Labyaman Mawroh and her family rise with the sun. The 10-year-old gets ready with her even younger siblings Harvestfield and Richardofield to lug their mesh baskets around the neighbourhood. Other young children join in, steering the baskets by their rim through the neat concrete pathways around their homes, and it soon begins to look like a car rally. Their objective is to clean the area near their houses of litter and dry leaves. The kiddie troop is just mimicking the elders in the village who already follow a rigorous routine of cleaning.
This is a morning scene at Mawlynnong, a small hamlet in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills, where visitors are welcomed by a huge billboard—ironically, erected by a cement company—to the “cleanest village in Asia”. It lies 18 kilometres west of NH40 (now assigned to be the international highway through Dawki to Sylhet district in Bangladesh) and is home to around 95 Khasi families of the War sub-tribe.
I came to Mawlynnong six years ago, bringing along a fascination with living in tree houses and the sheer imagination it must require. Since 2008, I have engaged with the community, drawing from their expert knowledge of natural building techniques, and the use of traditional local materials like bamboo.
Their livelihood is sustained by agriculture: the villagers grow betel nuts and leaves, pineapple, jackfruit, bay leaves, and collect honey from plots in the forest adjoining their village. City slickers like us with cushy jobs could pick up a lesson or two from them. Aside from the back-breaking work in the fields, all the villagers are dedicated to community initiatives that include—apart from keeping the village spick and span—building the local school, arranging and maintaining water connections from nearby streams, and jointly participating in inter-village football matches.
The intensity of football is rivalled only by fishing. I discovered that the Wars have annual fishing competitions, for which villagers train for months. During their leisure hours, groups of villagers armed with fishing rods set out for crystal-clear streams along trails known only to them. These paths also lead to living root bridges and gushing waterfalls that the region is famous for. They have opened Mawlynnong up to an influx of tourists—and people like me who’d like to understand and benefit from the region’s traditional practices.
My bedroom is 57 feet from the ground. I sleep cosseted by the top branches of a kreit tree in a beautiful tree house, organically linked to the landscape in every way. On a good day, I can see the vast plains of Bangladesh from my perch. As raging thunderstorms roll into the Khasi Hills, the enveloping clouds narrate the story of the War community’s knowledge of ecology and their symbiotic existence with their environment.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Shining Example”.
Mawlynnong is 80 km/2 hours from Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital. Shared taxis (₹150 per head) ply between the two places. The closest rail head is Guwahati, Assam.