Tourism at the border
The Dawki-Tamabil border and Mawlynnong Village: India-Bangladesh
Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman
The rolling Khasi Hills, described by the British as ‘the Scotland of the East’, was the natural connect between the floodplains of Assam and Bengal, before the British ruled Indian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947. It was the land border and an important point of commerce between Assam and Bengal, through the Dawki Bridge built by the British over the Umngot River in 1932, connecting the Khasi-Jaintia Hills and South Assam in present day Northeast India with Sylhet district of present day Bangladesh. On the Indian side is border town Dawki in the Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, 80 kilometres from the state capital of Shillong, and on the Bangladesh side is the border town of Tamabil, 55 kilometres from the province headquarters of Sylhet, Bangladesh.
The beautiful and verdant Khasi Hills today sits on a maze of limestone mines and rat hole coal mines, frequented by diesel fuming trucks ferrying the coal and limestone out of the place, and a huge ugly monolith cement factory has seemingly obliterated the many Khasi monoliths which had erstwhile dotted the countryside, the symbol of Khasi animist belief-system. There has been huge environmental impact of such coal and limestone mining in Meghalaya, which forms a substantial part of the border trade at the Dawki-Tamabil crossing.
The road leading to Dawki, away from the maddening traffic of Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya, is one of the most beautiful hill roads in this part of the world, and is lined with local taxis and private cars and buses ferrying tourists. The impact of tourism is seen right from Police Bazaar in downtown Shillong, where taxi drivers jostle to attract tourists to visit Cherrapunjee and Mawlynnong, mostly on day-visits. A growing number of tourists have started coming from Bangladesh through the Dawki-Tamabil border crossing. The revival of people-to-people contact on a formal basis between India and Bangladesh here holds a lot of promise for the development of this sub-region.
Mawlynnong is a small village in Meghalaya near the Dawki-Tamabil border, 18 kilometres inside from the state highway, now assigned to be the international highway between India and Bangladesh. The village is at the end of the arterial road and the vast plains of Bangladesh can be easily seen from any high point in the village. There are around 95 households in the village and the people belong to the War sub-tribe of the Khasi tribe. All the villagers are Christian by faith and are almost equally divided into two churches, one being the Church of North India and the other being the Protestant Church. The village livelihood is sustained by farming in their plots of land in the community forest adjoining their village, and the major crops are of betel nuts and betel leaves, pineapple, jackfruit, bay leaves, broomsticks and honey. The villagers work in their fields and regularly contribute to community work, which is a part of their daily community living. Their favourite activity is fishing and they go in groups along trails to crystal clear streams with their fishing rods, often entering Bangladesh.
The people of Mawlynnong have been in many ways connected to ideas from around the world, and the values and growth of this community has not been isolated due to lack of proper road infrastructure. Villagers from Mawlynnong participated in the First World War in the British Army, fighting for them in Europe. The village being very close to the border-trading town of Dawki, which had connected them to the outside world, much more than other Northeast Indian tribal communities. Mawlynnong was part of an active corridor for the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) insurgents during the height of the Khasi insurgency against the Indian state, due to the unhindered access through the porous borders across to their insurgent camps inside Bangladesh.
These are the very paths, which lead to the amazing living root bridges (ficus elastica or the Indian rubber plant), clear streams and gushing waterfalls that have opened up the village of Mawlynnong to their newest community activity, which is tourism. Mawlynnong is now known more by tourism than by their sweetest pineapples and the strongest betel nuts in the entire East Khasi Hills. The ‘cleanest village in Asia’ tag has ushered in tourism here in a big way here. The border is now a harbinger of trade and tourism to the people of Meghalaya.
Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, Assam, India. His research interests is on border studies in Northeast India and transboundary water sharing and management issues between China, India and Bangladesh. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org