The recipe that I present to you today, Ja Stem, hails from the beautiful land of Meghalaya. Ja Stem is a traditional recipe of the Khasis, one of the tribes majorly inhabiting the state of Meghalaya. It refers to a very simple rice dish, flavoured with turmeric – ‘Ja‘ means ‘rice’ in the Khasi language, while ‘Stem‘ means ‘turmeric’. Typically, this dish is prepared with the very fragrant, organically grown Lakadong turmeric, which is native to Meghalaya.
Like most other North-Eastern states, Meghalaya has been blessed abundantly by Mother Nature. Just like the other states in the North East, Meghalaya has a raw, non-commercialised aura to it, its cuisine simple and wholesome, based on local ingredients, herbs and spices. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to experience the grandeur of Meghalaya first-hand, and to taste some of its local fare, Ja Stem included.
I had always wanted to try making Ja Stem at home, and this month’s Shhhh Cooking Secretly Challenge provided me just the perfect foil to do so. The members of the group are cooking dishes from the state of Meghalaya this month, and my heart was in the making of Ja Stem. Thankfully, the two secret ingredients my partner assigned me fit right in. So, one fine weekend this month, I undertook the task of preparing this, inspired by this recipe from Zizira.com, fuelled by memories of the beautiful time we had had in Meghalaya. I opted to make the Ja Stem in a pressure cooker – as opposed to cooking it in a pan, the way it is done traditionally – and it was a matter of minutes. The rice turned out fluffy and delicious, simple but hearty.
Ja Stem is quite a healthy dish, cooked using minimal oil. It is gluten-free and vegan, too. Considering it is rather bland on its own, I paired it with some Gutti Vankaya Koora, and an awesome meal was had by all.
Let us now check out my Meghalayan Ja Stem recipe, shall we?
Ingredients (serves 3-4):
1 cup rice
1 tablespoon oil
3 green chillies
A 1-inch piece of ginger
4-5 cloves of garlic
1 small onion
2 tablespoons shelled green peas
1 small carrot
2-1/2 cups water
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped coriander leaves
1. Peel the carrot and chop into small cubes. Keep aside.
2. Chop the onion finely. Keep aside.
3. Slit the green chillies length-wise. Keep aside.
4. Peel the ginger and garlic and chop them roughly. Grind to a coarse paste. Keep aside.
5. Wash the rice under running water a couple of times. Drain out all the water. Keep aside.
6. Heat the oil in a pressure cooker bottom. Add the slit green chillies chopped carrot, onion, green peas and the ginger-garlic paste. Saute on high heat for a minute.
7. Add the washed and drained rice to the pressure cooker. Saute for a minute.
8. Now, add the 2-1/2 cups of water, salt and turmeric powder. Mix well.
9. Close the pressure cooker and put the weight on. Pressure cook on high flame for 3 whistles. Let the pressure release naturally.
10. When the pressure has entirely gone down, fluff up the rice gently. Mix in the finely chopped fresh coriander leaves. Serve the Ja Stem hot with a curry of your choice.
I have used Sona Masoori raw rice in this Meghalayan Ja Stem recipe. You can use any variety of rice you prefer, instead.
I use 3-1/2 cups of water per cup of rice, for ordinary steamed rice. I have cut down on the quantity of water used here, since I wanted the Ja Stem to be grainy – I have used 2-1/2 cups of water for 1 cup of rice. Adjust the quantity of water depending upon how grainy you want the final dish to be.
In the absence of the fragrant Lakadong turmeric power from Meghalaya, I have used locally available, but equally fragrant turmeric powder.
I have used just 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder, while the original recipe calls for 2 teaspoons. Adjust the quantity as per personal taste preferences.
Ja Stem is, typically, just salted turmeric rice. Here, I have added green chillies, peas and carrot, to make it more flavourful. The Ja Stem that we tried out at a Khasi homestay in Meghalaya had carrots and peas in it too, and I decided to make a similar version.
