A peregrine falcon sat on a leafless branch arching out over the cliff. It squawked, perhaps upset by the approaching storm clouds that had hugged the hills and mountains to the west.
It dropped from the branch and, with a perceived “swoosh”, spread open its wings and swooped, falling first before catching the wind and pulling up, a headlong plunge towards the approaching storm. A flight of swallows scattered and made for the safety of the cliff.
The falcon glided left, then right, then left again, and made a winding turn and headed back towards the branch it had perched on half a minute ago. It had had its fun. It sat for a few moments and, in another drop-and-swoop, flapped its wings, gained elevation and made for the decaying roof of a small watchtower at Reiek mountain’s highest point.
It’s lonely at the top. Even though Mizoram’s capital Aizawl is not far away, few travellers embark on the half-hour trek from the picture-postcard Reiek and Ailawng villages to the mountain-top.
Reiek and Ailawng, the only two settlements that dot Reiek mountain, are just over an hour’s drive from Aizawl. You take a winding hillside road lined by trees on both sides and a series of waterfalls that tumble down from fresh mountain springs.
Past the neat little twin villages, a short climb uphill brings one to a quiet space where a government-run lodge stands, offering cheap accommodation at Rs 600 a night for a double bedroom cottage and decent food at the nine-tabled cafeteria.
A walk up the forested mountain is a trekker’s delight. For the more adventurous, a small path also winds through the thicker jungle from Ailawng village, leading up to a beautiful meadow. It is ringed by wild grass taller than most men and where, if one is lucky enough, one might spot a grazing Serow or even a wild boar.
The only sounds that disturb the trees’ silent humming are birdcall, the ruffling of leaves in the never-ending breeze, the steady footsteps of a villager with a shoulder-load of fallen branches and twigs for the hearth-fire, and the playful chattering of a group of boys. The mountain forest is a 200 sq km blanket of trees that villagers have protected for decades from forest fires and outsiders alike.
For 65-year-old Lalchharliana of Reiek, the legends and folklore are as much history as the story of how the village came to be. “The spirit goddess Khawluahlali ruled over Reiek mountain when the spirits in her dominion waged a war with the spirits of Chhawrpial mountain to the west. The Chhawrpial spirits threw a huge boulder to crush the spirits of Reiek, who turned themselves into swallows and took the battle to the air,” he says, narrating the lore as if it were a history lesson.
“The battle lasted long, and by the end of it there was much blood, much of which drained into the Tlawng river. Angry at the desecration of its waters, the river pushed with tremendous force against Reiek mountain, intending to split it into two. But the spirit goddess Khawluahlali cajoled the river spirit to relent, and so he turned northward. That’s why we have Tlawngnuar,” he said, referring to the spot where Mizoram’s longest river runs headlong into the base of Reiek mountain before turning northward, continuing its journey to Assam’s Barak Valley.
There are more recent stories grounded in historical fact as well, among them of a natural 156-metre-long tunnel that winds from the eastern slope near Ailawng and emerges in the middle of the village. The cave has been christened Khuangchera Puk. Khuangchera was a legendary Mizo warrior who defied the taboos on entering caves, which were considered the haunt of malicious spirits. He explored it on his own in the years before he was shot dead by soldiers of a British expedition that eventually subjugated the warring chiefs of what is now Mizoram in 1890. He had been part of a battle-party who went to meet the British at the foothills.
Fiercely protective of their territories, the Mizo chiefs were more often than not willing to shed blood to protect their lands, but at Reiek mountain the chiefs also protected the forest by decree. “We have been protecting the forest above our village since the time when chiefs ruled over us till the first quarter of the last century. These woods are one of our most prized possessions,” said retired schoolteacher and local historian Chalngura, 78.
Villagers welcome anyone who climbs their mountain to appreciate it, but not those who are intent on exploiting the wildlife and flora.
“Once the committee of elders in the village decided to guard the forests against people who came to collect orchids for smuggling. We positioned ourselves along the main entry points of the footpaths leading up the forest. A young man and woman came on a motorcycle on the main thoroughfare up till the lodge and I immediately sensed they were there to have fun, not for the orchids.
“So as they slowed down near where I was standing, looking a little worried I might scold them, I surprised them with a smile and said, ‘Enjoy yourselves. Half a dozen couples have passed through in the past week’. They both grinned awkwardly and the girl waved warmly and said thank you,” Chalngura remembers, smiling at the memory.
Peak Season: This summer, leave the city behind and step into a comfort zone. The hills are alive with birdsong, the air is crisp and the flowers are in bloom. In this special issue, we bring you destinations where you can learn to be still