The New Homebodies of the Northeast

Sonali Acharjee
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From smart advertising for local tea to promoting the perfect selfie spot under a bridge made of living roots, the young are giving rural Meghalaya a modern twist

THERE IS nothing special about the school in Mawlyngot. It’s a derelict one-room building where children dutifully line up every morning to learn maths and science in Khasi, and almost no one stops to give the place a second glance. But 25-year-old Ribahun Umsong doesn’t miss the chance to point out the premises to me. Peeking out from under the clouds that blanket the hilltop for days at a time, these peeling walls and broken windows had their own silent role to play in brightening up the future of Mawlyngot. Located 43 km from Shillong in a remote corner of the East Khasi Hills, this village of 30 families was once pitied in the district for its impoverished lives. “Nobody would want to live there. The only jobs were at a brewery or to grow seasonal crops. Drunks would be out at night,” says Keloris Syiem, a local from the nearby village of Lewrynghep. Looking around today at Mawlyngot’s thriving tea plantations, its factory where men and women package over 1,000 kg of organic tea every year, and its family tables laden with cabbage soup and pork, it is hard to imagine a time when people were destitute and life was unhappy. But in 1987, when the former headman of the village DL Nongspung moved here, that is exactly what he found.

“I followed Khasi tradition and moved to my wife’s village after we got married. My first job was as a primary school teacher,” recalls Nongspung. Back then, with almost no disposable income, most families had little hope of quality healthcare or higher education. In 2001, after being elected headman, Nongspung recognised the need for sustainable development in the region. “I researched different crops and decided on the tea plant. Not only was our climate and soil perfect, but also once the plant has matured, it becomes only a question of maintaining it. You don’t have to plant afresh each year,” he says. After years of applying for various loans and schemes, Nongspung gathered enough funds to purchase tea saplings from Darjeeling, and in 2003, the Mawlyngot Tea Grower’s Cooperative Society, a collective of 20 farmers, sowed its first plantation. They called this tea Urlong, a Khasi word for ‘dreams come true’.

“Visitors want a story to tell when they return home. Part of my job is to be able to facilitate that story through photo ops and correct information” - Dawan Syiemlieh, 26, guide at Mawlyngbna Fossil Park

But even after production started, marketing and sales remained a far cry for the new farmers, who currently hold 50 hectares of tea estate among them. They could grow and pluck tea leaves, but no one knew how to get it across to cities they hadn’t ever set eyes upon. After 14 years of selling their leaves to state retailers who kept most of the profits for themselves and cases of the tea being exported and then re-imported into the country as ‘Chinese tea’, Ribahun, Nongspung’s daughter, decided to forfeit her career and turn her attention to getting Urlong tea the market it deserves.

“My father’s generation doesn’t understand social media marketing, attractive packaging or cultural tourism. But us youngsters, we do,” says Ribahun as she takes me around her family’s plantation. Not a single worker can be seen. In this entirely Christian village, Sunday is the one day when workers don’t do their regular shift of 6 am to 5 pm. Every family owns a tea estate here and its leaves are sold to the village cooperative. Ribahun hopes to start a homestay on her estate soon. “Since our tea is organic, I can’t build a house on the estate itself without getting clearance first,” she says. For now, visitors to the village can stay at a guesthouse started by the cooperative. Ribahun, who works at the cooperative, refuses to take a share of its annual profit. “When we first starting buying tea as a cooperative, the villagers would collect daily payments. Then they started collecting it monthly, and now almost all take it yearly. That is my payment—to be able to see my people become self-sufficient,” she says.

“My father’s generation doesn’t understand social media marketing, attractive packaging or cultural tourism. They planted Urlong tea, we help take it to the right buyers” - Ribahun Umsong, 26, tea entrepreneur in Mawlyngot

Urlong tea has also found a champion in Arindam Pal and Poulomi Sen, a geo-scientist couple based in Noida, near Delhi. Having spent years working in the oil and gas sector, the couple decided to support Mawlyngot and other villages in Meghalaya to give a social perspective to their corporate lives. Earlier this year, after a trip to Meghalaya, Pal and his wife tied up with several villages to promote traditional Khasi experiences on Airbnb. “The locals were used to having visitors from the surrounding towns who would visit the villages for weekend gatherings and parties. We promised them travellers who would want to learn about their culture. Today, Mawlyngot generates enough revenue from tourism to meet the nutritional needs of every child in the village,” says Pal, who also helps the cooperative to promote Urlong tea. “We want to spread awareness about the tea; for example, we regularly hold tasting sessions in Delhi. The villagers have the skill to make tea, we help in placing it in the right market,” he adds. Today, prices for the regular tea start at Rs 300 per 100 gm packet (available as black, green and oolong tea), while the premium variant starts at Rs 600 for 100 gm. “What was once missing in Meghalayan village enterprises was direction and professionalism. They needed youthfulness, energy and accessibility to the outside world,” he says.

A hundred kilometres away from Mawlyngot, hidden amongst the paddy fields and fish ponds of Ri-Bhoi district, another village cooperative is also reaping the benefits of youngsters getting involved in the local business: the making of Eri silk products. Umden and Diwon village have been farming worms and spinning silk for decades. The Nongtluh Women Weaving Cooperative Society started in 1977 and is one of the oldest in the state. But contemporary design was the last thing on the minds of the 53 women who are part of the collective. “It is a good thing that young people are taking part in the silk business and that we are receiving training in new designs,” says Thran Tmung, a woman in her mid-forties from Umden. Thran is the secretary of the Diwon Handloom Cooperative Society, which has recently built a homestay for travellers to Umden.

