It was late evening, dusky with menacing clouds. We were on our way up from Guwahati to Shillong. Rain came down in torrents just about when we were labouring up a steep hill in an ancient Ambassador. Through the thick shroud of falling rain the forest on both sides looked menacing. Suddenly, the car stalled and came to a halt. The driver, a Mizo, unlocking the bonnet, got out unperturbed in the blinding rain to investigate. A little tinkering and the dead engine miraculously came to life. Thanking God for saving us from a soggy night out in the wilderness, we moved on, reaching Shillong around nine – somewhat late by north-eastern standards. After a four-year stint in Maharashtra, we were heading to Shillong on a posting for two years to preside over the North Eastern postal ministration.
Waking up next morning to a glorious sunshine we forgot the mishap of the previous evening. The green, thick-with-pines hills of Oakland, the neighbourhood we were parked in, were bathed in gorgeous sunshine and, set off against the turquoise of the sky, looked devastating. A bracing gentle breeze blew across the trough immediately below that once was the polo ground. Beyond we espied range after range of Khasi Hills in bright sunshine. Bowled over in the first few minutes that we spent out in the open, we realised what everyone said was really true. Shillong was, indeed, incredibly beautiful.
No wonder, with all its undulations, it has been given the sobriquet of “Scotland of the East”. The striking resemblance with the Scottish Highlands is further reinforced by the ubiquitous tartan that the Khasi men and women wrap themselves with. Its Tudor houses, the gardens, the works, remind cognoscenti of Devonshire or Sussex. Incidentally, we were allotted a house that was essentially Tudor in design and very comfortable w2ith added attraction of whispering pines within touching distance. Tucked away in the remote north-eastern hills, untouched by hordes of tourists, it has also been branded as the country’s “secluded Shangri-la”.
Drawing its name from the Khasi God “Leyshyllong”, who is believed to be residing on the Shillong Peak, Shillong was a small village until 1864 when it became the civil station for Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The British also used it for rest and recuperation. It remained the summer capital of eastern Bengal and Assam for many years. On the formation of the Assam Chief Commissioner’s Province in 1874, it was the obvious choice for being designated as the capital. It remained so until 1972 when on formation of Meghalaya comprising the Khasi, Jayantia and Garo Hills it became the capital of the new state.
Perched on Khasi Hills at an elevation of about 5000 ft. above sea-level, Shillong is blessed with substantial rainfall and an equable climate, though winters could be cold. Perennially dressed in green, it offers crisp, clean air and a nature that is feast for the eyes. The town’s attractions, therefore, are in its natural features, peaks, falls, lakes and gardens. Laitkor Peak, commonly known as the Shillong Peak, at about 6000 ft. is the most important and is the highest point of the town, as also of the state. An air force station located on it keeps vigil with its radar over 400 kilometres all around. Nearby are the two falls, Gunners’ and the Elephant Falls, both beautiful places for a day’s outing, more so during the monsoons. Just beyond are two other falls known as Upper and Lower Elysium offering just as pleasant views
Other attractions are the two lakes. The one plumb in the town is the Ward Lake, a serene body of water surrounded by green hills. Beautifully maintained, with a botanical garden thrown in, it was always a pleasure to spend some time in the midst of nature. We would walk over to it, stroll around on its winding paved pathways lined with flower-beds, stand on its picturesque bridge feeding fish and then retire to the cafeteria for a refreshing cup of coffee.
The other one is much bigger, the Umiam Lake, commonly known as Barra Paani. Only 17 kilometres away from the town it is a picture-postcard country with the blues of the skies reflected by the water of the expansive Lake fringed by green hills. Offering facilities of various kinds for water-sports at the Lake, the Meghalaya Tourism runs a Charles Correa-designed Orchid Lake Resort with well-appointed rooms. We, however, just sat around out in the open, taking in what nature so generously offered.
Known for its orchids, Meghalaya claims to host 600 of the 800 species that are found in the country. I found a few blooming on wayside trees which I promptly captured on film. The Orchidarium run by the Botanical Survey of India offers a large collection of them under one roof. We were lucky to see several varieties in bloom. We also saw for the first time in our life the pitchers with blood-red lips of the carnivorous pitcher-plants that the Botanical Survey grows in its extensive gardens. Some of the pitchers were of impressive proportions.
With so much of greenery around, the place had to have a generous population of butterflies. For the visitors the Museum of Butterflies is a must-see, something which we never saw anywhere in the country.
Shopping is mostly in what is known as “Police Bazaar” or the more sophisticated Laitumukhrah. Burra Bazaar, “Iewduh” as the locals call it, however, is an interesting tiered shopping complex on a hill-slope. From shoes, cloth and sundry other items to everything edible is available in this huge complex that is somewhat like an ethnic mall. Pineapples, my favourite fruit, were dirt cheap. Dolled up Khasi women, wearing traditional aprons with colourful chequered shawls can be seen selling fish or betel-nuts, locally known as khowai. While porters carry loaded baskets suspended from their foreheads, people shop, haggle or simply chat in the midst of this relentlessly on-the-move humanity. Although not for the squeamish, its USP is its uniqueness.
For diversion there is the 18-hole Shillong Golf Course, once reportedly listed among the world’s most beautiful one hundred golf courses by the Readers’ Digest. Close to the town, its picturesque fairways and greens attract even non-golfers. Diversion for the more ordinary, however, are the archery contests held every afternoon in the Polo Ground. Betting and imbibing fiery local brews go hand in hand evoking varying emotions – heights of euphoria and depths of depression.
Though Cherrapunji has yielded its place to Mausinram as the wettest place on earth, its earlier reputation drew us to it. With about 800 inches of rain per annum, we had imagined a dense tropical forest of sorts. At the end of the 55 kilometre trip we were amazed to see a bald plateau, bereft of all vegetation. All that rain simply runs over the rocky surface and down the precipices into Bangladesh. The trip was, nevertheless, made memorable by a few remarkable way-side water-falls and the view from Cherrapunji of the plains of Bangladesh a few thousand feet below.
A melting pot of several ethnic groups – north-eastern tribes, Nepalese, Bengalees and other non-tribals – Shillong is, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of towns in the north-east. Its bracing climate, natural endowments, hanging mists, its flowers, its Tudor houses (locally called Assam-type) and, above all, the friendly and colourful people make it an out-of-the-ordinary place for those who crave for new experiences. Devoid of spectacular views of mountain-snows, it is a hill-station with a character. Ours, indeed, was a pleasant and rewarding sojourn.
During a part of my stay, Late Purno Sangma was the chief minister. I found him generally wearing an infectious smile. He told me he, though of Garo stock, was in fact not born in Meghalaya but in Sushong, a place in Moymansingh District now in Bangladesh just below the Garo Hills, where my father, too, hailed from. He told me he was building roads in Shillong, as, he said, the place needed good roads and indeed in a few months most of the roads were done up It was a pleasant experience to have met a chief minister who seemed to have had no airs.
Being in-charge of the North-eastern states I had to travel to all of them. My impressions on each will follow.