Almost hidden amongst the leafy, rolling hills of Meghalaya - a state located along the northern Bangladesh-India border - sits the village of Mawlynnong, God’s Own Garden.
A small settlement with around five hundred residents and ninety-five thatched dwellings, this little haven is where you can find a close-knit community descending from the Khasi tribe.
Sanitation and Sustainability
Cleaning is a ritual that holds deep significance to the Khasi people. From tottering toddlers to doting grandmas, the continual sanitising and beautification of this village is a collective effort. Tidiness is taught early, with children as young as ten beginning the day with sweeping the small village’s winding streets. This isn’t treated as merely a chore but considered an almost holy, ingrained part of a peaceful and fulfilled existence, essential to feeling pride of place.
Elders have passed down a strong tradition of gardening through embellishing the village with bright flowers, often along the sidewalks to the delight of tourists. The small amounts of waste produced are something to be commended, plastic bags are upcycled into swings for children, sticks are fashioned into cone-shaped waste baskets to be used once again for cleaning.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that in 2003, Discover India named this abode the ‘cleanest village’ in Asia, lending it some fame and placing it in the spotlight as a source of inspiration for the rest of the country.
However, this commune’s tight sanitary system has not been it’s only talking point. What really drew me to read into this remote, far away village is their upholding of a rare convention of their former generations. The Khasi live in a matrilineal society, meaning women and girls hold most of the economic power, the inverse of what we would likely expect from a traditional culture. The passing of wealth, land and property amongst the Khasi happens between mothers and their youngest daughter — heightening the desire of parents to bear many daughters, as they are believed to be the continuation of a family.
In a region of the world where marriage is often an unspoken and unquestioned expectation for the future, playing a significant role in cultural practice, the Khasi women appear to bear no pressure to ‘settle down’. Choosing to remain single throughout their lives – which handfuls of these women do - holds no social stigma, something that cannot yet be said for much of the world’s societies.
And if they do get married, there are no name changes, the women keep their mother’s surnames throughout their lives and their husbands are likely to move in with them and their family (the opposite of what generally takes place in many South Asian cultures). Divorces and remarriages are considered an ordinary part of life and bear no sense of shame or failure, and thus are respected choices.
Madchenland: Photography by Kluppel
Karolin Kluppel is a photographer from Berlin, who travelled to Mawlynnong between 2013–2015, spending 10 months documenting village life through pictures. Kluppel has an absolutely stunning gallery of these images on her website, titled Madchenland, translating to ‘Kingdom of Girls’.
She concentrates on the girls themselves, “contextualising them in their everyday physical environment through a sensitive balance between documentation and composition”. Her work highlights the “great self-confidence” and “self-assured appearance” she saw in these children.
Kluppel has also remarked on the elevated position women hold in these communities, to disrespect women in Mawlynnong “would mean to harm the society”, as “women are very respected in the Khasi culture”, violence against women is not known to take place in the village.
Despite the social independence held by females, it isn’t to say the Khasi women are granted endless privileges and opportunities, no society is without its flaws and trade-offs. Lack of wealth plays a big part in the limiting of choices and lifestyles, notably hindering the pursuit of higher education for both the girls and boys. Alongside the growing undercurrent of frustration from some of the Khasi men, who despite having power outside of property customs and living relatively peaceful lives, perhaps unsurprisingly, feel delimited compared to their fellow compatriots of wider India.
In regard to religion, the villagers are mostly Christian and lead religious lives, the regularly visited The Church of the Epiphany is over 100 years old. Other points of attraction include an expansive treehouse that allows for an elevated view of the plains of Bangladesh, which has become quite the tourist favourite, and the enchanting Living Root Bridge which looks like it was transported straight out of a fairy tale.
*Other “female kingdoms” that may be of interest include the Jinwar village in northern Syria, and Umoja Uaso in Kenya. However, unlike the Mawlynnong village which is the continuation of a tradition, these spaces were created in recent history with the preservation and protection of the women in mind, who had survived and overcome often violent pasts.
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