Hikers on the Mawphlang David Scott Trail (Photos courtesy: Janice Pariat)
OUR JOURNEY BEGINS AND ENDS WITH DESTRUCTION, THOUGH in between there is such beauty it makes the heart ache. Early morning, we head out of Shillong in a local taxi—it isn’t far to go—and all along the sides of the road are pine trees, felled and fallen. There really isn’t a more tragic sight, but the highway must be expanded, it has been decreed, to relieve daily commuters of hours-long traffic jams between Shillong and elsewhere.
All of us in the car wish there were other more considerate options. Ironically, we are headed to Mawphlang, famed for its “sacred grove”, a stretch of forest belonging to the shnong or village where everything—tree, fruit, leaf—must remain untouched, and untouched it has all remained for hundreds of years. That is not where our trek begins though. We turn off before we come to the forest, dark and rich in the distance, at the edge of a strip of rolling slopes bright and winter yellow. The trail head is at Nongrum Mawphlang or Lower Mawphlang, where the taxi stops, and we tumble out into cool, clear air. Rain has been predicted—but the weather in these hills is happily erratic, and right now the morning is blue-skied and lit by mild sunshine.
We are here to walk a bit of history. History that remains largely lost and unknown to the rest of the world, but which played a decisive role in shaping the geopolitical boundaries of this region. Towering above us, a signboard declares that the David Scott Briddle (sic) Path is a historical trail, constructed in 1829, and is recognised by the UN as an “Indigenous and Community Conserved Area” (ICCA). Who on earth is David Scott some might ask? For he isn’t a figure well embedded in the popular imagination or for that matter in many history books. A Google search will bring up pages dedicated to an American astronaut, and he is definitely not the David Scott I mean. This one was an officer of the East India Company who served on the northern and eastern frontier of the Bengal Presidency from 1802 to1831. The years of his service here saw rapid British territorial expansion—Scott’s imperial vision extended to the creation of European cantonments and even military colonies in the Khasi hills. Added to this were a string of dubious “treaties” that he signed with local chiefs, weakening their control over their land and natural resources. The trail, named after him, is a 100-kilometre trade route leading all the way down to Bangladesh, constructed when the British were working frantically to gain an administrative foothold in the region. Today, we will be walking a sixteen-kilometre stretch of it, beginning in Nongrum Mawphlang and emerging in Sohra.
We are here to walk a bit of history. History that remains largely unknown to the rest of the world, but which played a decisive role in shaping the geopolitical boundaries of this region. Towering above us, a signboard declares that the David Scott path is a historical trail
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ADMITTEDLY, SCOTT AND his unscrupulous shenanigans are not on our minds as we set off. First, our numbers increase, as we’re joined by a friendly black and white indie doggo, who we christen “Poi Ei” (one who appears just like that). Then we stop to marvel at a particularly well-constructed maw-shongthait—a traditional seat made from stones.
All across these hills you will find them, stone structures that serve a multitude of purposes, from offering rest to weary travellers to marking a clan’s funeral path, from commemorating a life to serving as receptacle of ash and bone. We also marvel at the countryside—our path is flanked by wild hedges and tall pines, all surfaces glittering green and gold in the morning light. I carry with me, though, a secret. In my backpack, the slim memoir of David Scott, cobbled together by his cousin Archibald Watson in 1832 with the assistance of a Major Adam White. Its less than succinct title reads Memoir Of The Late David Scott, Esq: Agent To The Governor General, On The North-east Frontier Of Bengal And Commissioner Of Revenue And Circuit In Assam, and I have brought it along because it seemed appropriate—if we were to be walking his trail, perhaps we could also get to know the man a little.
I say nothing of this yet to the others; we have just rounded a bend, and suddenly it is as though the whole world has enlarged before us. This is the trickery that a path in these hills plays on you I’ve realised, opening up when you least expect it, and reminding you that you are in the land of vast and infinite gorges. We stand there a while, the wind whistling, the slopes dropping away mightily before us, the sun warming our backs. When we carry on, we are amazed that the path is still in such good condition—smooth and prominent, winding clearly, solidly ahead of us. It is difficult though to shake off entirely the weight of history, heavy as these stones laid down centuries ago to pave the way for empire. What did they make of these views, I wonder? Those soldiers and officers marching through so long ago—were their thoughts trained only on gain and profit? On family and home? On self and survival? Walking a historical path such as this enmeshes all temporalities, theirs and ours, the past and now, their every step and the ones we take.
IT IS A relatively easy trail to begin with. The path is flat or winds down the slopes, and we are followed by expansive views of the hills, richly forested, and far below the winding route of Wah Ñianglieng. Poi Ei leads the way, sometimes running ahead, and then stopping and waiting for us. We cross a small crystal-clear stream, massive walls of fungi-filigreed rock, like canvasses of abstract paintings, and soon enough a suspension bridge across Wah Ñianglieng. From here on, we follow the river, past grassy meadows, grazing cows, and rest awhile when we cross again at a particularly shallow spot, dotted with pink and grey stones. Then we begin to climb. Up forested slopes, where on one side, ostrich ferns cascade like waterfalls. Even in the dead of winter they are green. We stop to look at moss, at flower-shaped mushrooms, and pass few people along the way. One of us calls to a bird who responds, some of us sing. It is exceedingly peaceful—until I reveal what I’m carrying in my backpack, and I’m encouraged to do an impromptu reading. Scott’s words, captured in his letters, are unsettling—his conviction that the British held national rule over these hills, that, in one instance, the murder of a British officer must prompt a wave of retribution so violent it left entire villages burning.
