Mawlynnong, The cleanest village that transformed my opinions 360 degrees about North-East


Till 2016, I considered of northeast India as poorer China, where people eat noodles and momo and lead an unhygienic lifestyle. My premonition grew from the pupils of north-east who comes down to study in urban centres, a considerable part of them living in Kolkata (that’s the closest metropolitan city to northeast India). If I wouldn’t have travelled to the north-east, which I wasn’t particularly eager upon, but ended up travelling alone, I would have never known about the jewelled beauty of our land. Now when I consider, I feel embarrassed about my subjective attitude and the way we treat north-east India as a detached body from the full country. Many other touristy places in India is not preserved well, and it doesn’t make me extremely honoured to claim, it’s often, we Indians who are culpable for causing dirt and transforming the place into a commercial hub. I was thinking the same for the North-East, but I was left dumbfounded and appalled. In my North-East trip, I explored Arunachal Pradesh which was a complete pleasure for the eyes and mind. But the place that left me to reevaluate my opinions, instilled me to explore more of real India and altered the traveller in me is Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. I was an Indian who was a touristy person and was more keen on travelling overseas. The charm of the place, the beauty of people and their drive to keep the place clean brought an upheaval in me. I commenced travelling the rural India to explore it and to understand the real country beyond cities, urbanization. This inspired me to encourage responsible travelling. A tourist transformed into a traveller. But yes this is not about me. This is about Mawlynnong, a village in East Khasi Hills district of the state of Meghalaya, India. It was awarded the “Cleanest Village in Asia” in 2003 and till date, it has retained the recognition of its award.

After spending few days in Shillong, I could not wait to reach and spend some time in this village, away from the urban jungle. I had heard a lot about the two-tier living root bridge but it takes 4 hours to trek down. My schedule was tight. I wasn’t informed, there was another single tier living root bridge at Mawlynnong. When I reached, the first thing I wanted to have breakfast. At a dead-end and there were two small huts. I was sipping water from a mineral water bottle. When I wound up, a boy turned and gently advised me of putting the bottle in a waste bin located near. I was dumbfounded by his attention and sensitivity. Then he escorted me inside the village. I walked on the cobbled road flanked with thatched Khasi huts and moved past the gardens adorned with colourful blooms. Not only is this the cleanest village but one of the prettiest that I have seen. To keep the village clean there is a bamboo basket outside every house. I was greeted warmly in the guest house made of bamboo. The best part was I was in a digital detoxification mode amidst the luxury of nature, there was no internet. After my lunch, I went out for a walk and hiked down to the most spectacular natural bridges made of roots of gigantic rubber tree. The roots make a pathway cross a stream. The hardy roots have grown to form a cantilevered and intertwined mesh helping villagers to commute. I was astounded to be face-to-face with one of the living root bridges. This place is also kept clean and I was in awe to see kids walking up and down removing fallen leaves and carrying water bottles for hikers. What took me 45 mins to hike up back to the village, took less than 30 mins for the kids. They guided me back to the village because it started raining. I realise it’s the simplicity and the warmth of the people that make Mawlynnong special. They were beaming with happiness while serving me early dinner of rice, dal, potato and red chillies.Cleanliness is a way of life here. All houses have functional washrooms, plastic bags are banned, smoking is prohibited. The rules are strictly followed and defaulters are charged heavily. The village gets its own manure which is converted from the garbage dug into a pit. People not only keep their houses clean, they step out to sweep roads and plant trees, which is a part of their lifestyle. I was surprised in a very pleasant way to know, here the children of the family get their mother’s surname and the wealth is passed down from the mother to the youngest daughter of the family. It’s a living example of women empowerment and the village has acquired 100 percent literacy rate.Since this village is on the India-Bangladesh border, we are able to view the landscapes of Bangladesh as well from the place. They have constructed an 85 feet high viewing tower, but what’s special is the tower is made of bamboo and you will be overwhelmed with breathtaking views.What we expect in an urban society, but fail to achieve, Mawlynnong has achieved it all. There is cleanliness and there is simplicity. It teaches you a way of life. It makes you think. It instils the urge in you to achieve what you dream of. The only thing that I left the place with is respect. The trip and the place lingered in my mind for days. If India is so beautiful and simple, the one that I have always craved for, I need to explore each and every part of it. This journey not only changed my mindset about North-East India but also as a person. I am not only in awe of the beauty of the place but I have become a traveller, travelling to the remotest corners of India, discovering it like never before. In my later posts, I will tell you stories about the unseen India, which is more than the crowded streets, the colourful markets and the Taj Mahal. And most importantly, the visit to this place, Mawlynnong, had given me the drive to promote responsible travelling in different parts of India. You may ask me what is responsible travelling, by responsible travelling I mean :

