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)

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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.

 

 

Waterfall Chasing at Mawlyngbna

Mawlyngbna (pronounced maw-lyn-bana) is a quaint little dreamy village nestled atop a hill overlooking the Bangladesh plains. Located in East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, about 75 Km. from Shillong, this picturesque village is all about adventure activities from trekking to canoeing to kayaking to fishing, and camping.

This post is about our experience of waterfall trekking at the village. A more detailed post on the village will follow soon.

Through the Jungle to Um Diengkain

Passing through a dusty track, we entered a jungle – a dense jungle with huge butterflies of myriad colours, a damp forest floor covered with narrow and broad leaves, tall aged trees with trunks wrapped in layers of moss, multitudes of ferns of various dimensions, and every such thing that you can imagine only in a rain forest. The constant calling of cicadas added to the charm, making it even more enigmatic. After a while, the forest gave way to a semi-barren land that was covered by patches of grass but was devoid of trees.

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Pic 1: Following Chest, our guide, through the dusty track towards the jungle.
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Pic 2: Somewhere inside the jungle.
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Pic 3: The jungle gets left behind as we land on a patch devoid of trees.

Soon enough, the sound of the cascading water reached our ears. A few more steps and the waterfall made its elegant appearance. From far it looked like a dainty white sheer curtain amidst the greenery. Approaching closer, we alighted with ample caution through a set of rustic precarious rocks that served as steps to go closer to the waterfall. Up close it looked forceful and was not the least dainty as we presumed. The pool of still water surrounding the waterfall was emerald green where we found locals quietly fishing away. Other than them, there was nobody else. We had the entire waterfall to ourselves.

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Pic 4: Wading through water to go closer to the waterfall, the bridge you see on the left was broken.
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Pic 5: Up close

Our guide, Chest, asked whether we wanted to go closer. That would entail walking through a set of moss-covered slippery stones. Being the cautious adventurer that I am, it wasn’t something I was very keen about. As always, my sister played down my concern and we went ahead. We were so close to the waterfall now that sprays of water landed on us every now and then, drenching us quite a bit.

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Pic 6: It wasn’t easy to cross over, the stones were very slippery and that’s where she had slipped.
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Pic 7: Locals fishing in the emerald green water.

On our way back, a small glitch happened – my sister slipped on one of the mossy rocks and hurt her arm. It did not seem like too big a thing at that point of time as she was able to move her arms freely. There was an obvious pain but that was manageable. The pain, however, multiplied manifolds later that night. So much so that we were all set to leave Mawlyngbna much before our planned departure.

Upto the Mouth of Ar Phalat

Ever traced the course of a flowing water and landed up to the mouth of a waterfall? Well we just did. I had read about such treks but experienced one for the first time and it was just as exciting as it seemed. We were almost not going for this trek to the mouth of Ar Phalat waterfall as the pain in my sister’s arm had aggravated the night before. It was the traditional Khasi oil massage that came to rescue. In the morning, she was better though the arm still did hurt. After breakfast, we decided to go ahead with the trek. We walked through the lanes and bylanes of the village towards our destination. Chest and I walked ahead while my sister walked slowly trailing way behind us.

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Pic 8: This is what we saw as we approached Umseiniong River.
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Pic 9: Those large depressions on the rocks are common and they create nice little water pools.

Soon we found ourselves walking over moss-covered stones alongside Umseiniong River. One would imagine these rocks to be slippery, but they weren’t. Most of it was dry and didn’t feel very difficult to walk on. Some sections were tricky though and we had to be cautious with our footing. As expected, this trek is possible only during certain months of the year when the water level is low. The mouth of the waterfall was a huge flat rock that just drops to the plains of Bangladesh. There is no way beyond the rock and no option other than to retrace our path. The water from the river was passing down only through one side of this huge rock. During monsoon, the gushing waters would cover the entire surface of the rock.

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Pic 10: Not so difficult but some sections were tricky.
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Pic 11: The water was as green as you see. There was nobody around other than us.

As we stood at the edge, gazing at the Bangladesh plains, I wondered about the water most likely flowing into River Padma. The water doesn’t change as it flows from one country to another. The flowing water couldn’t care less about the imaginary boundaries we humans have marked out on earth.

