What the primeval forest of Mawphlang in Shillong can teach us about conservation

India has several sacred groves across the country. We visit the forest in Mawphlang in Meghalaya and come away inspired by the ecologically sound premise of its ancient traditions. Something to ponder, especially on World Environment Day that’s coming up on June 5.

Meghalaya, meaning a ‘house in the clouds’, is a state that lives up to its name. If you’re looking to stay amidst nature, then almost any spot among the Khasi and Jaintia hills will entice you. Amongst its scenic routes, rolling hills and thunderingly magnificent waterfalls, is its unique and special sacred forests.

'law-kyntang', the ancient sacred groves of meghalaya are famous. Image: roxanne bamboat.
‘Law-kyntang’, the ancient sacred groves of Meghalaya are famous. Image: Roxanne Bamboat.

About 25 kms from Shillong is a pristine spot of land that has been untouched for centuries. Khasi traditions and way of life have always been entwined with nature. Despite technology creeping in, the sacred groves of Mawphlang Forest still remain significant today. There isn’t a single tourist that comes to Shillong without paying a visit to this sacred forest.

Once you leave the hustle and bustle of Shillong and its shockingly frequent traffic jams, drive through the Khasi hills and you’ll pass the tiny hamlet of Mawphlang to reach what can only be described as sprawling meadows with sheets of green as far as the eye can see.

Suggested read: Meditations on Meghalaya

At the start of the adventure. Image: roxanne bamboat.
At the start of the adventure. Image: Roxanne Bamboat.

Since this forest is fiercely protected, any visit here is a mandatory escorted one with a local guide giving you a detailed tour of the forest. As you walk under the canopy of trees and into dense foliage, it feels as though you’re suddenly entering an enchanting wilderness — far from the sprawling hills and open pasture surrounding it. Spread across 192 acres of preserved land, the forest is crucial to Khasi culture. Besides unique trees, plants and fungi used for various medicinal purposes, this forest is also home to several animals including leopards and tigers though they don’t make an appearance on your 30-minute walking tour through the forest!

The beautiful trail. Image: roxanne bamboat. | mawphlang, forest, eco tourism, meghalaya, world environment day
The beautiful trail. Image: Roxanne Bamboat.

Apart from its diverse eco-system of species and plants, it’s a prohibited zone that was once used to perform rituals. The sacred forest was a special venue for coronations for the Khasi Kings and as a site for animal sacrifice. It is here, deep in the forest that you come across ancient monoliths where new kings and tribal chieftains were anointed, and rituals performed by tribal elders. These customs date back almost to the 15th century and the forest has been preserved and protected by the villagers of Mawphlang ever since, and it’s now a part of their cultural identity.

These ancient monoliths inside the forest used to be the site for various tribal rituals. Image: roxanne bamboat. | mawphlang, forest, eco tourism, meghalaya, world environment day
These ancient monoliths inside the forest used to be the site for various tribal rituals. Image: Roxanne Bamboat.

While there aren’t any sacrifices or new kings coronated today, the forest is still deeply significant and well preserved. So much so that it is forbidden to take anything out of the forest, not even a leaf, pebble, or twig. Legend has it that the spirit of the forest the deity Labasa, who protects the forest, gets upset if anything is taken and brings misfortune to those who break her rules.

The deity 'hearts' you if you don't mess with her forest! Image: roxanne bamboat. | mawphlang, forest, eco tourism, meghalaya, world environment day
The deity ‘hearts’ you if you don’t mess with her forest! Image: Roxanne Bamboat.

Locals love to tell tales of those who’ve fallen sick after taking things from the forest and how even when the Indian Army in 1970 tried to take out dead logs from the forest, their truck refused to start!

With climate change and the general lack of care for the environment across most major cities, maybe we should all take a page out of their book and perhaps protect our natural resources as if a curse would fall upon us if we didn’t.

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