It’s the 15th century and an indigenous tribe travels a great distance through the Jaintia Hills and settles in a village now known as Mawphlang. Their ancestral mother told them that their home would be incomplete without a customary sacred forest and so her wish was fulfilled. This was the birth of the Mawphlang Sacred Forest that still stands today! For more than 500 years, the villagers of Mawphlang have protected and nurtured the forest to life and now it’s a part of their identity.
Located in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya is the Mawphlang village that is like any other quaint hamlet in the hills of the cloudy landscape. Christianity has swept through the region and a majority of the Khasis in Mawphlang are Christians. But it wasn’t always like this. The Khasis have been said to have come to India from South East Asia and believed in a formless God known as U Blie. There were no temples or idols as the Khasis believed in nature worship; they worshipped the jungles and streams. Their religion believed that since everything was provided by God, it needed to be used as necessary.
The spread of Christianity changed beliefs and the forests
Things began to change in the 1830s when the British missionaries got into Northeast India. Soon, a road was constructed in the region and it led to the spread of Christianity in the state. With the new religion came new-found knowledge and many new Christian Khasis didn’t believe in the sacred forests. A lot of these were then converted into arable land to be used for agriculture.
The only remaining major one is the Mawphlang Sacred forest that is spread over 192 acres of pristine, untouched wilderness. The conservation of these forests depends on the religious beliefs of the Khasis but there is also some science behind them. The forests are a natural gene pool for endemic plant species, a unique ecosystem of animals and insects, and are a source of fresh air and water in the region.
Why aren’t you allowed to take anything from the forest?
The Ki Law Kyntang or the sacred forest is a prohibited zone that is meant to use to perform rituals. In 1944, Khasi ancestors put together a hand-written constitution that defines the rules related to the sacred forests. The locals are permitted to use the community forests for their daily requirements of food and firewood. But the sacred forests can only be used to harvest medicinal plants and wood in case of an emergency! And because this code is strictly followed, the Mawphlang sacred forest still exists!
The sacred forests are not just limited to Meghalaya. They can be found in many places in India where tribals live. You can see the Orans in Rajasthan, the Dev Vans in the Himalayas, Dev Rai in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, and Devarakudu in Karnataka. But the northeastern region of Indian is a hub of these sacred forests and many can be found in Meghalaya, Manipur, and the bordering villages of Myanmar.
These forests are said to be inhabited by forests deities who protect the forests at all times. The deity, or Labasa, is said to take the form of a Tiger or Leopard and protect the forest and the community. All though you can travel to the Mawphlang Sacred Forest, you are not allowed to take anything from it. Not even a rock or a leaf.
It is believed that removing anything from these sacred forests upsets the Labasas and brings misfortune to those who break the rules. The locals will tell you tales of people who have tried to remove things from the sacred forests and then fallen sick, and some who have even died! In the 1970s the Army did try to take out dead logs from the forest but their truck just didn’t start! Whether you believe in legends is up to you, but you still leave the forest the way it was!
Places to visit near the Mawphlang Sacred Forest
Khasi Heritage Village
The Meghalaya government set-up a Khasi heritage village near the Mawphlang Sacred Forest and consists of several mock tribal huts. You can experience local food in the village along with several cultural shows that take place during the 2-day Monolith Festival held during March.
The Mawphlang Sacred Forest is full of mysterious monoliths. No one knows how they came there and what explains their positions. The locals say that the monoliths are worship places for the Khasis and the stones were used as animal sacrifice spots.
All though there are many sections of this trail, the one between Mawphlang and Lad Mawphlang is the most famous one! You don’t have to trek the entire 100 kilometers. There is a one-day trail that is 16 kilometers long and can be completed in 4 hours. The trek takes you through mesmerizing natural wonders: gorgeous waterfalls, crystal clear streams, Khasi villages, scenic valleys, lush forests, and expansive meadows.
How to reach the Mawphlang Sacred Forest
The Mawphlang Sacred Forest is located approximately 47 kilometers from Shillong. You can hire a cab/taxi from Shillong, and it takes less than an hour to reach there. The roads are winding and you will see numerous waterfalls along the way so keep extra time in hand for other sight-seeing.
The Mawphlang Sacred Forest is open daily from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm. The entry fee is INR 20 per head, plus additional INR 20 if you take a camera. For a guided tour, the fee is around INR 300 for a one-hour tour, and it includes the services of an English-speaking Khasi guide.
Best time to visit the Mawphlang Sacred Forest
Honestly, any time is great to be in the forest. But you could avoid traveling there during monsoons. Heavy rainfall can play spoilsport as you won’t be able to spend much time outdoors. The trails along with the sacred forest can get slippery so it might not be the best time to walk there.