantly contributed to the 600-year old Ahmedabad City being declared as a world heritage by UNESCO. I was intrigued and the article gave only a faint idea about Pols.
Pols (pronounced as Poles) are Ahmedabad’s cultural identity and represent a unique legacy. Therefore, it featured in my list of things to explore in the city. During this trip across some places of Gujarat, I was with my parents and exploring Pols wasn’t something I could do with them. Hence, I was looking out for an opportunity to slip out on my own and go Pol-hopping.
A cousin sister happened to be in Ahmedabad for some work on the same day. She called me saying that she had read about these old havelis (mansions) in the in-flight magazine and wanted to go visit them. I instantly knew it was the Pols she’s talking about. Both of us hatched a plan and set out in the afternoon for our most looked forward to walk through Amdavadi Pols. The enriching experience of the 3-hour walk surpassed our expectations and we wished we would have had time for more.
The word Pols is derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli, which means gate. Pols are a conglomeration of houses usually inhabited by people and families linked together through caste, culture or profession. They are living testimonies of the social unrest that existed in the region hundreds of years ago. Each Pol remains guarded by its own entry gate. In earlier days, these gates would be shut at night. Each Pol also has its exclusive secret exit gate, which is privy to Pol members only. During an attack, men would defend the entry gate, while women and children would escape into the labyrinth of pathways through the secret exit gate.
Each Pol also has a dedicated temple and a chabutro or bird feeder. Chabutro are tall poles that the people of Ahmedabad put up for birds. These were built with the idea of providing home to birds as trees were chopped off to build the city. A thoughtful gesture perhaps but replacing trees with man-made cement poles – I wish they knew better!
Pols are located within the walled city of Ahmedabad and have no space for motor vehicles. The narrow winding alleys are best explored on foot, bicycles or two wheelers. Apparently, there are more than 300 such Pols. While many people have moved out to live in better localities, many still prefer living in the Pols. Almost all the heritage houses in the Pols we visited were in a dismal state. I hope the authorities are aware and do plan to renovate some of them. Or else it will be a sad loss of heritage.
We walked from one dusty narrow lane to another, crisscrossing and trying to make sense of the maze that we were enthusiastically navigating. Nearly at every turn in the narrow lanes, we bumped into either cows or oncoming two wheelers. We came across a number of Pols in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol, Khadia Pol, Fatasa Pol, Sheth Ni Pol, and Sakari Ser Pol.
Somewhere, we entered a Pol temple where we offered our prayers to Lord Krishna, who was the residing deity. There we met and chatted with a Baa whose toothless smile and wrinkled face stole our hearts and we felt like giving her a tight hug. She offered us laddoos as prasad and spoke at length in Gujarati while we tried our best to figure out what she had to say with very little success whatsoever.
Pic 9: The entry to the Pol temple where we met Baa
Pic 10: The temple inside, the entry was small but the temple is fairly spacious
My cousin didn’t miss a chance to peep through open windows whenever she found one, a habit she carries from childhood. At one time, she discovered an entire room filled with jewellery boxes and two men sitting in a corner with whom she went on to a serious discussion about the prices, where they supply those boxes, etc. In another, she found people busy sewing some kind of traditional stuff, maybe bags she thought not bothering to get into a discussion this time.
We realised that many Pols are part of some cottage industries that allow people to earn their livelihood without leaving their homes. We also noticed that though the pathways and the entryways were very narrow, the houses inside were quite spacious.
Pic 11: A haveli that was simple and not so elaborate.
My cousin was on the lookout for two specific havelis, ones she had read in the in-flight magazine – Mangaldas Ni Haveli and a certain French Haveli. Both these have been converted to hotels now. We did locate Mangaldas Ni Haveli. There were two of them – Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I and Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II.
Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I is a residential home and had a lock hanging on the front door at that point in time. Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II was the hotel. With no inhibitions, my cousin knocked on the door and it was opened by a gentleman. When she requested for a look inside, he demanded 100 bucks per person. We happily paid and took a tour of the inside. My cousin, with her penchant for interior design, was much more excited than I was.
I had a cap on time as I had a train to catch. So, we couldn’t go looking for French Haveli. I left while my cousin continued exploring Ratan Pol, which is now a wholesale market place.
Allured by what I heard from her I just had to go explore Ratan Pol, which I did when I had a day in Ahmedabad during my return trip. Overexcited with prices that I thought were dirt cheap, I only landed up burning a hole in my pocket, but that’s for another day….
It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!
Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.
Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers. Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell. As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.
Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway. Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own. The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around. Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.
*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.
The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.
The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige. The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.
The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets. They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied. We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.
There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.
A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.
The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.
In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.
It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.
There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!
The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.
We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.
Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)
A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!
The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.
Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos. An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.
Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue. The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!
Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.
Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.
But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.
I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it.
Kwai Khasi Folklore —The story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):
It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked, she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.