The British named it Elephant Falls after a mammoth rock on the left side of the cascade. It, however, vanished after an earthquake in 1897.
By the time the beautiful Barna Borat, our hostess in the air, smiled her customary goodbye at the drenched Guwahati airport, we had had enough of the clouds. The ATR from Kolkata was a bit scarier than the usual air journeys. Turbulence, the captain had said as I was reliving childhood fantasies where clouds shaped into snow castles, prancing unicorns, landing eagles and fighting demons. Then we proceeded to the house of clouds - Meghalaya.
Guwahati is the sole gateway to the north-eastern states, linked to the rest of India by the 20-kilometre-wide Siliguri Corridor sandwiched by Nepal and Bangladesh. Rhinos, yaks and platoons of armed men march here. The threat of foreign aggression and internal insurgency keep this land a hot spot. To cross the Assam border to most of the other north-eastern states, you need a permit. The continuous presence of AK 47-wielding soldiers, authorised to intercept us anytime, would be a menacing imagery for the next ten days.
After around three hours we reach Shillong, Meghalaya's capital. Shillong is also the rock capital of the country. International and homegrown bands keep Shillong’s evenings musical. I should have been here on May 24, when Lou Majaw celebrates
Bob Dylan’s birthday. The 60-year-old maverick musician, who named his son Christopher Dylan Majaw, has been paying a musical tribute to his icon since 1972. However, for the two days we spent in Meghalaya, there was no music in Shillong and no rain in Cherrapunjee.
A trip to this part was long pending. So when Rajesh Raj mooted the idea a week ago, Prem Udayabhanu, Sreekanth Vijayan and I jumped in. Nothing is planned beyond Shillong, where Indira Devi, Rajesh's wife, works. She has booked us a room at a government guest house at Rynjah. The taxi driver doesn't have permission to ply beyond a certain point. Unable to understand the matrix of security rules we change to one of the many Maruti 800 taxis endemic to Shillong. The hill town is calm. Even the drivers stuck in traffic snarls refuse to rev up and honk.
As soon as we left the Assam plains for the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, things began to change around us. Green hills and winding roads and an occasional toppled truck. The Khasi women, identified by their beautiful smiles and the chequered cloth tied over the left shoulder, are busy with their chores.
They carry agricultural produce in large conical wicker baskets. Mothers tie their infants on their backs. Covered by the chequered cloth, mother and child look like a single entity.
Shillong, however, is a Western city with its hip-hop youth. There’s even a night club. Shillong was the capital of the undivided Assam state till Meghalaya was carved out in 1972. The British called Meghalaya, the favourite summer capital of the Presidency, the ‘Scotland of the East’. Reputed schools and colleges and good hospitals and the unavoidable military/paramilitary institutions dot the sleepy town. Indira offers a panoramic view of the town from the pine-forested Shillong Peak, which is the highest point in Meghalaya Plateau at 1965 metres. Predictably, there’s an Indian Air Force station on the way to the peak.
The next day, the five of us hire a taxi to Sohra, as Cherrapunjee is known locally. It’s a 56-kilometre drive from Shillong. The rustic Khasi villages reappear as we leave the state capital. Khasis are the dominant tribe in Meghalaya. Garos, Jaintiyas and a few others constitute the rest of the demography. Garo Hills would be too adventurous on this trip. Meghalaya has around 70 percent of the
populace practicing Christianity, thanks to waves of missionaries, who built schools and baptised tribesmen. (Recounting the trip over dinner back home, father said that the Church had been mobilizing funds for the “mission” (read conversion) in Khasi and Garo hills during Sunday Masses even from his childhood days.)
The rolling meadows seem endless, with red wounds scratched out by earthmovers. One-third of the state is still under forest cover. Cherrapunjee is rich in mineral deposits like coal and limestone. But the real cropper is the rain, though this cluster of villages on the Indo-Bangladesh border has long ceased to be the ‘world’s wettest place’. The place is abuzz with waterfalls, which come for a price though. At every viewpoint, there’s someone authorized to count heads and cameras and charge them for entry. That’s good money, considering the endless flow of tourists from all over India.
Before chasing the monsoon in 1987, Alexander Frater was told that Cherrapunjee was out of bounds because of the rebellion. But we were to discover that this place was the most accessible in all North-East. Things have changed since ’87. Till 2006, the average rainfall in Cherrapunjee, 1330 metres above sea level, was
11,931.7 mm. It’s hot now. I sweat inside the carefully purchased woolen socks and sweaters. Wonder why my school teacher gave me a mark for writing Cherrapunjee as world’s rainiest place. “Was somebody saying about frostbites?” Rajesh ignores the question. “Good weather”, our driver is happy, “If it were raining, we couldn’t have seen anything.”
The meadows are over. We are at the edge of a cliff by a stream, which leaps into the plains of Bangladesh far beneath. (It didn’t occur to me then that it was my first view of a foreign country.) Bangladesh seems flooded. Meghalaya’s countless waterfalls end up in the Meghna River in Bangladesh. Still drowsy from the Kolkata bash, I lie down on a rock. Rajesh points at a rock a few yards beyond the viewpoint and tells me it is a major tourist attraction. I thought it was another of his pranks. But he was right. What I saw was just a tip, the head of the Oscar statuette. The cylindrical monolith went straight to the plains, illogically independent, as if it were a meteor which fell from the space.
At a nearby botanical garden, every tree has four names: botanical
Shillong sprawls beneath the 1965-metre-high Shillong Peak, the highest point in Meghalaya Plateau.
name, common name, Khasi name and Garo name. Meghalaya has two official languages: Khasi and Garo. Like most North-Eastern languages, Khasi and Garo don’t have script and rely on the English alphabet. We had bought two Khasi newspapers in English and the only deciphered word was ‘Shillong’. The 50-year-old U Nongsain Hima had a frontpage report on people flocking to a house where a picture of Jesus bled. Pictures on Mawphor didn’t reveal anything special.
I lost track of waterfalls. So many of them cascade down tall canyons. More meadows before we reach Mawsmai caves. The kilometer-long tunnel through intricate rock patterns is terrific. Travellers wade through ankle-deep waters inside the rocky maze. Careless revellers bump their heads on the stooping roof. Dim-lit rocks assume shapes. It’s a miracle how the cave escaped idol worshippers. We vowed to crawl through the cave again after lunch, but forgot about it after meeting the stunning Fera.
A striking contrast with the rest of India is the presence and predominance of women everywhere in Meghalaya. As per the 2001 census, Meghalaya had 975 women per 1000 men, above the national average of 933:1000. The matrilineal tribes trace lineage and inheritance through mothers. If you thought you would settle down in this idyllic end-of-the-world green nest, you would be disappointed. The state is immune to aliens. The nearest possibility is to marry a Khasi girl and buy a house in her name, Indira advises. Too late. Time to return.
At 5 am, I can’t sleep anymore. They have stretched the Indian Standard Time too far. It’s broad daylight outside. At the street corner after Rynjah, an eccentric old man strums his guitar. A group of boys listens to him as if it were a daily affair. A week later in Guwahati, after surviving landslides and chilly winds in Arunachal Pradesh, we read in the paper of Cherrapunjee receiving the season’s first showers.
There’s still rock and rain.
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