Into the braveheart’s den

Nongkhlaw is 17 km from Mairang sub-divisional town, connected by a narrow but smart road. A village of around 400 households, Nongkhlaw in West Khasi Hills district is the birthplace of legendary Khasi freedom fighter Tirot Sing. Once an obscure place, the village is gradually opening its arms to tourism and hoping to promote its heritage and history.
For years, the village and the famous Krem Tirot or cave of Tirot Sing, which was the freedom fighter’s hideout during his struggles against British forces, were neglected by the state government. But with time, good sense prevailed and the authorities concerned decided to develop the place for local tourists as well as visitors from outside Meghalaya.

The Centre recently sanctioned Rs 85 crore under the Swadesh Darshan Scheme for developing theme-based tourist circuits in Meghalaya. Among the places chosen by the state government for promotion is Krem Tirot.
“Krem Tirot is not a single cave but a cluster of caves. We have explored some of them and developed two,” said Plingstar Nongrang, the headman of Nongkhlaw village.
The caves are located around 2km from the market.
The black-topped road suddenly ends after about 500m and evidence of years of neglect and under-development comes to fore. The road leading to the caves turns into a difficult terrain, especially for a small four-wheeler like Maruti 800.

Nongrang pointed out that poor road condition deters many tourists to come to the place. For adventurers, it can be a wonderful trek even under the blazing sun. For a benign tourist, the heat and the steepness may add piquancy to the journey to the brave man’s den.
The gravelly uphill path takes a turn ignoring a huge boulder to the left. As the cave site nears, more boulders, big and small, can be seen scattered on both sides of the path, which by now sheds its barren look and becomes more like a tattered grassy carpet. The valiant fighter walked on this path and led his men into the safety of the dark caves.
Tirot Sing was the Syiem of Hima Nongkhlaw and fought against the British army led by David Scott in the mid-nineteenth century. He was captured in 1833 and died in 1835 in Dhaka Central Jail.
In Mairang, a Tirot Sing Ecological and Heritage Park stands. It is more of a park built for the modern day visitors. An artificial cave, also named Krem Tirot, is a diluted form of history. The real story unfolds at Nongkhlaw as one descends the steps of the age-old caves there.

The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council gave Rs 10 lakh in 2013 for developing the site, informed Nongrang. The money was used to build a stretch of footpath and steps leading into the cave. The first of the two caves developed by the village community is called Krem Pyrda. One has to squeeze through two boulders and at the same time mind the steps to get into the cave, which is 150m long.
As the bright sunlight dissolves in the darkness, the mossy rocks seem mysterious. “If we have to go further down, we will need a torch. Mobile phones will not help,” said Nongrang as he rested against a rock and started telling the story of another brave man who was born decades after Tirot Sing took shelter in the cave.
“My father knew these caves very well. He knew the paths through the caves and the entry and exit points. Sometimes he would stay inside the cave for weeks. He made it his second home and always kept a blanket here. He cooked here and slept inside. If you go further down, there are chambers, like rooms,” said Nongrang.
Was he an adventurer, as brave as the fighter? Nongrang answered the question with a smile and led the way out of Tirot’s den. “Recently some people found my father’s blanket inside the cave and were initially scared,” he laughed.
A stretch of land around Krem Pyrda is privately owned but an agreement has already been signed with the person concerned for the tourism project.
The place will be promoted as a historical site, said Tourism Minister Metbah Lyngdoh, adding that the department is coordinating with the PWD and other stakeholders to build the approach road.
The project, said the headman, will provide illumination, a ticket centre, the approach road, pathways and means for solid waste management, among other things. The Khri riverside will also be developed.
“Winter is the right time to come here. But not many tourists from outside the state are coming now. With the development of the place, people can bring their cars till near the caves. Also, many villagers will get employment,” informed Nongrang.
Agriculture is currently the main source of sustenance in the village.
The second cave explored and developed by the villagers is Krem Siej Tyra, about 100m long. The name comes from a unique species of bamboo plants which grow around it.
Here boulders are really low and one has to crawl to get into the caves. Even after centuries, the rocks show no significant sign of abrasion.
After balancing the way on boulders one gets a foothold, a wide space where a monolith stands. The rain a few days back had left the floor muddy. Remnants of history in the form of broken pieces of earthenware can also be found inside this cave.
Rays of sunlight find their way through the crack between boulders forming a cone of light and breaking the claustrophobic darkness.
Nongrang said there are several other caves which are to be explored and whose exit points no one knows yet. Some caves open to the other end of the village.
Besides preserving the secrets of Tirot Sing, the caves also preserve several species of insects, like spiders. The entrances are camouflaged by hanging branches and bushes.
A few meters away from Krem Siej Tyra lies the Maw Shnong Bishar, a rock that looked like a ksing, or the Khasi drum. It was the seat of judgment, a place where Tirot Sing held his court, or dum kut. Villagers gathered and the Syiem pronounced his verdict sitting on the drum-like rock.
The stones which have been used to pave the way and make the steps were procured from Sohra at Rs 60 each, which was double the price, Nongrang said.
On July 17, the village will observe 184th death anniversary of the freedom fighter. The headman informed that the Tirot Sing festival is organised in a village ground but with the development of the place, it will be held near the caves. “Once the road is built, it will directly lead to the ground from the cave site,” he added.
Lyngdoh said the tender process for the scheme is over and a committee will meet soon. “Work is likely to start in a month or two and if all goes well then the scheme will be launched on July 17. We intend to finish work in 18 months. Nongkhlaw is among several places which we are planning to promote under the central scheme,” the minister added.

~ Nabamita Mitra

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