A Monochromatic Day at East Sikkim

Touristy Yet Breathtaking Tsomgo Lake

As the car climbed up through the winding mountain side, the charming scenery all around suddenly gave way to monochrome. The sudden transition caught us off-guard leaving us tad surprised even though it had been raining off and on for a while now. The day had started bright and sunny but now the sky was overcast. The tall mountains on either side of the tarred road were cloaked in patches of white and grey.

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Pic 1: The monochrome surroundings 

We had arrived at Gangtok the day before with plans of visiting North Sikkim. However, leaving Gangtok without visiting the touristy Tsomgo Lake and Nathula Pass would be sinful – so what if these places are located in East Sikkim! Hence, off we headed towards Tsomgo Lake. Nathula Pass hadn’t opened for the season even though it was the month of April. Last winter was harsher than usual resulting in the Pass being still closed due to snow.

Situated at an altitude of 12,313 ft, the oval shaped Tsomgo is a glacial high-altitude alpine lake. Spread over 1 Km. with a depth of around 48 ft., it is also known as Changu Lake. The lake is considered sacred and located about 35 Km. away from Gangtok. The colour of the lake changes in different seasons and it is said that the spirituals gurus of Sikkim would predict the future of the state by studying the colour of the water. Due to its proximity to China, Protected Area Permit (PAP) is required to visit this place.

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Pic 2: The oval-shaped Tsomgo Lake as seen from a distance.

The lake looked stunning even though it was teeming with tourists. It was partially frozen making it even more enigmatic and magical. A large part of the surroundings was also wrapped in snow. The spectacular beauty of the lake enticed us but the swarm of people all around was quite a turn off. Tsomgo Lake being a popular tourist destination in Sikkim, the crowd wasn’t surprising and we had expected this. A small bridge connects one side of the lake to the other. We walked over to the other side. One can also avail yak rides to go to the other side.

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Pic 3: Notice the tiny people scattered like twigs all around?
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Pic 4: A prayer wheel breaks the monotony of black and white.
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Pic 5: Tourists ride these yaks to move around the lake.

After a short walk by the side of the lake, the touristy selfie-clicking chattering people got the better of us and we decided to leave. Instead we found a quiet place higher up in the mountain by the side of the road that provided a perfect view of the lake. And there we feasted in the magical scenic landscape of the ethereal lake nestled in between tall gigantic mountains. Everything remained black and white though.

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Pic 6: Reflection of the surrounding mountains on the half frozen lake.
Unfathomable Faith of Baba Mandir

Before spending time at Tsomgo Lake, we had gone to Baba Mandir – a unique temple that houses the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh. A very fascinating story is associated with this temple.

Harbhajan Singh was a soldier with the Indian Army. He belonged to the Punjab Regiment. In 1968, he was involved with flood and landslide relief work in Sikkim and North Bengal. During that time, the 27-year old soldier had slipped and fallen into a rivulet while escorting a mule column from Tuku La, his battalion headquarters, to Donguchui La. He went missing and all search efforts went in vain. After 5 days, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of a fellow soldier informing about his death by drowning and that his body was carried 2 Km. away from the site of accident by strong current. Apparently, he also expressed his desire of having a samadhi (tomb) built in his name. His body was discovered exactly at the mentioned place.

Thereafter he came to be known as Baba Harbhajan Singh and his regiment built a samadhi at the place where he was posted during his service. The samadhi is the original temple, located about 10 Km. away from the new temple. This we learnt much later while at Dzongu Valley. The place we visited happens to be the new temple built for the convenience of tourists. I wish I knew about the original samadhi well in time to be able to visit it.

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Pic 7: The story of Baba Harbhajan Singh displayed at the temple.

Army folklore has it that Baba Harbhajan Singh still guards the international boundary between India and China. Apparently both Indian and Chinese armymen have seen a human figure riding a horse along the border at night. It is also believed that Baba appears in dreams of fellow armymen warning about any untoward activities happening at the border. Chinese soldiers also set aside a chair for the Baba whenever a flag meeting is held between the two countries.

The Army payroll still has his name and he receives his salary, due promotions, and is also granted leave as per policy. All this intrigued me and I googled later to learn that the Baba goes home on September 13th every year when a berth is booked for him in Dibrugarh Express. Army officials take his portrait, uniform, and other belongings to his village Kuka, in Kapurthala district of Punjab. The same soldiers carry the belongings back to the Sikkim, once the leaves get over.

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Pic 8: The idol of  Baba Harbhajan Singh.

