Land in clouds

idyllic getaway

Land in clouds

The British called it ‘Scotland of the East’, finding resonance in the landscape they left behind while expanding their empire in India. Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, (‘Abode of Clouds’) was then the capital of Assam comprising the Brahmaputra valley and all the hills around. Today, Assam and Meghalaya have become individual states, also part of the Seven Sister States in Northeast India.
Meghalaya comprises former Khasi and Jaintia hills and the Garo hills, surrounded by sun-kissed emerald valleys with orchards of orange or pineapple, depending on the season.

Get there already!

The journey to Shillong takes about two-and-a-half hours by car from Guwahati, Assam’s important city. The pine tree-tinged fresh air greets you as you cross Nongpoh, the midway point. On the way up is the serene Umiam Lake, also called Barapani (big water), a place for boating, cruising and angling. It’s actually a reservoir of a dam, constructed as part of a hydel power project, one of the first in the region. Around November, you can enjoy the traditional Nongkrem Dance Festival held at Smit, a village not far from here.

The lake that is signature to Shillong is the Ward’s Lake in the centre of the city. Also known as Pollock’s Lake, after a popular British engineer, this artificial waterbody was conceived by Sir William Ward, the then chief commissioner of Assam. It was completed in 1894. The horse-shaped lake is encircled by lush gardens of flowering plants laid out on hillocks tapering off from the cobbled paths. In the middle of the lake is a wooden bridge. Visitors are often found feeding the resident red-hued fish. Another favourite pastime is boating on the placid water, to enjoy the view around.

Close by is the Botanical Garden that boasts of mountain plants and the several orchid species for which Meghalaya is famous, like Sikkim. The Lady Hydari Park —  with its weeping willow trees and rose beds in the Japanese-style garden — is another favourite place for locals and visitors. A mini zoo and a butterfly display add to its charm.

Near the Laitumkhrah area, known for  its many famous educational institutions,  lies the majestic cathedral named after Mother Mary. The new structure has been built where the first church of Shillong stood, which was destroyed by fire in 1936. Beautiful stained-glass installations, tall arches and inside, a number of artwork displaying chapters and scenes from holy scriptures and the life stories of several saints make it a worthwhile visit.

Culture cauldron

The Don Bosco Center for Indigenous Cultures has recently come up to give a glimpse of some indigenous cultures of Northeast India. The structure is in the shape of a honeycomb, and rises up to seven floors. Moving outside the city limits, natural attractions that have made Shillong famous are big draws.

Near the Mawprem area, the Bishop Falls is a three-tiered waterfall that cascades from a height of 443 feet. It’s joined by the Beadon Falls — its ‘twin brother’ — as they fall down into a deep gorge of River Umiam.

The Shillong Peak, at 1,965 metres above sea level, is the highest point of the town. In fact, the city derives its name from the word ‘U Blei Shyllong’, the Supreme Power that is believed to reside on the peak. The drive up is serene and pretty with potato fields, sweet-smelling pine forests, and the ever-present hills for company. From the View Point you can see the valley and the town spread across like a landscape painting.

A popular destination out of Shillong is Cherrapunjee, called Sohora today, 60 km away. In the dry season, however, it is dry as a twig. It’s no exaggeration to say that the road, with its numerous waterfalls, gorges and shimmering hills, is one of the most picturesque in the country.

A strange sight meets the visitors on the way to Sohora — conical slabs of stones erected on mounds, almost reminding you of Stonehenge in England. Anthropologists opine that these were erected in memory of the dead, a practice prevalent in many Southeast Asian countries. The North East witnessed waves of migration from Southeast Asia through centuries. The Khasis and Jaintias are traced to people of Austro-Asiatic origin who lived in the Mekong Valley near Laos. They were one of the earliest migrants to this land.

Sohora is also famous for its limestone hills. It has become a hub of cave-exploration tourism. Krem Mawmluh, half-a-km to its west with a length of 4,503 m, is considered as the fourth-longest cave complex in India.

There is also the beautiful Krem Dam near the village of Mawsynram, the largest sandstone cave in the country. It has a large entrance through which a stream enters to make it an unusual cave.

The 1,035-ft-high Mawsmai Falls, the fourth highest in India, is not far from Sohora. The Mawsmai Cave or Krem Phyllut is around here. The entry point of the cave is narrow, but inside there are huge halls connected to other caves.

The road to Sohora bifurcates to lead to Dawki, the little settlement on the India-Bangladesh border. On the way, the stark outline of a stone church against the horizon, waves of mist, and the serpentine road whisk you away from the hustle-bustle of cities. You’ll encounter hamlets, women in jainsems — the traditional dress of the Khasi women — busy in their fields, and rows of brooms (made of local vegetation) hanged for drying. Their quality ensures their demand even in far-off places.

As the Dawki river comes into view, it takes your breath away. Flowing between limestone hills, its colour is green-blue in the shadows of the verdurous hills. If you go there in winter, you will see the sand bars full of people and boats. It’s a favourite picnic spot not only of people from around, but also from Bangladesh who come, we were told, with official permission. But Dawki as a town is not worth lingering on. If you are enthusiastic enough, you can enter your name in the register of the customs department and set foot on Bangladesh soil for a while.

These days, another place that’s witnessing a lot of tourist footfall is the Mawlynnong village, on the way to Dawki. Its fame as the cleanest village in Asia has spread, which it truly deserves. With cane baskets to collect litter, well-swept paths and pretty little cottages, it is a contrast to our garbage-strewn cities. Nearby is a ‘natural’ bridge made of giant tree-roots, which would leave visitors awestruck.

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