All across these hills you will find stone structures that serve a multitude of purposes, from offering rest to weary travellers to marking a clan’s funeral path, from commemorating a life to serving as receptacle of ash and bone
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“To secure our position, it became necessary to set fire to the houses skirting the jungle—but being filled with grain, it extended to the whole village, and soon presented a scene strangely contrasted—looking up, a lofty pillar of fire, beyond it, dense smoke of great sublimity. Beneath, a strange Bacchanalian scene of license rose upon the view—soldiers shooting pigs and fowl, searching for plunder, others made free with spirituous liquor… they all made admirable cheer for the evening, and the free spirit of a camp reigned throughout.” We take consolation only in the quiet, in the rhythm of our walking, in birdsong, in the chirrup of insects. Such unknown, unrecorded, unforgivable atrocities these hills have seen, and yet here they are, and will outlive us all. What can we learn from their wisdom?
SOON ENOUGH, WE arrive at Jathang. A small village nestled in the slopes, dotted with grazing goats and clucking chickens. Here is where Poi Ei leaves us, settling in for a snooze. We thank him and continue; it is lunch time, so we find a grassy spot and share tiffin—aloo parathas, bacon sandwiches, trail mix, cold pizza, oranges—and chatter. The sky, as it happens often, is suddenly overcast, and tinged with grey. We have a while yet to go; we hope the weather holds. When we set off, the landscape shifts and changes. We walk beside a small river of iridescent water, shimmering in the afternoon light, and come across people from the village washing their laundry. At one point, we stop at a waterfall that drops into a pool so unbelievably clear, it appears to be out of a fairy tale. As enchanting are the boulders, sitting so colossal in the landscape, thrown down the slopes in seismic disarray, that they are their own presence. I am coming to realise more and more, thanks to my walks in these hills, why we are a storied people—who endow the natural world with potent agency. It is impossible not to, when standing by a rushing waterfall, a secret forest, a boulder towering like a giant, or entering a riddle of caves. The landscape is even better admired via a small detour that takes us up a steep hill to a viewpoint. From there, a vast panorama of hills and crashing boulders—and a moment to rest among the reeds swept by the breeze. The only note of disquiet is a glimpse of distant pockmarked slopes, indiscriminate quarrying for stone and sand, creeping across the hills. For how long, we all wonder, will we be able to enjoy this view?
WE ARE REACHING the end of our trail. Sohra isn’t far. Yet even though the path is pretty—a tree growing strikingly at the edge of a stone cliff, dense forests, more beautiful boulders, an old, elegant stone bridge, more fungi like butterflies—we are nearing the quarries. And they are huge. How unsettling to walk beside earth that is gouged out, separated, shovelled into trucks, and sent out to meet the inexhaustible demands of new construction. We fall silent, walking faster, stopping only momentarily to gaze in some wonder at the layers of the earth, standing bare and revealed. We are looking at time, one of us says. And all at once, again, in me, that sense of tangled temporalities—from that morning the felled pines, Scott’s words, his imperial agenda, and us, standing there all inhabiting the very same moment. It is impossible to leave a sight like this entirely behind us, but we do proceed to end our trail in a pleasanter manner—walking through narrow winding paths overhung with forest. The sky though is now rapidly darkening, and even though this last bit, for some of us, begins to feel challenging, we push on, to finally emerge at the end of the trail, where our local taxi is waiting. Just then, a soft drizzle starts to fall, so we tumble in, and drive off to find food and shelter at the charming Café Cherrapunjee at nearby Mawkdok. A converted 125-year-old dak bungalow, with bare stone walls, wooden rafters, roaring fireplaces, and, at that time of year, bedecked with sparkly Christmas decorations. Food here is served swift and warm, even if the menu is a happy hodgepodge of dishes from everywhere—biryani, bamboo shoot pork, kebabs, all end up on our table. We talk about our day, our walk, revelling in that small sense of achievement at having completed a trail. We speak about David Scott, his words still hanging about us like gnats. We eat to the jingle of Christmas carols, and when we leave, the rain is coming down steadily, and Sohra slides away from view behind clouds drifting thick and opaque. No trip to this side of the hills is complete though without a stop at Mylliem, less than an hour away from Shillong, a stretch of road festooned with jadoh shops, where I’ve eaten some of the best local meals. This evening though, only sha saw—red tea, sans milk, made with water boiled on a wood fire so the smokiness lingers through the sugary sweet—and some Christmas cake I fish out of my backpack, squished but still delicious. We are happy but tired, and I feel as though I have travelled through more than just the length of a day—that along the way I’ve journeyed through centuries. That the past isn’t ever over, that it lives on in our lives here in ways that perhaps we are only beginning to fathom. The David Scott trail is a hundred kilometres long, yet endless.