The new Baba Mandir has three rooms in a straight row. The room at the center has an idol of the soldier along with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism. The room on the right has a chair and a table that represents the Baba’s office. It also has a heater to keep him warm. The room on the left, is filled with water bottles. It is believed that water kept in the shrine is blessed by the Baba and if consumed after 21 days cures all possible ailments. Hoards of tourists and devotees visit the temple and offer things like toothbrushes, slippers, etc. One can also send letters to the Baba, which are opened by other soldiers.

The original samadhi has a room that has everything that may be required by the Baba, such as, neatly ironed uniforms, slippers, shoes, camp bed, etc. Indian Army soldiers polish the Baba’s boots, keep his uniform clean, and make his bed. The soldiers have apparently reported crumpled bed linen and muddy boots.

All of these would appear delusionary to a pragmatic mind. The Indian Army, however, believes in the spirit of Baba Harbhajan Singh. Everything in the universe cannot be fathomed by our limited understanding, hence let faith triumph over logic for this bizarre place of worship.

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Dzongu Valley – Distinctive World of the Lepcha Tribe


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“I couldn’t have had a better start to this day,” I said aloud as I looked out of the window of our room. Kanchenjunga Peak was covered by clouds but Pandim massif and Kabru peak were right there, seemingly looking at me acknowledging the statement that I just made. Mr. Karma, our homestay owner, had said the day before – “You have to be blessed by Kongchen Chu to set your foot here.” And, at that moment, blessed is what I felt! (Kongchen Chu is the local name for Mt. Kanchenjunga.)

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That’s what I woke up to on the morning of my birthday.

It was the month of April and the day was special as it was my birthday. My sister and I were in Dzongu Valley to experience the Lepcha way of life at Karma Lepcha’s home. Located in North Sikkim, Dzongu Valley is about 70 Km. away from Gangtok. The entrypoint to the valley is Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim.

The Lepchas

Located within the Kanchenjunga biosphere, Dzongu is sparsely populated, inhabited by the Lepcha Tribe – the happy and peace-loving aboriginal people of Sikkim. The Lepchas believe that they are descendants of the mountains and the word ‘Lepcha’ literally means ‘Children of the Gods’. The Lepchas are a vanishing tribe with a dwindling population of about 50k across parts of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and West Bengal. The Lepchas have lived in Dzongu Valley for centuries and it was declared as a protected area for the Lepchas in the 1960s.

Lepchas are nature worshipers and believe that Mt. Kanchenjunga or Kongchen Chu is their protector. They are duty-bound towards Mother Nature and believe that by performing good deeds they will be rewarded with an afterlife and eternal bliss at Mayal Lyang – heaven hidden in the foothills of Kongchen Chu. Lepcha folklore has that Dzongu is the bridge to Mayal Lyang, which is the place of origin of the Lepchas.

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Lazy leisurely mornings. With Mr. Karma Lepcha in his home.
When we Arrived

The day before we had made a dramatic entry to Dzongu Valley at dusk, when the sky was overcast with dark clouds and it was raining quite heavily. The low visibility through the narrow, broken, winding road right up to the village with a deep plunge to Teesta on one side wasn’t the most comfortable thing though! We were going towards Tingvong, a village in upper Dzongu where we were to put up at Rumlyang Homestay for the next two days.

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Towards Upper Dzongu – not the best of roads.
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The only motorable bridge that was destroyed in 2016 landslide when Teesta changed its course.

Dzongu is divided into the northern ‘Upper Dzongu’ and southern ‘Lower Dzongu’ by Rongyang River, a tributary of Teesta. Dzongu Valley is vast and remains largely uninhabited though both these regions have several villages. The mighty Teesta that separates Dzongu from the rest of North Sikkim had changed its course after a devastating landslide in 2016. This resulted in the breakdown of the only motorable bridge that connected the villages of Upper Dzongu. A hanging bridge now connects Upper Dzongu with mainland but it is a walkway and vehicles cannot pass through. Hence, the Innova we had been traveling in for the past few days could not go up to the village. It went upto the landslide area over the broken bridge and another vehicle arrived from the village to take us.

Earlier, as the Innova had taken a turn from Mangan towards Dzongu the stunning greenery had made us feel like we were entering Amazon Forest.

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Karma’s home Rumlyang Homestay. The upstair room is where we stayed.
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Rumlyang Homestay – a view from the backside.
The Welcome Drink

Karma and his brothers welcomed us to their home with Chee, the locally brewed liquor, served in bamboo mugs with bamboo straws. Chee is made by fermenting millets and is like an organic beer. As a custom, Chee can be consumed only after offering it to Mt. Kanchenjunga and there’s a particular way of doing this.

