Blessed with undulating topography, sub-tropical forests, exotic flora and fauna, gushing springs, waterfalls and misty mountains, this sparsely populated north-eastern state is attracting eco-tourists from around the world
One of the beneficial outcomes of post-liberalisation India’s communications revolution, particularly in television, is that it has brought the hitherto remote and isolated states of the north-east into the drawing rooms of middle-class India.
Suddenly there is growing national awareness that citizens of India’s hot and humid cities of the plains have easy access to the cool climes, exotic cultures and well-mannered people of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur — the seven sister states of the north-east inhabited by ethnically distinct citizens whose number aggregates 38.6 million.
In August, ParentsWorld featured the north-eastern state of Mizoram in our leisure and travel section. Now we present Meghalaya (pop.2.65 million).
Meghalaya, which translates into the abode of clouds in Hindi, is one of India’s most scenically gifted states. Blessed with undulating topography, swathes of sub-tropical forests which host exotic plant species and fauna, gushing springs, waterfalls and misty mountains, two national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries, this sparsely populated state which sprawls across 22,429 sq. km of mountainous plateau (average elevation 6,500 ft above sea level) is attracting a growing number of eco-tourists from across India and around the world. In 2018, 1.20 million domestic and 18,000 foreign tourists visited this hitherto remote naturalist haven. Meghalaya is bound by the Golpara mountain ranges of Assam in the north, Kamrup and Nowgong in the east, Bangladesh in the south-west and Manipur to the south-east.
With a low population density (103 per sq. km), Meghalaya is dominated by the people of the state’s most prominent tribes — Khasi, Garo and Jaintia. Of them the Khasi and Garo tribes migrated from south-east Asia and the Jaintia from Tibet. They administered their own kingdoms until the British, par excellence practitioners of divide-and-rule, subjugated them in the early 19th century. In 1835 the British incorporated Meghalaya into Assam with Shillong as the capital. After India’s independence in 1947, Meghalaya was accorded autonomous status within Assam.
However, the states’ Khasi, Garo and Jaintia people were less than satisfied with this political arrangement and launched a peaceful and constitutional struggle for statehood. The turning point in their struggle came when the government of Assam introduced Assamese as the state language, a tongue totally alien to Meghalaya’s tribes. In 1972 following widespread protests, Meghalaya was accorded the status of a full-fledged state within the Indian Union with its own state legislative assembly (60 seats) and representation in Parliament in Delhi.
A naturalist’s paradise, Meghalaya hosts over 500 limestone and sandstone caves, including five of the longest and deepest in the subcontinent. Cavers from around the world visit the region to explore these fascinating subterranean formations. Krem Um-Lawan in the Jaintia hills and Tetengkol Balwakol in South Garo hills, are prime tourist attractions.
Meghalaya also has pretty natural and man-made lakes. Umiam Lake (popularly called Bara Pania’s or big water) on the Guwahati-Shillong Road is a popular attraction. The state’s numerous leafy parks and museums are a beneficial legacy of British rule.
The annual (archery) festival held in April/ May is a major social event in Meghalaya, and draws participation of expert archers across the country. Moreover gambling, banned in most states of the Indian Union, is legal in the state and is organised around archery competitions, in particular the archery festival.
Unfortunately despite the state’s high tourism potential, the state government has not invested sufficiently in road and communication networks. While some of the major highways such as Shillong-Jowai, Shillong-Tura and Shillong-Sohra are well-developed, roads linking the smaller towns and villages are a motorist’s nightmare.
Moreover, Meghalaya conspicuously lacks a railway network. A national highway runs through the state from Guwahati (Assam) in the north and Karimganj (Assam) in the south. The only airport in the state is located at Umroi, 31 km from Shillong.
Banking facilities too, are rudimentary with few establishments willing to accept credit cards. But thankfully, unlike other north-eastern states, Meghalaya has been least impacted by civil insurgency and is the safest state in north-east India for tourists.
The great Meghalaya Plateau
To geographers, Meghalaya is known as the Meghalaya Shillong plateau because its entire topography comprises some of the world’s oldest rock formations. The Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills formed by the Assam ranges are thousands of years old. The Meghalaya Plateau’s elevation varies between 150 metres (492 ft) to 1,961 m (6,432 ft) above sea level. It is characterised by highly dissected and irregular terrain on the western and northern sides, while its southern face is a continuous escarpment with steep slopes.
The western part of this plateau or the Garo hills rise 2,076 ft above sea level. A major oranges growing area, the hills’ mysterious depths contain abundant wildlife and rich flora which perennially attract naturalists and photographers. Two mountain ranges — the Arabella and Tura ranges cut through the Garo Hills, forming the great Balpakram Valley in between. The Garos who predominantly inhabit this region are superstitious, believe in spirits and have a storehouse of traditional tales, myths and legends. In the Garo hills, several rivers including the Kalu, Ringgi, Chagua, Ajagar, Didram, Krishnai and Dudnai flow with unimpeded abundance. The largest river, the Simsang, is navigable for about 30 km.