3 whistles in my 5-litre pressure cooker were just right to yield the kind of fluffy, grainy but well-cooked Ja Stem that I was aiming for. Please adjust the number of whistles, depending upon the texture of rice you require, pressure cooker make and size.
Since the Ja Stem is quite bland on its own, it needs a slightly spicy curry to go with it.
I have used a 5-litre pressure cooker for this Meghalayan Ja Stem recipe.
This recipe is for the Shhhh Cooking Secretly Challenge group that I am part of. Every month, the participants cook from a particular state of India. This month, we are cooking dishes from the state of Meghalaya.
I was paired with Sasmita of First Timer Cook for the month, who assigned me the two secret ingredients of ‘turmeric’ and ‘ginger’. This Meghalayan Ja Stem recipe was what I chose to prepare, using these two ingredients.
Have you ever cooked with black rice? It is an ingredient very new to my kitchen, for I started cooking with black rice fairly recently. These Indian Black Rice Pancakes are something I used it in a while back, and they were so much loved by everyone at home!
Some quick facts about Black Rice
Black rice has a deep black colour, which comes from the anthocyanins present in them. Anthocyanins are a family of antioxidants that are present in foods with a similar colour, such as blackberries and blueberries.
The anthocyanins in black rice help in preventing cancer and heart disease, regulate blood sugar, and reduce the absorption of cholesterol. This rice is higher in fibre and protein than ordinary white rice, too. It has a high level of iron and Vitamin E. It has a lower number of calories than brown rice.
Black rice has a mild, nutty taste that lends itself well to both sweet and savoury dishes. The rice turns purplish in hue when cooked.
Black rice is majorly grown in tropical areas like North-East region in India, as well as in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. There might be variations in the types of black rice grown at each of these places.
Considering that black rice is so high in nutrition, it was once reserved only for royalty in China. Only rulers and their families would be allowed to eat it, due to which it was given the name ‘Forbidden Rice’. Though the rice is still referred to as Forbidden Rice at times, it is now widely available in supermarkets and health stores across India.
In spite of its high nutritional content, black rice still remains a largely unexplored ingredient in India. The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, though, has been using this rice since ages. The Chettiars or the locals of this region, mostly traders, would often travel for business to Indonesia and Burma (now Myanmar), and would bring back packets of black rice with them. The Chettiars call this rice Burma Rice or ‘Kavuni Arisi‘, and largely use it in a sweet preparation called ‘Kavuni Arisi Halwa‘.
Black rice is also referred to as Purple Rice or Magic Rice.
It is different from Wild Rice.
For best results, black rice should be soaked overnight before cooking. It is best cooked in a pan, covered, with twice the amount of water. Care should be taken to ensure that it is cooked just enough, as overcooking will make it quite sticky and mushy.
In North-East India, black rice is commonly used to make a sweet dish called Chak-hao.
Recipe for Indian Black Rice Pancakes
In Bangalore, black rice has been making an appearance lately on the menus of new-age cafes, mostly in the forms of salad and pudding. I decided to use it in a savoury preparation, a very South Indian one at that – Indian-style pancakes or adai.
The Kavuni Arisi Adai tasted lovely, and the addition of onions took the taste higher by several notches. Thanks to the urad daal in it, it turned out super soft too. Actually, I added in a variety of lentils to the batter – even some of the black moth daal that I picked up in Kashmir. Super nutritious, with all those whole grains in!
Here’s how I made the Indian Black Rice pancakes or Kavuni Arisi Adai.
Ingredients (yields 28-30 pancakes):
For the batter:
1 cup black rice or kavuni arisi
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek (methi) seeds
1/2 cup raw rice
1/2 cup Kashmiri black moth daal
1/2 cup chana daal
1/2 cup split black urad daal
1/2 cup toor daal
Salt, to taste
7-8 dry red chillies
6-7 cloves of garlic, peeled
A 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
To make the pancakes:
Oil, as needed
Finely chopped onion, as needed (optional)
Finely chopped coriander, as needed (optional)
Place the black rice, chana daal, fenugreek seeds, urad daal, raw rice, toor daal and Kashmiri moth daal together in a large vessel. Wash these ingredients well under running water a couple of times. Then, drain out all the water.
