Cherrapunji has been overtaken by Mawsynram in Meghalaya as wettest place on earth, but rain clouds still remain its calling card. Barely an hour before you enter Cherrapunji from Shillong a mass of steel- grey clouds gather around the mountains completely screening the terrain beyond. Pristine green mountains pave the way towards this town, situated over 4,800 ft above sea level.
Etymologically the name evolved from the word Sohra which the British tongue pronounced as Churra and later Cherrapunji. While the word in Khasi language translates as ‘land of oranges’ but instead of the fruit the place offers orchids, cloud bursts, wildlife and ancient hill tribes among misty and mountainous terrain.
Tourist Attractions in Cherrapunji
The first attraction for any visitor who enters Cherrapunji district is the Mawkdok Dympep Valley view that glistens in jewel green hues. Though the valley is completely obscured by masses of clouds, a strong wind chases them to clear the view. This is where I get my first glimpse of the waterfalls that surround the area. The view is spectacular, and gives a hint of what is to follow — silver waterfalls and rivulets snaking their way through green mountains. The rain gods haven’t abandoned Cherrapunji. It starts raining quite suddenly, at first it begins with just a few drops which quickly develops into a torrent, but the downpour stops just as suddenly.
Often the major rain occurs during morning. It’s chilly, not cold enough to warrant a sweater, but definitely cold enough for a light jacket. The wind, though not strong, is what the British called a ‘lazy wind’; that is, the wind doesn’t envelop you, it goes right through you in a piercing way. Every time I step out of my cab, I am quickly chilled to my bones. Thank god for the ubiquitous chaiwallahs selling the warming brew all over the place!
Cherrapunji Ecological Park
The Ecological Park on the Sohra- Thangkharang Road is just a few kilometres short of the town. While at first glance it seems a tad disappointing, the real beauty lies at its absolute edge – a sheer drop between two hills, with a deep gorge in between. A silvery stream snakes its way through the valley before splitting into two. I start walking along the cliff (which is adequately protected by a metal fence and a barbed wire for those who disregard the initial barrier!) and come across a stream.
Muddied brown carrying sediments and deposits, this stream eventually runs into the waterfall. A word of caution here — the pebbles are quite slippery with the constant precipitation, and while the stream that gives rise to the waterfall is quite shallow, the current is deceptive and has the ability to sweep a grown man off his feet.
Dain- Thlen Waterfall
The Dain-Thlen Falls follow swiftly, and these are the only proper ‘step-falls’ in the Cherrapunji area. The waterfall flows in a series of gentle steps, each only a few feet high, before dropping abruptly down a few hundred feet. What is amazing about this waterfall is that it is situated in the middle of solid rock.
There is little vegetation nearby, and the water is crystal clear. All the other waterfalls drop off sheer cliff faces.It is called a soft waterfall by locals as it flows quietly without the whooshing sounds that the larger waterfalls make.
Next on the list are the Mawsmai Caves, one of the two major tourist attractions in Cherrapunji (the other being the Nohkalikai Falls). Before entering the caves, visitors are required to remove their shoes. As I prepare to take off my shoes, an attendant nearby advises me to roll up my jeans as well. “The caves are full of water,” he says.
A cave located inside the mountain, the interiors of the cavernous Mawsmai caves glisten with stalagmites and stalactites. Even as I remember my geography lessons on these mineral formations, the icy straws glow softly. The walls of the cave have patterns cut in the rock that seem as if they are hewn in imitation of ancient rock art, and sure enough, the caves are knee-deep in water.
However, due to the slippery rock, the caves are a difficult place for the very young and the elderly to navigate — I frequently have to help out an old gentleman walking in front of me with the more treacherous pathways. The caves are replete with wildlife — plenty of bats roost here and insect life is quite abundant. There are also a few holes in the walls of the caves, cut through by underground streams, which strike the roof and shower water on all who pass through the caves.
The Mawsmai caves are amply lit; however, all of a sudden, the lights go out and we are left in complete darkness. This feeling is surreal — imagine pitch darkness, along with the knowledge that you are in a cave, not to mention the steady trickle of water that falls on you. Even the bravest person is reduced to fear. But the power is restored a minute later — apparently, every half an hour, the lights are cut off for exactly one minute and the point of the exercise is to appreciate the power of light in our lives, both natural and artificial.
When I finally exit the caves, the surrounding forest is stunning, made all the more beautiful by the slightly unearthly feel to the caves. Nohkalikai Falls, according to my cab driver, are perhaps best viewed from the Dorbar Khliehshnong viewpoint in Sohra, so I duly take his advice. Eight waterfalls can be seen falling from the same cliff, and four of the waterfalls are truly majestic. The intensity with which the water falls on the rocks below turns the water into mist — it is almost like seeing clouds being formed before my eyes.
A steep staircase winds its way down the mountain and one can get quite close to the waterfalls. However, this staircase is quite narrow and contains well over a thousand steps, and I start huffing and puffing within a couple of hundred steps. At an interval of a hundred steps, a viewpoint has been made so that visitors can view the waterfalls at varying heights. The Thangkharang Park is not on the tourist map but it’s good for its spectacular views.
Viewing Bangladesh from India
Located at the border of Meghalaya, from here the Bangladesh plains can be seen just beyond the cliffs. I can even see the Bramhaputra slowly snaking its way down the plains in the far distance. The view includes smaller waterfalls of the Nohkalikai Falls in the distance too. The park has plenty of wildlife — enormous butterflies, huge lizards, and interestingly, river crabs, here over 4,000 feet above the sea level. The best way to enjoy Cherrapunji is to explore the area.
Dhabas are located around tourist destinations; restaurants like at the Polo Orchid Resort offer more eating options. Carry your own water. The public toilets are terrible; use the facilities in some of the bigger restaurants. What to take: Pack an umbrella, a water bottle and a towel in a waterproof backpack. Purses and handbags should be kept in the backpack.
The natural beauty is breathtaking, yes, but the town can surprise one in the most unexpected of ways, a good example being the Mawsmai caves which are dramatic and worth a visit. Almost all the tourist destinations will charge a nominal fee — between ` 5 and ` 20, with an additional charge for a camera. Don’t let the rains chase you off Cherrapunji; it’s a place that makes getting wet enchanting. It remains a dew-drenched jewel among mountains and floating clouds.
By Sonia Wigh
About the Author
Sonia Wigh loves to travel and is an avid reader. She is partial to historical romance novels and historical travel accounts.