Meghalaya oozes beauty, her allure capable of ensnaring even a deity. The charm of this North-Eastern state lies in its clear river waters, mountain towns, and enchanting deep forests. The Mawphlang Sacred Forests preserved by the Khasi people is the most famous of them. This forest sits in the East Khasi Hills of Shillong. All tribes in Meghalaya – Garo, Jaintia, and Khasi; have their own protected sacred forests. In Khasi language, ‘Maw’ means stone and ‘Phlang’ means grass – hence Mawphlang is known as the land of endless grassy stones.
Our Journey to the Sacred Forests
7 am and Shillong is engulfed in a thick blanket of fog. We had planned to leave at first light as the sun sets early in this part of the country. However, the sun didn’t shine and Shillong started the day with another heavy downpour. After procrastinating at the window, we succumbed to our feverish need to chase adventure and hit the road to Mawphlang. We had to ride the bike carefully in the strong gusty wind and rains. After almost an hour, we entered Mawphlang village and noticed a few Baptist churches. In a few minutes, it started getting colder, we were nearing the forests.
Once we reached, we were thrilled to warm ourselves with some hot Maggi along with tea at the only stall visible. The lady who managed the stall informed us that we had to take a local guide to enter the forest perimeters. Additionally, we could also learn more about the rich culture and history of the forests. We took her advice and negotiated with Donkit, who charged INR 500 for an hour, which was worth every rupee!
By the time our bellies were satisfied, the fog had cleared and the forests lured us to it. The dense canopy that lie ahead instantly took me to the legendary Lord of the Rings (“LOTR”) movie. No, there aren’t any Hobbits in this Fangorn either but it sure does have its own wilderness and mysteries.
From the outside, the forest boasts resourceful biodiversity, a vast curtain of naturally nurtured saplings, and the obvious presence of captivating creepers. As we entered, we were welcomed by tall trees high as you can imagine. Perhaps like ENTS in LOTR, who have been sleeping a long time and offer an example of a benign element in the natural world. Algae present on trees and stones confirmed the forest surface is always damp. The slippery turf prompted us to walk slow, giving us more time to admire the forests.
An ideal site for nature lovers. Khasi pine trees are seen in abundance which can be identified by their consistent wide width of its trunk. The forest trail also leads to many Rudraksha trees which is considered to be a lucky tree amongst Hindus. The forest is largely carpeted in thick layers of humus that benefit the growth of unique plant life. Flowers are abloom and there is a rich variety of medicinal herbs. It is one of the most unique forests in India, quite like a Botany lab; you’ll find medicinal plants that apparently cure cancer and tuberculosis. They act as hosts to parasites like mushrooms, orchids, and climbers.
As we continued to make our way in the forest, colorful berries caught our eye and we were immediately drawn to it. Upon getting closer our guide Donkit informed us that the flower of the plant is known as the Lily Cobra. It is highly toxic and can be found in Uttarakhand too.
The Eurasian Yew Tree can easily be spotted in the sacred groves. The tree is typically found in hilly areas. Its leaves yield an oily substance called taxol which has the properties of a drug used for the treatment of cancer.
Unfortunately, in countries like Nepal, the number of yew trees has reduced significantly in recent years. Due to the high curative properties of the yew trees, the Nepalese government has now realized the importance of a sustainable conservation plan.
Meghalaya is a state rich in wild edible mushrooms and the sacred forests have abundant vibrant mushrooms in different gradients. The locals of the Khasi hills with their extensive knowledge on edible mushrooms, identify & collect them in the forests & later they are sold in the markets. Ranging from tiny neon specks that coat the fallen trees, to species the size of my palm, I have never seen such diversity of fungi in a given surrounding.
Legends Surrounding the Mawphlang Sacred Forests
Labasa – The Deity of the Sacred Forest
According to the locals, the sacred forests are protected by the deity Labasa. Infact, Labasa is one of the most respected gods by the oldest tribes in Meghalaya. The inhabitants of Mawphlang believe the deity protects the village during a crisis.
At the entrance to the forests, I remember noticing how perfectly aligned the borders of the forest were and inquired about this with Donkit. He gave us a fascinating story of how the sacred forests never grow beyond that boundary. It is believed that the Gods dance on the fields just outside the border in the evenings. Hence, the forest doesn’t encroach on this area.
Furthermore, Donkit cautioned us by mentioning stories of those who attempted to take a simple keepsake such as a leaf or stone, resulted in them being cursed with a disease or in extreme cases even death.
Mysticism and Devotion
Yes, Mawphlang is no ordinary forest! In ancient times, various ceremonies were held in the forest such as grand processions, exotic dance, extravagant meals, and sacrifice rituals as offerings to the gods. These beliefs are still prevalent although with small amendments. Previously, the animal of sacrifice was a bull while these days rituals are performed on a rooster.
While we were walking around the forests with our guide, a friendly passer-by stopped and with great pride said “We protect these forests”.
The locals of Mawphlang have deep respect for the forests and have strong innate beliefs. The Khasi tribe have been protective of the sacred forests and stone monoliths that have deep cultural and religious significance. The tribes are an eclectic mix of Pagan and Catholic faith. Although many have now converted to Christianity, there still are worshippers of nature.
We noticed monoliths at several places in Meghalaya but here in Mawphlang, we understood the true meaning behind them. Outside the forests, are monoliths depicting the different family members. Donkit explained the tallest stone being the leading member of the family i.e the father, on either side of him, the children, and the sleeping stone being the mother of the family. However, this interpretation would vary as Meghalaya predominantly follows a matrilineal system of society.
It is believed in the olden times before the men entered the village if the Gods appeared as a leopard it was considered a good sign but if a snake appeared it was a bad omen.
We later discovered that the tallest monolith in the world is found in Meghalaya.
How to Reach Mawphlang Sacred Forests?
The Mawphlang Sacred Forests is at a distance of 25 km from Shillong. Taxis are available from Shillong for INR 1500 (round trip). The preferred way of traveling to the forests would be hiring a self-drive car or renting a bike allowing you to take your time to admire the beauty.
Where to Stay?
A trip from Shillong to Mawphlang can be done in a day. For those looking to spend a night close to the forest, Maple Pine provides eco-friendly cottages. Meanwhile, NGO’s in Meghalaya have identified potential tourist spots around Mawphlang to provide homestays for visiting tourists.
Best Time to Visit
The thick forests of Mawphlang have their own charm in the monsoons. It rains for days, sometimes weeks continuously. If you don’t fancy the monsoons November to May is a good time to visit.
How to Travel Responsibly?
The Mawphlang sacred forests once faced the danger of losing more than 27,000 hectares of forests. However, an UN-supported initiative, India’s first REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project revived the forests. It worked towards preserving the forests and empowering local communities.
The indigenous tribes in Meghalaya are doing a phenomenal job with protecting their surroundings. This is visible in the rich bio-diversity of their forests. We must support their efforts and not harm the ecosystem. Also, be respectful of their beliefs and traditions.
The deep-rooted beliefs of the people of Meghalaya is a great example of productive religious agreement resulting in upholding a responsible society.