Table of contents for North East Trip
- Shillong, Meghalaya – the abode in the clouds
- The grandeur of the North-East – Kaziranga National Park
- Majuli – The Island of Dancing Monks
The two-hours long Spicejet flight from Delhi landed at Guwahati airport on time at exactly ten past eight in the morning and after collecting our baggage and haggling with a few taxiwallas, we were on our way to Shillong – the capital city of Meghalaya, one of the seven sister states of North-Eastern India.
Shillong, as we all know, had been the capital of the whole of Assam province that was created during the British Rule. It remained the capital of undivided Assam until the formation of the state of Meghalaya in 1972. The capital of Assam was then shifted to Dispur, a part of Guwahati, and Shillong remained a capital city, now of Meghalaya.
Shillong is located at a distance of around 100 kms from the Guwahati airport. The entire journey from Guwahati to Shillong is an exciting experience. No sooner the Assam state border at Jorabat is crossed, nature suddenly seems to put its best face. All along the road, a sequence of scenery continues to unfold in its true captivating splendour, and viewing points are hoisted to vintage heights. The hills gradually start merging. We noticed the quality of roads suddenly improving, despite the fact that the Guwahati – Shillong Expressway was then under construction. It is believed that once the Expressway becomes operational, the journey time would be cut short from the present three hour drive to just around two hours.
On the way to Shillong, we enjoyed a break at a small time Dhaba called National Highway Dhaba at Nongpoh which is a small town on the National Highway 40. We had our breakfast consisting of the typical chhole bhatures, aloo paranthas and omelettes. It looked great because we were very hungry.
To our pleasant surprise, while driving past the Umiam Lake located at around 15 kms short of Shillong, the mercury started dropping dramatically. No wonder the non-partisan nature must have extended a warm welcome to the Britishers who had long ago wandered this far. It would not be inappropriate to mention that what was once fondly called the ‘Scotland of the East’ was acquired by the British (of course through coercive negotiations) way back in 1862 from the 25 principalities ruled by the Khasi kings. As the district headquarters, Shillong was carefully planned both for the resident and other affluent Englishmen. Because of its strategic location, the military authorities too had established its cantonment in Upper Shillong. Shortly thereafter, the European pensioners, the tea planters and many noteworthy businessmen started putting up their cottages here itself. Lured by the beauty of the hills, both Europeans and Indians began to buy land on the outskirts of the “British Shillong” and built their imposing houses. The princely families of the area also started constructing their own establishments.
Being the capital of undivided Assam, the growth of the city became phenomenal after the attainment of India’s independence from the British Rule. Shillong today houses one of the best schools, colleges, university and hospitals. Not only is the cantonment area very neatly maintained, even the crowded areas of the city are kept absolutely clean. Shillong, as of now, is the most happening place in the North-East.
Day 1 at Shillong
We had made our bookings for the three – days stay at White Orchid, the Guest house which is an eight – rooms complex located at Upper Lachaumiere, formerly a part of the ‘European Ward’ area of Shillong, close to the Malki Point. The rooms are simple, clean, bright and spacious and give a panoramic view from the rooftop. The Guest House is owned by a Sikh gentleman by name, Gurmit Singh, whose family had moved to Shillong some 60 years ago and now have their business interests in trading of tea as well. No wonder the quality of tea at this place was excellent. White Orchid, located in close proximity to all major sites of the town, appeared to be fairly popular with the student community, and we happened to meet two girls from the Institute of Technology who had been staying there for the previous 2 months.
After settling down at White Orchid and refreshing ourselves, we thought of taking a stroll and hunt for a good local eatery. Our search brought us to a small joint called New Hope Restaurant, located in the church premises, close to Police Bazaar. After a clean, sumptuous and reasonably priced lunch, we headed for Police Bazaar, the hub of commercial activity at Shillong. As we were all quietly walking down, the weather took a pleasant turn and we ran for cover towards this small park, having temporary shops along the boundary, a kind of fete-fair going on. We had tea and realised that it is actually a heritage monument, paying tributes to martyrs.
