[This post was first published in September 2019 on Nomadic Thunker]
I’ve well established how my 2017 sojourn of north-east India had whetted my appetite enough to make me plan a return to the region. After finally completing the stupefying Dzukou Valley trek in a second attempt, experiencing the Hornbill Festival razzmatazz in its 10th year, as well as visiting the towns of Mokokchung, Mon, and Longwa, I made my way towards mesmerizing Meghalaya’s Mawphlang Sacred Grove and David Scott trail.
In the same way that I’d planned the stopover at Assam’s Manas National Park before proceeding onwards to Nagaland, I’d also planned the stopover in Meghalaya before returning back to base in Mumbai! The second reason is that despite being areligious, I was curious to see Shillong in her Christmas splendour.
Shillong was my no-plan do-nothing chill-mode activated zone — which is my fancy way of saying I walked around A LOT. Just like I had the previous time I was here in February 2018. But I hadn’t visited the Mawphlang Sacred Grove and David Scott trail then. So now, it was time to set things right.
Mawphlang Sacred Grove
I’d first heard about and visited a sacred grove when I’d travelled to Ladakh in 2013 with Journeys with Meaning. I recall how overawed I was by the prescience of indigenous communities. Years later, I would realise that the concept of ‘devrai’ in my home state of Maharashtra is the exact same thing! For the uninitiated, sacred groves are communally protected patches of forest that have been ascribed a spiritual status within previously animistic but currently proselytized communities. In honour of the sanctity attributed to a sacred grove, no one — absolutely NO ONE — is ever allowed to take anything from the sacred grove; no wood nor forest produce. Nothing.
Located 25 kilometres from Shillong, Mawphlang Sacred Grove is best explored with a local guide. There are signage that discourage tourists from entering the sacred grove unaccompanied. This is due to the increase in unscrupulous behaviours including causing disturbance, littering, and defecating inside the sacred grove. Hence, entry without a local guide is not permitted.
Myths, legends and lores abound around the sacred grove. Locals affirm that the deity of the forest awards punishments to transgressors based on the intent of the act committed. If a lapse in behaviour was unintentional — even if someone would have taken a block of wood from the sacred grove — then the deity would not mete out any punishment on them.
Local indigenous communities offer sacrifices/offerings to their deities during auspicious days — including marriages and births — inside the sacred grove.
Around and inside the sacred grove, are several monoliths believed to be altars where rituals are performed. I learnt that these altars would always have three standing stones and one sleeping stone; where, the standing stones represent the masculine, the sleeping stone represents the feminine.
Mawphlang’s sacred grove, to me felt like stepping into Narnia. After all, she is an 800+ year old forest that has since then remained untouched or eroded into by humans.
David Scott trail
As an extension of one’s visit to the sacred grove, one could also continue onwards and hike the David Scott trail whose starting point is a few kilometres away. The Mawphlang Sacred Grove and David Scott trail are in the same village.
This 16 kilometre first-downhill-and-then-slightly-uphill hike from Mawphlang to Ladmawphlang (near Sohra/Cherrapunji) is a remnant from the 100-odd kilometre direct horse-cart trail between Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh and Assam in India, discovered by a British administrator, David Scott.
The trail is easy and takes about 4–6 hours to complete (depending, of course, on your pace and the stops you take). Please make sure to carry a day bag on you with water and dry snacks, at the very least — if packed lunch isn’t possible. Please also make sure to bring all of your trash back with you for disposal at a bin in Shillong!
The entire trail is fairly easy to navigate independently; though it helps to have a local guide for when there is a fork in the road. Having a guide also helps with understanding the history, myths as well as the flora and fauna found along the trail.
The weather gods were on our side that day and we didn’t experience the rains, allowing us to soak in the vistas. I found it extremely comforting just being in the presence of trees, walking through a patch of forest, hopping over stones to get to the other side of the lake (without losing my balance) while trying to reimagine a time when this trail was a horse-cart trail!
Back in Shillong
Shillong continued to be my base for the period. With no plans per se — besides the Mawphlang Sacred Grove and David Scott trail — I took great pleasure in either ambling along towards Police Bazar and Laitumkhrah Market while witnessing the Christmas prep underway in full steam or parking myself at cafes on other days with little care or worry in the world.
I would have loved to attend one of Shillong’s famous choral performances but it wasn’t meant to be. So on Christmas Eve, I wolfed down the Jawbreaker at Dylan’s and savoured on some fine plum cake (read: moist with rum) sourced at a local bakery, perfectly content away from the maddening crowd.
My kind of Christmas …at its best!
(the Where, How, What etcetera etcetera)
Stay: The Anchorage (a li’l indulgence after roughing it out for a fortnight)
Eat: …at every jadoh outlet you can find. Jadoh literally translates to rice (ja) meat (doh) from Khasi. All over Meghalaya and especially in Shillong you will find family-run jadoh outlets serving lip-smacking Khasi food at pocket-friendly prices — both, veg and non-veg options are available.
Transport: Shared taxis ply between Shillong and Guwahati — even on Christmas Day (which was my day of departure). Rest assured, commuting within and even to and from Shillong is seldom, if ever, a challenge. My personal preference will remain bipedal locomotion.
For Mawphlang Sacred Grove and David Scott trail: Arrange for a local taxi drop and pick-up (as it is challenging to find a ride back from Ladmawphlang without pre-arranagement) from Shillong either at the local taxi-stand or you could request your homestay/guesthouse/hostel/hotel to help you out with it.
Once at Mawphlang, you will need to pay for the services of an English-speaking Khasi guide. Prices are fixed and vary depending on whether you opt for a short tour or a long tour of the sacred grove. Bear in mind that if you’re keen on the David Scott trail on the same day (like I did with the intention of returning back to Shillong by evening — which is doable without a sweat), you’d rather consider the short tour of the sacred grove.
Sacred Grove fee — short tour (incl. entry, camera, and guide fees): < INR 250–300
David Scott trail guide fee: INR 1500 (group size 3–4 pax)
Shillong — Mawphlang & Ladmawphlang — Shillong taxi: INR 1500 (for a 4-seater)