With nobody around, it was blissful time with Mother Nature. On our way back we spent a lot of time sitting beside the flowing water as you see in the featured picture.

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Pic 12: The flat rock at the mouth of the waterfall from where the water cascades during monsoon. Note the Bangladesh plains down below.

On the Historical David Scott’s Trail

The green all around refreshingly fed my lungs and brain. I felt alive! I hadn’t seen so many shades of green anywhere before. The green felt pronounced and took me by surprise as I was just back from Sikkim and the surrounding greenery at a Lepcha Village had made me feel like I was in Amazon Forest.

Once again, I realized how little I have explored my own place of birth, my home – Meghalaya.

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No match for nature’s palette of green.

Last week I was spending time with my 26-year-old nephew, who is more of a buddy than a nephew and has been so since he was a child. Our meeting in Shillong was sheer coincidental and we got to spend four days together. And, that just had to be super special. Last time we met in Shillong was when he was in school. Thereafter, we did meet a couple of times in Bangalore and Ahmedabad but together in Shillong never happened until now.

On Saturday, aunt and nephew, both passionate nature lovers, decided to go on a day trek. After exploring a couple of options, we settled on the historical David Scott’s Trail. We did a little bit of reading about it and didn’t think it looked much impressive. Nevertheless, we decided to go for it as it was logistically convenient.

Sometimes, you have to be at some place to know what it really is! We were prepared for an ordinary hike but the actual gorgeousness unfolded on the trail.

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The 19th century cobble-stoned pathway
A Little on David Scott’s Trail

The trail is named after David Scott, who was the first British administrator to be sent to North East India during the British Raj. He operated in and around Khasi Hills for nearly thirty years (1802-1832). The 16 Km. trek is part of the horse cart trail that he had laid down to connect Assam and Bangladesh during the nineteenth century. The complete route was about 100 Km. long and was used to carry goods across tow destinations.

This road resulted in a war between the British and the Khasi, the latter being led by U Tirot Singh, the king of Khadsawphra Syiemship. The Khasis, with their bows and arrows, were hardly any match for the well-trained British soldiers. However, the war continued for four years. The British muskets finally defeated the Khasi forces. U Tirot Singh was captured and deported to Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) where he died on July 17, 1835. U Tirot Singh is still hailed as a freedom fighter and revered in whole of Meghalaya.

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The iconic stone bridge built in the pathway that has stood the test of time
Our Trek

Nephew and I connected with Evernold (our guide) and planned the trek. Normally the trek starts at Mawphlang and ends at Ladmawphlang. The former is closer to Shillong and the latter is closer to Cherrapunjee. Ending at Ladmawphlang makes it easier to move over to Cherrapunjee, which most people do. We had to get back to Shillong and hence ending at Mawphlang seemed easier. The usual route starts with 4 Km. downhill, which in our case would be 4 Km. uphill.

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The half-broken cement bridge over Umiam River that we encountered soon after we started walking
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Bhuralal poses for us at the only pool with a cemented embankment. The other pools had no cemented structures and are associated with folktales on good and bad mermaids.

As we started our trek from Ladmawphlang, it started raining. Not surprising, we were in Meghalaya and more so at Cherrapunjee. Simultaneously the curtains raised, and the show had begun. The stunning scenery already started revealing itself. It amazed us to think all of this was right there just when we left the tarred motorable road, not tucked away in some remote corner. Soon, we crossed a broken cemented bridge, laid over the river – it’s River Umiam, which remained our constant companion almost till the end of the trail.

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Somewhere along the way as I walked on with our guide, Evernold and the dog, Bhuralal
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A pathway that leads up to a village. An interesting folktale talks about the fights between the rocks in this area.

Every bend threw up something new. Rolling hills with every kind of green shade; the deep valley; the red and white Rhododendrons peeping out through the greens; the crystal clear waters in the natural pools; the sparkling river appearing and disappearing.

Sometimes the hills were so close that we could distinctly see the wide variety of trees, sometimes they were far away and we could only see the outlines layered into the clouds. Sometimes we were deep into the jungle walking through tall shrubs and heaps of brown leaves laid on our path; other times through cobbled stoned pathways; or just a muddy lane; or a lush green meadow.