After my return, I read more and here is what the stone says:
“In memory of James Wallace Quinton, Colonel Charles McDowal Skene, Frank St.Clair Grimwood, William Henry Gossing, Lt. Walter Henry Simpson, Lt Lionel Wilhelm Brackenbury, who lost their lives at Manipur on the 24 March 1891, this monument has been erected by friends in Assam and elsewhere”.
If you are curious to know more about James Wallace then this link talks about his times.
As the rains subsided, we made our pay to Police Bazaar and on the way we spotted some kind of tourism office. It was some kind of ‘Airport Shuttle’ centre so here is first tip for anyone who is flying to Guwahati and wants to visit ‘Shillong’. Meghalaya Tourism runs this ‘Airport Shuttle’ and the rates are pretty fair. Since we didn’t know, we spent quite a time haggling at Guwahati. Now, though we didn’t need a shuttle for Guwahati, since we were scheduled to go to Kaziranga in three days, we were lucky to strike an attractive deal in booking of a 12 – seater “Winger” for our onward journey to Cherrapunji.
One very pleasant feature of the transportation in Shillong is that most of the taxis (mainly the Altos, the Maruti 800s and the Santros) ply within the city on a sharing basis for a paltry charge of Rs. 10 per passenger for a distance of 3 kms and Rs. 20 above that. In these taxis, you can hop-in and hop-out wherever you please. One can book the full taxi too. Transportation is simple, hassle and haggle free (unlike the daylight looting in Delhi and other metros).
We walked down the Police Bazaar (poplularly called PB) and were amazed to see it packed with hotels and restaurants of various sizes and ambience strategically located at the place from where visitors find it convenient to reach all main tourist spots. PB has well – stocked shops. At this very market the local weekly – market known as “Lewduh” is held. You can see several colorful stalls plying their trade of village produce. Forest honey is easily available and the souvenir collectors can pick up handmade knives, cotton bags, shawls, bamboo cutlery and other bamboo products at very competitive rates. There is a Government Emporium near PB, where one can buy a set of the traditional Khasi skirt which are a good pick though pricy, but made from pure silk.
It would not be out of place to mention that the Khasi women who are charming and proud of their heritage are very enterprising. It is very easy to spot the Khasi women for they wear the typical Khasi dress that sets them apart.
Shillong’s hotels cater to a wide variety of tourists at affordable rates. There are some good hotels located around PB, the prominent being Hotel Centre Point, Hotel Magnum, Hotel Monsoon, Hotel Alpine Continental, etc. Meghalaya Tourism’s ‘Orchid Lake Resort’ located on the banks of Ulium Lake has a restaurant and a water sports complex. The Royal Heritage offers a bar and a restaurant, where you can order Khasi food. These two hotels are favourite spots of affluent guests.
Now a good piece of information for the liquor lovers – due to lower taxation in Meghalaya the prices are considerably lower than the other states. We picked up some booze, which is cheaper in Meghalya on account of lower rate of taxation, and some snacks and decided to call it a day. The nice well-cooked simple dinner savoured by us at the Guest House helped us in getting the sound sleep we needed.
Day 2 at Shillong
I am an early riser and while the family was still enjoying their extended sleep, I decided to sit in the verandah and soak in the mild early morning sunshine. The sweet chirping of birds was the only sound I could hear. Seeing me, the Manager of White Orchid, an Assamese Gentleman, came towards me, wished me and asked if I would like to have a cup of tea. What more could have one asked on a beautiful morning.
He soon returned with a steaming hot pot of tea. I asked him to join me. During the conversation I was told that prior to our gaining independence from the British Rule this beautiful area of rolling forested hills and lush green fields was known as Assam Province, but due to socio-political reasons, it was carved up into seven separate states namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura — and the Himalayan state of Sikkim became a part of the North East Region in 1990. He told me a few very interesting features about Meghalaya, that Meghalya means the abode of clouds, and that it was formed by carving out two districts from the state of Assam namely the United Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills, and the Garo Hills in January 1972. Before attaining full statehood, Meghalaya was given semi-autonomous status in 1970; the tribal people make up the majority of Meghalaya’s population.