Add in enough fresh water to cover all of these ingredients. Cover the vessel with a lid. Let the ingredients soak for 8-10 hours or overnight.
When the soaking time is over, drain out the excess water from these ingredients. Grind half of the ingredients to a coarse batter, in a mixer jar. Transfer the ground batter to a large vessel.
Now, take the rest of the soaked ingredients in the mixer jar. Add in dry red chillies, peeled garlic cloves, and peeled and chopped ginger. Grind coarsely. Add this batter to the one we ground earlier.
Add salt to taste to the batter, as well as curry leaves. Mix well. The batter is now ready to use to make pancakes or adai.
When you are ready to make the adai, add finely chopped onion and coriander to the batter (optional), as needed. You may even add in finely chopped green chillies, as needed. To make the adai, heat a dosa pan well on high flame. Now, reduce the flame to medium. Place a ladleful of the batter in the centre of the pan, and spread it out. Add some oil all around the adai. When cooked on the bottom, flip it over. Cook on the other side too, on medium flame. Serve immediately.
1. I used Sona Masoori raw rice in the batter. You can use any type of raw rice that you prefer.
2. I used Manipuri black rice from Happy Healthy Me, to make these adai.
3. If you do not have Kashmiri black moth daal, you can entirely skip adding that to the batter.
4. This batter does not need any fermenting, and can be used immediately after grinding. However, if you want a slight sourness to the adai, you may set aside the batter, covered, at room temperature for fermenting for a few hours.
5. If you do not plan on using the batter immediately, you can store it in the refrigerator. It keeps well for 2-3 days.
6. Add the onion, coriander and green chillies (if using) just before you begin preparing the adai. It is totally optional to add these, but I would highly recommend that you do.
7. I had a bit of batter left over after making these adai, with onion and coriander added, and used it to make kuzhi paniyaram. Those also turned out absolutely lovely, soft and delicious!
8. These Kavuni Arisi Adai do not really need an accompaniment. However, they go well with powdered jaggery or a simple South Indian coconut chutney.
Did you like this recipe? Do tell me, in your comments!
Also, would you like to see more black rice recipes on my blog?
‘Cherrapunji is the wettest place on earth. It gets the highest amount of rainfall in the world,‘ I remember reading time and time again in my geography textbooks at school. Like many, that was my first introduction to Cherrapunji, via school books.
Well, the mantle of ‘wettest place on earth’ has now been passed to the neighbouring village of Mawsynram. Still, I am so thrilled to have had a chance to actually visit Cherrapunji aka Sohra, this place straight out of my school books, on our holiday to North-East India! And, guess what? We happened to visit Cherrapunji right in the midst of the monsoon, when it was at its wettest, wild, gorgeous best!
Cherrapunjee from my eyes
We didn’t have any preconceived notions about Cherrapunji when we visited, and went with an open mind. The place charmed the socks right off us. We were thrilled to meet the sleepy, laid-back, small town that Cherrapunjee is, literally in the midst of the clouds. This land of many waterfalls and lush, lush greenery is still off-the-beaten track for many tourists.
Most tourists who do come here stay for just a day or so. They opt only to visit the Double-Decker Living Root Bridge and, at the most, a couple of tourist destinations. Cherrapunjee, however, is the sort of place you explore at a leisurely place. It is the kind of place where you stay put and do nothing, just sitting in the porch of your hotel with a cup of tea warming your hands, soaking in the prettiness around you. It is the kind of place where you take long walks on the winding streets, on misty mornings. You watch whole mountains being swallowed up by the clouds and mist. You let the clouds and mist envelop you, too, and you disappear into a private, magical space all of your own. Here, you begin to understand why Meghalaya (‘the abode of the clouds’ is called so), and why Rabindranath Tagore was moved to poetry here. You even write some poetry of your own, here. There is a lot to see and do and feel and explore in Cherrapunjee, if you take the time to do it.
