Shillong is the land of dark clouds, rumbling rain, a propelling breeze, and swaying pine trees. It is the capital city of the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya, which means ‘the abode of clouds,’ as derived from the Sanskrit words Megh (cloud) and Alaya (home). Shillong itself gets its name from Leishyllong, the god believed to be residing on the Shillong peak over-looking the city, as its protector.Shillong is also known as the ‘Scotland of the East’ because of its striking similarity with the Scottish Highlands.
This was my first trip to a region in the North-East. We planned our trip to Shillong in March, and then wondered how different it will be in comparison to the hill stations near Delhi, which we have often visited. Arriving in Guwahati by flight from Delhi, we took a pre-paid taxi from the airport to our destination. It takes around three hours to reach Shillong. At the start of our journey, the weather was quite warm. The road was elevated and there were rice farms on both sides. The taxi gradually ascended up the slim road which was delightfully festooned at regular intervals with small wooden shops selling bananas, betel leaves, bamboo pickle (which is a delicacy), other fruits and some snacks. The features of the natives are distinctly unique, identifying them with the state of Meghalaya; and yet they blend just as easily with other Indians.
In no time at all dark clouds had descended on the hotel and it seemed to be right outside our window. The temperature dipped and there was the loud sound of thunder and lightning followed by a deafening downpour
The cool weather was a signal to us that we had covered several miles and were at a much higher altitude; and even then it was bright and sunny. As we glided higher, banana and pine trees began to gradually replace the rice farms. The leaves of the pine were merrily swaying in the cool breeze and I thought it was odd that instead of tapering downwards towards gravity, the leaves were pointed upwards taking the shape of an inverted cone. When I enquired of the taxi driver whether this was a different species of the pine tree, he just smiled and said that once we reach Shillong we will find out for ourselves the reason. Unsure whether the driver himself knew the answer or was just deliberately trying to duck our question, we continued our journey in silence for a while.The expanse of greenery enveloping us diverted our attention to the world outside. About 45 minutes away from Shillong, we forced the taxi driver to stop at a mesmerising green lake called Bara Pani. Its scenic grandeur tempted us to jump out and click some photographs, but we were stopped by army men patrolling the area. This is a restricted area and therefore we could enjoy its natural beauty, but not capture it on camera.
On reaching Shillong we checked in to a hotel at Polo (one of its markets). The city was dazzling in the sunlight and we felt quite warm. When we regretted aloud that we had brought a bag full of woollens with us for the trip, the man at the reception smiled and said that no one could predict the weather in Shillong.My decision to rest first and explore the city later was seconded by everyone. As it was quite warm, we discarded our woollens and ordered for cold drinks. Within 15 minutes the whole scene had changed. Dark clouds had suddenly descended on the hotel and it seemed to be right outside our window. The temperature dipped and there was the loud sound of thunder and lightning, followed by a deafening downpour. We were so completely taken aback by the force with which Shillong showed us that it is after all the capital city of Meghalaya. In no time we were shivering, and we hurriedly put on our woollens, and swapped our cold drinks for hot cups of tea. It was just 4 pm, and the power had gone off because of the heavy rainfall, drowning the hotel in mysterious darkness. We lit a candle and walked down towards the dining hall, where the other visitors had also come to view the rain by candlelight. We spent the rest of our evening listening to the thunder and rain.
That day we went to bed early and as soon as my head hit the pillow I drifted off to sleep. The next thing I knew I had woken up and there was a strange diffused glow of light that was coming in from the window. I checked the time, it was 4 am, and dawn was breaking. I sat and watched the orange blue orb of the sun mount the sky, and the view was completely breathtaking.Post-breakfast, we decided to explore the city first, and its outskirts the day after.
Wandering about the city
We walked up to Ward’s Lake in the heart of the city which has a small garden and facility for boating. There is a botanical garden located near this park. A puny bridge in the centre of the garden over the lake adds to the charisma of the place. A local taxi took us to the golf course, the largest golf course in Asia, which is also known as ‘The Glen Eagle of the East’. Our next destination was the Lady Hydari Park. This is a small park that has swings and see-saws for the kids to play on and colourful flowering plants. It also has a mini zoo nearby which attracts children. It began to drizzle while we were walking around the Hydari Park, and we pulled out our umbrellas. But when we walked a little distance, a sudden gush of wind pushed at it so hard that the umbrella turned upwards forming an inverted cone. It then hit me why the leaves of the pine tree grow upwards here, because the breeze is so strong that it keeps pushing at them. After repeated attempts to straighten our umbrella, we finally gave up and put it away.
Shillong is the home of the Khasi tribe. The British influence is seen in the look and design of the houses, which no matter how small have a well maintained balcony with colourful flower pots and creepers blooming, and there is a fairytale feel about the whole place.Right at the top
By the afternoon the taxi took us to the Shillong peak which is at an altitude of 1965 m above sea level. It is the highest point in the state and at a distance of about 10 km from the city. As we surmounted the peak, visions of paradise on earth and angels amid the clouds suddenly came to me.
Exploring the market
The main market of Shillong is the Police Bazaar. One can buy traditional bamboo handicraft, woollen handmade shawls, traditional Naga clothes, and wooden craft work. The market place also has a restaurant which specialises in South Indian and North Indian food. Bamboo shoots and bamboo shoot pickle are very popular and a must buy for all tourists. Kwai which is fermented beetle nut taken with a beetle leaf and a dash of lime and occasionally ginger is a favourite of the natives.
About 60 km from Shillong is Cherrapunji, which is historically known as the land of the heaviest rainfall. It is a small place pulsating with an old world charm, and a popular destination for tourists. The view from the taxi is so enchanting, as we drive up the twisting and curving circled roads, bordered by the vast expanse of lawns which look like like green fields. The sight is so overwhelming far from the maddening crowds. Cherrapunji offers entertainment in every season; The monsoon calls to view the flooded plains of Bangladesh; the months between November to February, when there is no rain, one can go camping and on long treks, do rock climbing and explore the ancient caves and megaliths. One inimitable feature of this place is the living root bridges. The strong roots of the rubber tree form natural bridges over swift flowing rivers and rivulets that one can cross over.By the time evening fell we had returned to our hotel in Shillong, excited by the adventures of the day, which would continue the next day as we were going to visit the Smit Village where the traditional palace of the Khasi Queen and King is. The famous festival of Pomblang lewduh is held here in October and the Nongkrem dance in November, in front of the King’s palace. The dance is performed to appease the all-powerful Goddess Ka Blei Synshar for a rich bumper harvest and to bring prosperity to the people. There are several dance groups that perform. It is said that the princess begins the dance which starts at around 11 am. The first half is performed by the girls and the second half by the boys, and the entire performance ends by 4 pm.
The visit to Smit Village was as spectacular and colourful as the rest of the adjoining areas. We wanted to stay and enjoy more but our journey to Shillong ended in no time.