Aarack is the other local liquor that is brewed from cinnamon plant and has a strong and pungent taste.

The Lepchas lead a self-sustained life and vegetables and crops are grown with organic manure. They only buy rice, pulses, and salt from outside. Cooking in their kitchen still happens on earthen ovens with log fires – surreal to us, the city dwellers. Karma did have a LPG gas stove but they seldom use it. The village had just one provision store that didn’t have much to offer.

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Chee or millet wine – a traditional alcoholic beverage that’s brewed locally.
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In the kitchen, the surreal set up of which fascinated us. 
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The cooking place is called “pukum”. Some kitchens have an additional cooking place that looks smaller than this and is meant for larger utensils, which is called “putong”
The Picnic that Didn’t Happen

Day-1 in the village and my sister and I were up early in the morning. The sun was yet to reach the valley but the chirping and chattering birds made sure we stepped out of our room. Karma and his brothers – Dawa, Nordin, and Tashi – were still asleep.

The greenery in the morning light was freshly captivating. We took a stroll in the neighborhood amidst rice and cardamom fields, across icy rivulets, through random fluttering of Buddhist prayer flags, and admiring little boys and girls peeping though half-opened doors of their traditional huts.

We ended our morning odyssey by walking over to Karma’s elder brother’s home, situated closeby. Randomly walking into somebody’s home and introducing yourself – quite unimaginable, right?

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Immersed in everything green. Spot Karma’s home in the background.
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Cardamom cultivation found all around.
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Millet cultivation

Later that morning, my sister offered to prepare parathas for breakfast. Karma announced the weather was perfect and it was my birthday, and that called for a picnic. And off we went. Loaded pats and pans, some potatoes, and some rice and lentils onto the Bolero-like vehicle. Karma, his three brothers, a relative of theirs, and the two of us.

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Lingzya waterfall with a vertical drop of 300 ft.

We first went to Lingzya waterfall, a steep vertical drop of about 300 ft in the middle of greens. We spent a substantial amount of time there while Karma and gang indulged in noodling but with no success.

We then visited the Lingdem hot water spring, located in Lower Dzongu. The hot water spring has two log cabins for men and women. However, the outlet of both were clogged at that time and a common area was provided outside for everyone. We dipped into the hot waters for a good 45-50 min. along with Karma’s gang. Just visualize soaking in the goodness of the medicinal qualities and healing powers of a Himalayan hot Sulphur spring in the middle of a dense forest beside a stream of icy melt. Pure bliss!

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The hanging bridge over Rongyang, the only connection of Upper Dzongu to mainland. And, I just got to know this bridge has collapsed due to heavy rains this Summer  – super sad 😦
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Another view of the hanging bridge. And, it no longer is there!
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On way to Lingdem hot spring.

Soon after the rains decided to play spoil sport ruining our picnic plans and forcing us to return to the homestay for the day.

By evening, the rains had stopped and the skies had cleared up. Nordin and Dawa came by inviting us for a walk to the village school, and off we went with them. There we found Tashi playing football with the village boys and also met a school teacher with whom we had some interesting discussions about Sikkim’s political scenario.

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The village higher secondary school.
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Village boys practice football every evening in the school football field.

We ended the day with some melodious and rhythmic Lepcha music over a simple dinner of rice, dal, and potatoes. Nordin and my sister danced away while we cheered them, sipped Chee, and chatted our way into the night.

Kanchenjunga Views

Kanchenjunga remained covered by clouds had eluded us so far. The other peaks, namely, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Langam Chu, and Pungyong Chu were clearly visible most of the time. While Pungyong Chu is considered to be the guardian of Kanchenjunga, Langam Chu is the guardian of Tingvong village.

On Day-2, we woke up to clear skies and looked out of the window of our room and voila – there stood the majestic Kanchenjunga draped in shining white. We jumped out of bed and rushed out. Karma recommended we walk a few meters ahead in the street for a better view and we did just that without bothering to even brush our teeth. We wanted to make the most of the view before the clouds came back. The view, however, remained clear for the next 2-3 hours. Karma thought we were really lucky and I guess we were.

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Mt. Kanchenjunga peak as seen from the window of our room.
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The majestic Kanchenjunga, a closer view.
The Village Hike

My sister and I gelled very well with the two brothers, Dawa and Nordin. We were already having a great time together. So much so that they decided to postpone some work they had in Mangan and stay back to take us for a hike to the village monastery and the other five villages that constitute Tingvong Gram Panchayat in Upper Dzongu. These villages are Namprick, Nung, Tingvong, Lonkoo, and Kusoong.

