MAWLYNNONG, India — Anshuman Sen was barely a year out of college when, in 2005, he traveled to Meghalaya, a hilly northeastern state distant both in miles and cultural resemblance from what the locals call “mainland India.”
Mr. Sen was shooting pictures of the state’s bountiful natural wonders for Discover India, a travel magazine, when an acquaintance suggested visiting Mawlynnong, a remote village in the jungle along the border with Bangladesh that had acquired minor local renown for its fastidious cleanliness and a nearby bridge made entirely of living tree roots.
“I was only there for four or five hours,” said Mr. Sen, “but I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, and neither could anyone at the magazine.” He had to write about it, even if he hadn’t spent a full day there.
Before Mr. Sen went home, a contact at the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum told him that Mawlynnong was the “cleanest village in Asia,” and the impromptu — and improbable — slogan became the catchphrase of Mr. Sen’s article, published in 2005. Soon after, the BBC program “Human Planet” did a segment on the village and referenced Mr. Sen’s slogan.
Since Mr. Sen’s visit, Mawlynnong’s 90-odd families have witnessed irreversible changes as the village tries to maintain its appeal as an ecotourism destination without turning into a congested picnic spot. During the winter holiday season, hundreds of visitors arrive every day. Some are picnickers from nearby towns, while others travel from New Delhi, Kolkata and abroad.
The state of Meghalaya is no stranger to superlative-based tourism. A few ridges and valleys to the west of Mawlynnong is Cherrapunjee, famous as the “wettest place on Earth,” despite other places being demonstrably rainier.
The residents of Mawlynnong had two major advantages over Cherrapunjee. First, having developed later, Mawlynnong has paid attention to what went wrong at Cherrapunjee, where outside developers have set up huge resorts and tourism revenue goes to tour companies and a few favored restaurants and shops. Second, Mawlynnong’s claim to fame is within the residents’ control, not dependent on the weather.
Keeping those advantages in mind, Deepak Laloo, vice president of the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum, devised a plan that would both highlight and preserve the village’s seductive authenticity.
Mr. Laloo said he had encouraged locals to use traditional materials like bamboo, not concrete, for new buildings and had suggested that the number of lodges be kept to a minimum. He and early local entrepreneurs like Rishot Khongthohrem pushed a homestay lodging model, where tourists stay with local families instead of in hotels, thereby contributing exclusively to the village economy.
Mr. Khongthohrem, a schoolteacher and owner of one of Mawlynnong’s half-dozen homestay lodges, said the village council collects a fee from each bus and car that enters the village and uses that money to pay six women whose full-time job is pick up the litter.
“What keeps this village clean is habit,” Mr. Khongthohrem said. “We also have to keep that habit for our visitors who don’t have it yet.”
Many residents said that cleanliness was a deeply ingrained practice long before the “cleanest village” slogan was bestowed. Decades ago, all domestic animals were removed from the village; residents rely on farming that can be done without beasts of burden.
The simple act of placing garbage in a garbage can is considered unusual in India, where people often toss their trash wherever it is convenient — out of a car, on the street. But in Mawlynnong, even those who chew betel nuts swallow the nuts’ pungent juice instead of spitting it onto the ground.
The community council has also taken measures to preserve the village’s largely agrarian way of life so that no one is dependent on the ebbs and flows of tourism.
For instance, villagers cannot engage in tourism-related business until they are 18, by which time they’ve been taught traditional farming methods in the surrounding forests. Most of those who have involved themselves with tourism in some way see it as supplementary income.
But on a recent visit during the peak winter tourist season, all was not right in paradise. At 11 a.m. on a Sunday, a bus blaring dance music arrived with a troop of tipsy teenagers. Even though Mawlynnong’s community council banned the consumption of alcohol in the village, the pack of youngsters offloaded first their flailing bodies and then the makings of a raucous picnic: firewood, big metal cooking pots, live chickens, coolers filled with beer and big wireless speakers.
An hour later, the music from their party on the local soccer field drowned out the wafts of gospel music emanating from choir practice at the Anglican Church adjacent to the field.
Mawlynnong residents say the majority of visitors these days are from nearby villages, who care less about the village’s reputation than residents do.
After attempting to throw an empty bag of chips into a trash can and missing, Ornel Khonglah, who was from a town an hour’s drive away, said, “We’ve heard that Mawlynnong is an extraordinary place, so we decided to come here and enjoy the weekend. It is amazing, isn’t it?”
But how long can “amazing” last under relentless footfall? One local attraction, a massive boulder balancing on a much smaller rock, is covered in etchings of initial-filled hearts. The path to the living root bridge, which actually lies in the neighboring village of Riwai, has turned into a gridlocked highway of day visitors, their shouts audible from several hundred paces away.
At the bridge itself, children climbed the roots, jumping and doing stunts. The ground nearby was covered with the detritus one sees at any Indian tourist site: candy wrappers, empty water bottles, cigarette butts and orange peels. A man pretended to meditate under the bridge while his wife took a picture. Once she had, his eyes sprang open and he rushed to see whether it had come out to his liking.
Henry Kharymba, a longtime tour guide in Mawlynnong, sat collecting donations from incoming buses. “This used to be heaven, and now it’s hell,” he said, before chuckling. “But we need the money — if it just wasn’t for these fools. You know, they come here and drink and use slang in front of our sisters and our kids. We have to tell them that this isn’t a park. It’s a village.”
Mr. Laloo, the tourism developer, is exasperated with the changes and has now shifted his sights to a new village, Sohliya. In a phone interview, he said, “In ’09, you would’ve said, ‘Wow, I’ve walked into God’s private garden’ when you went there. Now, that place has no standards. They use concrete, and they have all kinds of shops.”
Meanwhile, Mawlynnong grapples with its double-edged influx of visitors with remarkable unity and a shared sense of caution.
One night last month, all of Mawlynnong’s men met in the village hall to discuss strengthening the ban on alcohol consumption. At the heart of the discussion was the question: Are these tourists really worth it?