A couple of hours outside of Shillong, Meghalaya, not far from the Bangladesh border, there is a sign that proclaims, ‘Welcome to Mawlynnong: God’s Own Garden.’ For what the world has come to know as The Cleanest Village in Asia – via Discover India and the BBC – it’s not a frivolous declaration. According to Bah Rishot, the local school teacher and former headman, this is a place with no crime and no registered police cases.

 “Each household has the same pride,” says Bah Rishot, “and this goes back generations. Mawlynnong has always been famous for being clean and for loving flowers. It’s just that now everyone else is getting to know about it.”

The people appear to behave like an extended family, with a shared identity in their love of flowers and nature. In the gardens – each home has one – the older folk plant and the younger folk tend. It’s one in, all in. And with over half of the population being children, Mawlynnong – the self-sustainable, conservation-conscious model village – is in a large part driven by the verve of the kids, who are very comfortable with visitors, smiling, answering questions and quite unselfconscious in their manner. “You’ll see five and ten year olds sweeping their front path,” says Bah Rishot. “If any of them comes across any garbage left by tourists, they will pick it up.”

For the most part farmers living a simple life, revolving around broomstick cultivation and other cash crops like betel nut and jack fruit, the villagers of Mawlynnong – numbering around 500 – never thought of themselves as special until visitors started coming, after the road connecting them to Shillong was finished in 2003.

Threading our way through the small cement lanes that connect the entire village by foot, it’s hard not to notice that the pathways seem alive. The bare minimum of forest has been removed, giving the impression that the villagers have built around it. And the flowers in each home’s front yard make it seem as if the whole village is a botanical garden, separated by small houses with thin walls – some of them made with recycled yellow vegetable oil cans, like the patchwork one that belongs to the kitchen of Ha La Tyngkong (At Our Doorstep) the restaurant and homestay that hosted us.

 “Originally we were blind,” said Bah Donbok, the owner-operator of Ha La Tyngkong, “and we could not see the benefits of tourism.”

Now they know how to work the system: every single car that visits the village is asked to give a small donation, and this money pays for the three local women who are the full-time cleaners of the village. The villagers themselves formed a cooperative society to channelise funds, and in 2010, buoyed by the international reputation that Mawlynnong has achieved, the state government handed over 70 lakhs for development. Now they heavily promote the village through the Department of Tourism, and are encouraging other grassroots initiatives.

Working with nature and building with the smallest carbon footprint possible has a history in Mawlynnong, something that you can see in the living-root bridge that is the oldest man-made structure in the area.

Somewhere between three hundred and seven hundred years ago – no one is quite sure how long they have been in existence – two rubber trees (Ficus elastica) were planted on different sides of the river that runs along the boundary between Mawlynnong and the neighbouring village of Riwai.

The problem, says Bah Rishot, was an old one, common to rural areas – villagers on both sides of the river found it difficult to get across the water and trade with their counterparts – but the solution was ingenious. The headmen of each community agreed that after planting a rubber tree on their own side of the riverbank, they would then instruct their people on how to guide the roots across.

First the roots were threaded through a hollowed out betel nut log, forcing them to grow together. Then bamboo was attached to the root and used to further steer it in the right direction. Once the bamboo started to decompose it then fed the roots, supplying nutrients to them as it broke down. The roots were then shaped by the villagers into railings so that eventually they could be connected in the middle, before stones were laid down to make it into a walking bridge, still used as much today as when it was built hundreds of years ago. In fact, as the roots are living, the bridge actually gets stronger over time and can hold as many as 50 people.

It sounds straightforward when put in that way, but the first generation of villagers to work on the bridge displayed an innate knowledge of biology and engineering, as well as a good deal of patience.

“They were looking ahead,” says Bah Rishot, “not building for themselves, but for the generations to come.”

This forward thinking is something that the inhabitants of Mawlynnong still share with their forefathers and they have used it to turn their sleepy little village into an eco-tourism hotspot for the state of Meghalaya, while still keeping the character and integrity of their home intact.

They’ve done it by remaining true to who they are. The only designated guest house that they have so far – a tree house – is constructed out of local bamboo, the floor is built from betel nut logs and the stone used for the foundations was sourced locally.

The same is true for Sky View, a viewing spot where visitors can look over the border and into Bangladesh. “People kept asking where the best place to view Bangladesh was,” says Bah Rishot. “But there wasn’t any such place from ground level. So I climbed a tree and found a good view and decided on the location.”

Sky View is constructed along the same lines as the guest house, using local bamboo and vine to make a platform amongst the trees. It cost 30,000 rupees and because of the high rainfall has to be reconstructed yearly, taking 12 men some two weeks. But the result is delightful – like the dream tree house you could never build as a kid – or the polar opposite of your standard local-government lime-stained cement number, like the one up at Shillong Peak.

The result is so impressive that a replica has been exported to Tamil Nadu. One visitor from Chennai was so enamoured by the design that he paid for the Mawlynnong workmen to go down to Chennai and build him one.

He wasn’t the first to want to import the Mawlynnong magic to his home town. In the surrounding villages of the Khasi Hills – like in Laitmawsiang – the locals have seen the attention and the money showered on Mawlynnong and have started to try and make their own versions.

Initially, when they found out that other villages had started to copy them, putting up canonical bamboo garbage bins, and trying to make a go of eco tourism, the population of Mawlynnong were resentful. “There was some jealousy that other villages were copying us,” says Bah Donbok, “But then we came to see it as a good thing. If these villages get clean too, it is good for the Earth.”

Yet in reality, when looked at from the cleanliness point of view, it’s hard to see how the other villages will be able to compete. The people of Mawlynnong did not seek out their reputation, or attempt to be something they were not. They became famous when visitors saw who they were, and decided to tell the rest of the world about it. Just taking a look at some of the posters around the village illustrates the point. On the wall of the bamboo and thatch tea shop Ha La I Trep (In the little hut) is a poster in Khasi explaining how to handle rubbish: “This is the way to manage your garbage: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.”

Unlike the rest of Meghalaya, which on the whole is rich in terms of rainfall, but quite poor in the area of water management, the village council of Mawlynnong imposed restrictions on when its people can use the river. With the population growing, bathing in the river during the winter months, post-monsoon, has now been banned – because of the lack of rain – and everyone must wash their utensils before gathering water, to keep the waterway clean. There is a municipal supply available, but the villagers are used to the stream water – “It’s more tasty,” says Bah Rishot – so they have to take precautions, if they want to avoid being like the capital Shillong, where every former river or stream seems to have become an open drain. Again, there are several signs warning visitors not to go down to the river at all. People staying in the village for any length of time need to get permission from the villagers to bathe or swim there, which is easy enough to do. It’s a tiny place; when we asked how to find Bah Henry, a popular local guide, we were told that he would pop in sooner or later – and he did.

Importantly, the community has proved that it’s not just about what you build, but what you don’t choose to build that matters. Instead of installing a loud speaker for village announcements, one of the villagers simply walks from lane to lane, shouting at the top of his lungs, repeating the message at least twenty times for the residents of the one hundred dwellings that make up the village. And, when I asked about the future strategy for the expansion of Mawlynnong – which according to Bah Henry, receives some 20 to 30 vehicles a day, amounting to over 50,000 guests a year – my fear of a bamboo McDonalds popping up in the place of Ha La I Trep was proved to be unfounded. There are plans to build three more guest houses, with two rooms each, and that’s it.

“We’d actually prefer for people to stay with us in our home, rather than taking the guest house,” says Bah Donbok. “That way people can see how we live, and we can learn some of their story.”

We’d be far better off learning theirs.

Motherland, August 2011