In every turn in Meghalaya nature has a story to tell. Amongst the brooding mountains and the fiery skies, living root bridges, and natural swimming pools, the dark Khasi forests have a completely different story to tell. Among the gushing rivulets, whispering trees, and sacrificial stones, there are cultural secrets and sermons that have been held for centuries. These are the sacred groves of Meghalaya – sacred forests that are as refreshing as enigmatic.
About 25 miles from the city of Shillong lies the sacred forests of Mawphlang, tucked in the Khasi hills. With a cultural history of more than 800 years, Mawphlang Forest is the oldest and the largest sacred forest existing for the Khasi tribes. The Khasi hills have over 50 sacred forests. Each forest has a sacred grove where the tribes assemble to offer sacrifices. These groves are said to be protected by a local deity and are thus considered sacred to the clan members. The Mawphlang sacred forest is protected by the local deity named Labasa.
Mawphlang left me in awe. And to understand Mawphlang it may be essential to understand the Khasi tribe. The Khasi tribe in Meghalaya worships the beauty that nature has bestowed on them and the spirit of conservation is deeply embedded in the people probably rooted in several religious beliefs. The tribes are quite sentimental when it comes to preserving the natural environment. As per their belief, every village is incomplete and has no identity without its own sacred forest. And Mawphlang (in local language translation it is ‘Maw’ means stone and ‘Phlang’ means grass, or the land of endless grassy stones), being the largest and the most prominent was the perfect place to understand the bond Khasi people have with nature.
Mawphlang has its own tales – a seemingly unexplored world full of mysteries, magic, and the eccentric. The sacred forest was the home of the Blah community. The legend says that when a war between the clans ensued and the Hima Mawphlang won, the search for a leader began. The search led them to a woman leader who was known to possess supernatural powers. The woman refused to become the leader and instead promised to make her son the leader if God gave her a sign. She planted some saplings inside the forest. Lore has it that she believed if the saplings survive for three years, her son was meant to be the leader. The saplings survived and her son took the title.
I started from Shillong early in the morning. A shared cab from the Police bazaar can take you on this splendid ride to Mawphlang. And for Meghalaya, I’ll rather stick my neck out and say that journey is sometimes as splendid as the destination. And so it is from Shillong to Mawphlang – rolling hills, the verdant meadows, the crisp air laden with moisture from the waterfalls nearby, the brooding wildflowers along the road, the occasional roadside coops selling pineapples and other fruits from the travelers and passerby, and the scattered woods appearing like remnants of some large forest that stretched all over this place.
In about an hour, the cab dropped me at the Mawphlang village. Another ten-minute walk from the village and I was at the ticket counter. I took the guide to explore the cultural and spiritual aspects of the sacred forest. The sacred forests of Mawphlang are steeped in lore and fables, and there’s a cultural and spiritual history behind every aspect of life here. My guide James told me that the local deity is sought for blessings in times of misfortune. Locals believe that the deity takes the form of a leopard and comes to save them.
Indeed, monoliths smatter the forests. As James points out, one can sense a spiritual aura around the monoliths or the sacrificial spots. This aura of the mysterious and the metaphysical almost trails you throughout the forest. One can feel movement or sounds when there is almost nothing around. There is a discernible eerie presence of something or someone, around you. This experience of the metaphysical around you is as nerve-wracking as exotic.
But don’t just come thinking of a megalith walk around the forests with some sacrificial spots. There’s a thrill in being in the wilderness here. Silence echoes here. And the dense deciduous trees form a netting of a verdant ceiling not letting even sunlight pass through. The rocks are covered with moss, and the dead trees are with rows of mushrooms. James asked me to not pick anything from the forests to take it outside, not even a leaf or a dead flower. “Labasa watches,” he whispered. There is a local belief that misfortune awaits you if you try to take something out of the forest. “Labasa can take the form of anything and harm you,” he adds. And I cannot say if that was the presence of something metaphysical, or eerie, or the effect of the folk tales, but I could feel some force around me. Like something was really guarding the forests.