Motorcycle diaries: On riding in the Garo Hills - Hindustan Times
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Motorcycle diaries: On riding in the Garo Hills

Apr 11, 2024 09:26 PM IST

The Wangala dance, incredible vernacular architecture, and an old local religion... There’s much to appreciate in this lush stretch of the eastern Himalayas

Motorcycling is like lucid dreaming. Or active meditation. Or an intriguing combination of the two. Memories, opinions, life problems and their possible solutions slide through the photo gallery of the mind even as the rider’s eyes focus on the unending ribbon of the road ahead. And always there’s that sense of glorious freedom. Exactly this feeling of transcendence lifts me as I ride into the clear air of Meghalaya’s Garo hills from the plains of Assam.

The Wangala dance at Condengre village in West Garo Hills (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
The Wangala dance at Condengre village in West Garo Hills (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

The beginning wasn’t auspicious. Ginger Hotel in Guwahati, from where this leg of The Great Himalayan Exploration, a Royal Enfield and UNESCO partnership programme to document the intangible heritage of the Himalayas, took off, once overlooked a pristine lake. Then, apparently, a political bigwig decided that the largest metropolis in the north east desperately needed a fancy amusement park. All that’s visible now are busy earth movers on mountains of black mud. The Anthropocene is truly upon us and not for the first time, I’m glad I’m middle aged and will be riding down a celestial road soon, hopefully, much before the world cannibalises itself. My Gen Z sons have a standard response to such dark mutterings: “Don’t worry, we’ll soon find another planet to live on; or we’ll develop liveable space stations.”

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Will that planet’s mountains turn a delicate coral in the light of an alien sun like they do in Ladakh? Will the glaciers on the space station glint like they do in Kashmir? Will there be marmots and wildflowers and friendly Bhote dogs? I wonder about all that as I hurtle down NH17 with a group of researcher-riders, past wide eyed Durga idols stranded in streams, past paddy fields stretching out into the distance, and past a crowd of supplicants with folded hands gazing up at a gigantic idol of a magnificently fearsome Ma Kali. The mother goddess next appears in her demure Roman Catholic avatar holding a swaddled infant Jesus as the group climbs up winding roads towards Tura, a town in the West Garo hills, that will be our base for the next five days.

The team of rider-researchers on the road. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
The team of rider-researchers on the road. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

The aim of the Great Himalayan Exploration, says Bidisha Dey, Executive Director of the Eicher Group Foundation, the CSR arm of Royal Enfield, is to provide “a platform for the Himalayan communities to tell their own stories and create a repository of their living heritage – some of which may soon be lost in the face of modernity.” Towards this end, researchers have been riding out into the Himalayas documenting disappearing ways of life since 2022. It is an ambitious plan that aims to sensitise riders even as it empowers mountain communities. The group I’m riding with includes Dimple Singh and Omkar Joshi from Mumbai, Aditya Singh from Delhi, Hrishikesh Wagle from Pune, Chandrashekar R Nayaka from Bengaluru, my regular riding buddy, Mandeep Merwah from Gurgaon, and Shriya Mohan, who works for Royal Enfield. Our task is to document the culture of the villages in this part of Meghalaya, including aspects of the fast-disappearing indigenous Songsarek religion.

At first, as a Hindu skittish of organised forms of the various and often contradictory belief systems that Raja Ram Mohan Roy first yoked together in 1816 as “Hinduism”, I expect Songsarek to be somewhat familiar. But if I was looking for the monistic theism of my own variety of Hinduism with its numerous ishtadevtas who coalesce into a Supreme Idea, it doesn’t exist in these parts. Instead, this straightforwardly polytheistic religion has 150 gods, and no texts, though folk memory insists holy books once existed and were lost millennia before during the tribe’s migration from Tibet.