We stayed in Cherrapunji for 3 days, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We skipped the famous Double-Decker Root Bridge, as we were told it wasn’t a wise thing to attempt with a toddler in tow. We checked out many other spots here, and yet, I have this feeling that we have just barely scratched the surface.
When we visited, it would rain heavily in the early mornings, and everywhere would be filled with mist. At times like these, we would go for a leisurely stroll, just to get ourselves acquainted with the place, gawping at the pretty pastel-coloured houses, the local Ja-Sha (tea & rice) shops, and the many remnants of British culture. We would head for a relaxed breakfast then, the weather beginning to turn very pleasant. A day of exploration would follow. By 5.30 PM or so, it would start getting dark, and we would return to our hotel to rest and recoup. I grew so very fond of these do-nothing sort of days in Cherrapunjee – I would do it all over again in a flash!
Relics from the times of the British Raj
Our cab driver told us fascinating stories of how the British were charmed by Cherrapunjee. ‘The Britishers wanted to make this place their capital,’ he said, adding, ‘but they found life here extremely tough. It was difficult to maintain any sort of records – the rain would wash away the ink on all their official papers. Finally, they gave up, and made Shillong their capital.’
I’m not sure how far this is true, but Cherrapunji does still possess some relics from the time the Britishers spent here. There are some very beautiful ancient churches here, and a few schools that the British set up. Apparently, during the British rule in Meghalaya, many of the local Khasi tribespeople converted to Christianity, which is still the most-favoured religion in the state, Cherrapunjee included.
Neither the husband nor me are enamoured with waterfalls. I mean, we do love the sound of the gushing water – it never fails to soothe and relax us – but apart from that, we aren’t particularly fascinated by them. The waterfalls of Cherrapunji, however, made us fall in love with them! Wahkaba is one such beautiful waterfall we visited here, and absolutely adored. Abundant, powerful, pretty, we stared and stared at this waterfall for a long, long time. Then, the sun came out and made a rainbow in the Wahkaba, magic right before our eyes!
There are quite a few caves and caverns in Cherrapunji, many of them boasting of exotic rock formations and fossils. Mawsmai and Arwah are two of the best-known caves in the area. We decided not to do Mawsmai, as our tour guide suggested against it – it would be a difficult trek with a baby. We went to Arwah instead, and it turned out to be a fascinating experience.
The climb up to Arwah Caves itself is magical. You get to see some amazing, amazing vistas, as you ascend.
You can choose to sit and rest at any of the stops during the climb, and take in the beauty around you. We did the climb real slow, soaking in every moment of it.
Good we did that, too, because when we got to the caves, we found we couldn’t get in too deep while carrying the kid – parts of it are real narrow and you need to double over to enter.
We were so drunk on nature by then that we didn’t mind this one bit. Not exploring the cave meant more time for us to lounge around and breathe in more of that gorgeous, fresh air.
Nohkalikai is another amazingly beautiful waterfall in Cherrapunji. When we visited, the water was abundant and gushing. At this spot, we fell in love with waterfalls all over again.
This brilliant waterfall has a rather gruesome story behind it, associated with a young local lady called Ka Likai (‘Ka‘ is a prefix given to women in general in Khasi). After Ka Likai’s husband died, she remarried, as is customary in this part of the world. Ka Likai had a baby daughter by her first husband, and would spend a lot of time with the little one after she got back home from work. Local legend says this made her new husband so jealous and furious that he killed the baby, and used the meat to cook a meal for his wife. That evening, the wife, hungry after her work, ate the meal. It was only later, when Ka Likai discovered a little finger lying in the house that she realised what had happened. Overcome with grief, she ran off the edge of a nearby cliff and died. Since then, the waterfall emanating from this particular place began to be called the Nohkalikai Falls, after her.
