Mawphlang Sacred Forest – A Photo Story

Its no secret that India’s northeast is treasure-trove of many fascinating places. Ranging from varied natural wonders, age old archeological remains, living cultural sites of various tribes to religious places of mythological importance, India’s incredible north-east has it all! While on my trip to Meghalaya, I got an opportunity to visit one such interesting place – the Mawphlang sacred forest or Lawkyntang in Khasi. It is approximately 27 kilometers away from the state capital – Shillong.  Local Khasi people of Meghalaya, although now converted to Christianity have always remained nature worshippers. An important aspect of Khasi culture is their reverence for sacred forests. These sacred forests have been preserved and nurtured by the Khasi tribals for ages through strict religious sanctions.

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The road from Shillong to Mawphlang is quite scenic, winding its way through pretty hamlets along the road. After driving for about 40 minutes, the landscape dramatically changed, and I could see green hillocks all around covered with tiny green grass and a dense forest popping out from nowhere! The surrounding area is bereft of trees so this forest looks like an oasis in the grassy desert.

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We took a local guide with us and entered the forest through a small entrance formed by the natural canopies of Rhododendron trees. Just at the entrance, there were a few menhirs; our guide quickly told us that the standing menhir signifies a male while a horizontal stone slab supported on small stones signifies a female.  He was quick to tell us about the ‘strict’ rules of sacred forest that scared us a bit. One can sit on the female menhir for some rest but no one can or should climb a male menhir; the person who dared do so would get elephantitis! Not sure whether he was joking, we reluctantly nodded and entered the forest.

What we saw at the entrance was just a trailer, as inside the forest there were an infinite number of menhirs and funerary mounds / Dolmens, housing relics of the long dead ancestors. Menhirs were often erected in the memory of the dead elderly people who were highly respected in the society for their knowledge. But one can also find other menhirs, smaller in size, perhaps used for sitting while performing ceremonies and some used as platforms for ritualistic animal sacrifices. Khasi tribals visit these on many occasions but especially before going to war. 

Read more about menhirs and dolmens here

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The male menhir

 

 

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Menhir used as a platform for animal sacrifice

 

 

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A group of monoliths

 

 

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A Dolmen

 

 

 

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The forest seemed more of an overgrown megalithic site teeming with Menhirs than a sacred forest. But for the Khasis, the nature spirits and their ancestors are sacred

 

Once inside the forest, we were flabbergasted by what we saw. Such a beautiful sight that it could compete with best of the Hollywood movie sets! We were surrounded by so many different kinds of trees and plants as if it was a live botany lab! The forest got denser as we went further. Owing to the density of the foliage, sunlight could hardly enter except filtered through the thickets of leaves and branches making the gloomy interior of the forest even more mysterious.

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As we walked on the humus carpeted soft forest floor, our guide started giving us information and the scientific names of the plant species we were encountering along our path. Many species of parasitic Orchids, Rhododendrons, and mushrooms of various types could be spotted in abundance all around us. Other plant species that are common in the forest are Rhus Chinensis (Chinese Sumac or Nutgall), Schima Wallichi (Needlewood tree), Lithocarpus dealbatus, Engelher diaspicata (introduced by our guide as butterfly plant as when ruffled, its dried leaves appear like flying butterflies), Myrica Esculenta (box myrtle or Bayberry) and various Lichens. However the star attraction in the forest is the Castanopsis Kurzii trees as well as Khasi pine trees that form the dense canopy and also acts as a host to parasites like orchids, ferns, mushrooms, pipers, climbers and variety of mosses.

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There are so many unusual things in the forest fallen all around that we were tempted to pick them up and take them back as souvenirs especially the seeds of Elaeocarpus Ganitrus or as we know them commonly; Rudraksh. Why not- anyway it is just lying around; I thought. But our guide warned me not to take anything that belongs here outside the forest as these forests are protected by spirits locally called as U Ryngkew U Basa. These are believed to be sent by the Gods to protect the forest from human abuse. To convince me, the guide narrated a past incident when the army officers tried to take out wooden logs from the forest. But the truck carrying the logs refused to move from its place until the logs were unloaded and put back into the forest.

