Shillong – A Walk in the Clouds
Shillong, I was told many, many moons ago, is an addiction. In my naiveté or rather, arrogance of a big city dweller, I brushed off this adulation – coming as it was from the Shillong based family that I had married into. For my husband there was no better place on Earth than his beloved Shillong. Beautiful it sure was, from the endless descriptions and pictures that I had seen. But the cynic in me was not impressed. Not yet. To understand this obsession I decided to travel to Shillong. I was equally excited and nervous. Would I fall under its spell, like many apparently had? Would I be able to love it unconditionally, with all my soul? That remained to be seen.
Shillong is the capital city of the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya – meaning “abode of the clouds” – nestled at 1525metres above sea level in the beautiful East Khasi hills. There are two ways to get there. You can take the Rajdhani train (New Delhi – Dibrugarh) with a total journey time of 28 hours, alight at Guwahati (Assam) and taxi up to Shillong. Or to save time, take a flight to Guwahati and drive up the NH 40 (now a smooth and wide road) to reach Shillong in about three hours. Similarly one can also take a shorter flight from Kolkata.
For my first trip we took the train. A rather long though pleasant journey brought us to Guwahati in the early hours of a cold morning and the sight that beheld us was mesmerizing! The northeast welcomed us with the mighty Brahmaputra river, one of the largest in the world, flowing in full glory as the sun shone down on its rapid waters and expansive banks – almost like a precursor to the magic that was to follow! We hopped off in Guwahati station and hailed one of the many taxis that ply regularly to Shillong. The drive up to Shillong, once you had left behind the dusty, smoke filled streets of Guwahati, was like driving into another world.
A world that was not just enchanting with its natural beauty of rolling hills, mystic rivers, forests and shimmering lakes, but a world, that for me, a woman traveler coming from the north of India, was decisively more progressive, liberal and welcoming. Before I knew it, I was in love. Deeply and completely.With the land and the vibe and energy that it exuded. With its people, their music and cuisine.With the churches, bazaar sand the women With its soul.
At first sight, you are reminded of something straight out of a western cowboy movie; the cowboy hats and spurs adorned with much pride by the men, or the lazy strum of a guitar playing John Denver – all urging you to see beyond. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that at the very heart of Shillong, lies its music. From the taxi drivers belting out Deep Purple, or Jim Reeves, or Iron Maiden –to the numerous local bands, the Shillong Chamber Choir, or the NH 7 Weekender that attracts thousands of music lovers each year, to the Bob Dylan Concert organized annually in May – music is everywhere. So much so, that it has earned Shillong the tag of ‘music capital of the East’ in no time.
In fact, on most weekends, you can never fail to hear the lilting melodies of church choirs – with Christianity being the dominant state religion – and hymns being sung during Sunday worship. The influence of Christianity can be seen in the city’s way of life.
There is something uniquely old-world in it’s beautiful parish churches, garden fetes, and schoolchildren walking to worship in their Sunday best – very Jane Austen! It can be seen in the impeccable and beautifully painted houses and buildings that bear an uncanny resemblance to English country homes, with their wooden floors, white lace curtains and beautiful rose gardens! It is due to this semblance to the English countryside complete with its undulating hills, moors and greens and of course, the pleasant weather that Shillong is fondly called ‘Scotland of the East’.
This is not to say that the three dominant tribes of Meghalaya – the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias – have not retained their ethnicity and indigenous culture. In fact, if anything, Shillong is witness to a beautiful amalgamation of Christianity and tribal way of life. An example of this is the matrilineal system followed by the people of the state, where the women inherit all the family property and the man comes to live in his wife’s home after marriage. It is perhaps the cornerstone of their social fabric and women are placed high up in the social order! Don’t believe me? Go visit the ‘Iewduh’ – the all women’s bazaar in one of the busiest market places in Shillong -aptly called Bara (meaning big) Bazaar where local women trade their wares with a fierceness that totally belies their soft and diminutive figures!
This astuteness is pretty evident when you visit the markets in the city – the Bara Bazaarthat sells interesting local wares like silkworms (a popular delicacy), meats and fish of all kinds, traditional colorful weaves and dresses like the jensemand the dakmanda (a graceful attire worn by Garo women), plaid shawls, and betel nuts.
You can also visitPolice Bazaar– popular with local tourists for handmade shoes or the more hip Laitumukhrah, with its bakeries, fashionable shops and eateries like Café Shillong that serve a mix of most delectable local farelike jadoh (a mix of meat and rice) and more global cuisine.Of course, if you happen to visit these cafes (Café Dylan for instance) in the evening, you may find some amazing local artistes performing live.
My maiden visit was in December, just before Christmas, where the entire city wore a decidedly festive look. December in Shillong is beautiful, cold and sunny and one of the rare times where rain clouds take a bow – for a while. I of course have had the good fortune of visiting the city in almost every season and soak in its myriad moods and colors. For instance, the Cherry Blossom Festival in November celebrates the Himalayan cherry blossoms that paint the city with hues of pink. The summers bring with it glorious rains. It is as if the waterfalls (the Elephant Falls in Shillong andNohkalikai in Cherrapunji), and the lakes (the Ward’s Lake in Shillong and the Umiam Lake), the mystical forests (like the one in Mawphlang near Shillong) and the grassy moors and hills literally come alive. If you want to really ‘see’ the rains, a short drive will take you to the wettest place on Earth – Mawsynram – a title it has now taken from Cherrapunji.
My favorite bit, of course, has always been chasing the clouds – be it in the rain-drenched streets of Mawlynnong (certified as Asia’s cleanest village), a short drive away or Shillong Peak where the clouds come down to greet you with a kiss. Those of you looking for a bit of adventure, walk the living root bridges in Nongriatvillage outside Cherrapunji, someof which are said to be 500 years old – a great example of bio-engineering and an ecosystem that is awe-inspiring as it is unique – it reminded me of the magical forests of Pandora in the movie ‘Avatar’.Or you can go visit caves like Mawsmai (about 57 km from Shillong in Sohra) that are a part of an extensive network of underground caves and are a fascinating example of geology.
As you might have figured out by now, there is much to see and understand in this little corner of the country. But no matter what I write, no fancy words will ever do justice to a place so blessed with abundance – of natural beauty, music and of course, the rains! Falling in love was inevitable. It is a love that has stood the test of time. No matter where in the world I may travel, this will always be ‘home’. So go and explore this wondrous place that has captivated many a heart I suspect. And more than anything go feel its soul.
A media professional with over 15 years of experience, Radhika specializes in writing and editing across platforms. She has written extensively on lifestyle and entertainment for several publications and mediums – newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. In addition to writing, she is a compulsive traveler with decidedly itchy feet!