Sad as the story behind Nohkalikai Falls is, the place is quite the tourist attraction now. The atmosphere at the site resembles a small village fair, with everything from local handicrafts, woollen garments and toys to forest honey, a variety of pickles, fresh cinnamon bark and bay leaves on sale. I loved this part – I walked around the fair to my heart’s content, took pictures and shopped till we almost dropped!
The Ramakrishna Mission, set up in Cherrapunji in 1924 by Swami Vivekananda, is a big-time tourist attraction here. We found it just like the Mission in other places, nothing extraordinary. I loved the museum within the Mission premises, though, which is full of information and models depicting life in the North-East Indian states and their history.
Photography is not permitted here, and so, I don’t have any pictures of this place to show.
A large park maintained by the government, Eco Park is something of a tourist attraction in Cherrapunji. It isn’t much, to be honest, sort of poorly maintained, but it does offer some amazing views. We enjoyed walking around the park, photographing the breath-taking Missing Falls (named so because the source of the waterfall is untraceable). The kiddo had a grand time having a go at the swings in the children’s play area here!
Seven Sisters Falls
The Nohsngithiang Falls in Cherrapunji is popularly called the Seven Sisters Falls, because it is segmented into seven parts, naturally. Considered one of India’s tallest falls, this is supposed to be quite a beautiful spot. When we visited, however, we found only very thin streams of water cascading into the valley below, a kind of disappointment after the gorgeous falls we had been witness to in Cherrapunji earlier.
So, that’s about all that we managed to do in Cherrapunji. Like I said before, I believe we have only just scratched the surface of all that the place has to offer. Well, next time..
The best way to visit Cherrapunji is to reach Guwahati, either by air or train. Cherrapunji, about 180km from Guwahati, can be reached via state transport buses or private cabs. Alternatively, you could travel to Shillong from Guwahati (via bus or cab), and then travel ahead to Cherrapunji.
Private cabs are the best way to cover all the major tourist destinations in Cherrapunji. It is a great place to walk leisurely around in, but you really need a cab to sight-see. Our entire North-East trip was planned and managed by North East Explorers.
There are a handful of good homestays, guest houses, hotels and resorts in Cherrapunji. Polo Orchid Resort, Cherrapunjee Holiday Resorts, Sohra Plaza, D Cloud Guesthouse are some stay options available here.
Orange Roots, Halari, 7 Sisters Falls View Inn, Cafe Cherrapunjee & Inn and Rain Cafe are some of the popular eateries here.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and found it useful! Please do tell me in your comments!
“This is no ordinary forest you are about to enter. This is a sacred grove, home to La Basa, a protective deity who safeguards all of us. He watches over this forest. Anyone who enters with bad intentions will have to face dire consequences. You can be inside for as long as you want, but please remember that you cannot take away anything from this forest – not even a single leaf or a dried twig,” our guide warns the husband and me, in no uncertain terms.
We are about to enter the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, a bare 25 km or so away from Shillong. From the outside, we can see absolutely nothing of the forest – all we can see is a huge open plain, with a tall grassy hedge covering most part of it. A little man-sized opening in the hedge indicates the entrance to the sacred grove.
We gulp, sort of nervous of getting inside with the bub.
“Don’t worry one bit, please. This place is 100% safe. There are hundreds of tourists who visit here every day, and not even a single untoward incident has happened,” the guide is quick to reassure us, probably noticing our slight discomfort. “The Basa protects,” he adds.
Chin up, we step into the man-sized clearing, the husband baby-wearing the bub, me walking close behind. We set foot into the Mawphlang Sacred Grove. And it is then that magic happens.
We find we have stepped into a beautiful, beautiful forest, straight out of an Enid Blyton book or from the movie Avatar. The scenery around us is nature at its best, pure, untouched, non-commercialised. At the very first glimpse of the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, we are enchanted.
