Travel. As Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”.
Just the bare thought makes me smile.
With sobriquets like “Scotland of the East”, “Abode of Clouds”, and “Garden of Eden”, Shillong is a treat for both imagination and the senses. The air filled with its own joyous music plays over the serpentine roads curving along the hills. The picturesque Shillong has both, the rugged beauty of a small hill-village, and the graceful charm of a historic city. A city of peaks, waterfalls, lakes, groves and valleys, Shillong mesmerizes and inspires one.
The small journey from Guwahati to reach Shillong prepares you for the frenzy that waits ahead. The roads curve through and around the pine forests with birds chirping around on wildly colorful flowers and fruits. The first to come to sight is the majestic lake of “Barapani”. Heavily curtained by clouds, with some sun rays peaking through, the lake is calming enough to transform long hours into mere seconds. Time, literally, flies away.
And crossing that placid lake, you finally enter Shillong. The city with its pleasant weather invites you to a time of leisure. The city’s contours are marked by houses with many small flower pots and quiet lanes. The beauty of the city is not merely due to its interesting locales, but also connected with its people. Inhabited mostly with the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes, Shillong possesses a healthy mixture of people from all other north-eastern states. The predominant Khasi tribe (which is Matriarchal) shows off its ladies with panache. Walking around the city, not travelling in any vehicle is the way to experience its true essence. Pretty ladies carrying around babies on their backs, the young crowd happily chatting away, men chewing on their betel nuts, all silently carrying on with their day attract not only your eye but your imagination.
Accompanied by three close friends, I embarked upon knowing and seeing as much as I could about and of Shillong. My first visit was to the famously known POLICE BAZAAR – the noisy, boisterous, crowded centre of the city. The ‘Glory’s plaza’ with its fashionable clothes, the open fruit stalls with their colors and smells, the hot aroma of the momos, the occasional opening and closing of the restaurant doors, all invite one for a busy day! Police Bazaar is an ideal shopping center where you can buy anything from clothes, to fruits, to handmade local knives to cut those betel nuts! Truly a place with most melodious noise!
Next, my local friend advised us to visit the Shillong Café at Lymo (short for Laitumkhrah) – a cozy café with live music and some delicious dishes and stimulating coffee. We were also asked to visit the Swish, MOT (matter of Taste) and many more such interesting dining places, but the free Wi-Fi at Shillong Café is what attracted me most! I admit to being a spontaneous traveler who forgot to do her homework before visiting Shillong. I had no knowledge that pre-paid networks from states out of Meghalaya do not work in the state, and hence I was out of communication from my world outside Shillong. It did have its advantages! I was at peace! And yet, I felt unconnected, and hence, the attraction to the free Wi-Fi! We also happened to meet a famous singer at Shillong café, one by the name of Lou Majaw- who is credited to have brought the “hippie Movement’ and Rock Music to Shillong. (So I finally met a famous musician, and had the chance to talk to him for whole 10 minutes! Yes!)
The eventful day ended with birthday celebrations of my friend’s father, the family with which were staying in Shillong, and dinner at the famous City Dhaba.
Early next day, we all set out to explore the Golf Links at Polo Hills. Located just below the Ward’s Lake, and India’s biggest Golf Course, it is a dream come true for the putters for it is the first golf course to have 18 holes in it! It’s beautiful location holds it up to be known as the “Glen Eagle Course” of India (the comparison to the golf course in US itself speaks volumes about the place’s majesty). A quick lunch at Merin’s (a famous restaurant at Polo Hills- try the momos – they are awesome!), and then we were off to visit Shillong Peak!
Shillong Peak is the highest point in the whole state of Meghalaya standing at 1965 meters above sea level, offering a breathtaking view of the city! A canvas with its own view- Lush green hills, Pine covered, sounds of nearby waterfall, and the general humming of the birds! The scenic vista on the way from Shillong Peak to The Elephant Falls, offers a striking similarity to the Scottish highlands. The Elephant Falls is a name given by the British because of the presence of a huge elephant like rock near the fall. This rock however, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897. The original Khasi name, The Three step falls, describes the location much more accurately. The water column carves its way down the hills in three successive steps, accumulating so at each step that it comes crashing down with all force at the next at very deep gorges! The sight of crashing water is surrounded by intense green vegetation, an apt backdrop, I must say!
A most amazingly tiring day! It’s funny how sometimes feeling tired and exhausted gives you a feeling of contentment and inner joy! Travel sure is a seductive temptress!
With an early dinner, we all retired to bed, eagerly waiting for another day of sweet exhaustion, at Cherrapunjee!
DAY – 3
The third day welcomed us with heavy rain and hailstorms! Coming from hot cities like Delhi and Hyderabad, the falling water was a great respite! This is one feature that is most interesting about Shillong. One single day holds all seasons of the year! The morning winter chill, the afternoon summer breeze, the occasional rains and hailstorms, the spring flowers! And we were lucky enough to see all that. March indeed is one of the best times to visit this place.
