GUWAHATI: A rock garden, discovered atop a hillock in Garo Hills of Meghalaya, has the state government excited about the potential for religious tourism.
In 2007, when the locals were cutting the forests, they stumbled upon rocky structures, some of them resembling "lingams", phallus-shaped rocks that often symbolise Lord Shiva in large parts of India.
Initially, the predominantly Christian Garo tribe populations were hardly aware of the importance the rocks would hold for their neighbours, the Rabha community of Assam, who are mostly Hindus.
When photos of the site, located at Nokat in North Garo Hills district, featured in a calendar brought out by a local organisation, Hindus from neighbouring areas of Assam started swarming.
This continued for two-three years until ethnic violence that broke out between Garos and Rabhas in 2011. Today, not many Hindus visit the site – the reason being the fear of the rerun of violence.
Given the clash of faith, some people, including local MLA Timothy D Shira, are trying hard to spread the message of communal harmony. They are telling locals how the site, once developed, would boost local economy. The government has built the boundary wall while local Christians have come forward to maintain the site.
"Last year, Shira, the village chief, a social activist and I got together and started planning out how the site can be developed. We took a group of locals to Shillong and its neighbouring areas and showed them the different revenue generation programmes vis-à-vis tourism, community bonding etc. It evoked a lot of interests among them," tourism promoter DD Laloo told this newspaper.
He said his role had been to guide the locals correctly without antagonizing anybody and telling them to live in harmony with different communities and not listening to rumours or negative forces.
Shira said the Shiva lingams existed for long but nobody declared their existence. He said the lingams were exposed to the outside world by some people, including the village chief, who knew their value. The site is around 7 km from district headquarters Resubelpara. There is no road for around 2 km from the plains to the hilltop. The MLA has written to the government for infrastructure development.
"In consultations with locals, we have proposed to the government to declare it as a tourist spot. I have urged the public works department to build the road and the engineer said the detailed project report has been already submitted to the government," Shira said.
He said it was the responsibility of locals to ensure the safety and comfort of tourists. He was optimistic that tourists from all over the country would visit the site once it was developed. There are 49 households in Nokat and most people are farmers.
"It will be a boon for them as it will generate employment avenues. The government wants to develop every tourist spot to boost the local economy," the MLA added.
That the site could be developed for religious tourism was the brainchild of social activist Taposh Marak.
"The people here are very poor. So, I thought, if the site could be developed for religious tourism, it will open up employment opportunities for the villagers," he said.
Amal Chandra Rabha, a native of Belpara in Assam, said everyone who visited the site was blessed by Lord Shiva.
"I was suffering from a chronic stomach ache and the doctor said I had to be operated upon. However, the pain disappeared ever since I visited the site and offered puja," he said.
He claimed that he knew at least two childless women who became mothers after embracing the lingams.
“If peace continues to prevail here and the government builds the road, I am sure a lot of people would come to offer pujas,” he said.