Sotjing Sangma working on a dama (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
Sotjing Sangma working on a dama (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

At Sadolpara village, 58-year-old Sotjing Sangma, his upper ear lobes decorated with beaded white metal narki earrings, allows me to hack at a log of wood from the local gambare tree. He and a group of elderly men are making the dama or ritual drum that’s beaten during the post-harvest Wangala festival that honours Misi Saljong, the sun god. A few splinters fly about but it’s soon clear that my talents don’t include woodwork. Sotjing is the village shaman and next, he leads the riders to a bamboo grove where he proceeds to nonchalantly cut down a hefty 20 foot culm to be transformed into an alter. It’s where a cockerel will be sacrificed to appease the vengeful god, Tattararabuka. Through our intrepid local interpreter, Albert Sangma, I ask if he’s ever thought of becoming a Christian. Going by the prominent churches in Tura, Garos seem to be either Roman Catholics, Baptists or Seventh Day Adventists. “I did think about it, then I decided I’ll stay a Songsarek for the rest of my life,” Sotjing said.

As some men run around trying to catch the perfect bird, I wander about admiring the nok achok, the traditional bamboo homes with their sliding doors, thatch roofs and sturdy elevated floors of woven bamboo strip. Inside one, Simpru Ch Marak is hand cranking a small wooden cotton seed separator machine; I watch transfixed as the fluffy mound of cotton grows before her. Her kitchen with its spotless metalware arranged on bamboo shelves is blindingly beautiful, like something out of an interior design magazine for homesteaders. Outside, succulents grow luxuriantly from repurposed plastic bottles. This single village alone could provide numerous Pinterest posts and much inspiration for dull urban design mood boards. Meanwhile, at the centre of the settlement, Sotjing has installed an alter pleasing in its perfect symmetry. A panting cockerel sits flopped down on a nearby doorstep; all the fight and flight chased out of it. I’ve eaten numerous desi roosters just like it. But this one, its spirit quiet as it awaits certain death in its role as an offering, fills me with unease. As does the information that occasionally goats and pigs too are sacrificed. I’m not a vegetarian. Why then am I shocked? Is it the idea of bribing a bloodthirsty deity with meat, something that’s alien to my own practice? Is it the very idea of an unforgiving god, also alien to my own beliefs? And does my shock mean that I’m actually an average judgy narrow-minded aunty? It’s all too much for my ostensibly liberal self to take and staggering to the visitors shed in the village commons, I fall into a deep dreamless sleep.

Simpru Ch Marak working on a cotton seed separator machine (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
Simpru Ch Marak working on a cotton seed separator machine (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

The next day is more cheerful with much sampling of fresh rice beer or chubitchi at Buripara. “We drink in happiness and we drink in sorrow also,” says 24-year-old Changra, who tends to his family’s fields. The riders are watching his aunt Panjak explain and then demonstrate how rice beer is made, how the starter, a lump of fermented rice called wanthi is added to mounds of sweet native rice that’s then rolled around in a bamboo mat, and how a large mao leaf is used to cover the mouth of the clay dikha pot in which the beer is made. There’s an air of festivity about the village as many turn up to see the visitors on their Bullets. Panjak uses a pong, a pipe-like gourd that pours the fresh, sweet brew straight into waiting mouths. Ambrosia! “It is good for health,” Changra says, adding that even babies are occasionally given rice beer. This is followed by a great meal of local leafy veggies, fluffy rice, dal, fried river fish and pork preparations. It’s a real spread. There’s even paneer for the vegetarians. “The villagers had never heard of it but we got some from outside for the riders” says a member of the accompanying back-up crew. Garo cuisine is light, flavourful and fully satisfying though lacking entirely in milk-based desserts, an area of great specialisation for all sorts of plains Indians. The absence of unnecessary sugar and dairy shows in the trim bodies of tribesmen both in the villages and in Tura, where the RE gang finally sates their collective cravings at a Baskin Robbins, one of the town’s few ice cream parlours.

Indeed, the only sweet dish we encountered was the sakhan, a preparation of sticky rice and black sesame, served at Dharmen Momin’s Do-patchi Home stay in Sasagre village near Nokrek National Park. The wild honey, and excellent oil-free food cooked in kharchi, a traditional medium that Momin is attempting to repopularise, are the exemplary offerings of this establishment that takes its name from a native swift that nests in the thatch of Garo homes. “We’ve stopped building traditional homes and so the do-patchi which is such a part of our culture, now has nowhere to live,” Dharmen says sadly. “That’s one of the reasons I decided my homestay would have thatched bamboo houses,” he adds as we sit chatting in a verandah overlooking a valley that stretches verdantly into the horizon.

