Mawlynnong (Meghalaya): Not being dirty seems a rather odd reason for fame, but this condition is enough of a rarity in India in times of Swachh Bharat for tourists to make the journey to the village of Mawlynnong in Meghalaya, close to India’s border with Bangladesh, which advertises itself as “Asia’s Cleanest Village". For at least a decade now, hordes of tourists have daily descended on this quaint little village with a population of approximately 500 people, almost all of them members of the local Khasi tribe, to see for themselves what spic and span looks like.

The road from Shillong winds over misty green hills towards the border post of Dawki. Clouds float into gorges below. Streams glisten like silver ribbons in the distance. Beyond the little town of Pynursla, there is a fork off this main road. The narrow village road becomes a corridor through a wall of green. Betel and broomstick plantations lean in from both sides. A short drive through this corridor brings one to Mawlynnong.

Pretty much the first thing in the village is the parking lot for the tourist vehicles. It is surrounded by little shops selling curios, and small and homely restaurants and tea shops run by locals. I walked into the smallest of these tea shops, the one at the very mouth of the village, and there bumped into Mawlynnong residents Leaderfield and Livingstone.

Leaderfield and Livingstone

Leaderfield, Leader for short, is a small, muscular man who leads hiking tours. Like the larger, rounder Livingstone —Living to friends—he moved to Mawlynnong after marrying a local girl. In matrilineal Meghalaya, this is the tradition; after marriage, the man moves into the woman’s house. Leader is a Khasi, like most people in Mawlynnong. Livingstone is a rare example of a Garo married to a Khasi living in a village in this part of the Khasi Hills.

Tourism in these parts made a small start around 2003, says Leader. He rattles off the numbers for where things are at now, with some pride: there are 175 beds for tourists in the village of 105 houses. Homestays are everywhere. Men and women from hot and dirty towns in the plains of India walk around the village with cameras slung around their necks. Some of them, determined to carry back every moment of their travels, keep a running commentary going as they do so— they are recording videos that they will presumably inflict on friends and families back home.

Leader and Living are quite pleased about all this. “This used to be one of the poorest villages in this area. Now it is the richest", says Living. He remembers a white man coming around 2004 or 2005, after which things began to look up for them. Leader says it was an article in a magazine that did it. They have different recollections about which magazine and which year. Nonetheless, people began to come, to see their village, and the marvel of architecture that lies nearby.

Intertwining bridges

Close to Mawlynnong is a bridge across a busy mountain stream built by intertwining the roots of a living rubber tree. It is one of two that are known to tourists, but there are more: Leader claims there are hundreds. An American traveller, Patrick Rogers, who has trekked through the interiors of the state to map these bridges after becoming fascinated by what he calls “some of the world’s most unique architecture", documented the existence of 88 of these remarkable structures in 2016.

Rogers explained why he was fascinated by the bridges. “They are practical, but also beautiful; they cost nothing to build, yet can render centuries of effective service; they are ancient, and yet could provide inspiration for dealing with a multitude of 21st century problems. No other form of architecture becomes naturally stronger over time, but as a root bridge is composed of living elements, so long as the tree it is a part of remains healthy, the structure will self-strengthen and continue to do so indefinitely" he wrote on his website.

Most of these bridges have no roads anywhere near, and can only be reached after long treks up and down hills. Meghalaya means “abode of clouds". Unending rain and impenetrable fog are the typical conditions in which these treks would have to be undertaken. These difficulties have saved the distant root bridges from being overrun by endless lines of people taking selfies, which is the fate that has befallen the one at Riwai near Mawlynnong. A senior officer of the district administration in Shillong said they had asked the local villagers to prevent people from crowding on the bridge because “at times 50 people would climb on at once". There was a danger that the whole thing might collapse under the burden of tourism.

A walking track cut into the hillside and paved with rough-hewn stones leads down to the rushing waters of the Thyllong River over which the Riwai root bridge stands.