Carrying any of the forests’ belongings outside is believed to anger the Gods and the protective spirit here, which results in a poisonous snake being spotted by miscreant resulting in injury or death. Good behavior and no ill intentions while entering the forest is rewarded by being protected by a tiger or a leopard! Call me superstitious or whatever but not wanting to hurt their sentiments I dropped everything I had collected before leaving the forest. Thank God our guide at least allowed me to take the pictures I had clicked inside in my camera to be taken outside. Jokes apart, I have never seen something this awesome in my life before. I strongly suggest everyone to come here and visit this stunning biological museum of the Khasis whenever you make it to Meghalaya.

 

It is heartening  how nature holds utmost importance in Khasi culture and despite modernization and rampant abuse of nature elsewhere, these forests remain protected by men for whatever reasons. The way these beliefs are deeply embedded in the minds of the people truly speaks how constructive religious sanctions can be at times resulting in the continual development of a responsible society. Some traditions are worth keeping and following

 

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Free and wild growing roots of the trees have spread far and wide for there is no human to interfere here

 

How to reach: Hiring a taxi from Shillong (27 kilometers) to reach Mawphlang is the easiest way to reach. Shillong is less than 2 hours by road from Guwahati – the biggest city in Northeast with regular domestic flights to all major cities in India.

Where to stay: Although staying in Shillong is the most convenient option, a more adventurous traveller can opt to stay in the traditional Khasi huts constructed in Mawphlang village. Adventurous for the reason considering its remote location overlooking a valley, electricity is often a luxury here with not even small shops anywhere closeby!

Best time to travel here: Avoid monsoons for obvious reasons! Mawphlang village is also venue to an annual 3 day festival known as the ‘Monolith Festival’ in March.

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be reached at onkaar7@gmail.com

Megaliths of Mallachandram

 “Megaliths were not built for commoners. They signify the emergence of a ruling class or elite who presided over a surplus economy,”

Ravi Korisettar, Retired Professor of Archaeology, Karnatak University.

The mega mausoleums and charming  Chattris (cenotaphs) did have a predecessor in megalithic sites strewn all over the world. Megalithic culture whose remnants in the form of neatly arranged stone slabs encapsulating a burial site is a fascinating insight into a time and culture of which little is known and a lot is speculated. Though there is no consensus on the dates but evidences and a few radiocarbon dates reveal that this culture arrived in the country much later than it did in Europe. Stonehedge was built roughly 5000 years ago !

The term Megalith is derived from two Greek words ‘Mega’ meaning huge and ‘Lithos’ meaning stone. ‘Megalithic Culture’ is an intriguing subject of study in the Archaeological field. In India, majority of the archaeologists trace the Megalithic sites to Iron Age i.e., the period from 1500 BCE to 300 BCE, though there are a few sites dating back to 2000 BCE (close to 4000 years ago). There are more than 2000 prehistoric sites in peninsular India, most of which are neither studied nor documented properly.

The Neolithic people were simple hardworking folks who practiced agriculture, made stone tools and lived in a fairly organized society that had their own belief system. The recovery of pieces of pottery and rice husk along with tools from megalithic sites reveal how strongly the pre-historic people believed in afterlife.  The final stages of megalithic culture that was extant mostly in the Deccan Plateau and the entire South India overlapped with the Sangam Age of Tamil literature. Therefore, one finds references in the Sangam epics about various burial practices

“Those who cremated, those who cast away or exposed the dead to the elements or animals. Those who laid the body in pits which they dig into the ground, those who interred the body in subterranean cellars or vaults and those who place the body in a burial-urn and inverted a lid over it.” (Ch 6.11)

Manimekalai, one of the 5 epics of Tamil Sangam literature

Mallachandram in Krishnagiri is one such megalithic site in Tamil Nadu. Though similar to the megalithic site of Hirebenekal in Koppal district (close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi), Mallachandram remains unknown. It is considered to be an important megalithic site and is home to numerous Dolmens  along with some prehistoric paintings.

