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Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew
Date of Publish: 2015-08-25

Stones tell tales in Meghalaya’s nature-crafted Ever Living Museum

 

Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew

 

Stones have tales to tell. But they need the right interpreter and the right ambience to – like Kyntiewbor War and his Ever Living Museum in Meghalaya.

One of Northeast India’s eight states, Meghalaya is mostly inhabited by three matrilineal ethnic communities – Garo, Jaintia and Khasi.

In Khasi belief, caves are dungeons where only midgets and fairies live to lure humans away. Exploring these caves was thus taboo, particularly for children.

At 10, Kyntiewbor was too curious to heed his grandmother’s advice to avoid the caves in his village Wahlong below Sohra – local name for Cherrapunjee – and close to the India-Bangladesh border. The labyrinthine subterranean world of the caves fascinated him.

Every trip to the ‘dungeons of fairies’ guaranteed a scolding from his grandmother. She changed her mind when little Kyntiewbor once returned home with a clutch of glittering stones he had collected from the caves.

That was in 1964.

Kyntiewbor never looked back since in his pursuit of stones and natural artifacts. He found his love in the caves and rivers, and his first real caving expedition was at age 13.

By the time Bah War joined the state’s Public Health and Engineering department (PHE) as an engineer, he was a cave and river expert. He regularly took part in expeditions under the banner of Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association.

One of his assignments – of laying a water pipeline from the caves of Phud Khongpong to Nongnah village – led to the discovery of a 3.2 km cave system during an expedition with a US team.

After his retirement as chief engineer from the PHE department, Bah War began showcasing his vast collection of stones, art and other artefacts in his private Ever Living Museum. The museum was opened to the public in April 2015.

Sited 9 km from the heart of Meghalaya capital Shillong, the museum at Mawshbuit is set on 5 acres of land near the famous Sweet Falls. The exhibits are the result of Bah War’s painstaking collection over more than 30 years.

Within weeks of its opening, the museum recorded 2,000 visitors who paid Rs 50 each to get in. “It is not about the money,” Bah War insists.

Regular visitors like Moses Kharbithai, assistant professor at Assam University, agree. The attraction of the very place and the time Bah War gives to his visitors attract people to the museum, he says.

The museum is set in a garden surrounded by tress of pears, plums and other wild fruits. The garden has some 100 varieties of orchids and wild flowers and 25 varieties of ferns. But how did the museum get ‘Ever Living’ as its name? “It is because nature is forever; respecting and preserving nature is what the museum is all about,” Bah War says.

Something that deeply concerns him is the pressure on caves and rivers due to unregulated coal and limestone mining. “Caves can generate more and lasting revenue and income than mining. Coal and limestone do bring quick money, but they will get exhausted one day and make saving the caves and the environment an exercise in futility,” he says.

One part of the museum exhibits 619 works of art and artefacts that range from tribal jewelleries, household implements, baskets of different communities, war tools, dresses and musical instruments, stamps and coins (that date back to the Sher Shah Suri and Mughal eras) and more than 150 photographs of rivers, houses, people and festivals.

Prominent among the exhibits is the Garo metallic bowl with inscription of animals that Bah War claimed is 320 years old. There is also a 50-year-old indigenous pressure cooker from the village of Mawnai in West Khasi Hills district. 

The other part is dedicated to 30 types of stones collected from across Meghalaya and elsewhere on earth. Apart from stone-age tools, sand-weathering rocs, granite and flint stones, the exhibits include sea shells, natural magnets, iron ore and copper ore. Gemstones such as blue topaz and quartz, crystals and amber find space too. Equally impressive is the collection of 11 ammonite fossils that include eggs and plant fossils.

Bah War is reluctant to disclose the source of his natural artefacts, as he feels the places – if identified – would be looted in no time.

Outside the museum, a massive stone in an open hut is “a rock with a sculpted boat”. The stone was discovered in 1978 in Ri-Bhoi but left there, and it was only last year (after almost 30 years) that he was able to transport it to his museum.

Bah War joined the PHE department because it gave him the opportunity to travel across Meghalaya and pursue his hobby. By the time of his retirement, he had travelled to some 100 villages in the state, many of them in the Garo Hills where he served for six year and Ri-Bhoi district. He mixed work with collecting stones and artefacts over two decades.

Abigail, a research scholar from Manipur at NEHU’s Department of Anthropology, says the museum is a treasure trove for students and researchers, more so as Bah War acts as the guide to explain the origin and history of each item on display.

Bah War hopes to form a society with financial support from the NEC so that he can expand the museum to accommodate numerous exhibits lying in his possession. “The Meghalaya government, Archaeological Survey of India and Anthropological Survey of India need to chip in too for verifying, dating and documenting the collections,” Abigail says.

(Bah is a Khasi honorific for an elderly male, NEHU expands to North Eastern Hill University and NEC to North Eastern Council)

 ( Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew teaches at the Department of International Relations, Sikkim University, Gangtok )

 

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