Our car pulled into the main road of the village on a chaotic Saturday afternoon, when the tourist hordes were either busy cleaning off lunch plates or moving from one spot to another, browsing among the shawls and dream-catchers hanging from makeshift stalls.
After almost half hour of frantically trying to locate our homestay host Elvin and then parking our vehicle after traversing a dangerously narrow driveway, we headed towards the only restaurant that was serving lunch till late in the afternoon. Tired from hours of driving, it barely took us 10 minutes to finish a simple, yet delicious meal of dal, rice and chicken.
At 4 pm, the tourists had started to leave, each asking the other if there was anything else to see apart from the houses and trees. In the next few minutes, the place had become deserted and quiet, as if untouched by civilization. However, the question lingered in the still air.
About a 100 kms from the rock capital of Shillong lies this unexplored gem of North-East India called Mawlynnong. This village was labelled ‘Asia’s cleanest village’ by Discover India magazine in 2003, and since then, has managed to retain its crown among various other publications and tourist guidebooks.
Munching on a packet of nuts, I asked myself if there was anything remarkable about this place. Suddenly, as if to answer my question, the winds guided me and my empty packet to the small, bamboo baskets lining every route to ensure no littering. I saw bamboo fences enclosing every house, with neat gardens, potted plants and a bunch of flowers in bloom. Little kids walking past me picked up a carelessly thrown plastic bottle on the way and tossed it into one of the many baskets.
These little things may not fascinate the tourist looking for ‘sights’ to see, but these are the things that form the fabric of the community at Mawlynnong; the one that lends the village its distinct identity and makes it prettier, cleaner and more organized than any other place in the country.
With only the locals and a handful of tourists, it was like the entire village was for us to savour. We walked across Mawlynnong, trying to spot at least one piece of garbage on the road, but failed to do so. Mawlynnong also has a couple of treehouses that sit almost 60 feet in the air, and have been made by the locals, for mostly tourists. We quickly climbed up the rickety bamboo staircase to the top and were greeted by a 360-degree view of our breathtaking surroundings – views of the lush green canopy below and the rivers that separate us from Bangladesh and its fertile plains.
We were hungry after our little adventure and asked our host Elvin to feed us some of his home-cooked meals. He was delighted by the request and quickly went on to tell us the menu. After we agreed on a suitable time for dinner, we sat down with Elvin and asked him to explain to us why and how did the people manage to keep the village so clean.
Elvin told us that tidying up is a ritual that everyone – from toddlers to grandmothers – follow seriously. We asked him how they get an entire community to become a model of cleanliness, and he told us that the solution is to start them young. Every morning, kids of the village would take turns sweeping up the streets and disposing the waste into baskets. They would then gather to even help build a school in the community and you could see how everyone, regardless of the age, pitches in with some help. Even Elvin starts his day early, sharing the load of cleaning with the rest of the people, before heading off to work in the fields nearby. Meanwhile, the children storm the village, sweeping up every bit of garbage before going to school. The organic waste is always separated from the trash that needs to be burnt or collected to be sent to the nearest town. Leaves and other biodegradable waste are buried.
The locals have taken up the mission of making their village a tourism model for the entire country, and while some also use it for entrepreneurial benefits, like our host Elvin, most of them are satisfied with the pride it brings. But most importantly, they all believe in working in harmony with nature. That leaves the rest of us with a crucial lesson, doesn’t it?