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Sometimes we walked through gorgeous forests with with brown leaves strewn on our way.
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Sometimes we climbed up narrow pathways overlooking the green hills

The wide variety of ferns, the gorgeous mushrooms, the ugly poisonous toads, the wriggly caterpillars, the brilliant butterflies, the poisonous flowers, and such others were additional wonderment. Such places spontaneously transports me to a world of fantasy making me wonder if I am walking on earth or if I am in some other realm. 

A little while after we started walking, the heavens poured but thankfully stopped in about 15-20 min. The weather Gods were good with us for rest of the day as the Sun and the clouds played hide and seek making it the perfect trekking weather. There are four villages in the adjoining areas of this trail, but we passed by only one – Laitsohma. The others are Mawbeh, Pyrda, and Mustep.

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While aunt and nephew were having the best of time together, Evernold was adding to the fun by intermittently bringing in entertaining Khasi folktales and stories.

The best part was that there was nobody other than us throughout the trail. We did meet a few villagers on the way. A dog, whom nephew named Bhuralal, followed halfway till Laitsohma and then went back.

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The hanging bridge over Umiam River to cross over from one hill to another.
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Another view of the hanging bridge
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Camilla’s tombstone dated 1843 – Camilla was the daughter of David Scott’s Colonel, who had died of cholera on this trail
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Villagers call these ‘Headache Flowers’ as they believe the blooming of these flowers is associated with headaches.

The trek ended as we reached Nongrum Village at Mawphlang. I thought to myself – I run around the length and breadth of our country seeking nature’s divine grace but the best of nature’s gift is right here in my very own backyard.

I know, there’s an overdose of pictures in this post but my story will remain incomplete without the one below.

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This old man is more than 90 years old. He lives in the same village as our guide. Look at the load he’s carrying. He treks regularly into the forest to collect firewood, which he sells in the village to make a living.

 

 

 

 

 

Luscious ‘Lwai’

An Accidental Rendezvous with the Gorgeous Waterfall

“I have a request and you can’t say no!” demanded my brother-in-law (BIL).

Now, this was coming from one of my favourite persons in the world and it was his birthday too – how could I say no! BIL declared we would be visiting a lesser known waterfall, situated in a remote corner of East Khasi Hills. Sharing my love for exploring nature, that’s how he wanted to spend his birthday. Driving his new car into the wilderness was an added incitement.

Next morning, armed with a pack of sandwiches and fruits, we set out a little later than planned. The midnight birthday celebrations had extended way into late night and we couldn’t bring ourselves to wake up early in the cold January morning.

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Pic 1: Somewhere on the way.

Driving early morning through the winding roads, surrounded by lush green pine forests in the hills is as rejuvenating as anybody’s imagination. The sun was up but its gentle morning warmth did little to ease the chill hanging in the air at that hour. Our windows were rolled up and the music was on as we happily and merrily sang along, though  interrupted now and then by the birthday wishes that kept pouring in.

Soon we were out of city limits and headed towards the village where the waterfall was located. On the way we stopped at Laitlum to have breakfast at a Kong Shop. [I will write about these shops another time].

Situated 25 Km. away from Shillong, Laitlum is famous for its sprawling green meadows and breathtaking valley. We thought our destination was just 30 min away but a couple of local villagers informed that the road beyond was really bad and it would take us another 3 hours. BIL and I contemplated whether it was a good idea, given that we were already late.

Suddenly, I recalled someone telling me about a waterfall around Laitlum. A quick confirmation from the locals and we decided to explore this place instead. Our original destination was pushed for another time.

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Pic 2: The undulating dusty road with open meadows.

The narrow winding road beside the Kong Shop lead to Thangsning village and that’s where Lwai falls, also known as Thangsning falls, is located.

BIL maneuvered his swanky new car meticulously into the narrow village road. The dusty lane with wide open meadows on both sides and a few scantily scattered village homes was an instant dose of excitement and happiness. This is our thing! How much we love such things!

The lane went on for a pretty long distance and there was no indication of any waterfall nearby. There was nobody around whom we could ask. Google was of no help either.