In the central area of the plateau are the Khasi hills, characterised by fascinating surfaces, flat-topped hills and river valleys. The central upland zone, which covers more than a third of the area, is the most important physical feature of the area. The highest point of the plateau, indeed of the entire state, is the Shillong Peak which towers 1,965 m (6,445 ft) above sea level. The state’s capital Shillong as well as Cherrapunji, are in the Khasi hills.
To the east of the Meghalaya Plateau are the Jaintia Hills. Jowai (pop.20,601), the administrative headquarters of the district, is a picturesque town circled by the majestic Myntdu river. About 12 km from Jowai at Nartiang is an interesting collection of stone monoliths raised by the Jaintia kings, and an ancient thatched Durga temple that was once used for human sacrifices.
Climate. Meghalaya enjoys a salubrious climate year-round. Summer temperatures hover around 21℃ while in winter they plummet to 9.5°C. However, the state’s climate varies vastly with altitude. While the Khasi and Jaintia Hills are pleasant, the plains of the Garo hills are warm and humid. Travel during the monsoon months of June-August is not advisable.
True to its name, Meghalaya’s skies are seldom free of clouds (megha). The average annual rainfall is about 2,600 mm over western Meghalaya, between 2,500-3,000 mm over the state’s north and about 4,000 mm in the south-eastern region. There is great variation in rainfall in central and southern Meghalaya. At Cherrapunji, the average annual rainfall is as high as 12,000 mm, but in Shillong (located just 50 km away) its only 2,200 mm!
Apart from a vibrant and colourful tribal culture, Meghalaya also has abundant natural resources. Coal, limestone, kaolin, feldspar, quartz, mica, gypsum and bauxite deposits are strewn across the state. Meghalaya’s sillimanite (high-grade ceramic clay) deposits are reputedly the largest in the world and account for almost all of India’s sillimanite output. Though Meghalaya has no heavy industry, small-scale industries include cement, plywood, beverages, electronics, furniture-making, iron and steel fabrication, tyre retreading and baking.
Given the state’s abundant rainfall, horticulture is a major occupation. Fruits grow abundantly across the state — orange, pineapple, lemon, guava, jackfruit and bananas. Moreover potato, jute, mesta, cotton, arecanut, ginger, turmeric, betel leaf and black pepper are the chief commercial crops. The state’s method of shifting cultivation, is gradually being replaced with modern and scientific farming to bring arable land under permanent cultivation. Meghalaya’s forest resources, especially pine and timber, account for a major chunk of the state’s revenue.
A botanists delight, Meghalaya boasts variegated and highly prized orchids including the Ladys Slipper, Blue Vanda, Leopard Orchid, and Foxtail. Another fascinating species found here is the Bird of Paradise or the lipstick plant. This rare carnivorous pitcher plant devours insects and birds.
Meghalaya’s capital, Shillong (pop. 143,000) is a charming hill station, popular with tourists, especially honeymooners from the neighbouring states of West Bengal and Assam. Often referred to as the Scotland of the East, Shillong is dotted with Victorian bungalows, churches, an 18-hole golf course and a polo ground. Nestled between tall, elegant pines at 4,750 ft, the Shillong Golf Course is included in most international directories of excellent golf courses.
Ward’s Lake, located in the heart of Shillong, offers scenic vistas and undulating grounds hemmed in by lush greens.
A charming walkway winds its way through rolling flowerbeds. This 100-year-old water body also has a beautiful arched bridge, with boats skimming its placid surface.
A few minutes’ walk from Ward’s Lake are the immaculately maintained Botanical Gardens. The quiet and soothing
Ka Phen Nongliat Park is another popular place to promenade. Nearby are the Crinolene Waterfalls and a chilly open-air swimming pool.
The perfectly landscaped Lady Hydari Park is ablaze with roses and flowers of almost every variety, even as weeping willows bend into water bodies that house pelicans and other bird species. Within its environs there is a mini zoo and a Butterfly Museum which houses a treasure trove of mounted butterflies and beetles from India and Asia. Some rare species of butterflies are also bred in a conservatory here, fascinating for both lepidopterists and lay visitors.
Sprawling below Shillong at Bara Bazaar, Lew Duh is one of the most impressive markets in the north-east.
Thousands of Khasi gather here daily. Bustling with activity, offering a wide assortment of colourful and quaint items including tribal baskets, bows, arrows and edible frogs, the market is the epicenter of village life.
Sited 25 km off the Shillong-Guwahati Road on the National Highway, the Umiam Lake was created as part of a hydroelectric project. A great draw with anglers and boating enthusiasts, Umiamas tranquil waters are set amidst sylvan hills. Nearby the Shillong Motel offers visitors a multi-cuisine eatery, conference facilities and independent cottages overlooking the scenic lake.