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Tingvong village monastery

A flight of steep steps took us to the village monastery and the climb was not an easy one. It was a special day at the monastery and some rituals were underway. The monks offered us fruits, biscuits and butter tea.

Thereafter, we reached Kusoong village walking through cardamom fields and bamboo plantations, across rickety bamboo bridges over several streams, and a waterfall here and there. The day was bright and sunny until then. The weather Gods changed their mood soon and it started drizzling. Dawa and Nordin took us to their friend’s home where we decided to wait till the rains stopped. The slight drizzle, turned to hailstorm and heavy rains, which continued incessantly for the next 3 hours. Dawa prepared tea and noodles as we waited for the rains to stop.

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Somewhere along the way towards Kusoong village.
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A bamboo bridge along the way towards Kusoong village.
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Another bamboo bridge along the way towards Kusoong village.
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One of the several waterfall we encountered on the way.

Finally, the rains lessened. It was pretty late by then and we decided to go back to the homestay instead of the other villages. Karma had prepared some special bamboo shoot dish for us and we did not want to disappoint him by not having lunch. We reached back around 4.00 PM and had a late lunch together.

The rains continued lashing through the evening forcing us to remain indoors. It was cold and there was no electricity. We spend the evening in Karma’s kitchen cozily wrapped in blankets catching up on stories from our respective lives.

Bidding Goodbye

My sister and I left behind a part of ourselves at Dzongu. We are certain, we have some greater connection with Karma and his brothers. At Karma’s home, we never felt like guests. It was like visiting friends or family. There are many subtle feelings and emotions that I cannot describe in words. Dzongu has been super special and shall always remain so. God willing, I would love to go there once again and stay for a longer duration. Three days is hardly sufficient to explore the valley.

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With Karma and his brothers as we bid goodbye to Rumlyang Homestay. The yellow scarf around our necks is known as hada, khata, katak, or khada. It is a traditional ceremonial scarf that is presented to guests as part of the Lepcha culture.
Lepcha Words and Phrases

Here are some Lepcha words and phrases that we picked up during our stay:

  • Achuley: Cheers, used mostly while drinking Chee
  • Chee: Wine, liquor, alcohol
  • Chu: Mountain
  • Khamri: Hello
  • Tokchee: Thank you
  • Tokchee atim: Thank you very much
  • Eng: Younger sibling – brother or sister
  • Anum: Elder brother
  • Anom: Elder sister
  • Tyol: Friend
  • Amu: Mother
  • Abbu/Appa: Father
  • Tedi: Man
  • Teyue: Woman
  • Cho: Child
  • Ong: Water
  • Adho sa ab ryang shugo: What is your name?
  • Ho sarey jong nee: How are you?
  • Go arum se: I am good
  • Adhom go lenchyo matsyo: I love you
  • Kat, Net, Sam, Flee, Fumo: One, Two, Three, Four, Five
In Addition…

I have a feeling of incompleteness about this write up. Perhaps, I have not been able to capture the essence of Dzongu Valley. The feelings and emotions I have experienced are beyond words. I leave you with some more pictures.

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With Dawa (L) and Nordin (R) during the village trek. The large knife dangling from Dawa’s waist is locally known as ‘tukmok’. 
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That stem we are chewing is locally known as ‘thotney’. It has a sour taste similar to gooseberries and is an antidote for dehydration. It is used to make pickles.
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The ‘putong’ is also used to warm up when it gets really cold. A saucepan with water is always placed over it. The hot water is then used for drinking and for various household purposes like cleaning utensils, etc. Nordin sports a traditional Lepcha hat here.
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The house at Kusoong village where we waited for the rains to stop. The house owner (in blue boots), referred to as Anum or elder brother, has graduated from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He left his well-paid job in the city to teach Mathematics to children in the village school.
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Nordin proudly displays animal hooves, horns, and tusks, that are kept in houses and are considered to be lucky charms.
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Bundles of corn hung for drying in the balcony of the house in Kussong where we waited for the rains to stop.
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The well-kept house of Karma’s elder brother. It was really beautiful.
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The tidy and well-kept kitchen at Karma’s elder brother’s home was quite a contrast to Karma’s rustic minimalistic kitchen.
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The bolero-like vehicle that took us around. It’s named Langam Chu after the village’s guardian mountain and is apparently the first vehicle of Dzongu Valley.

