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June 27, 2019

Hima Malai-Sohmat: Simple Lives In Complex Terrain

A trip through the misty, forested southern ranges of Meghalaya’s Khasi Hills illustrates the population’s intrinsic bond with the land and the still-alive traditions of communal living to intrepid traveller Silvester Phanbuh

Twisting highways, like grooves around the mountainsides, are the lifelines for many of the outposts and villages in Meghalaya. The hilly state is fast becoming an attraction for road trippers from the Subcontinent and beyond. When travelling in Meghalaya, you are either flanked by undulating countryside or deep valleys and gorges. There are a lot of pretty pictures in the ‘abode of clouds’, but I wanted to peel off a few layers. What lies beneath the endless viewing points and dramatic topography? A trip to the old Hima of Malai-Sohmat would hopefully show me, as I begin my search for the beating hearts and true stories — and maybe a dose of reality — among its perfect portraits.

‘Hima’ is a term for the traditional kingdoms of the Khasis, which today still retain a level of autonomy within the modern administrative system. My journey to the Hima Malai-Sohmat begins with an early-morning shared cab ride from Shillong’s Iewduh, the largest traditional market in the north-east of India. Tempting detours are spread along the entire route. We skirt the town of Mawphlang, home to Lawkyntang, an ancient forest that is considered sacred by the Khasis. Further ahead, the Mawjymbuin Caves attract Hindu pilgrims who revere the shivling-shaped formation while the Lum Symper is a monolith peak that offers good hikes and a local legend about two warring mountains, to boot. But I stay on course, and a little more than two hours later, my cab reaches Mawsynram.

This rather nondescript settlement is a place of world records. At one time, it was known for being the rainiest spot on earth, and on its southern fringes is the Krem Puri cave, which a recent expedition established as the longest sandstone cave system in the world. A change of cabs later, I arrive at Phlangwanbroi, one of the main villages of the Hima Malai-Sohmat.

I am here to meet 69-year-old Klipshon Dkhar or Bah Klip, as he is referred to by everyone. The tea shop where he invites me forms the hub of the village — a place where endless conversations happen over endless rounds of red tea and kwai (betel nut). Kong Munsy, the tea stall owner, shuffles over to a shelf and takes out some buns from a glass jar. On the other side of the entrance, a carrom board is installed; the pucks still spread over the surface like someone hurriedly left a game midway.

As Bah Klip, along with his younger relative Phrangjohn Sing Malai or Bah Phrang, explains the nuances of local hunting practices, another middle-aged gentleman comes in and starts striking around on the board before turning towards me, grinning with bright-red kwai-stained teeth. Outside, the occasional car rumbles along the road while the surrounding houses randomly erupt with squeals of children or an irate mother calling out for her ward. The mist looms like a ghost, and the temperature drops a little. It is rather gloomy for a March afternoon, but the capricious weather is part and parcel for those who live here. A slit opens in the sky, and the landscape flickers with sunlight.

Encounters with wild animals are common for the farming community. Bah Klip recalls growing up here, with enthusiasm. “I started working in the fields and hunting from the time I was a child. Back then, there was no cliff, no mountain and no river that stopped us. We feared nothing.” According to the two gentlemen, hunting is not indiscriminate in these ranges. The main hunts happen in the winter months, leading up to the New Year celebration. Bah Klip explains, “There are times of the year when the animals are rearing their children or are pregnant. During certain seasons, they are thin and the meat is not tasty. So we have to choose the right time.”

Bah Phrang adds his thoughts: “Some of the animals are pests. A single bear can destroy everything in a field and we do not get compensation at all.”

“Monkeys are smarter than humans, I feel,” chuckles Bah Klip. “They can rummage through everything and find what they want.”

Bah Klip lets me in on another observation. “There are a few Hoolock gibbons in the forests. We leave them alone as they are protected. They are quite mysterious, but you can hear them at times and they can get pretty loud.” He complains that the renewal of fees for his gun licence has become exorbitant. “There was a time when I used to pay three rupees, now it is in thousands.”

The crops the men talk about are not grown on fields close to their homes but on small plantations tucked in the almost-vertical slopes, where the highlands end and drop into the plains of Bangladesh. These plantations are surrounded by forests, rushing streams and waterfalls on all sides. Families would spend entire seasons in these clearings, coming back up to the village a few days a week. They would grow various food crops for sustenance. Lately, broom grass has become a major cash crop here and can be seen being dried out in front yards all over the village.

However, the hunting practices and related attitudes towards wildlife clash with larger efforts of preservation across the state and region — Meghalaya’s forests have been facing a crisis for decades. There is now a shift of perspective among the people. The villages of the Hima are being exposed to the need for conservation and the related benefits, thanks to the intervention of environmentalists and regular visitors who have an attachment to the place. Bah Klip himself has been part of awareness tours to other parts of the North-East, learning how conservation can shape the local economies. He acknowledges that conservation and related tourism should help the villages of the Hima rise out of economic slumber, one that has been perpetual in these parts. Recently, some youngsters of the village were chosen as part of a census expedition for a nearby sanctuary — their affinity for the wilderness making them a perfect fit for the job.

