When I checked in for my flight in Ahmedabad, I requested a window seat.
I looked beyond the horizon to find the Himalayan snowcaps basking in the sun. I found myself exhaling gently as I witnessed Mt. Everest tower above the icy valleys below. We began our final approach to Guwahati and I felt grateful to be heading to Northeast India. While living in India I’ve had the opportunity to explore its farthest corners, and yet, this was unchartered territory. I was heading to Meghalaya, which appropriately means, the Land of Clouds.
On the ground Nanu, the taxi driver, negotiated the uneven terrain while I gawked at the endless panoramas of waterfall speckled hills. Nanu told me about the tribes which made up the majority of Meghalaya’s population. The largest tribes were the Khasis, the Garos and the Jaintias. It was refreshing to learn that these tribes are all matrilineal societies. In a country where males dominate the streets in numbers, the recognition given to Meghalayan women is a pleasant anomaly. Nanu added that mothers are praised if they give birth to a daughter.
It was nightfall when I arrived in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital. It was Christmas Eve and I walked past a church as the choir was singing Christmas carols to the melody of an impressive pipe organ. Christianity is now practiced widely throughout Shillong, although most Christians still identify with their tribal ancestry.
The next morning, I was heading off on a day trek in Cherrapunji, or Sohra, as the locals call it. This place is credited as the wettest place on earth on account of the amount of rainfall in a year. As I started off into the forest, I was completely immersed in vibrant hues and vivid soundscapes.
I wondered why many of us spend our time chasing city dreams and eclipsing the world with our smartphones. Here, disconnected from the grid, I felt more connected. In this place, everything seemed as it was meant to be. The people are tune with nature and use their environment sparingly. A true testament of this was what the living root bridges. It was what I had come here to see. After descending 700m into the forest, I stood before them.
Hundreds of years ago, local tribes created these bridges from living roots to cross the large waterways. Their creativity is a perfect example of jugaad invention (a clever fix or workaround). These marvels of bioengineering appear to defy nature and yet have actually been built in harmony with the ecosystem. By directing roots of the Indian rubber tree through a hollowed out betel nut tree trunk, a bridge is formed. Over time, the roots grow stronger and continue to reinforce the bridge.
Although these are found across the region, Sohra is the only place where a double decker bridge stands. As I sat, awestruck in silence, I wondered what it would be like if everyone lived as harmoniously with nature. Unlike bridges built today, the living root bridges strengthen as they age. Our modern societies build for today with little regard for sustainability. This was living proof that construction without cement can last for centuries with a little ingenuity.
Mawlynnong, a village near the Bangladesh border, was last on my list. It is known as the cleanest village in Asia. I was amazed to see how this humble village stood apart from its neighbours and set an example of cleanliness for the world to notice. In India, most urban streets are littered with trash. The village footpaths resemble a floral garden at a luxury resort. Conical bamboo garbage bins are found everywhere and each villager plays a role to keep their home clean.
As the sun began to set, the village children sang while sweeping the floors. I set out to look for a place to watch the last sunset of the year. I scaled a five-story bamboo tree house at the edge of the village and looked towards the horizon. In the distance, I could see the plains of Bangladesh catching the last rays of sunlight. I smiled and took a moment to recalibrate my mind. It was the perfect way to bring in a new year with on a clean slate.