Travelling through the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the Meghalaya landscape never fails to evoke a sense of awe and wonder. As if in a myth or a folktale, the world seems to drop away right before your eyes at a sharp bend in the road into deep green valleys; endless series of hills, adorned with white, wispy crowns of clouds appear and disappear entirely, as if by magic, gobbled up by a wall of dense fog which sneaks up without warning; water bodies reflect the sunlight, making you blink and imagine the mythical creatures who might inhabit them, and the stories they might tell you if you happened to meet them.
[Views of parts of Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya.]
Nestled in this extraordinary landscape of the ‘abode of the clouds’ (the meaning of Meghalaya in Sanskrit) are the communities, towns and people who call this magical place home, a people who have been living in a state of flux, bombarded by so much change to their lives that it is hard to keep up.
Legislative, political, industrial, cultural, global and regulatory influences have all played their part in bringing about a heady, and arguably confusing, pace of change in the lives of the people of this beautiful land.
Who are they and how have they and their land adapted to these fast-changing times?
The Khasi community are the indigenous people of Meghalaya and the largest ethnic group in the state and in its charming hill station capital city of Shillong. This is a community with a strong cultural identity, deep communal ties and one of the few remaining communities around the world to follow the matrilineal system of inheritance and descent. Their cultural history and identity has been passed down generations in the form of stories, myths and folktales, since the Khasi language was oral until the arrival of the Christian Welsh missionaries in the mid 1800s, who transcribed it into written form, and converted a large proportion of the population to Christianity along the way.
A relatively small community with a unique cultural identity, the Khasis were under the threat of being swallowed up by the much wider cultural influences all around them, with their culture and identity in need of protection. To that end, they, along with many other tribal peoples of India, were included in the Scheduled Tribes category in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of India, which gives members of their community certain protective legal privileges, such a land acquisition and business ownership in the state of Meghalaya, thus helping to keep the community and its traditions intact.
[Views of parts of Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya.]
However, as is true elsewhere in the world, as much as we might attempt to preserve the uniqueness of micro-cultures, it is impossible, and arguably inadvisable, to keep out all the influences of the modern world, whether they are in tangible forms, such as tourism or industrial progress, or in the form of broader, more intangible concepts, such as globalisation, with all its far-reaching effects and implications.
Wanphrang Diengdoh, a Shillong-based award-winning filmmaker, musician and installation artist, says that the advent of cable television, which arrived in Shillong during the economic liberalisation period in the 90s, had a significant impact on contemporary Khasi culture. Wanphrang believes Shillong had a readymade audience for the likes of MTV, Star TV and so on, since most of the youth in the capital already spoke English, having been educated in English in Christian schools set up by the missionaries, who made no distinctions in this regard, based on caste or gender.
Prior to this exposure, and perhaps even intrusion, of the world at large into the lives and living rooms of everyday Khasi people, the hearth was the centre of daily entertainment, with folk tales being narrated by the older generations, and folk music being played. Suddenly, Wanphrang says, the focus shifted from the traditional hearth to the TV, with the grandmother and her stories not being able to compete with the novelty factor of the TV and all the dizzying variety of content it offered from around the world. “A child’s imagination gets blown by Cartoon Network, parents’ roles as entertainers become secondary,” he says.
[Matilda Sawkmie, Laetitia Warjri’s grandmother, who like most Khasi women of her generation, passed on the myths and folk tales to her children and grandchildren in the form of traditional storytelling.]
The upshot of this proliferation of new ideas and influences from around the world was an explosion in music and fashion, which were already popular locally. “People in Shillong were always aware of worldwide music and fashion trends," says Laetitia Warjri, a Delhi-based Khasi freelance writer and journalist, “Shillong youth was always very passionate about new music, trying to get hold of the latest music tapes and then CDs however and wherever they could, while Princess Diana was held up as a style icon, as were the original supermodels."
However, Laetitia feels that the effects of the regulatory changes opening up the Indian economy in the early 90s took some time to filter through to the day-to-day activities of the people, while the arrival of the internet undoubtedly played a huge part in making both music and fashion trends more accessible to them. Traditionally an image-conscious society, says Laetitia, “By the early 2000s, all the girls were copying Katie Holmes’ choppy bob and the boys were all looking like Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys."
[View of Cherrapunji, nestled in the ‘abode of the clouds’.]
It was also in the first decade of the 21st century that music became much more easily available through internet downloads, which had a huge effect on diversifying and increasing the already eager music consumption in Shillong. Laetitia Warjri remembers her time as a teenager in Shillong, being able to make a list of the latest songs one liked and then simply paying someone a small amount of money to download it from the internet and burn it onto a CD, which is what all the kids did on a weekly basis, she says. Suddenly, young people from Shillong had an easy, cheap and fast way to feed their unending appetite for new music from anywhere in the world.
Today, Shillong is known as India’s Rock music capital, and since the early 2000s, major international rock bands have come to the city to perform.
By the mid 2010s, festivals like NH7 had arrived, bringing with them all manner of live bands with new sounds and new ideas of what it is to be cool, both from within India and from abroad. As a result, the demand for local bands has fallen, in favour of the latest musical definition of what is cool.
[The expansive landscape which allows the formation of incredible clouds stretching for miles, which might have given rise to the name for this region, ‘The Abode of the Clouds’]
“The music companies which run such events are gentrifying and sanitising the Indian music scene by harnessing talent for profit,” says Wanphrang. As an antidote to this music culture sanitisation, Wanphrang is involved in a new-wave Khasi music project called Ñion, creating music which speaks in the local language about the anxieties of present-day Khasi society. As in his many films, all based in Shillong, he is attempting to chronicle the realities that indigenous communities face. When asked why he chooses to focus on this, he says, “It is my moral obligation as a father to tell our stories to my daughter, just as previous generations once did around the hearth."