Two large India rubber trees on opposite banks of the river have met to form the bridge. The tree—a relative of the banyan— sends out aerial roots. These roots were directed, in their slow growth over the decades, towards each other, until finally they joined to form the 30 metre long bridge.

There is a plaque, unveiled in November 2016 by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand that announces the names of the villagers of the Khongsar, Khongthorem and Khongliar clans of Nowhet village, now long dead, who planted the trees on both sides of the Thyllong River, the “sacred river or river of the gods", around 1840 .

The bridge itself is like something out of Lord of the Rings. The comparison is unavoidable for anyone familiar with J.R.R.Tolkien’s work. Remarkably, it is still in the process of growing.

Bah Mon, a young man from Nowhet who works as a volunteer looking after the bridge, said they planned to grow the bridge into a double-decker. New aerial roots are still being directed to become supports. The bridge, the work of generations, is still a work in progress.

I left the selfie-takers at the bridge to make my way back to Mawlynnong, where I met a young man named Sumer who took me on a walk around the village. This was the second village built on the site, Sumer said. The old village had burnt down in a great fire 70 or so years ago. The villagers had then moved to another spot but returned in a few years because this site had certain advantages. The place took its name from the Khasi words “maw", meaning stone, and ‘lynnong’, meaning ‘scattered’, Sumer explained. Mawlynnong is scattered large rocks that have natural hollows in them. They were carved by flowing water at some time in the remote past.

At the edge of the village, on a ridge overlooking the plains of Bangladesh, there is a skywalk made of bamboo.

A slightly slippery walk up this in the rain took us to an observation deck of sorts, also made of bamboo, from where the land stretched green before us.

As Sumer and I came down from this, talking about the presence of rare luminous fungi in the area, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and began to holler at a man standing near the foot of the skywalk. He had spotted an offending piece of plastic.

Dangers of litter

Plastic is the great enemy for the “cleanest village in Asia". Sumer complains that they clean the village all the time, every day, but the damn plastic, usually in the form of empty chips or gutkha packets, still manages to find its way into their tidy surroundings. “Every Saturday we have a cleanliness drive by the villagers, to pick up plastic", he says. “If this week I don’t go, next week I have to go."

Sumer blames tourists for the rare bits of litter. It is forbidden to throw plastic containers of any kind including chips packets and plastic cups and plates even in the traditional wicker baskets called “khoh" that serve as dustbins in Mawlynnong. Tourists are required by Mawlynnong village rules to take these items back with them if they bring any. There are signs that not everyone does so.

Things are now getting to the point of tourist fatigue, says Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum Chairman Robert G. Lyngdoh, a former home minister of Meghalaya. Capacity-building is required for garbage management, he says. He rues the fact that there is a lot of leakage of revenue from the tourism. Almost everyone is running a homestay, he says, and there’s little diversification. The villagers have managed to do some good things out of the tourism revenue, though. For instance, Lyngdoh says, there is a social security net of sorts, with the village paying for costs of transportation for medical trips and helping with healthcare.

The discovery of more wonders in Meghalaya,around Mawlynnong, is almost a certainty. Cherrapunjee, is nearby, and among the things that exist there are caves including the Mawmluh cave from where a stalagmite was found that led to geologists naming the latest geological age as the Meghalayan Age. Not far from Cherrapunjee is Mawsynram, which took from Cherrapunjee the title of “rainiest place on earth". Near Mawsynram is the Krem Puri cave, found earlier this year to be the longest sandstone cave in the world.

The 11 forests, rolling hills with Hobbit-like denizens who love their pipes, and deep and mysterious caves fit for dragon lairs, have survived the ages with their secrets and beauties intact. The challenge before them now is to survive the “boon" that is mass tourism. Mawlynnong, more prosperous than it was ever before, is now a manicured, and unreal, place, pretty, charming—and increasingly plastic.

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