Let the travelog wait. Let the eulogies and the rains wait. Let’s talk of the famed stiff British upper lip and what it can do to the future of a tiny village. Let’s talk of the petite village of Sohra that is tucked between undulating hills in Meghalaya. It never rains in Sohra, it is always a downpour. Well, you see, it is the wettest place on earth and it has to live up to its hip reputation. Forgive me for the digression, but there’s something about Sohra that leaves you in a tizzy. Perhaps there is something about its name too. When the British reached Meghalaya to set up their barracks, they just could not twist their tongue enough to say “Sohra.” So Sohra turned into a simpler “Cherra” and Cherra soon became Cherrapunjee. That is why geography prattles the name of Cherrapunjee as the wettest place; Sohra lost its claim to fame for being a tongue twister. Okay, believe the meteorologist when they say that the epicenter has moved to Mawsynram, some 56 kms away. But Cherrapunjee is like an old flame, your heart beats for her even when wrinkles have cragged her porcelain skin.
In school and all the quizzes thereafter I had rattled off Cherrapunjee with great ease, but I had never seen this wettest place, never danced in its downpour. And when opportunity knocked last November, I was in such a tearing hurry that I wished I could devour the miles that fell between the Guwahati airport and Cherrapunjee. The overnight halt in Shillong seemed like an itch. When morning came, along with the cab and the guide to take me to Cherrapunjee, I waited for the tires to spin on the macadamized roads. And when it did I saw mist streaming like ribbons from the skies on to the stunning Khasi hills. It was morning, the roads were not crowded, our car sped without any intrusion. But the skies were crowded, there were the clouds, the birds and the sun that tried peeping from the cloudy sheets. The drive from Shillong to Cherrapunjee is only 56 kms, but when the bones creak on bumpy and broken roads, even 56 kms seem like an eternity.
After a lot of rasps, when the soul longed for a hot cuppa coffee, we stopped at a roadside kiosk that sold biscuits, and wafers too tempting for a hungry stomach. The bamboo ladles, tea strainers, and jugs looked oh! so out of the world and a band of gawky wooden cranes perched on the shelf stared back in amusement.
Satiated, and carrying a rich haul of bamboo products, I hopped back into the tiny car and let, well, the bones creak again. When we bumped into the first milestone etched with Sohra, I looked up for the clouds. Wouldn’t it be great to dance in the rain? But the sun shone really bright and at the first viewpoint the wettest place looked bone dry. The hills that babble with umpteen waterfalls appeared completely silent. I did see a trickle but then, when in Cherrapunjee a trickle is more like sacrilege. But that day despite all my pleas to the rains gods—or their friends—the sun and the clouds played the villain. And to add to my heartburn the guide described how beautiful the viewpoint looks during rains. “The waterfalls cover every bit of the hills, all you see is water thundering down …” I could feel my heart go up in smoke but then I consoled myself. It is not the end of the world, honey! There is so much more waiting.
Like a braveheart I tucked my umbrella back into the bag and started looking around. The small houses, some on stilts, looked beautiful. In some dried corn hung like lace on the verandah and in others geraniums and phloxes added exquisite color to the expected banality. On the clothesline there hung cardigans and jumpers, in the fields the kids fiddled with pebbles and corn kernels. I was about to walk away when I noticed something unusual. There were red strips hanging on the clothesline, which I happily assumed was red wool. One more look and I realized they were strips of meat. Meat? I smirked. But then I remembered all the dead pigs and cattle in Iewduh, the largest market in the Northeast, and how much the people of Meghalaya relish non-vegetarian fare. That explained the meat pinched with clips, but I continued to be amused at the spectacle.
But that was not the only thing that my eyes feasted on that nippy winter morning. As the car zipped past another of those muddy roads, the silhouette of hundreds of barrel-shaped gigantic wicker baskets leaning against a wrecked wall attracted my attention. Their ivory white offset the burnished orange of what looked like heaps and heaps of burly plums. Next to them sat women under improvised umbrellas segregating the oranges from the reds and the ochres like automatons. They were so swift that I wondered how they could distinguish the palette within the blink of an eye. The fat man in the corner educated me about the plum look-alikes. They were betel nuts that grow in abundance in Cherrapunjee and are exported to several countries. Their color decides their quality.
Curious as ever, I tried to sniff the nut for its fragrance. Fragrance? I felt woozy with the nut’s stench and almost slipped into what looked like a moss-laden water tank. Helping me back on my feet, the site supervisor informed that raw betel nuts are huddled in baskets and soaked in water tanks for months to get that special flavor. Let me warn you: Never touch that tank’s water or rip a raw nut for its fragrance: You’ll turn wobbly. Whoosh! That odor goes straight up your nose!