The Khasis are the largest group in Meghalaya, followed by the Garos and others like the Jaintias, the Koch, the Boros, Hajong, Kukis. Mikir, and Nepali. There is also a sizable population of mainland Hindus and Sikhs. Around 70% of the population of Meghalaya practices Christianity. Hinduism is the next sizeable faith (14%), followed by 12% of sizable minority following the traditional animist practices.
Being a sensitive subject, I hesitantly asked him about the menace of insurgency and about the ethnic violence of the North East. Gathering his thoughts and probably searching for suitable words, he told me that the reasons for this unrest include a feeling of being neglected by the central government, poor transport links and lack of industrial development in the region. All state governments of this region are endeavoring constantly to resolve these principal issues. However, he quickly added that Meghalaya is comparatively safe from rebel activity and ethnic violence is practically absent.
I thanked him for this valuable information. The breakfast consisting Aloo paranthas and omelets was delicious. At around 9 o’clock, we started for the Shillong peak, a picnic spot, 10 kms from the city. It is located at a height of 6433 ft. above the sea- level. As Shillong Peak is located in an area which is under the control of Armed Forces, the tourists have to take permit for security reasons, which is easily given. A double story viewing point gives a panoramic view of the scenic countryside and is the highest point in the state. The peak also offers a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the city spread out against the scenic hill slopes. It is one of the most enchanting parts of the state noted for its tropical vegetation (we saw lots of potato crops) and for the deep chasms falling away from the road.
We were told by the locals that obeisance is paid to U Shulong at the sanctum sanctorum at the peak’s summit every springtime, by the religious priest of Mylliem State.
Just by the side of the viewing point, there are a few stalls selling tea, milk packets, soft drinks and freshly cut pineapple, all run by enterprising Khasi women. The gently rolling hills of Meghalaya are known for growing fruits and betel nut, which locals, especially the women folks, immensely enjoy.
After spending a couple of hours at the peak, we headed for the city to look for lunch. Please note most of the markets are closed on Sundays and after a good hunt we landed at Cafe Shillong, located near the Don Bosco Circle.
The café serves high quality Chinese, Thai and Continental dishes. The ambience of the café is excellent and so is the service. You can use the free Wi-Fi facility provided at the café and we made full use of it by following the ball by ball commentary of the Test Match between India and Australia, which to our delight, was won by the Indian team.
Post the lunch, we decided to walk down the Don Bosco Square, which houses the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures (DBCIC). DBCIC encourages research on cultures, brings out publications, conducts training, animation programs and houses a museum, which is a place of knowledge-sharing on the cultures of the northeast in particular and of culture in general. DBCIC with its Don Bosco Museum is situated at Mawlai, Shillong.
Just a few paces from the Don Bosco Museum, the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians is located. The Cathedral is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Shillong.
The first church built at the site in 1913 was the Church of the Divine Saviour. That church, a wooden structure, was destroyed in a fire in April 1936. Construction of the new church of Mary Help of Christians was begun on the same site in October 1936. The transepts were added in the 1970s. The church now has an underground grotto church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, which was carved out of the hill. The interior of the church has high arches.
We then headed for the Wards Lake, known locally as Non-Polok, which is an artificial lake with garden and boating facilities. While our grand daughters, Pihu (7) and Kuhu (3) were enjoying the pedal boat ride along with their mothers, we decided to stretch ourselves at the lush green grass carpet so as to relish the serenity of the place which was disturbed by the filming of birds by few foreign photographers. The other places of interest in Shillong include the Lady Hydari Park, a kilometer long park with a mini zoo, Shillong Golf Course, which is one of the largest golf courses (the world’s wettest too). Not only is the Shillong Golf Course scenic and enjoyable, it is also equally challenging.