In the vicinity of Shillong are some spectacular waterfalls including the Beadon, Bishops and Elephant falls. A picturesque uphill drive about 10 km from Shillong through idyllic countryside takes visitors to the Elephant
Waterfall whose shimmering waters are surrounded by fern-covered rocks. Observation sheds provide visitors good viewing points of the Spread Eagle Falls (beyond the old polo grounds) and Sweet Falls (beyond Happy Valley) which are also worth a visit.
Adventure sports. The chaste natural beauty of Shillong makes it a sporting ground for outdoor buffs and adventure sports including mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hiking and watersports. Most trekking routes offer possibilities of encounters with rare animals such as the slow loris, deer and bears. Shillong Peak, the highest point in the state, offers amazing trekking trails and an 180 degree view of the city. Known as the abode of the gods, obeisance is paid to U Shulong in the sanctum at the peak’s summit every springtime by the priests of Myldiam district.
Accommodation. Silver Brook Shillong Homestay (Rs.1,000-4,000); Hotel Pawan Hans offers 31 rooms and six suites (Rs.3,000 onwards); Pinewood Hotel (Rs.2,200-7,000). There are also local inns and guest houses which rent rooms on advance booking.
Fifty-six km south of Shillong, Cherrapunji (pop. 14,816) was universally famous as the wettest town in the world. But recently the title passed to the contiguous town of Mawsynram. A sleepy town, situated 1,300 metres (4,264 ft) above sea level, Cherrapunji has received a mind-boggling annual rainfall of 450 inches (11,430 mm) during the past century — the second highest in the world.
A scenic, 50-km road connects Shillong with Cherrapunji, a well-known centre for Khasi culture and literature, with awesome limestone caves, and orange and honey plantations. Most visitors flock to this rain-soaked town to view its spectacular waterfalls. The most impressive of them are the Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang falls which drop from a height of 1,035 ft, amidst the mist and sunshine of their environs.
About 2 km to the south of the David Scott Monument in Cherrapunji is Mawsmai village, the ancient seat of the sohra syiemship (kingdom). Close to this village on the ledge of the Mawsmai Ridge stands a conspicuous Observation Tower, a vantage point for incredible vistas of the Nohsngithiang falls (aka Mawsmai Falls) whose waters gush down 700 ft to join the swift river below. The mist swathed hillocks of the gorge and the sparkling expanses of river Brahmaputra flowing towards the plains of Bangladesh, can take your breath away.
Accommodation. Cherrapunji Holiday Resort (Rs.1,700-3,000)
Excursions ex Cherrapunji
The Central Museum. Situated in Lachumiere near Cherrapunji, this museum displays a rich collection of ethnographic and archaeological objects of Meghalaya’s native tribes.
Mawsynram, 10 km from Cherrapunji, is well-known for its giant stalagmite formations in the Mawjyonbum caves. Nearby, the hot springs at Jakrem, are believed to contain therapeutic properties. Currently Mawsynram is officially the most rain-fed town in the world.
Dawki, 40 km from Cherrapunji, is a border town with sweeping views of neighbouring Bangladesh. The colourful annual boat race held during spring in the Umngot river is the big attraction of Dawki.
Festivals of Meghalaya
Meghalaya’s dominant tribes are the Khasi, Jaintia and the Garo with social structures based on the clan system. A notable common characteristic of all tribes is the matriarchal law of inheritance under which family property passes from the mother to the youngest daughter. Animism (worship of nature and benevolent spirits), Hinduism, and Christianity are the main religions. The state is also inhabited by a small minority of Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs.
Meghalaya is known for its rich culture and folklore, which explains the continued vibrancy of its tribes. Drinking and dancing to the accompaniment of instruments crafted from buffalo horns, bamboo flutes and drums are an integral part of Meghalaya’s social, religious and cultural kaleidoscope. Marriages are exogamous, though the advent of Christianity in the mid-19th century did impact the tribal matrimonial customs.
The state’s cultural calendar is packed with a slew of festivals linked with the cycle of seasons. The Ka Pomblang Nongkrem or the Nongkrem dance is one of the most colourful festivals of the Khasi tribe. Other festivals include the Shad Suk Mynsiem, a thanksgiving dance in which people adorn themselves in traditional khasi finery. The Jaintia tribe celebrates the Behdienkhlam festival in July when their tribal dressing and decorative skills are on full display as Lahoo dancers tap and sway to the tune of vibrant melodies. The Wangala or 100 Drums Festival celebrated by the Garos is dedicated to the Sun God.
With the onset of the traditional Doregata and Pomelo dance festivals, the hills resound with music, fun and frolic. The costumes, ornaments, headgear and music are beautiful, descriptive, and reflections of the land from which they draw their inspiration.