But it is not just betel nuts that find a place in the silken loam of Meghalaya. On naked hills, on flat land, in green fields, in the deserted expanse there were rocks—tall, dark rocks standing alone. No epitaphs, no drawings, nothing ornate, just bare rocks standing there for hundreds of years, looking eerie against the cobalt sky. These monoliths, tributes to the ancestors, stand there as sentinels, warding off the evil eye and ensuring prosperity.
My next stop was Thangkharang Park that houses orchids, their names ranging from a high-heeled Lady’s Slipper to the tangy Wild Citrus; their colors from the white of snowflakes, to the russet of a potato, the amber of the sun, and the blue of Paul Newman’s eyes. Look at the formation of Lady’s Slipper, also known as moccasin flower, and you might get tempted to slip your feet into the dainty slippers (in actuality the orchid’s labellum). From the Thangkharang Park, I also looked at the blurred boundary of Bangladesh. I squinted to see another country out of the haze, but it was too far from my ken.
The orchids look dainty and the caves like old sages, sitting there for millions of years mulling over life and its paradoxes. Meghalaya is littered with caves, the only lit cave being Mawsmai Cave, which is roughly 6 kms from Cherrapunjee. There is an entry fee and walking up the flight of stairs can leave you completely breathless, but once inside the cave your jaws will drop at the marvels of nature. Years of cruel breeze and adamant rivers have carved chambers inside the cave; it looks as if a finicky architect had planned it all on his drawing board.
The chiseled caves take you by surprise but the living root bridges make you wonder at the ingenuity of man and his desire to invent and survive. If you are staying in the Cherra Holiday Resort, walk half an hour and see a perfect example of bioengineering in the Laitkynsew village, 15 kms from Cherrapunjee. These living root bridges are built from the secondary roots of trees. Roots of a tree, in this case, a rubber tree, are stretched to the other side of the stream, planted there and over the years they become bridges. It takes nearly 30 years to build one! There’s a double-decker living root bridge too and some of them are said to be more than 200 years old.
It had been hours of walking and my knee was bumbling. I knew I had to see the Noh Ka Likai Falls that falls into a pool of jade, but even before I could add it to the not-seen list, I was distracted. Next to a thatched hut there was a pile of brown bark tied casually with a string. It looked like cinnamon but I had never seen the snooty cinnamon sitting so nonchalantly with ordinary rocks and a stray pie-dog. If I could buy the entire stack I could turn a millionaire in a jiffy but there were just a few coins jangling in my purse so I settled for a Rs 10 pack.
It was getting dark and the guide was pestering me to head back. I was still waiting for the rain. “A little drizzle, just a little drizzle,” I was still beseeching. I was not the only one, though. In the lanes I was struck by the sight of green and yellow plastic buckets lined casually at a water tap. Guess, even the world’s wettest place has its humdrum hassles. Then I saw the gathering clouds and heard a rumble. Did the gods wake up to my prayers? I don’t know, maybe they did. Maybe it rained in Cherrapunjee. But by then I was miles away!
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com
There’s no direct flight connection to Cherrapunjee. Fly to Guwahati, and get to Shillong by road. Cherrapunjee is 56 kms away from there.
WHERE TO STAY
There are lodging facilities in Cherrapunjee. If you want it to be a day-trip, you can stay in Shillong, which has very good hotels.WHEN TO GO
July-September, when it pours in Cherrapunjee.
WHAT TO CARRY
Carry a light jacket or a shawl, the diagonal temperature can completely fox you. There are several dhabas that sell tea, chips, and food, although you won’t find any fancy eating-places. Carry food, if you are finicky.
WHAT MORE TO SEE
Noh Ka Likai Falls takes its name from Likai, a widow from Rangjirteh village, whose second husband abhorred her daughter. One fateful day, when Likai was out on work, her husband killed the child, cooked her flesh and served it to Likai when she returned home. But the mother discovered the treachery when she found a finger of her dead daughter in the betel-nut basket. An inconsolable Likai could not think of a life without her daughter and jumped from the cliff, where the Noh Ka Likai Falls now is.
Noh Sngi Thiang Falls, also called the Seven Sisters Falls.
Kynrem Falls: When in Thangkharang Park, walk to its edge and watch the highest waterfall of Meghalaya that cascades in three stages from the top of a hill.
Mawmluh Cave is said to be one of the longest caves in the Indian subcontinent. You might have to crawl in this cave that has tight pathways, chambers, and paths. In some places the river enters the cave and you might get your feet soaked.
David Scott Memorial: On way to Mawsmai Cave, don’t miss the imposing obelisk built in the honor of David Scott, an agent to the then governor general of the North East Frontier of Bengal and commissioner of revenue and circuit in the Assam district.
Khoh Ramhah is said to be the fossilized basket of an evil spirit. It can look like a basket or a teardrop, depending on how you look at it. Khoh Ramah, also known as Mothorp.
Mawsynram, now the wettest place on earth, is also known for the giant stalagmite formation inside a cave; nearly 2 kms away is another geological formation called the Symper Rock.