Dharmen Momin presenting a sumptuous Garo spread at Do-patchi Home stay in Sasagre village. The sakhan is on the banana leaf at extreme left. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
Dharmen Momin presenting a sumptuous Garo spread at Do-patchi Home stay in Sasagre village. The sakhan is on the banana leaf at extreme left. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

An irrepressible nostalgia for a time when the tribe was unexposed to modernity is the recurrent theme of many conversations. “Religion comes after culture,” says Rakkan N Sangma, joint secretary of the 100 Drums Wangala Festival Committee. When you meet him at Condengre, he is holding up the smooth sharp head of a spear miraculously crafted by 80-year-old Nangnang Ch Mara from the axle of a Mahindra pickup truck. I marvel at it and recall Simpru’s bamboo home with its appealing handmade aesthetic, the living room with a central bar holding earthen urns for rice beer, the inner rooms with cane modhas and suspended bamboo poles for used clothes and repetitive rice flour motifs on the woven bamboo strip walls, the henhouse with its own tiny ramp, and the marvellously kept kitchen adjoining a spacious verandah that’s a venue for alfresco meals in fine weather. Maybe the Marxists have a point and urban alienation and anomie exist because mass production has robbed us of the joy of creating what we need and pushed us to become ravenous consumers with insatiable appetites, I think looking at the diminutive Mara unpacking his spearheads. “These spears are now mostly for ceremonial use,” says Rakkan, who is keen to preserve the matrilineal family structure and the traditional ways of the Songsareks “though I’m born from a Christian womb”. One of his nieces dressed in a Garo skirt and headgear in preparation for the scheduled Wangala dance performance comes forward. “The diamond weave in her jacket is called the eye of the Susume god,” Sangma explains adding a bit witheringly that his niece is only dressed traditionally because it’s a special occasion. Kitted out as I am in comfortable riding gear and tough boots that are a very far cry indeed from the diaphanous saris and the dainty footwear of the “ideal” plains Bharatiya nari, I suppress a laugh. Clearly, women everywhere are expected to be the bearers of the traditional flame. Chuck those torches, ye sisters, I’m tempted to yell, jump on a motorbike and ride out into the hills and the valleys, far, far away from the tyranny of domesticity and the burden of maintaining culture. Of course, I do no such thing. Women must appear agreeable at all times even when our brains are devising ways to confound the patriarchy, with or without its matrilineal frills *brazen smiley*.

Panjak from Buripara demonstrating how chubitchi or rice beer is made. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
Panjak from Buripara demonstrating how chubitchi or rice beer is made. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

“The Wangala festival is thanksgiving to the Great Giver. We grow maize, ginger, rice and cotton and this is our post-harvest festival that lasts about four days. Most of the dances of Wangala are connected to jhum cultivation,” says Rakkan as a group begins moving rhythmically in the open village ground, the men beating the heavy dama effortlessly slung across their shoulders. Later, the riders too join the dance and the crowd goes wild as we stomp about attempting to keep time with the expert tribal dancers, like giant stuffed ducks among a flock of perky wagtails.

That evening is spent in an unfruitful search for bottled rice beer in Tura’s fancy booze shops. No luck. “Madam, yeh to gaon ke ghar pe hi banta hai,” is the standard response. Then, as if by magic, young Keenan K Marek appears with a case of 7United rice beer cans. Marek has developed the product and its packaging in collaboration with North Eastern University and hopes to take the wonder brew to the rest of the country. I’m relieved I can take home a few cans that are guaranteed not to explode in cargo!

Rider-researchers with the Wangala dancers at Condengre village. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)
Rider-researchers with the Wangala dancers at Condengre village. (Royal Enfield Social Mission)

The 220km journey back to Guwahati takes longer than the estimated six hours and encountering city traffic after days of riding up and down winding forest roads to the soundtrack of birdsong is a definite downer. As is saying goodbye to fellow riders. Motorcycling encourages easy and unlikely friendships, the forming of bonds across generations and between people who don’t have much in common except for a hopeless addiction to the romance of the road. We might never meet again except on social media but the great vibe lives on and who knows, perhaps one day we’ll ride together in another golden lucid dream, stopping only to flash v signs and mouth a happy “chubitchi” – Dimple Singh’s apt replacement for “cheese” – as we pose once more for pictures on some picturesque Himalayan mountain side.

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