In Kongthong, when a mother first looks at her newborn baby she hums a tune, which becomes the child’s name. This village in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya — known as the whistling village of India — is home to about 700 people, each of whom has their own distinct melody.
The tradition is enchantingly unique, and Kongthong’s children still respond to their tunes. So why have you never heard of it before? From the shamans of the Apatani tribe at Ziro Valley to the world’s tallest monoliths at Nartiag in the West Jaintia Hills, or the Khasi archers of Smit, some of India’s most fascinating communities live in the Himalayan ranges, which despite drawing explorers for centuries remains largely undiscovered.
Which is why Royal Enfield’s partnership with UNESCO, to document, promote and safeguard what they term the ‘intangible cultural heritage of India,’ is an important project, especially now as climate change and modern lifestyles influence traditional ways of life.
“We are trying to catalyse a movement,” says Bidisha Dey, executive director, Eicher Group Foundation, the CSR arm of Royal Enfield. She adds that they “aim to partner with 100 Himalayan communities to build resilience,” over the course of their ongoing Great Himalayan Exploration, which was flagged off from Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial in August last year, and will cover the mountains in phases over the coming year.
With a focus on sustainable living practices in the Himalayas, Bidisha says they are focussed on gradually recruiting their one million-strong global motorcycling community to act as agents of change, to help regenerate landscapes and communities.
“For Royal Enfield, the Himalayas are sacred. It is where we derive our energy from,” says Bidisha, adding “But the ecosystem here is fragile. We have realised our riders love to ride out to the Himalayas, which means we are inadvertently sending people out to these landscapes. We feel it is also our responsibility to make sure they don’t leave a big footprint, so the landscape is preserved.”
Hence, for this project, rider researchers have been setting out in deliberately small groups on Royal Enfield bikes. The first phase is covering Assam, Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, documenting traditions, and working with the communities — so far a total of 21 practices have been documented here.
Aninda Sardar, who is the programme lead for The Great Himalayan Exploration and was part of a group that went into Arunachal Pradesh, explains how they recorded the Aji Lhamu dance form, practised in the West Kameng and Tawang districts. They learnt about the Mon Shugu paper, brought to the region by Tibetian monks, which is made from bark that is boiled, made into a paste and then put in water and spread out to form paper. And they asked about the history of Hrusso Aka, an indigenous language spoken in the East and West Kameng districts of the state, which has no written script.
“We go in with a little group of riders and stay with the community. We travel with riders from within the community, so they speak the local language,” says Aninda, adding that the information is then documented, with the permission of the community.”
Every group includes women riders to make it easier for the team to blend in. Explaining how many of these communities are extremely remote, Ritika Lahiri — a motorcycle coach from Mumbai — who travelled through Meghalaya on the project says that she has noticed that “when locals from remote villages see a female rider, they usually appreciate it and even thank you for visiting them”. She adds, “They tend to leave a mark on your heart with the stories they share. It also reminds you that to survive in tough conditions, selflessness is key.”
Classes in the mountains
Thejaswini Channamallikarjuna, a motorcycle enthusiast from Bengaluru, who is a software professional-turned-mushroom farmer, says that participating in the Great Himalayan Exploration taught her how to be not just a responsible traveller, but also a better farmer. While documenting paddy and fish cultivation of the Apatani tribe in Ziro valley, she realised, “This is zero waste, with no chemicals, and it is a highly efficient, sustainable method of food production being practised here for 500 years.”
Biking across these landscapes threw up many surprises, even for the locals. Alex KSM Ngaihte, who is from Manipur and works in Delhi as a graphic designer, started seeing his home differently after the expedition. “Generally my travels within Manipur are mainly focussed on tourist hotspots or family occasions like weddings etc. I experienced arts and practices, which I have never heard of, though I have driven past these places several times,” he says, adding “I believed I had witnessed everything Manipur could have offered me but I was greatly mistaken...
“Travel by road, specially on motorcycles, adds a different dimension to the experience,” says Samrat Som, a Bengaluru-based creative strategist who travelled through Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh as part of the expedition.
He continues, “It is a bit more raw and visceral, and in many ways, it is a practice that is fundamental to our species. We travelled, and therefore we progressed. As Anthony Satinn says in his evocative, beautiful book Nomads, it is these people, people on the move who brought cultures together, and made commerce possible. Travel by road somehow taps into that spirit.”