Like every other woman in the village, Thran collects silkworm larvae twice a year. She fattens them up on potato leaves and once the worms go into hibernation, she squeezes the insects out of their cocoons and pickles them with bamboo shoots and chillies. “We don’t kill the worm, we eat it,” she says with a smile. Every evening, Thran sits with her friends to spin silk. They eat paan and discuss what’s to be done with the thread. “All the silk is hand-dyed using organic colours. Some of them will be made into shawls but these days the younger girls also like to make bags, scarves and there is talk of making mobile phone cases someday,”says Thran. She says she doesn’t have any children but if she did, her property would pass on to her youngest daughter. “Khasis are a matrilineal society,” says Thran. In Diwon, this is evident in the fact that all the looms are owned and managed by women. But 25-year-old Polis, a male resident of Umden, doesn’t mind helping the ladies out for free. The women, on the other hand, make around Rs 15,000 a month from the silk trade with an additional income from rice, which they sell at a nearby market in Nongpoh, the district headquarters.

“Now that our homestay is on Airbnb, we get a different kind of tourist. These people want to know about our food, our culture and even the history of the Nongtluh kingdom” - Polish, 25, guide at Umden village

“I used to spin silk as a schoolboy, between classes. All the students here do so. The women who own the looms know the tricks of the trade, but they can’t do all the work alone,” says Polis. We are at the home of Thielina Rympeit in Diwon, and Polis is more than happy to help her dip 2 kg of silk thread into yellow turmeric dye. Some schoolgirls walk into the house to work on the handlooms. One of them, a 14-year-old who Polis says is too shy to reveal her name to an “outsider”, is working on an A-line skirt. “We are making new patterns because we want to be modern,” she says.

Modernity is certainly on the minds of most Meghalayan youth. Even under a 200-year-old bridge made from the living roots of two trees in Nongriat village near Sohra (formerly Cherrapunjee), my guide, Evinol Sun, insists that I check out their attempt to be ‘modern’—a designated ‘selfie spot’. “From here you get the perfect angle to click yourself with the bridge,” he tells me. The most well-known of Meghalaya’s 250-odd root bridges, the Nongriat bridge receives close to 60 visitors a day, who happily trek up and down 3,500 stone steps for that perfect selfie. Locals are so happy with the success of the idea that some are even willing to carry luggage or people (weighing less than 60 kg of course) back up to the parking lot. “Natural wonders are most popular with foreigners,” says Sun, who has guided people from Argentina, New Zealand and even Iceland.

THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF natural wonders in the state and many like Sun are happy to cash in on it. Mamluh cave, also located close to Sohra, was most recently in the news for being the site of a vital geological discovery— a stalagmite which gave researchers information on a mega-drought that crushed a number of civilisations around 4,200 years ago. This led to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper of geological time, classifying the current period as the ‘Meghalayan Age’ in July. Mamluh cave is now a hotbed of tours, selfies and even wedding engagements. “What better place than at the site from where the last 4,200 years of civilisation is being defined?” asks William Miller, a 37-year-old American who has hired a local boy to guide him to Mamluh where he plans to pop the question to his girlfriend.

In Diwon village, the matrilineal way of Khasi life is evident. All the looms are owned and managed by women who earn up to Rs 15,000 a month from the sale of Eri silk thread and its product

“Visitors want a story to tell when they return home. Part of my job is to facilitate that story,” says Dawan Syiemlieh, 24, who works at Mawlyngbna, a village 20 minutes drive away from Mawsynram which was once the wettest place on earth. Renowned for its fossils from 450 million years ago (when the Khasi hills were part of the sea floor before the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates), Syiemlieh also takes visitors to see a slab of rock with imprints that resemble lion feet. He asks tourists to imagine that this was once a meeting place of animals who could talk. With the sun setting on the grasslands ahead and the wind blowing the scent of an unseen orchid onto your face, Syiemlieh’s story makes the experience all the more enchanting.

Born Lyngdoh, whose father is president of the Mawphlang Sacred Forest Society, has other folklore to offer. Spanning close to 77 hectares, the forest is believed to be the home of Basa, the son of the Mother Goddess of Shillong who protects Khasis. But if, like me, you don’t get to witness a miraculous sign from Basa, there is always the option of a night-time trek to the woods. Under the ancient canopy, one can find an amazing collection of monoliths, trees, orchids and lichens. Lyngdoh, who is in his early thirties, takes me to a 600-year- old fruit tree which is slowly dying from a root infection and a rudraksh tree that hasn’t flowered in eight years. He shows me a decaying sacrificial site for bulls and lets me touch a ground orchid. Listening to the stories of the jungle, my path illuminated by moonshine, Lyngdoh succeeds in connecting me to Khasi history in a way that no guidebook ever could.

“Even though we charge for a guide, the money is not for ourselves but for the collective good of our society. We might have more income and tourism today, but we hold on to tradition. No one in Meghalaya, old or young, wants to destroy or forget our culture,” says Lyngdoh. In the darkness, a few metres outside of the forest, I find a group of Khasi students from nearby Shillong University. They’re drinking Kingfisher beer, grilling pork chops over a bonfire and playing Lady Gaga songs on a portable speaker. I notice some of them digging away in the grass. “We’re hunting for mushrooms. Some grow right under the mud. Our grandparents taught us to forage,” a young boy tells me. One wild mushroom lies on his fingerless Harley Davidson glove. It is a testament to how both modernity and heritage have found a place here.