Depending on the availability of time and the length of stay, visitors to Shillong can visit the Air Force Museum at Upper Shillong, the Forest Museum in Lady Hydari Park, the Rhino Heritage Museum at Shillong, the Bishop and Beadon Falls which cascade down the same escapement into a deep valley, and the Sweet Falls, the most beautiful of all the waterfalls in Shillong. It lies about 5 km from the Happy Valley and is about 96 m in height and, of course, the Elephant falls, about which we would talk in the later part of this saga.
One can make a trip to Meghalaya at any time of the year but October t o March are considered as the best months for spending good times in this state.
Day 3 – Cherrapunji
Cherrapunji, 58 km from Shillong, is known to every school child for receiving the highest rainfall in the world, but it is the nearby Mawsynram that now receives the most rainfall.
Cherrapunji is located at an altitude level of 1484 meters (4869 ft.) on a plateau in the south of the Khasi Hills, facing the plains of Bangladesh. Cherrapunji is possible the only place in India, which has only one season throughout the year: the Monsoon. The amount of rainfall varies from heavy to medium to light, but there is no month without rain. We were told by the locals that surprisingly in Cherrapunji it rains mostly at night. Thus, the day-to-day activity is not really disrupted by the rain. However, the irony is that despite perennial rainfall, Cherrapunji faces an acute shortage of drinking water, and the inhabitants often have to trek for miles to obtain potable water.
One of the unique features of Meghalya state is that a majority of its tribal population follows a matrilineal system (matri-pradhan). According to the Khasi law and tradition, the mother inherits the children and property. After the wedding, the husband of the youngest daughter goes to live with his wife’s family, in which family the youngest daughter inherits all the property and acts as the caretaker of aged parents and her unmarried siblings; others live on their own getting a bit of the share. The children take on the surname of their mother. The tribal people of Meghalaya are a part of what may be the world’s largest surviving matrilineal society.
Cherrapunji is also famous for its living bridges. Over hundreds of
years the people in Cherrapunji have developed techniques for growing
roots of trees into large bridges. The process takes 5-10 years and
the bridges typically last hundreds of years, the oldest ones presently in use being over 500 years old.
The environment of Cherrapunji changes not with the seasons but with the pattern of rainfall. The heaviest downpours span approximately five long months-from the month of May to September. Then the clouds are dark and menacing, full blown with rain, which descends earthwards
with the stinging force of a whiplash.
Surprisingly, this wettest place on earth where it rains every month
also has an amazing amount of warm sunshine. When the clouds drift
away, there are a series of memorable views, and one can see as far as
Bangladesh. Orchids bloom a few feet away from patches otherwise devoid of vegetation. Dense woods are interspersed by rocky cliffs furrowed by erosion. The hills around Cherrapunji do not have the lush green vegetation one normally associates with wet places. The vegetative covers are in the form of dense woods, and appear in patches. Nevertheless, the richness and variety of the flora in these areas is to be seen to be believed. An amazing variety of rare orchids, ferns, and moss convert each pocket into a botanist’s paradise. Cherrapunji produces the best quality of oranges and pineapples.
Cherrapunji has several comfortable private hotels. Staying at the Circuit House or at the Dak Bungalow requires prior permission from the local administration. The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort is another good place for a pleasant stay. You cannot miss the resort because all throughout the road leading to Cherrapunji on every milestone the resort’s billboards are to be seen indicating it’s presence.
Tour of Cherrapunji
The “Winger” arrived at White Orchid at half past seven in the morning, and after crossing the pleasant cantonment area of Shillong, where the municipal limits end, we were on the road to Cherrapunji. There was a pleasant chill in the early morning breeze, and once we entered the forested areas we found the road well maintained. The entire area is surrounded by hills and at times covered by dense mist.
