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The scenic root

The scenic root

What The Economist’s Asia news editor Alex Travelli found at the centre of the universe

What The Economist’s Asia news editor Alex Travelli found at the centre of the universe

Alex Travelli | August/September 2018

The 3.2m people who live in the state of Meghalaya, a green, cloud-covered plateau between Bangladesh and the valley of Assam, are not like other Indians. For a start most are Christians, and the majority of the Khasi people, who live in the hills around Shillong, the state capital, are Presbyterian. Shillong’s high street has a row of bookmakers where punters queue to place bets on the daily archery contest. A restaurant called Trattoria, despite its name, serves local food such as rice cooked in pig’s blood and fermented fish paste ground with pepper. It has seats that all face the kitchen, like church pews.

The owner of Trattoria, Richie Suting, joined me for a chat. With his bouffant hairstyle and leather jacket, he looked like a 1980s TV star. Like most Khasis, Richie loves Bob Dylan and Jesus. Our conversation wheeled from God to the Khasi language to 1960s pop and back to religion. Did I know, Richie asked, that on my drive to the airport tomorrow, I would pass by the centre of the universe?

Near the motorway is a hill called Lum Sohpetbneng, which means “the umbilicus of the world”. According to Khasi legend it is all that remains of a bridge that once joined heaven and earth. When the cord was cut at the dawn of time, the 16 tribes that made up the universe were divided for ever: nine in the heavens and seven on Earth. The Khasi call these earthbound tribes the Hynniewtrep (“seven huts”). Less than 10% of Khasis still practise their ancient religion, and as a good Christian, Richie maintained only an academic interest in the site. But its views were impressive, he said.

The turn-off to Lum Sohpetbneng was announced by a monumental archway decorated with a bright mosaic of a rooster. My driver, who was not a Khasi, said he hadn’t noticed it before. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drive up such a steep and dusty track. All we saw on the way up were pine trees and a lonely Hindu shrine.

Then, all of a sudden, we arrived at the place where the world began. It was a piece of scrubland, seemingly empty apart from a government jeep, a telecoms tower, a dilapidated concrete building that might have been a church, a newish one-storey building with no windows, and fountains that weren’t connected to a water supply. There was a stone plinth with signs that told visitors to remove their shoes before standing on it, and some ominous-looking egg-shaped boulders. Midday haze had settled over the surrounding hilltops, clouding the views. The vast Umiam lake below had looked prettier from the motorway. Still, it was the highest place for miles around.

Near the diesel generator that powered the telecoms tower was a snoozing workman. Assuming I’d come here looking for a toilet, he gestured towards the church-like building and told me I could pee there. I asked him if he knew anything about the centre of the universe. He didn’t.

When I got home to Delhi I tried to make sense of that silent hilltop. From my research I learned that for centuries the Khasi performed funerary rituals on Lum Sohpetbneng. They abandoned these ceremonies over 200 years ago, when most of them converted to Christianity, but the myth of Lum Sohpetbneng was passed on through their oral tradition. The archway and the building had been erected in 2013 by a cultural organisation trying to restore pride in the Khasis’ pre-colonial identity. The group had chosen a rooster for its symbolic resonance – the ancients saw it as the bringer of daylight.

Two years ago Marco Mitri, an archaeologist from North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, dated some Neolithic remains that had been found on Lum Sohpetbneng. He and his team determined that sacred rites were performed on the hill as far back as 1,200BC. Some of the boulders I’d seen were reliquaries for the bones of ancient Khasis.

These days the only ritual that happens there is on the first Sunday in February, when Khasi pilgrims walk up the hill as a way to celebrate their heritage. This tradition goes against the grain of the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi, prime minister since 2014. The persistence of a distinctive Khasi faith undermines Modi’s belief that orthodox Hinduism is India’s only indigenous religion. Shortly after my trip, Modi’s party, the BJP, joined a new coalition government in Meghalaya – the first time it has held power in the state. Don’t be surprised if the Khasi rooster soon starts crowing more loudly.