Mawphanlur – Meghalaya’s Tiny Little Secret

It was a Sunday and I woke up to a bright and beautiful day. An ideal day in Spring. “No wonder I love Spring,” I thought to myself. Such kind of days are rare and special in my hometown, Shillong, where rain clouds are always lurking around the corner.

A Sunday like this must inadvertently be associated with countryside long drives. And so it was! As always, Brother-in-Law (BIL) and I set out on our tiny little adventure. Both of us are perfect partners in crime and totally in sync when it comes to exploring nature.

BIL picked me up and we set out without any particular plan or destination. Very soon we realized that the city was left behind and we still hadn’t decided the plan for the day. BIL didn’t waste time in expressing his wish of driving towards West Khasi Hills. The perfectly tarred roads of the National Highway connecting Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura is one of BIL’s favourite long-drive destinations.

Not surprising as the undulating road winds through green hills dotted with Pine trees, the Kynshi River appears in some places, tiny colorful houses of the sporadic pretty villages add to the overall eye-catching surroundings. The ride serves for a relaxing and soothing experience.

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Pic 1: The National Highway connecting Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura. (PC A.D. Roye)

We had heard about a village called Mawphanlur, located somewhere around West Khasi Hills that boasts of seven lakes tucked away in gorgeous green valleys. Decision taken and Mawphanlur it was! The place was sealed and closed.

Located around 95 Km. away from Shillong Mawphanlur is little known amongst the tourists that throng Meghalaya. In fact, West Khasi Hills does not fall in the usual tourist circuit and that made it just perfect for us. The drive through the highway, as expected, was a pleasure to the senses – perfectly complemented but the warm sun and blue skies. The sparkling tarred road snaked through the gorgeous surroundings as BIL maneuvered his car rather skillfully.

I was totally lost in the surroundings when I suddenly realized the road was going uphill and was much narrower – well we had left the National Highway and was on the road to the village. The narrow road was perfectly tarred and that was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

After a while we were treated to verdant rolling hills, quaint cottages, narrow lanes and several water bodies. We had arrived at Mawphanlur. Clouds had gathered by now and there was a nip in the air. I made sure to take my jacket with me as I alighted from the car.

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Pic 2: As we arrived at Mawphanlur Village

I would describe Mawphanlur as utterly refreshing, not only because of the greenery but because of the complete lack of usual tourists and all the associated paraphernalia of shops, hawkers, etc. There were a few locals though who had come over to explore the place just as we did.

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Pic 3: One of the many lakes
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Pic 4: Another lake
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Pic 5: Large rocks on the hilltop

The Traveller’s Nest guest house with its three cottages was a complete surprise for us. Had we known that Mawphanlur has a guest house, we could have planned to stay back and would have had more time to explore Mawphanlur and its idyllic surroundings. We spent close to an hour enjoying the serene surroundings before heading back. On the way back we had a late lunch at a local eatery – in a Kong Shop.

What is a Kong Shop?

Kong Shop translates as Sister’s Shop. These are small one room eating joints found all over Meghalaya. They are super clean, serve fresh, hot, and tasty food that’s dirt cheap. You might not find a lot of variety in the menu but the food is light on spices and is like home cooked food. Most importantly, you’ll be treated with a lot of love and care. When in Meghalaya, spotting a signboard that reads “Hangne Die Sha and Ja” would mean you are at a Kong Shop. This Khasi phrase translates as “Rice and Tea found here”.

Kyllang Rock – Got to Go Again!

Lum Kyllang and Lum Symper are brothers who fell out with each other and fought with such animosity that they have parted ways forever. No ordinary sibling rivalry this is! The two brothers here are hills and not humans. [I have outlined the local folklore at the end.]

BIL (brother-in-law) and I were once again on a long drive in the countryside when we had an opportunity to meet with Lum Kyllang. It was the first day of the year 2018. A bright and sunny January day ushered in additional joy and cheer to our New Year celebrations. This was rare as the month of January is usually associated with gloomy weather in the cold winter of Meghalaya. BIL, the happy man, was happier today – not because of the weather but because his wife (my cousin sister) had joined us too.

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Pic 1: The bright and sunny day was a huge mood lifter – what better way to start the new year!

We headed from Shillong towards West Khasi Hills district to go to Mairang. Shillong is in East Khasi Hills district. The sparkling tarred road was an absolute pleasure to drive and BIL was enjoying every bit of it. It was a newly inaugurated National Highway connecting Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura. Our intention was nothing more than a long drive by the countryside – indeed our way of celebrating the new year.

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Pic 2: The perfectly tarred road was a driver’s delight!