Mallachandram is one of the best sites to understand prehistoric settlements as it seems that the site was occupied for a long period of time by various ancient settlements.  The same is evident from the dolmens of different designs. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact period of the prehistoric settlement here, a rough estimate would be about 3500 years ago. R.A. Cole, an archeological investigator who did extensive studies on the megalithic tombs of Coorg/ Kodagu had the impression that these structures may have served as altars or temples. Whereas, the accepted theory beyond the construction of the dolmen and other megalithic structures is that they are associated with burying the deceased and this theory is time and again substantiated by the findings of skeletal remains when these structures were excavated.

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Dolmen is a megalithic structure which since prehistoric times is believed to have been used for burials of the dead. A Dolmen structure comprises of a cap-stone, floor-stone and four vertically standing stones.

Menhirs are monolithic undressed/dressed stones planted vertically into the ground, which can vary in height and structure size from small to gigantic. Few researchers believe Menhirs to be associated with burials, while many relate them to the Solstice.

megalith3The mysterious Mallachandram dolmens, numbering more than 200 have survived the test of time and are standing tall. Majority of the dolmens here are of porthole type except for a few earlier ones, and they can be categorized into four types. The most common type of dolmen found here is surrounded with dry masonry stone circle called dry masonry walled cists. The second type of dolmen found here is surrounded with dry masonry stone circle and menhirs (standing stones). These menhirs have been beautifully dressed to have similar shape. The third type of dolmen here is the dolmenoid slab cist, which are very few in number probably indicating that these were the graves of the leader/ king/ god man of these people. The fourth type of dolmen is plain, devoid of structures around it. Another interesting structure seen here is the one with a central standing stone surrounded by a stone circle.

4. Dry masonry wall cist
Dry masonry wall cist
4a. Dry Masonry wall cist
Dry masonry wall cist
5. Dry Masonry wall cist with Menhirs
Dry masonry wall cist with menhirs
6. Dolmenoid slab cist
Dolmenoid slab cist – A square or rectangular grave box pit
7. Earliest kind of Dolmen
Earliest kind of dolmen
8. Standing stone surrounded by stone circle
A standing stone surrounded by a stone circle

There are prehistoric paintings in white, seen on the inner walls of a few dolmens. Most of these paintings depict scenes of hunting and activities from daily life with some paintings of various animals. All the dolmen structures are spread across two hills near the village of Mallachandram. The dolmens on the first hill seemed to be more disturbed when compared to the dolmens on the second hill. This site has survived vandalism owing to the low quality stone used here for construction of dolmens and the presence of many other sources of stones around. A little further from the dolmen site is an ancient quarry.

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Prehistoric paintings on the walls of the dolmens
9a. White Prehistoric paintings
prehistoric painting on the walls of the dolmens
10. Ancient Quarry Site
Remains of an ancient stone quarry
10a. Ancient Quarry site
An Ancient stone quarry

Mallachandram is an interesting megalithic site with formations that have evolved and replaced the other over time. This site needs to be subjected to further archaeological studies and investigations. But before that, Mallachandram’s megaliths need to be protected and preserved.

How to reach :  Mallachandram is about 3 km away from National Highway NH44, about 25 km from Hosur towards Krishnagiri is Samalpallam, take left near Samalpallam to reach here.

Reference and suggested reading:

  1. “The Megalithic Culture in South India” by B.K. Gururaja Rao

 

Author – Dhiraj Shenoy. He is a travel blogger and blogs here

He can be reached at dhiruguri@gmail.com