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Preserving India’s underground marvels: Meghalaya’s ancient caves face environmental threat

The guardians of these natural treasures, the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes, uphold a deep-seated tradition of environmental stewardship, passed down through generations of their matrilineal societies. They have used their extensive knowledge to create a flourishing tourism industry that helps visitors understand the beauty and significance of their caves.

Standing near the colossal mouth to Mawmluh Cave, one of the area’s most celebrated underground ecosystems, community tour guide Arkeynoldson Wankhar attempts to convey its importance to a tour group while glaring at some children getting up to mischief.

“Geologists found proof of the Meghalayan Age in this cave system”, Wankhar, 32, explains to the group.

The Meghalayan Age is the scientific term for the current geological age, which started around 4,200 years ago. It is named after Meghalaya because a stalagmite found in Mawmluh Cave provided evidence of a sudden, severe drought that affected many ancient civilisations across the world. That drought is what geologists use to mark the beginning of the Meghalayan Age.

Wankhar is a member of the Khasi tribe, which is among the earliest ethnic groups in the Indian subcontinent, along with the Garo and Jaintia. All three are known for their matrilineal societies and their skill in crafting living root bridges from fig trees. Together, they protect natural treasures and biodiverse sacred forests in the mountainous regions of Meghalaya and parts of Assam state.

Meghalaya is home to a number of spectacular underground ecosystems, including Krem Puri, the world’s longest sandstone cave, and Krem Um Ladaw, which has the deepest shaft of any cave in the world.

These caves harbour diverse fauna, including tiny troglobites – animals