We passed through undulating winding roads amidst green hills dotted with Pine Trees, brown meadows of dried grass, villages with pretty houses of tin roofs, lace curtains, and playful children. Somewhere during the drive, one of us mentioned Kyllang Rock, which is also located in Mairang. We had heard stories about the peculiarity and uniqueness of Kyllang Rock but had never visited it and this drive presented us with the perfect opportunity.

We enquired for directions from a local tea shop and got to know that Kyllang Rock is locally known as Lum Kyllang. Based on our enquiry, we diverted onto a broken road from the National Highway. The narrow dusty road was lined with Pine forests on either side. As we approached, after a drive of about 20 mins, the massive dome shaped single rock of granite was clearly visible from a distance. With a girth of more than 1000 ft., the monolithic Kyllang Rock stands tall at a height of 5400 ft. above sea level. It is situated 12 Km. from Mairang and about 78 Km. from Shillong.

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Pic 5: As we first set our eyes on Lum Kyllang 

Kyllang Rock is several million years old and it is believed to have a magnetic field. It is believed that the magnetic field makes it easy to climb and once on top nobody falls off despite the very strong winds. The dense forest around the rock is home to age-old red Rhododendron trees and Oak trees. I had all plans of climbing up to the top as friends had told me about the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape from the top and also that the climb was fairly easy.

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Pic 6: The narrow lane that leads upto the rock.
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Pic 7: Do you see the tiny dots on top of the rock? Those are people up there.

However, I had to rest my plans of climbing up the rock as the place was immensely crowded with local people from the surrounding villages. Villagers revere the rock and were here to pay their obeisance on the occasion of new year.

I sure have to go back again to feel the massiveness of Lum Kyllang and experience the power of its magnetic field.

Local Folklore

Khasi folklore has it that Lum Kyllang in Mairang (West Khasi Hills) and Lum Symper in Weiloi (East Khasi Hills) are brothers. Kyllang was a mischievous God known for his mood swings. Symper was a calm God and always disapproved Kyllang’s violent and destructive ways. Kyllang did not like Symper’s interference and this led to a battle between the two brothers. Symper won the battle as he was blessed to have boulders while Kyllang had only sand. After the battle, Symper stayed in the same location in East Khasi Hills and Kyllang moved to Mairang in West Khasi Hills.

Another folklore talks about a man, his wife and child, who due to certain circumstances got transformed into one whole rock.

Pol-ed at Ahmedabad


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A narrow network of dusty lanes and by-lanes, sunlight trickling through congested concrete, intricately carved wooden pillars and doorways, half broken creaking wooden windows, dusty wooden doors some with shining steel locks and some that appear to have been shut forever – these are just few of the things that greeted us as we stepped in through the gateway of Hari Bhakti Ni Pol.

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Pic 1: The entryway to the first Pol in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol

‘Amdavadi Pols’ had piqued my interest when I first read about them in a newspaper article. The article had mentioned that these Pols significantly contributed to the 600-year old Ahmedabad City being declared as a world heritage by UNESCO. I was intrigued and the article gave only a faint idea about Pols.

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Pic 2: This structure stood prominently on our left as we approached Hari Bhakti Ni Pol
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Pic 3: This structure stood prominently on our right as we approached Hari Bhakti Ni Pol

Pols (pronounced as Poles) are Ahmedabad’s cultural identity and represent a unique legacy. Therefore, it featured in my list of things to explore in the city. During this trip across some places of Gujarat, I was with my parents and exploring Pols wasn’t something I could do with them. Hence, I was looking out for an opportunity to slip out on my own and go Pol-hopping.

A cousin sister happened to be in Ahmedabad for some work on the same day. She called me saying that she had read about these old havelis (mansions) in the in-flight magazine and wanted to go visit them. I instantly knew it was the Pols she’s talking about. Both of us hatched a plan and set out in the afternoon for our most looked forward to walk through Amdavadi Pols. The enriching experience of the 3-hour walk surpassed our expectations and we wished we would have had time for more.

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Pic 4: Intricate patterns and motifs have stood the test of time

The word Pols is derived from the Sanskrit word Pratoli, which means gate. Pols are a conglomeration of houses usually inhabited by people and families linked together through caste, culture or profession. They are living testimonies of the social unrest that existed in the region hundreds of years ago. Each Pol remains guarded by its own entry gate. In earlier days, these gates would be shut at night. Each Pol also has its exclusive secret exit gate, which is privy to Pol members only. During an attack, men would defend the entry gate, while women and children would escape into the labyrinth of pathways through the secret exit gate.