After a bit of socialising and sampling of some boiled phanmluh and shriew (types of root vegetables) at his home, Bah Klip asks me to follow him. We walk through the village ­— a menagerie of crisp concrete double-storeyed houses, vernacular cottages and low-rising homes with bamboo fencing. A pig here and a couple of goats there, and scampering chickens all over the place add to the activity around me.

Leaving the settlement behind us, Bah Klip skips across a dry riverbed and onto a forest path. “You get good views from here,” he says after we walk a short distance. I do not venture too close to the spot he is pointing at — the view is stunning, but standing on the edge of a cliff gives me the jitters. There is some railing, woefully incomplete, and then unguarded, lies a sheer drop hundreds of metres into a green abyss. “Back in the old days, people were thrown off from here. The ones that could not be managed anymore,” adds Bah Klip in an impersonal, matter-of-fact tone that those familiar with elder Khasi members would recognise. I figure he is not joking.

From our platform on this rocky promontory, we can see the vertical folds of the surrounding mountain face and the ranges beyond, fuzzy through the cloudy haze. He points down at some of the other villages of the Hima in the valley below. I peer at the patches in the forest, nodding along as Bah Klip distinguishes the planted crops from the rest. He shows me some nearby trees — bay leaves grow abundantly in these ranges and are an important source of income.

The forest is a significant part of village life, in many ways other than to provide livelihoods. Traditional healing methods still have a place here. The nearest major hospital is close to three hours away. It used to be worse — Bah Klip remembers how the previous generations would travel by foot for hours to the nearby towns. “There are those who know how to spot the right herbs and roots for different ailments. We all know the basic ones that are used for cuts and wounds,” he explains. As we converse, a couple of men amble along with chopped wood taken from the forest, fuel for the traditional hearths found in every house. There is an altruistic bond between the villagers of the Hima Malai-Sohmat. Bah Phrang had explained earlier, “When we stay in the forest, we do not take food from our homes. There is no problem in taking a few plants from the fields of the other villagers and cooking them — as long as it is just for our consumption. Then, of course, we can also eat the animals we can find.”

The Hima Malai-Sohmat is adjacent to one of the most-visited regions of North-East India, but the villages here have not seen the throngs associated with nearby Sohra (Cherrapunji) or Dawki. A lack of infrastructure has restricted this region to the more hardcore adventurers, especially white-water kayaking and packrafting enthusiasts from other countries, who visit in the post-monsoon months. The Umngi River, which flows from the nearby South-West Khasi Hills district, is a challenging waterway that has some of the toughest rapids in the world. Bah Klip marvels at the strength of some of the visitors. “The foreigners walk through the forests much faster than some of us, carrying their heavy boats with them,” he recites, with a now-trademark chuckle. The gushing waters and vertigo-inducing slopes of the Hima Malai-Sohmat, however, offer sober reminders of nature’s fury from time to time. In 2015, Beth Humes, a British kayaker, lost her life while attempting a descent of the Umngi.

As a visitor, it is difficult for me to not dwell on the landscape. The rugged grasslands and rocky soil are speckled with trees and bushes and tall reeds waving in the wind, while ahead, the horizon provides a meeting point for the plains and the sky. I would imagine that the people who drew ancient maps of a flat earth pictured the world’s edges like these cliffs.

It is time for the inevitable dose of reality as I reach the end of my visit. The world’s rainiest region is rather dry during the winter and pre-monsoon months. We trek down into the forest to the common water reservoir for the village, an almost right-angled path down from the settlement. It is difficult enough without any weight on my back — forget pots of water in a khoh (traditional conical cane basket) strapped to your back. Children with dirty laundry, bundled up like a wandering tramp’s possessions, negotiate the steepness with nonchalance. Built on a small flat space on the side of the cliff is the reservoir, a small rectangular tank with taps, doubling up as a washing area for clothes. This is their source of precious water — the irony of it all.

The lush forest slopes of the Hima Malai-Sohmat would have probably looked like islands in the sky when the earliest European expeditions traversed north of the humid East Bengal plains. As missionaries and administrators laid claim, it was the beginning of a new age for the indigenous cultures. Some things have endured though. The communities of the Hima, a hardy group of people who live in some of the most unforgiving yet rewarding terrains in the world, carry forward customs that have been passed down for generations.

Bah Klip hopes that more visitors will discover the region, consequently giving the locals more livelihood options. “We are not very rich here. We have whatever the forest provides, and we work really hard.”

I acknowledge what the wise old hunter says. At the same time, I also see a different kind of wealth in this community. As I journey back home through the fog and drizzle, I recall the conversations I had with these resourceful people. Their life on the precipice of this vast landscape is rich with experience and knowledge, and they remain deeply connected to their traditions. Their stories are woven into the nature that governs them. Isn’t this the same bond that the rest of us are constantly seeking?

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