“The Mawphlang Sacred Grove, covering about 80 hectares, has stood the test of time – it is a place that is over 1000 years old. The forest is home to several scores of species of birds and animals. It is a treasure trove of rare plants and trees, several of them bearing immense medicinal properties,” our guide says. “The Khasi community here takes care of this forest. The Khasis believe in nature. They revere nature. Any ailment we suffer from, we believe nature can cure. All of these cures are right here, within this sacred grove,” he adds.
We have been lucky to find a guide who speaks very good English, in a community that speaks, mostly, only the local dialect of Khasi. As we walk deeper into the forest, he points out natural wonders that we must absolutely see, telling us about the history of the place. We lap all of it up, eyes agape in wonder, mouths slightly open. The path through the forest is uneven, slippery at places, but it is definitely not a difficult trek.
We get up, close and personal with bird’s nests, a variety of mushrooms, flowers that look like the hoods of cobras, different types of orchids, herbs that cure skin diseases and headaches, leaves that help in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. We check out Helicopter Flowers – flowers that rotate like helicopters before landing on the ground – and plants that are shaped like baskets.
‘Mawphlang‘ is Khasi for ‘land of the grassy stone’ (‘Maw‘ is ‘stone’, while ‘phlang‘ is ‘grassy’, in Khasi). True to its name, and thanks to the legendary rains in Meghalaya, everywhere we look inside the forest, it is green, green, green. The branches of trees all around us, many of the rocks on the forest floor, are covered with dense green moss.
The forest is dense, alive, impressive, but surely not gloomy. Rays of bright sunlight pierce through the trees, create a sort of magical space, where we stand and pose for photographs. Being the nature lovers that we are, being inside the forest fills us with an immense sense of peace. The calls of various birds from the trees around us help a great deal, too. Our shoulders relax, and we begin to breathe deeply of the pristine air within the forest, beginning to forget our worries and soaking in the sights and sounds before us. And, as we do this, we fall deeper and deeper and deeper in love with the bountiful, gorgeous forest spread out all around us.
“There is always something or the other happening inside the forest, irrespective of whether you are able to see it or not,” our guide tells us. “There is new life coming up, old trees and plants are withering and dying, just like the cycles of our life. There is so much happening below the surface, beyond our sight and wisdom,” he says, and we cannot help but nod along at this.
Closely following the footsteps of our guide, we arrive at a gurgling stream deep inside the forest. The water is pristine, crystal clear, and naturally cold. It is pure enough to drink, the guide tells us, but advises us not to do so. There are animals drinking from the stream all the time, he says, and he is not sure if the water will agree with the stomachs of city-dwellers like us. So, we refrain, and walk ahead, after clicking a few pictures at this hugely beautiful spot.
While we are leaving, we hear a rustle and turn back to spot an extremely beautiful green snake skimming the waters. A couple of beautiful birds fly out from the nearby trees. We hadn’t even known these creatures were around us! In the blink of an eye, before I can fumble to switch my camera on, they are gone. “You are good, kind souls. You are very lucky. Most people who come here don’t get to see any animals,” our guide remarks.
Kings no longer exist in Meghalaya, but when they did, they would regularly visit the Mawphlang Sacred Grove, we are told. Our guide points out to us various spots within the forest – the place where the king apparently held discussions with his wise men, the place where lambs or cocks would be sacrificed to appease the Basa, the place where the sacrificial meat would be cooked and eaten. To novices like us, these bits of history (tales? folklore?) are utterly fascinating.
All too soon, we realise we are at the end of our tour. With our hearts full, refreshed and rejuvenated by our tete-a-tete with nature, we follow the guide back out of the forest. This time around, we take a shorter, less winding route and are back at the entrance in absolutely no time at all.
As we pay the guide for his services and thank him profusely for his energetic presence with us, he advises us to check out the Model Khasi Village just outside the Mawphlang Sacred Grove. We do just that, and thoroughly love the little village constructed to explain to tourists the concept of an actual habitat of the Khasi community.
