In Shillong, the drawing room discussion is quite similar to the chatter among Chandigarh’s chattering classes, primarily about how the town has changed in character, how more ‘types’ of people have come in, how the traffic has increased and jams being witnessed, how it is “not what it used to be”. Having travelled 11 hours from Chandigarh — five to Delhi airport, two in a flight to Guwahati (Assam) and then another four in a taxi to reach Meghalaya’s capital Shillong around 10 in the night — I slept over one such disappointing conversation as the taxi driver indulged in nostalgia.
Warrior dance of the Khasis. HT Photo
Next morning, as I woke up rubbing my eyes, the sun was busy playing painter — its gentle rays lightening the deep blue of the sky, adding some yellow to the green of the mountains and lending a golden lining to the ever-present grey clouds. All that midnight talk sounded pointless in retrospect. To an urban soul who’d travelled hundreds of miles to be in Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, this unhurried morning spelt bliss, the trip seemed worth the effort already.
And this was only the beginning. I was there to attend the first Monolith Festival organised by the Khasi Heritage Conservation Forum (KHCF). A part of the tribal culture, monolith means a stone put up as a memorial or monument. And it was a monumental beginning for the region that comprises three distinct tribal traditions, Garo and Jaintia, besides the Khasi, all three names after mountain ranges.
A 30-km drive out of a busy Shillong took us to Mawphlang, where a Khasi village has been created as a showcase. A drizzle was our constant companion. Little wonder, as Cherrapunji was barely half an hour away.
A slow start meant one could savour the sights, drink coffee in a mug carved straight out of a single bamboo stick, and stare aimlessly across the gentle slopes sometimes eclipsed by low-hanging clouds. The Law Kyntang or the Sacred Grove, an ancient protected forest, located nearby stood witness as the road from Shillong to Mawlphlang slowly got choked, but no one seemed to lose patience.
Covering about three acres, the heritage village has 20 plots set within meandering and landscaped footpaths. Numerous huts representing the various “himas” or kingdoms of the Khasis dotted the campus, all complete with tools, utensils, musical instruments, clothes and men and women cooking traditional food, ranging from popcorn on fire to frog meat. Silk worms were also on the plate, to be downed with rice beer and wine made from ginger, banana, even jackfruit.
A central feature is the open amphitheatre designed to have a seating capacity of about 1,400 people. Here, an Ethnic Fashion Show was organised to showcase the indigenous wear, with an enchanting Miss Shillong Suman Lyngdoh walking the rain-muddied ramp amid loud cheer. Among the performers was a group of girls, the oldest aged 10, named the Khmih Shillong Group, which presented traditional songs and could soon be featured on India’s Got Talent, having already cleared the regional rounds for live shows.
A peculiarity that a Punjabi certainly notices is the warrior dances of the Khasis that look like slow-motion versions of our very own gatka — they seem to think more, while we seem to hit more. An archery competition was a dangerous delight, with the winner walking away with `50,000. The evening was made with rock-infused folk music, making everyone sing along, except the linguistically challenged like me.
By the end of the second and concluding day, the rush was such that organisers were planning a four to six-day fest the next time in the second week of October.
As the campus emptied out, some of us were invited to share drinks with the organisers, and the good cheer and stupendous success was celebrated with the kind of drinking and dancing that reminded me of my ‘pind’ in Punjab, thousands of kilometres away, but still connected through a celebration of age-old tradition.
(Writer’s trip was arranged by the Khasi Heritage Conservation Forum)