• Pack your bags with environmentally friendly things. Carry as little plastic as possible.
• Do not leave behind any non-biodegradable waste.
• What you wear has an impact – environmentally and culturally – dress ethically and appropriately.
• Respect the local culture and refrain from physical intimacy in public places.
• Carry a good water bottle. Purified drinking water is available at homestays and hotels for filling your bottles. Refrain from buying numerous plastic mineral water bottles.
• Local food is great. Try it as much as possible and avoid packaged food. Ask for modifications in the food according to your taste, instead of wasting it.
• Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and refrain from drugs, especially in public places.
• Seek permission before photographing people, so their privacy is respected.
• Do not pluck any medicinal plants & flowers, and do not disturb the wildlife. It’s a broad concept. In my other stories, you will read about it more. The main concern of mine is zero-waste living and travelling.

Mawlynnong not only mesmerises you with its natural beauty but also in its endeavour to maintain one.I am sure, most European countries and other developed nations strive and achieve in doing so. But India is an overpopulated nation, still is behind in the race. But if you have a will there is a way. This place is the example for that. To those who fear of travelling to India because of its crowd, pollution and waste littering everywhere, we are working towards responsible travelling and if you want to visit the real India, life in its truest form, put your guards down and travel, I promise, you will want to visit again.

The North-East India changed my patriotism

Before March 2016, I haven’t been to any part of North-East India. I was with a premonition that it’s more or less like a poorer China, where people use imported products, eat noodles and momos, has an unhygienic lifestyle. I was completely judgemental. Now, when I think, I am embarrassed by myself and my hypocrisy. If I wouldn’t have taken this trip, I would not have experienced, what I now call, the best part of India. This was completely a life-changing experience for me. Though I always travelled, you can say, this is what literally pushed me to explore travelling.

In March 2016, I was supposed to take a family vacation to Arunachal Pradesh. I was reluctant in the beginning, given my narrow judgment about the place. But my family insisted and I agreed. I was in a pathetic state of mind, due to personal setbacks. I wasn’t much interested in the planning of the trip. The only contribution of mine was going to Arunachal Bhawan and getting the Inner Line Permit and permit to visit Bum La Pass.  As Arunachal Pradesh falls under restricted area, official permission is required to enter the state. There are two kinds of official permits prescribed by Government for entering into any area within Arunachal Pradesh. They are:

  • Inner Line Permit (ILP) and
  • Protected Area Permit (PAP)

The Inner Line Permits are required by Indians other than natives of Arunachal Pradesh for entering into any place in Arunachal Pradesh. All the foreigners are required have the Protection Area Permit or PAP for entering into Arunachal Pradesh.

Later, due to unavoidable circumstances, my family could not make it, but now, I wanted to escape from my situation and I wanted to take the holiday. Everyone warned me of the road conditions, the weather conditions and health hazards I might face at a high altitude. I could not have listened to anything because all I knew was, I wanted to breathe under a new sky, I needed some fresh air. I insisted and took a leap of faith.

Though I had a minimum expectation of some wonder, I took the flight to Guwahati and then hopped into the pre-booked cab from there to head to Bomdila. Bomdila is located in the northwestern part of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is set amongst the mighty Himalayas at an altitude of 2,530 m above sea level. When I reached Bomdila it was six in the evening and it was very cold. Nothing could be seen around and I wasn’t even curious. I got into my room at the circuit house and wanted to sleep after a tiring road journey. It was chill, piercing my bones. Blankets and heater weren’t enough to keep me warm. Moreover, the dogs were barking the whole night. I didn’t manage a good sleep. I already decided that the journey ahead was going to be pathetic like the state of my mind.