We head back to our cab, thoroughly sated, so very glad that we decided to visit this beautiful place that is still slightly off the beaten track.
If you find yourself in Meghalaya, I would urge you not to give the Mawphlang Sacred Grove a miss, but to embrace it with an open heart. It is one of the most peaceful, untouched places we have been to in a while, and I am sure you will love it too.
Notes for travellers
The Mawphlang grove is sacred to the Khasis. Please do ensure that you respect the rules here, and treat the place with the same reverence that the Khasis do.
This place can be covered en route to Shillong, Mawlynnong or Cherrapunjee.
Please do hire a guide if you wish to take a walking tour within the forest. The trails are winding and confusing, and I would not really recommend going inside on your own. Moreover, you need a guide to point out various species of plants and trees to you, to suggest which ones can be poisonous and which ones are not.
The Mawphlang Sacred Grove is open to tourists every day, from about 9 AM to 5 PM. Photography is permitted. The entrance fees need to be paid at the tourist office right there. Guide charges and camera fees are separate.
There are two kinds of walking tours available here – a half-hour one and a full-hour one. I would personally recommend the full one hour tour.
The forest is, indeed, a safe place to visit for kids and adults alike. The walking trail is not very tough, and anyone with average fitness can undertake it.
Make sure you leave most of your belongings in your cab, if possible. Get into the forest with just a jacket or umbrella (in case of rain), a water bottle and your camera, to facilitate easy walking.
You can request for a guide at the tourist office on the Mawphlang Sacred Grove premises. Most of the guides speak heavily Khasi-accented English.
I’m sure many of you would have seen pictures of a green, green, green crystal-clear river in Meghalaya, a rustic boat floating gently on its surface, the water so transparent that one can even see the rocks and vegetation below. The place looks magical, other-worldly, like Fairyland. Have you?
Well, the river in question is Umngot, which flows through the little village of Dawki in Meghalaya, barely 95 km from Shillong. Right next door is Tamabil, the land border between India and Bangladesh, manned by extremely friendly army jawans. The specialty of the Umngot is its pristine water, so clean and clear that you can see right through to the river bed in spite of it being about 20 feet deep. The water here usually has a beautiful greenish hue, and is so transparent that the boats plying on it look as if they are floating in mid-air. So, it was but natural that when the husband and I visited Dawki in May 2017, we came with huge expectations. Sadly, the sight we met with was less than magical and our boat ride across the Umngot was definitely not the awe-inspiring thing that we had imagined it would be.
Our first sight of the Umngot
Our visit to the Umngot was scheduled en route to Shillong, after spending a day in Mawlyynong, touted as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’. The drive was beautiful, across scenic vistas, with gushing waterfalls taking us by surprise every now and then, barely any vehicle crossing our path. As we got nearer and nearer to Dawki and to the Umngot river, though, the atmosphere changed – the surroundings were still beautiful, but hordes and hordes of tourists started appearing. It was, after all, the month of May, the start of monsoon in Meghalaya, when the state is at its best, supposedly tourist season.
Our cab driver dropped us at the spot designated for drop-offs, where we were met by our tour guide. He led us through the winding maze of tourists, and we had our first sight of the Umngot. The river looked muddy and in no way clear as crystal, and was FULL of boats. To me, the water looked angry, almost threatening to overflow its banks. We were told this was because of heavy rainfall the previous day – apparently, the water is pristine only when you visit in the summers. Disappointment seeped in.
The husband and I decided to go ahead with the boat ride, as scheduled. A visit to Meghalaya does not happen frequently, after all! Thankfully, we did not have to bargain over the fare for the boat ride, as we saw so many other tourists doing – since we had booked a complete package, everything had already been arranged for us.
Getting down to the boat
We climbed down some very narrow stairs, rendered slippery with rain and slush, as careful as could be, holding hands, tightly gripping the bub’s hand in ours. Under normal circumstances, I am guessing, the descent would not have been so harrowing.
