The Woods Are Alive

The sacred forest of Mawphlang in Meghalaya is watching every move you make. Just try taking away a twig from its hallowed grounds.

H

undreds of years ago, a woman named Timur lived in a sleepy hamlet in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Tiny houses scattered across patches of green fields overlooked the misty hills. Woolly sheep and majestic horses dotted the verdant village. Nature’s bounty brought prosperity to Mawphlang and its settlers considered the forest sacred.

One day, as Timur was busy with her household chores, a villager came running to tell her that her brother had suddenly taken ill. Wasting no time, she rushed to see him.

As Timur scurried through the dusty lanes, she spotted a large snake slithering close to her feet. She stopped dead in her tracks. Beads of sweat lined her forehead. It was not like she felt fear at the sight of the reptile, sein basa in Khasi, but spotting one was considered a bad omen. It struck her that her brother must have wronged the forest and she immediately begged for forgiveness. The snake disappeared.

On reaching her ailing brother’s house, Timur rushed to his bedside and asked him what had happened. He confessed to having cut some wood from the sacred groves and minutes later, he started falling ill. As the day progressed, his health deteriorated. Timur now knew for certain – this was the wrath of the forest gods.

She knew there was only one way to save her brother. She pleaded with the village priest to accompany her to the sacred forest. As they walked past the overgrown archway into the forest, the winds began howling and the trees rustling, as if to show their fury.

Timur prayed fervently, and the priest chanted mantras. In time, the forest quietened, as if granting them forgiveness. The adoring sister returned to the village to find her brother up on his feet, waiting for her eagerly at the door.

***

“Don’t you dare take anything from the forest,” my grandmother would conclude, as she told my sister and me Timur’s tale. The sacred forest of Mawphlang is a permanent fixture in bedtime stories of every child in Shillong. Towering trees, fresh, dewy grass and flowers in full bloom – the woods have always been our wonderland.

My curiosity about the forest grew with me. So, did my uncertainty. Stories of the noble man who sought succour in the forests as miscreants chased him and of the goons being blinded by it were hard to believe for an agnostic young man. The more my grandmother tried to convince me, the more I reserved my right to remain sceptical.

Surrounding me were gigantic trees with mossy beards flowing down their stout trunks. The air was crisp, the silence holy, and some sunlight sneaked its way through the dense canopy. I was ecstatic to finally be here amid such Tolkien-esque wilderness.

Last October, preparations for the indigenous Terra Madre festival were in full swing. Labourers constructing a road near the sacred forest claimed that sein basa had made an appearance. Panic struck the villagers. I decided to visit Mawphlang and see what was going on for myself.

Maybe I’d even take something from the forest to put an end to this legend and usher my people into the 21st century.

***

In the wee hours of a cold February morning, I drove 25 kilometres to the hills. As the village neared, the road narrowed and the magic of Mawphlang began to unravel. The sky was a clear blue, thick fog descended on the pine trees, and at a distance were lush green mountains. I was an awe-struck tourist in my own land.

On the advice of my elders, I had taken an appointment with the chief of the village, Thombor Lynghdoh, before going into the forest. It was 8 am when I reached the tiny hamlet at the foot of the hill. Tin-roofed houses were spread across the vast, green land. Men were at work in the maize fields, while women dressed in red-and-white checked jainkyrshah walked past with bamboo baskets, filled with potatoes and yam, belted around their heads.

The headman was nowhere in sight. I dialled him even though the network was poor and when he picked up the phone, I could barely make out his voice. “I had to rush to a nearby village,” he said.

I asked him if I could enter the forest and click some photographs. “Don’t go alone,” he said. “Take my son along. Haven’t you heard…”

The connection went blank.

I was impatient to get started and didn’t want to go out looking for his son now. I’d recently heard another fable that had piqued my curiosity even more. An army convoy had ventured into the forest in the early 1970s. The soldiers began cutting branches and loading them in their trucks – but when the time came to leave, the ignition gave way. Within minutes, the hale and hearty soldiers started falling sick. Their efforts to escape from the groves were in vain. They were trapped all night and it was only the next morning after a priest came to their rescue and the branches were offloaded, that the men recovered.

Just when I was wondering whether I should disregard the headman’s advice, a sprightly young man entered the room. He introduced himself as Kenneth, the son of the village head. His father had called him. “Father was scared that the spirits might get a hold of you. Didn’t want you to venture out alone,” he said, with a smile.

He led the way toward the forest, crossing a football field. I followed, clinching my camera lens, as if it were someone’s wrist. I walked inside, and it took only a few seconds to realise that this was indeed the wonderland from grandma’s stories. Surrounding me were gigantic trees with mossy beards flowing down their stout trunks. The air was crisp, the silence holy, and some sunlight sneaked its way through the dense canopy. I was ecstatic to finally be here amid such Tolkien-esque wilderness.

I stayed at my guide’s heels, minding each step as I crushed the dry ochre leaves on the ground, careful not to touch the ancient monoliths laden with moss scattered across the forest. They marked the sites of ceremonial sacrifices.

Adorning the carpet of grass, were pretty pink flowers. My eyes were affixed on the petals; their beauty was hypnotic. I was tempted to reach out. “Wat tam kti ne tam kjat ioh shah khyrwait ha ki basa,” warned Kenneth in chaste Khasi, as if reading my mind. He was echoing the ancient warning – do not take anything from the forest.

As we walked along, Kenneth talked more. The Khasi tribe, he explained, had a strong bond with nature. It’s never man versus the wild, it is man and the wild. “We have been coexisting for centuries,” he said. “Our ancestors prayed to the god ‘lew basa’ to watch over this forest. And hence, no one can take anything from here,” he said firmly, as we found our way back, no sign of the dreaded sein basa.

Waiting for us in the village, was the council president. He knew my views about the legend because he immediately greeted me with a challenge. “Go ahead,” he said, “take a twig back home from the forest and be the judge.”

I thought about it long and hard. Why didn’t I just go ahead and take the twig? My choice of not taking the twig was as telling an action as taking one. Somewhere, underneath all that sceptical bluster, I really was afraid. The walk through that magical forest with its monoliths and dark green mysteries had shifted something.

“Go ahead, take it,” Lynghdoh insisted, this time with a smile. “Stories of the forest are not myths. Myths are what the world thinks they are because people don’t know much or have not seen the wonders.”

Lynghdoh’s ancient eyes had seen them. Standing at the edge of the forest with this wise man who believed that no matter how modern man became, there would always be a power higher than him, was the moment I began to believe.

I went back home without the twig.

Edited by Gauri Ghadi

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