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Pic 3: A small flock of goats basking in the winter sun.
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Pic 4: A village woman carrying a huge quantity of dried grass while managing her children.

We arrived at an intersection where this winding dusty lane met another similar road. Not knowing what to do, we parked our car here. In just a few seconds, another car arrived and parked in front of us. While I stepped out and started capturing a few pictures, BIL went ahead to talk to the two gentlemen who had also stepped out of their car.

Quite surprisingly, they were also looking for the same waterfall. They were native Khasis and had also come from Shillong. One of them had trekked through the jungle to the waterfall before and they were now trying to figure out the motorable road to it. We decided to join them. This was immensely helpful as they could ask around in the local language.

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Pic 5: The concrete cement steps to the base of the waterfall amidst greens of all shades.

In a short while, we located the falls. We parked our cars and stepped out into the soothing lush green hills. The gushing sound of water teased us though the falls wasn’t visible yet.

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Pic 6: We are nearly at the base where the water is flowing on to an adjoining stream.

The sun was strong now and the sky a deep blue. A flight of 250 concrete steps took us down to the bottom of the falls and there it was right in front of us the mesmerizing cascading beauty gracefully making its way down into a pool of pure turquoise.

There were two columns of water falling from a height of about 100 feet. The two water columns seemed to be in some kind of a friendly banter as they giggled excitedly hurrying their way down to touch the pool below as though in some kind of a playful competition with each other.

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Pic 7: The elegant Lwai falls in its entirety. There will be four times more water later in the year.

The turquoise pool shone in its sparkling clear water through which peeped rounded yellow pebbles from the bottom of the pool. Rocks of various shapes and sizes lay exposed all around happily soaking in the winter sun making merry as long as the party lasts. Come rains and all of them will be swallowed by the increasing water of the falls.

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Pic 8: Isn’t that turquoise pool simply fascinating!

My excitement knew no bounds and as always a surge of emotions left me speechless. I sat there gaping at the spectacular site and silently conversed with the white falling beauty, the elegant turquoise pool, the perfectly rounded yellow pebbles, and the little platoon of happy rocks.

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Pic 9: I could sit there and stare at it for ages. I need no one. Only me and the waterfall.

The unexpected rendezvous with the two gentlemen was a pleasure beyond words. Such fluke meetings don’t ever fail to fascinate me! One of them, Antho Syiem is also an ardent nature lover just like us. In those few minutes, he shared his trekking experiences in the remote corners of Meghalaya.

With great pride he introduced us to his YouTube channel – Sorjah, through which he aims to show glimpses of his gorgeously beautiful homeland, Meghalaya, to the rest of the world. And I feel fortunate to be able to share this feeling of pride.

[Sorjah’s video on Lwai falls can be viewed here. Do check out their other videos as well.]

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Pic 10: A selfie with our new found friends.

BIL was elated and his excitement was evident as he slowly and steadily climbed up the steps. With a chronic back problem climbing a continuous flight of stairs is something he would rather avoid but today, he couldn’t stop smiling. And I knew his birthday was made!

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Pic 10: BIL, the happy man, celebrates his birthday with sandwiches and water as the sound of the waterfall sings his birthday song.

Nongriat – A Montage of All Things Green

A quaint little village nestled in the tropical rainforests of Meghalaya.

The perfectly rounded moon glistened as it’s bright white reflection fell on the crystal clear waters of Umshiang River that flowed through in shadows of light and dark, right below the double root bridge. It was a December night but not as cold as one would expect. The sky was clear with not a single cloud. It could have been full moon that night, I can’t say for sure but I couldn’t care less.

I seated myself on a flattened rock right beside the double root bridge watching the moon dance in the ripples of the river. There was magic in the air and my heart was strumming a random tune. In this utterly romantic setting, the only thing missing was the prince of my dreams…… Sigh!

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Pic 1: The jaw-dropping wonder of the Double Root Bridge

We were at Nongriat village, in the interiors of Meghalaya – a state in North-East India that houses lush green mountains, thick tropical rainforests, gorgeous water falls, rivers with clear waters and several other wonders of nature. Situated at a distance of 10 Km in the south of *Cherrapunjee, Nongriat’s fame is attributed to the three functional root bridges. Of these, the double root bridge is outstandingly significant.