Next morning when I woke up to some nice fog laced with sweet sunshine, my mood changed. I was pleasantly surprised to see the small town adorned with colourful flowers at every household. The smiling faces of the people touched my heart. It was like the magic hour, where everything transformed for the better and I was then looking forward to the journey.

Feeling the fresh air, whirling up around my face and hair, we headed towards Tawang, the mountain town in Asia and the smallest of the 16 administrative districts in Arunachal Pradesh. As our car, criss-crossed through winding hills, I kept humming my old favourite song,

“Almost heaven,…

Blue Ridge Mountains

Shenandoah River,

Life is old there

Older than the trees

Younger than the mountains

Blowing like the breeze

Take me home, country roads”

And I knew, I was struck by pixie dust.

There were hardly another car or people on the road because there was no civilization on the way and the season for the tourists was yet to start. When I reached Tawang, it was already dark. The caretaker at the circuit house informed that it had snowed last night. The weather was better and colder than normal. The best part was it was not raining.

Next morning was lit by gorgeous sunshine, could see the mountains clad in fog and the peaks shining with glitters of sun rays. I had never experienced a better weather. ‘You are fortunate. It’s a cold day but a bright one.’ Exclaimed the care taker. He insisted to pack my lunch for the day and when I refused he said ‘You won’t find anything up there.’ I keep myself stocked with dry food so I did not worry. We headed toward Bum La Pass. Roads were free, the only place we had to stop was to show the permit. The best part was, Kalikacharan, the person who was driving me around is a shy person, did not speak much unless asked. It allowed me to soak in the beauty of nature and my thoughts. As the rugged hills changed into snow covered mountains, I was enthralled like a child seeing a black forest cake in front of me. All I could see was frozen lakes and snow clad mountains. My mind was cart-wheeling with joy. I was missing my family and was disheartened for the experience they were missing. There was nothing on the way apart from army camps. I have been to other mountain towns, but this place is unbelievably beautiful. Untouched, pristine and paradise on earth it is. Bumla Pass is one of the four official border meeting posts between India and China and about 40 km from Tawang. It’s at 15,200 ft above sea level. It boasts of an army regiment at the highest altitude in the world. I was filled with pride. When I reached there, the army officers welcomed me with a lot of care. They briefed us about the history, the stories of the place, the wars, and the memorials that make it memorable. They even treated me to some hot paranthas and tea. I used their washroom. I mention this here because I was surprised that the water in the commode was frozen. At such critical conditions, our army officers fight not only with enemies but basic needs, to ensure that we Indians are safe. Respect was the only thing that I was filled with. I could not thank them enough for giving me company. I was heading back to Tawang filled with pride and humbleness. On the way, road construction work was taking place. We had to wait two hours, to move the car, but to my astonishment, I wasn’t restless and anxious. I felt evolved as a human and I could spend hours by the lakes and sitting on the rocks, looking at the bare mountains. I wanted to stock my eyes and memories with as much of nature’s bounty, as much I could.

I reached Tawang by four in the afternoon. I went around the town. I was seeing North-East India in a new light.  The town is kept so clean, no litter and waste, that I was embarrassed about my mindset. Next day, while heading back to Bomdila, the rugged hills transformed into a wonderland. It was Christmas in March. It was snowing. On my way back, we stopped at Sela Pass. At an elevation of 4170 m, windy, enjoying the landscape there is once in a lifetime experience.Blue water lakes surrounded by snow mountains and echoing tales of legends and patriotism, this place romances you with a charm unseen. It’s truly said, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I wanted things in my life to change and it changed me and my perceptions for better. This trip showed me a new world, an India that made me proud, it has made me tolerant as a person and it has pushed me more into travelling, travelling more of India.

After Tawang, I visited Meghalaya, which amazed me, but you have to wait for another day to hear about the wonders there.