The boat ride
Soon enough, we were introduced to our boatman, a sweet guy called Joseph. We were seated in a pretty, old-fashioned boat that seemed quite sturdy. Joseph began to row us across the Umngot – quite a long stretch, actually – and we began to relax slowly.
The husband and I began to take note of the beautiful surroundings around us. My camera came out, and I began clicking away. If the place could look this beautiful with muddy waters, just how pretty would it be on dry days?, we wondered aloud.
We passed through nooks and crannies in the hills, the sunlight playing hide-and-seek with the rocks.
Little waterfalls along the route sprayed water on us, providing us relief from the stiflingly humid weather.
All the while, the water lapped impatiently against our boat. We wondered if we had taken a huge risk in deciding to undertake the boat ride when the river was so very full, but at that point there was not much we could do about it. We sent up a silent prayer to keep us safe.
The island of rocks
After a while, Joseph anchored the boat near a small island in the midst of the Umngot river. The island – full of rocks in all shapes, sizes and colours – It was a pretty little spot. It would have been just perfect for pitching a tent or lying down and gazing at the sky, on a cooler day, I think. No wonder people all around us were going crazy taking selfies!
We took a few pictures here too, and sat dangling our feet in the water. The water around the island is very shallow, and the bub had a fun time letting the little waves lap over her feet.
As we got ready to leave the island, we picked up a few pebbles, to bring back home with us as keepsakes.
The Bangladeshi side of the Umngot
We cruised along the river some more and came to the border between India and Bangladesh, right there in the waters. The spot was marked by a string of plastic bottles, bobbing merrily in the waves. ‘This side of the bottles is India, and that side is Bangladesh,’ Joseph told us. Precisely how this demarcation was arrived at, I am curious to understand.
In spite of being a small village, Dawki is a busy place, I understand, thanks to its strategic location. Trucks pass through it all the time, ferrying goods for trade between India and Bangladesh, two countries which have friendly relations with each other. Dawki is a fishing village too, with a number of fishermen operating on the Umngot river on a daily basis.
‘Earlier, there used to be free movement of boats between the Indian side and the Bangladeshi side, on the Umngot,’ Joseph told us. ‘That is no longer the case,’ he added.
The end of the boat ride
After about 25 minutes on the river, we were brought back to the boat docking area, and escorted safely back on level ground. Thankful to be safe, we bid adieu to Joseph and Dawki.
This particular boat ride had been less than satisfying.Now, however, we have had a glimpse of just how magical the place can be in a different clime, different time. We cannot wait to visit again, to see the Umngot in all its crystal-clear beauty.
Tips for travellers
If the clear waters of the Umngot are what you want to see, please do plan your visit in drier weather, between October and April. In May, the monsoon begins in Meghalaya, and the Umngot turns angry and muddy.
In hindsight, we think we should have skipped the boat ride, considering the river was threatening to overflow its banks. If you are in a similar situation, I would suggest that you follow your gut instinct.
Be sure to enquire about a reasonable charge for boating on the Umngot river, from your tour guide or hotel help desk.
Make sure you leave your belongings in your cab as you descend for boating, keeping just the bare minimum with you. The steps are safe, but quite narrow. The descent can be a bit steep for very young children, the aged and infirm.
Do visit the India-Bangladesh border at Tamabil, which is just adjacent to Dawki.
Dawki can be covered as a day trip from Mawlynnong or Shillong. Do request your tour guide or hotel to help you plan the trip.
Considering that Dawki is quite a small village, there is no reliable public transport to and from the place. A private cab hired from Mawlynnong or Shillong would be your best bet.
You can shop for little Bangladeshi articles in the little shops around Dawki. We tried out a Bangladeshi litchi drink here, which was absolutely delicious, priced at a princely sum of INR 10. Our cab driver also suggested we pick up a soap from Bangladesh here, just for the fun of it.