[* Cherrapunjee, known as Sohra locally, previously held the distinction of being the wettest place on earth, which is now taken over by Mawsynram, another place in Meghalaya.]

The quiet village with its few tiny houses scattered around a thick canopy of green is like a soothing balm to sore eyes and tired legs. Trees of bay-leaf, betel-nut, jackfruit, pepper, bamboo, rubber, a variety of shrubs, ferns, and herbs converge in multiple shades of green creating a healing effect of harmony and freshness. Every household had an artificial beehive just outside their homes making us wonder if bee-keeping was an obsession with the villagers.

Nongriat is accessible only by foot and the pathway constitutes an almost continuous flight of 3600 steps, spread over 3.5 Km. After an early lunch, we had started walking from Tryna village, which is also located in Cherrapunjee. The steps are concrete man-made, which start with a continuous descent that go on incessantly and is merciless on the knees. On the way, we stopped at a single root bridge and our wobbling knees got some much needed respite.

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Pic 2: We start off from Tryna village, there are railings for support but only initially.
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Pic 3: The single root bridge enroute to Nongriat

The steps continue in the same way, interrupted only by a few precarious hanging bridges made of iron rods. These bridges sway dangerously the moment you step onto them threatening to throw you off onto the gorgeous greenish-blue river with huge boulders that lie below. The swaying becomes even more erratic when several people cross simultaneously and if you encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, you may just want to send a prayer heavenward.

Quite an adventure, indeed!

Just before reaching Nongriat, the steps go upward and the descent suddenly changes to a pretty steep climb.

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Pic 4: Those continuous steps take a toll on your knees
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Pic 5: Those bridges were absolutely exhilarating!

The entire stairway is through lush green tropical forests with leaves and roots brushing up against you. This region gets copious amount of rain and it’s fairly common for people to experience heavy rainfall while walking this trial. Not surprising as rains and rain-forests are like bedfellows and you cannot expect one without the other.

Having been born and brought up in the state of Meghalaya, I have seen enough of rains in my lifetime – and ugh, I am so not a rain person! Thankfully it was winter and the weather was pretty good.

And by the way, don’t be surprised if you encounter rain during winter, it rains throughout the year in this part of the country. The winter ensured something else though – no leeches! God knows how much I dislike them!

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Pic 6: The surrounding greenery takes away all tiredness in an instant
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Pic 7: Carpet of ferns, aren’t they gorgeous!
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Pic 8: The final ascent as we arrive at Nongriat

Apparently, the Government is planning to build a road to Nongriat. While it will be immensely beneficial to the local people of the village, I selfishly hope that doesn’t happen. Nongriat will lose its uniqueness. Besides, the ills that will come with a road will surely jeopardise the delicate balance between man and nature in this gorgeous little paradise on earth.

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Pic 9: A village home. This is not in Nongriat, but enroute just after the single root bridge. Khasis have great taste when it comes to home decoration, even a village home will tell you that!

Life is by no means easy for the villagers at Nongriat. The village has no school. While some children study in boarding schools in Cherrapunjee or Shillong, others walk these steps (~ 7000, both ways) on a daily basis.

There is no health care center, villagers rely on their herbal and natural medicines but for serious issues the only way out is again through the stairway. There are no shops in the village except one that sells Maggi and biscuits to travellers. Villagers have to get everything, including grocery all the way from Cherrapunjee.

Hence, devising a way to provide these basic necessities instead of building a road would do good to the villagers.

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Pic 10: The homestay at Nongriat where we stayed that night.

Most people come to Nongriat for a day trek. Our idea of staying a night at Nongriat turned out to be a great decision.

Nongriat is fascinating for nature-lovers – a picture perfect destination to experience nature’s abundance. Besides the forests, rivers, bridges, Nongriat is home to the fascinating Rainbow Falls. And, that sure deserves a separate post.

The Humble ‘Kwai’

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.

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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.

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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!

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An elderly Khasi woman with lips and teeth stained from chewing Kwai.  (Pic Credit: A.D. Roye)

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 FolkloreThe 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.  

Evoke