And with a heavy breakfast, we set forth for Cherrapunjee, located 60 kms from Shillong. Famous as the place that holds the world record for the highest rainfall in a calendar year, Sohra, as Cherrapunjee is locally called, is famous for waterfalls and limestone caves. The first thing we saw here were the Noh-Kalikai Falls. One of the largest waterfalls in India, it also has one of the most intriguing stories behind it. The legend holds that a woman named Ka-Lakai, a widow, got remarried to a man who was jealous of her love for her daughter. One day, while Ka-Lakai was out working, the new husband killed the daughter, cooking her flesh as meat. Upon being questioned by the worried mother about the missing daughter, the jealous husband refuses of any knowledge, and asks her to eat before she sets out to look for the girl. As she sat down to eat, Ka-Lakai found her daughters fingers in the betel nut basket. In despair, she threw herself off the cliff giving the fall its name – Noh-Ka-Lakai (Fall of Ka-Lakai).
Our next stop was Mawsynram, situated 56 Kms from Shillong, which in recent years has recorded more rainfall than Cherrapunjee itself. The Mawsynram caves, a famous tourist spot, boasts of a gigantic stalagmite formation which resembles the shape of a “shivalinga” housed in the caves. The peak of this rock can be reached by upward trekking. The valleys that surround this region, the rivers of Bangladesh and the plains can be easily viewed from the tip of the rock! Trekking through the caves is an experience in itself!
On our way out from the caves to another destination, we were lucky to have seen the first Church ever built in the whole of the North East of India by the British themselves, at Nongsawlia (near Cherrapunjee). Consecrated during 1846, the imposing structure and beautiful bell tower give the Presbyterian Church an impressive appearance.
Our next, and final, spot for the day was the Thangkharang Park, situated 12 km from Cherrapunjee in East Khasi Hills District. The park houses a bird sanctuary and offers an almost 180 degree view of the plains of Bangladesh! An interesting picture below shows how our phones were unable to catch any Indian cellular networks, and showed all networks of Bangladesh! (Almost an International trip, I daresay!)
After another absolutely energy-spent day – we went home to our beds, satisfied, happy, and mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this place!
DAY – 4
The last day of the short trip. To be very honest, I wanted to extend my stay, but my budget did not allow me. I hate the concept of “finance”. Really!
On our last day, we mostly roamed about the city in local taxis. While the best way to go round the city is on foot, most people use the local taxis to commute within the city. One can take ‘shared’ taxis, or reserve for oneself. There also run two kinds of buses in the city – City buses and Bazaar buses. City buses are the option for tourists. The Bazaar buses are for villagers who come to Shillong to sell their products.
Our first stop this day was The Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians located in Laitumkhrah. The church stands tall with its high arches and stained glass windows. Adding to its grandeur, directly below this church is carved out of the hill, the Grotto Church.
This Cathedral is named after Mary the mother of Jesus Christ. Besides being the pride of the Catholics of the region, the church has also become a great tourist attraction. In 1980, the centenary year of the Catholic Church in North East India, the then Archbishop, the late Rt. Rev. Hubert D’Rosario, declared the Cathedral Church a shrine, duly approved to be a pilgrimage centre. Its high location and alluring design has also made the church a prominent landmark of Shillong.
Shillong has a number of churches and cathedrals which elucidates the desire of the British to make the city of Shillong a little England. The churches here are so spacious that they can easily accommodate a few thousand worshippers at one time! To mention a few, there are -the Mawkhar Presbyterian Church, the Laitumkhrah Presbyterian Church and the All Saints’ Cathedral as prominent landmarks of the City. The city’s population is predominantly Christian, and most are of the Khasi tribe which is a proud matrilineal society!
Our next stop was at NEHU, North Eastern Hills University. Apart from being surrounded by absolute beauty of nature, and the presence of a lake within the campus itself, the place exudes a calm, relaxed environment most conducive for studying. (Already impressed with the standard of education in the University – I have known individuals who are/have been both students and faculty member of the University- and having seen the surroundings, I almost decided to continue my further education there!)
Next, we visited the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous North East Culture which is an amazing storehouse of information on ‘the seven sisters’ (a name given to the seven north-eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura)! The museum consists of a total of 17 galleries which provides detailed information/knowledge about various aspects of the lives of the people in these states- attire, accoutrements, weapons, ornamentation, physiological features, religions and many more. The museum is full of various anecdotes, folklore, tales of the people of these states, which are telling about their culture and society. Completing our learning visit to the museum, we next went back to Police Bazaar for some shopping, and then a light dinner at Bombay Bites, another famous restaurant.
Early next morning, we were back on our way to Guwahati, from whence we took a flight to Delhi, happy and content.
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