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Pic 5: Doorway to another Pol that we encountered somewhere in the maze
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Pic 6: A close look at the doorway, doesn’t it seem like it has millions of tales to tell!
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Pic 7: A chabutro, PC: Flickr by FabIndia (lost the picture I had clicked.)

Each Pol also has a dedicated temple and a chabutro or bird feeder. Chabutro are tall poles that the people of Ahmedabad put up for birds. These were built with the idea of providing home to birds as trees were chopped off to build the city. A thoughtful gesture perhaps but replacing trees with man-made cement poles – I wish they knew better!

Pols are located within the walled city of Ahmedabad and have no space for motor vehicles. The narrow winding alleys are best explored on foot, bicycles or two wheelers. Apparently, there are more than 300 such Pols. While many people have moved out to live in better localities, many still prefer living in the Pols. Almost all the heritage houses in the Pols we visited were in a dismal state. I hope the authorities are aware and do plan to renovate some of them. Or else it will be a sad loss of heritage.

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Pic 8: That may look like a door to somebody’s home but is part of a narrow public pathway in the Pol!

We walked from one dusty narrow lane to another, crisscrossing and trying to make sense of the maze that we were enthusiastically navigating. Nearly at every turn in the narrow lanes, we bumped into either cows or oncoming two wheelers. We came across a number of Pols in our pathway – Hari Bhakti Ni Pol, Khadia Pol, Fatasa Pol, Sheth Ni Pol, and Sakari Ser Pol.

Somewhere, we entered a Pol temple where we offered our prayers to Lord Krishna, who was the residing deity. There we met and chatted with a Baa whose toothless smile and wrinkled face stole our hearts and we felt like giving her a tight hugShe offered us laddoos as prasad and spoke at length in Gujarati while we tried our best to figure out what she had to say with very little success whatsoever.

My cousin didn’t miss a chance to peep through open windows whenever she found one, a habit she carries from childhood. At one time, she discovered an entire room filled with jewellery boxes and two men sitting in a corner with whom she went on to a serious discussion about the prices, where they supply those boxes, etc. In another, she found people busy sewing some kind of traditional stuff, maybe bags she thought not bothering to get into a discussion this time.

We realised that many Pols are part of some cottage industries that allow people to earn their livelihood without leaving their homes. We also noticed that though the pathways and the entryways were very narrow, the houses inside were quite spacious.

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Pic 10: Notice the intricately patterned pillar, the play of light and shadow, and I loved that rusted bicycle, which compliments the background so well!

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Pic 11: A haveli that was simple and not so elaborate.

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Pic 12: Those rich and intricate patterns once again, covered in heaps of dust!
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Pic 13: This world of Denim where the old meets the new and my cousin couldn’t resist clicking!

My cousin was on the lookout for two specific havelis, ones she had read in the in-flight magazine – Mangaldas Ni Haveli and a certain French Haveli. Both these have been converted to hotels now. We did locate Mangaldas Ni Haveli. There were two of them – Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I and Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II.

Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I is a residential home and had a lock hanging on the front door at that point in time. Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II was the hotel. With no inhibitions, my cousin knocked on the door and it was opened by a gentleman. When she requested for a look inside, he demanded 100 bucks per person. We happily paid and took a tour of the inside. My cousin, with her penchant for interior design, was much more excited than I was.

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Pic 14: Mangaldas Ni Haveli-I – It’s residential and the front door was locked at that time.
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Pic 15: Mangaldas Ni Haveli-II – The hotel and she’s all set to knock at the door

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I had a cap on time as I had a train to catch. So, we couldn’t go looking for French Haveli. I left while my cousin continued exploring Ratan Pol, which is now a wholesale market place.

Allured by what I heard from her I just had to go explore Ratan Pol, which I did when I had a day in Ahmedabad during my return trip. Overexcited with prices that I thought were dirt cheap, I only landed up burning a hole in my pocket, but that’s for another day….

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Of Orange Peels and Spider Webs

Remember Charlotte and how she had spun webs to save Wilbur, the pig?

I came to know of the existence of Charlotte just a few years back when I watched the movie ‘Charlotte’s Web’. This movie is based on the children’s novel of the same name. The graceful and intelligent spider had made me fall in love with spiders. The story revolves around Charlotte’s friendship with Wilbur in a farmstead. The farmer decides to slaughter Wilbur and Charlotte writes messages by spinning webs in praise of Wilbur to persuade the farmer to let Wilber live.

