The other Stones of NE
By Saloni Verma
On my first day as the Block Development Officer (BDO) of Mylliem, Meghalaya, in the June of 2023, I shook more palms and muttered more Khublei(s) (“thank you” in Khasi) in a single day than ever before. While it’s been immensely satisfying to have worked so closely with the people through various government schemes and programmes, stumbling upon the ancient Myrkhan archaeological site has been the most illuminating.
When I think of ancient Indian history, the Indus Valley civilisation rings the loudest. Northeast India has not featured anywhere in this discourse, which is why when the headman of Myrkhan village of the Mylliem block came to me and asked if I’d be interested in seeing a Neolithic site in his village, I was curious. As a typical “aspirant”, I started recalling sites in my head, feeling foolish for not knowing this one. Sensing my cluelessness, he remarked, “You would not have heard of this one, madam, it hasn’t been documented well so far.” He took me to the site and it was absolutely magical.
Surreal natural beauty enmeshes the site. There is a 500-metre- long trail that leads to it. This trail, a kutcha road, is laced with cherry trees. The site is approximately 10,000 sq feet in area. A flat tabletop of sorts, it is surrounded by gorgeous rounded hills with lush green vegetation. It is located directly above the eastern canyon of the Umiam stream, which flows across the entire northern undulating Khasi hills before joining the Brahmaputra in Assam. There are two layers in the site — as per carbon-14 dating. The lower layer dates back to 1900 BC. The upper layer is yet to be dated. Neolithic people first chose their rock type and then started a factory on the site. Remnants of different stone tools — finished and discarded — have been excavated from this site.
I wouldn’t call myself a history buff but seeing stone tools and jaded remnants of pottery in situ — a first for me — was delightful and humbling. Additional excavations and research will help complete the picture of Neolithic farmers’ movement patterns along these hills and help figure out how the Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer Khasi population entered the country’s Northeastern region. This intellectual treasure, remains of the Neolithic era, adds yet another dimension to the immense untapped potential the region holds.
Walking back from the site to my office, I remember pondering three things. One, witnessing history in action outside of books and essays is a moving experience. Seldom does one come across such places that are, pardon the hyperbole, paragons of an era long gone. Second, I hadn’t imagined that as BDO I’d be exposed to this intriguing site and experience. It led me to explore cultural heritage conservation and how the government is/can promote it.
Lastly, I realised the importance of heritage itself. Heritage serves as a source of identity and is important in empowering local communities. Today, in this neoliberal world, it has also become a source of revenue as tourists flock to sites like these and enjoy being taken back in time. As a child, visits to the National Museum in Delhi are fondly etched in my memory. Myrkhan brought back those memories. May it bring them back for many more.
Stone Forest of Yunnan (China)
In Yunnan Province of China close to India’s North East there is a huge forest which is full of stone and stones only mostly in standing position. Known as the Stone Forest or Shilin comprises striking limestone formations believed to be 270 million years old. Two of the smaller individual stone forests within the large jungle Naigu and Suogeyi, are a part of the South China Karst and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Stone Forest is spread over almost 300 square kilometres. These rock formations often create the illusion of stalagmites, rising from the ground and getting sharp and pointy at their peak. It is believed that there used to be a shallow sea in the region long ago. Slowly, the sea disappeared leaving behind the rocks. Owing to the constant erosion of water and wind, these stone pillars were created over time. Years of gauging rain water has sharpened the edges of the stones, some as piercing as knives.
Some of the rocks even resemble animals, like lions, elephants, and birds, making it a buzzing tourist hub. Like the monoliths of the North East, there are popular folklores surrounding the stones. One lore says there once lived a woman named Yi who is believed to have turned into stone in this particular forest because she was unable to marry her lover. It is said that the rocks are created in the form of a maze so that the woman and her partner could get lost in them, out of everyone’s sight. The tallest rock formation in Shilin stands at a height of 98 ft.
Here too, each year on June 24 the local Sani people hold the time-honoured Torch Festival at Shilin, which features many “traditional performances such as wrestling, bull fighting, pole-climbing, dragon-playing, lion-dancing, and the A-xi Moon Dance.”