On a more tangible level, widespread industrial activity in Meghalaya has been responsible for a great deal of environmental damage.
“These industries were supposed to bring economic growth to the people of Meghalaya, instead the environment, the ecosystem, crops and livelihoods are being systematically destroyed,” says Gordon Bruce, Rangbah Shnong (elder or headman of a traditionally elected form of local government) and retired employee of a Meghalaya financial corporation.
From extensive deforestation for the production of charcoal, which damages the local ecosystem (in the West and South West Khasi Hills, and East Garo Hills), to the multitude of cement factories polluting the air and rivers of the region with cement and lime dust (in the East Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills and the Ri Bhoi District), and especially the tens of thousands of coal mines dotted all over the East Jaintia and West Khasi Hills. This last industry has been especially controversial due to its devastating effect on the rivers in the region, turning them so acidic that some of them have been tested by the authorities and their water has been declared ‘unfit for human consumption’ with a Ph level of 3.
[A view through one of the many smaller waterfalls in the Cherrapunji/Sohra area.]
A blanket ban on ‘rat hole mining’ was eventually put into place by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 to protect the environment. However, such a ban brings with it its own challenges. How are the local people, previously employed at over 24,000 coalmines operating in the Jaintia Hills alone, supposed to support their families, now that they can no longer work in the mines?
Government initiatives for skill development courses for the unemployed miners have been launched earlier this year, however the degree of their success is yet to be assessed. Long standing requests by the Meghalaya government for exemptions from the limitations imposed by the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act, based on the conflict it creates with the tribal rights of the Sixth Amendment scheduled areas of the state, have been denied by the Centre, unless mining activity can be shown to be safe, secure, scientific and environmentally friendly. Only time will tell if the mining industry of the state can reach the required standards for operations to resume.
[Umiam Lake, located to the North of Shillong, popular with tourists for its water sport and adventure facilities.]
The tourism industry has also had, and continues to have, a profound effect on the lives of the people of Meghalaya, both in terms of potential profit and employment for the local community, and in terms of the environmental effects of having such large numbers of people visiting the region.
[The view from Mawkdok Bridge, where the Cherrapunji/Sohra region begins.]
While many hotels have sprung up over the last decade near the most popular tourist sites, such as in the Sohra/Cherrapunji area in the East Khasi Hills, providing some employment for the locals, there has been little in the way of regulation, let alone any organised efforts made towards sustainability. “Most of the accommodation, which has been built, is in the form of hotels which have not been designed with the landscape in mind,” says Gordon Bruce.
Some of the most popular tourist sites of the state, such as Nohkalikai Falls, Khoh Ramhah and the popular Living Roots Bridge trek in Cherrapunji/Sohra, become congested and littered during peak season, as a result of tourism activity.
Earlier this year, a report was released by Tathagata Roy, Meghalaya’s Governor, claiming an 80 percent increase in tourist footfall in Meghalaya over the course of the last 10 years, which he attributed to a combination of the success of government initiatives and the hospitality of the local people. One such recent initiative is to create the Mebai Tribal Health and Wellness Centre, which is due to be inaugurated soon and promises to offer tourists a new kind of holistic therapy, based on a combination of Ayurveda and the Khasi traditional healing system, which uses indigenous medicinal plants and healing techniques. The aim is to create a new kind of product for the tourist market, while providing jobs to the many trained healers in the area and increasing employment to service the centre and its visitors.
[A bridge along the Living Roots Bridge trek in the Cherrapunji/Sohra area of the East Khasi Hills.]
However well meaning these government initiatives are, this no longer seems enough. With tourist numbers on the rise at such an alarming pace, many argue that it is imperative that a greater degree of regulation is put in place with regard to what kind of construction is being built to meet this demand and how it is being constructed. “Tourism can and must be made sustainable to preserve the nature and the environment of Meghalaya,” says Gordon Bruce.
Without a doubt, sustainability is a huge issue, which must be addressed by future policy makers, else the very natural beauty that all the visitors are flocking to see may no longer be there in the future.
The other major issue facing the future development of tourism in Meghalaya is that of infrastructure. The existing infrastructure of the state, both in terms of roads and internet connectivity, simply isn’t enough to meet — never mind maximize — the growing demands of the tourism industry. There are incredibly beautiful sites, such as the Laitlum Canyons, to be seen less than 30 kilometres from Shillong, as well as many more natural gems further away from the capital. However the condition of the roads to reach them is so poor that tourists find it very difficult to get there.
[Police Bazaar, a popular local nightlife hotspot, with music venues, bars and restaurants, frequented by the youth of Shillong.]
Shillong is a small city often choked by traffic jams; entering and leaving the city can mean being stuck in a jam lasting up to two hours, with many roads outside the city, including those used by tourists to reach the most popular sites, in terrible condition. Internet connectivity outside Shillong is intermittent at best, and essentially non-existent in many parts, and most modern-day tourists staying a few nights in an unfamiliar place expect to be able to stay connected to the internet, at least when they get back to their hotels.
Benjamin Lyngdoh, who teaches at the NEHU Campus Shillong, advocates devising a sustainable tourism development model. In his Shillong Times article on the ‘Tourism Attractiveness of Meghalaya’ he writes, “In failing to do so, we will be in continued deprivation of the real socio-economic benefits from tourism and the sector will continue to grow in an unsustainable manner." He also states, “It is important that we view tourism as a source of ‘bread and livelihood’ and not some source of stop-gap, short-term windfall gain(s). Unless we have this perception, our initiative of tourism development will be bereft of encompassing practices and processes which evoke a degree of sustainability, or even responsibility."
—All photographs by Polina Schapova