Back in the real world, I was quick to separate my love for Charlotte from the everyday creepy spiders that drive me crazy. I despise them even more when they attack my potted plants spinning webs and making their homes all around the leaves, leading the plants towards a slow death. As if it isn’t enough to occupy all the nooks and corners of my home.

Surely, nobody wants spiders hanging around unless one is an entomologist studying spiders or if Spiderman was for real, at least making our commute easier.

This post is however not about my disgust for spiders but something closely related.

Winter is here and that means it’s time for oranges. Oranges and winter always make me nostalgic as they obviously remind me of my home, Shillong. The lazy and warm feeling of soaking in the winter sun while peeling and eating oranges is something only a fellow Shillongite can relate.

A favourite pastime of the kids back then was to create spider webs using orange peels. We would take great delight in creating the intricate patterns, comparing the webs with each other, and competing with each other in spider web craftsmanship. Oranges are plenty in Shillong, all we needed were plastic rulers. Almost everyone in school would have one end of their rulers sticky and coated with a thick layer of dried stain. The stain wouldn’t go away and who cared that it interfered with the regular usage of the ruler.

I have no idea if kids today indulge in similar activities. I won’t be surprised if they don’t, though that would be quite a pity. Like many other childhood games we played, possibly this one might have fallen prey to smart toys and virtual games.

I am not sure if such spider webs with orange peels is something specific to our childhood in Shillong or people elsewhere did/do this too. I had totally forgotten about this activity. It resurfaced this weekend over some childhood discussion with my sister.

With oranges readily available now, we just had to relive our joy of creating spider webs. Here’s a sneak peek:

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Ever Heard of Tree Tomatoes!

Tree tomatoes or Tamarillos made an appearance in my Bangalore home last week. This juicy, sweet, and citric fruit had managed to escape my memory altogether. No clue how that happened, given that Tamarillos belong to those exotic category of things that I intrinsically associate with my hometown, Shillong.

Naturally, I was delighted to spot them spread out on the floor along with several other vegetables including Chayote and neatly pieced Pumpkin.

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Pic 1: The reddish orange Tamarillos peeping through Chayote and Pumpkin

All of these had travelled a distance of about 3000 Km. all the way from the hills of North East India to the Deccan Plateau in South India. Strange, you may think, but such a thing is common when my parents come visiting me.

My disapproval in the past regarding the uselessness of carrying additional baggage has had no effect on them especially my father, who takes great pride in displaying the produce of his kitchen garden. I have since made peace and if this gives them pleasure so be it.

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Pic 2: The egg-shaped ripe Tamarillo

This time my parents were surprised with my enthusiasm over their extra baggage, which was only because of those reddish-orange oval fruits. [I have no clue whether to classify it as a vegetable or a fruit. I believe technically it’s a fruit but known as a vegetable.]

Back home, we also refer to tree tomatoes as Anda-Begun, which literally translates as ‘egg-eggplant’. Not surprising, afterall it’s a close relative of tomato, eggplant, and capsicum.

I am not sure many people in India are aware of this unique fruit and hence this post.

Ripe tree tomatoes have a smooth and shiny skin. The colour varies from red to yellow to deep mauve. Some even adorn dark longitudinal stripes.

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Pic 3: Aren’t they gorgeous!

The flesh is juicy and filled with many small flat, circular edible seeds. The taste is flavorful, sweet yet tangy, and the texture is somewhat similar to the usual tomatoes but pulpier. Tamarillo has a high content of Vitamin A and C.

Google says Tamarillos or Cyphomandra betacea are a subtropical fruit, thought to have originated in the high altitude Andes forests of Brazil and Peru. Surprisingly, Tamarillos have disappeared from their native habitat and happen to be listed among the lost foods of the Incas, known as the ‘tomate de arbol’. It was in 1967 that tree tomato got the commercial name of Tamarillo, which was to avoid confusion with the common garden tomato.

In India, tree tomatoes grow between elevations of 1,000 and 7,500 ft. Hence, their occurrence in places like Assam, Meghalaya, Uttaranchal, Nagaland, and Himachal Pradesh is understandable. They are also found in certain hilly pockets of West Bengal, Maharashtra, and in the Nilgiri hills of the South India. The latter did make me wonder as to why I never saw the fruit in Bangalore.

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Pic 4: The mouthwatering Tamarillo Chutney

At home, we usually prepare Tamarillos as a chutney and serve with rice or roti as a side dish. The chutney can be refrigerated and consumed between 10 – 12 days. We have also used Tamarillos in preparing fish, which surely must be attributed to my Bengali lineage!

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Pic 5: Here’s the recipe for you