As mentioned above, because of the torrential rains in this hilly terrain, not much vegetation is possible. However, we did see some farming activities in the valleys, where locals reportedly grow potatoes, lentils, green vegetables and pineapples; nature has blessed this region with some good quality coalfields.
The entire region from Shillong to Cherrapunji is sparsely populated. The road was almost free of traffic. Suddenly close to the midway, we saw a small time shop appearing as though out of nowhere.
It was called “Khasi Restaurant” and was a pleasant stoppage for the tourists. It was entirely run by Khasi women. Right from the reception desk, where the daily need products were kept, to the kitchen and the dining hall, it was all manned by women. We ordered some piping hot noodles, bread, egg – omelets and daal – roti. Some of the local travellers also joined us and we observed that the rice with pork was perhaps the staple diet of the region. I was surprised to see a middle-school–going girl sitting at the front desk, reading an issue of “Tinkle Digest”. I asked her if she knew English, to which she responded in broken English. As the Khasi dialect is written in Roman script, the students find it easier to learn English, though Hindi is widely understood. On the restaurant – wall we saw a poster inviting people to attend an evening – function to honour almost a dozen Meghalaya authors and poets. I found it to be a very heartening gesture.
On the way to Cherrapunji, we passed through a huge three-story structure which was the “Ramakrishna Mission Math and Ashram”. The mission runs a higher secondary school, a vocational school for teaching, weaving, tailoring and knitting and also provides hostel facilities for boy students. The mission also has a computer training centre. Near the Mowsmai village on the edge of a deep gorge, there is an awesome view of the 1000 ft. high “Nohnsnglthiang Falls”. There are many other falls in the adjacent hills, the most spectacular being “Nohkalikai”.
Cherrapunji is a small town with a population of around 15,000. Tourists normally visit this high point in the region (I have forgotten the name), which gives an excellent bird’s eye view of the valley, the Brahmaputra river and the Bangladesh border. There is a very interesting rock formation at this point which has fables that go along with its existence. The picture explains that…
There is also a well maintained Botanical Garden close by. The entry ticket is Rs. 5 per person and one can have a good walk on the lush green lawns. There is a play area for children with some swings, slides and merry – go-rounds; we found some of the children in their neat school uniforms lined up awaiting their turn.
It was around lunch time, when we headed for Mawsynram, a small village, located at a distance of around 15 Kms. Each year this village is visited by large number of tourists and devotees owing to the Mawjymbuin Caves that are famous for stalagmite whose shape is similar to that of Shiva lingam.
Right outside the caves, there is a small complex housing some eateries and the usual trinkets shops. Though North Indian food as available at one of the restaurants, we preferred the Khasi food served to us.
Post lunch, it was time for us to head for viewing the spectacular Elephant Falls, one of the most popular tourist sites of Shillong. It is located at a distance of 12 km from the city and is easily accessible by auto rickshaws, chartered taxis and comfortable buses starting from the Meghalaya Tourism’s office. The waterfall is located in Upper Shillong area within the Eastern Air Command of Indian Air Force. From the car park one has to climb down 120 steps to reach the serene three stepped fall, which is a collection of three smaller falls that combine together to form the stream that falls over fern-covered rocks. There are two other waterfalls in the same region.
Unfortunately, we did not take any pictures of the three-stepped falls.
There are a few shops in the complex selling souvenirs and beverages. Sipping a cup of tea at one of the stalls, I coaxingly asked the owner, a good looking girl in her twenties, the role of male folks in this matrilineal society. Smilingly she said “when they get time off their booze and tobacco, they help us in the fields, rear the cattle and at times work in the coalmines. The educated lot goes to the larger towns and look for some good jobs”.
After savouring the beauty of the Meghalaya and meeting its wonderful people, it was time to say good bye to our friends in Meghalaya and move on to Kaziranga National Park in Assam to see the rare great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, the wild elephants and the leopards, about which we shall talk in the next part of the story. Till then, have a great travel time in the ensuing summer holidays. Thank you all for being with me on this journey to one of the seven -sister states of the North-East, Meghalaya.