Vast green undulating grasslands lead to sheer canyon drops with waterfalls dancing in silver streaks across deep yawning chasms. Lush tropical rainforests cling precariously to precipitous lime cliffs, which abruptly end at the flat plains of Bangladesh flooding them in turn. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear it was the Bay of Bengal itself.
It is a unique geographical boundary, doubling up as a border between Bangladesh and the Cherrapunjee region of Meghalaya and I am driving along its periphery doing the journey in the state’s famed and only real season, its monsoon. To my utter delight, the hills are alive and dressed to kill in their finest monsoon canopy — lushness on ground, a sheltering grey sky above, with swirling mists obfuscating the landscape in a whiteout every now and then.
The drive from Shillong to textbook famous Cherrapunjee is a mere 54 km, but lies packed to the gills with scenic delights, which easily turn my two-hour drive to five. Starting with the Mawkdok Viewpoint, with vast swathes of thick rainforest lining the valley floor, we glide over the grassy plateau of Cherrapunjee, where the sign ‘the rainiest place on planet earth’ greets me on a bend.
Cherra (you can call it that once you’ve been there), now re-christened to its old name ‘Sohra’, might have lost that title in recent years to nearby Mawsynram by a few millimetres of rain, but it’s really the captivating beauty of Cherra and its surrounds that brings the off-beat travel seeker here. For someone who simply loves the rains, I am ecstatic at this trespass.
As far as rain statistics go, consider this. On June 16, 1995, it rained 1,563 mm in 24 hours in Cherrapunjee. Compare this to Delhi’s 706.4 mm or Kolkata’s 1,600.8 mm annual average. Cherra received as much as 24,555.3 mm (ie, 80.56 ft) in 1974 alone. Between 1973 and 2005, its average annual rainfall was 12,028.6 mm. The fact that Cherra falls directly on the path of the south-west monsoon, and that the orography of the hills around Cherrapunjee helps to funnel and converge monsoon clouds of a wide area to a relatively small area, are what contribute to such heavy rainfall. Speaking meteorologically.
Just outside bustling Cherra town lies the pretty village of Mawsmai with spectacular viewpoints over cliffs and Meghalaya’s only lit-cave system open for tourists — the Mawsmai Caves. It lies studded with imaginative lime formations crafted over years by the slow dripping of water. The Nohkalikai Falls, Eco Park, Seven Sisters’ Viewpoint, Thangkharang Park with views of Kyrnem Falls and Khoh Ramhah Falls in quick succession, all pack in a different view or none at all, depending on the moody mists. In one such magical moment, Khoh Ramhah reveals itself — a gigantic monolith rock, known locally as Mot Trop. It looks like the classic weathered wise man but as legend goes, this is the upturned local Khasi basket of an erring giant, whichturned to stone when the giant was poisoned by the canyon dwellers. And then there were the Kyrnem Falls. Though they made quite a sight from the Thangkharang Park, even that couldn’t quite beat the thrill of standing at the bottom of the falls on Shella Road below, getting thoroughly drenched in the powerful onslaught of the misty spray.
But these beautiful sights, mostly roped in by tourists in a day-trip from Shillong, is not all there is to the area and I base myself at the family-run Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in nearby Laitkynsew Village to further unfurl its mysteries. The drive to the resort via the Mawmluh-Mawshamok ridge road is a scenic traverse with numerous waterfalls draining their monsoon mass into the Umiam River gorge below and charming milestones lining the route, all beckoning the traveller to enjoy the monsoon of the area. ‘I will walk in the rain with you,’ proclaims one such sign near a bubbling brook.
At Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, I soon discover, everything revolves around a celebration of the monsoon. Dennis, the proprietor, in conjunction with the nearby Met Department at Cherrapunjee, keeps daily records of rainfall for guests and updates his website daily. A hygrometer in the main hall shows alarming humidity levels (100 per cent during my entire stay) alongside informative displays on various rain and cloud phenomena — air-sea interactions, tempt inversions, Walker and Hadley cells, etc, etc.
Mrs. Dennis is a charming, petite lady who runs the place alongside her husband and has got her local Khasi staff perfected in cooking a rather extensive menu to suit all palettes alongside a special ‘Monsoon Magic’ menu. There is much to do here, especially the numerous walks around, and the resort provides good maps and local guides. I am quick to decide on the nearby ‘living root bridge’ as my first port of call.
But the Scotch mists of the day before are driven out the following day in the most forceful cloud precipitation I have ever witnessed and I step over to the weekly Cherra market for some local flavour and some shopping instead. Negotiating a bustling market under umbrellas or Ka Khups (cane rain shield) is something the Khasis do with utter ease — bargaining, looking over the health of the very fresh produce, while chewing kwai (paan with arecanut and lime), their teeth painted blood red with lime. I make my way through the market, the local greeting “Khubleih” winning me friendly smiles and a chance to interact with the locals. Tropical fruits, vegetables, tobacco, hot local chillies and dried fish sell alongside meat hocks of cow, slabs of pig and steamers of gut. The locals I find are not quite as charmed with the monsoon as I am, especially when it rains non-stop for as long as two weeks at a stretch; it hinders daily activity and clothes keep damp for days. “Sometimes even if rations are over one has to wait it out,” lament the butchers, Joining Star and First Born. The Khasis have a penchant for keeping euphonious names irrespective of meanings or context. The evening at Cherra livens up with a local dance troupe belting out, yes, euphonic Khasi love songs, the rain a constant melodious drone in the background.
Wampyndap, a young girl from nearby Sohsarat village, accompanies me the following morning as a guide to the living root bridge in the ravine below. Head in clouds, feet firmly placed on the ground, I step gingerly over the mossy, slippery stone steps that make for a steep descent to the bridge. Areca nuts, bananas and palms line the route, which soon gives way to pristine wilderness. Weaving its way over the gushing torrent of the stream called the Ummonoi, the bridge of roots is an outstanding living phenomenon.
Shrouded by a canopy of lush tropical forest, the bridge over the stream, made up of entwined roots, looks freakish, like something out of Hobbit-land. A centuries-old craft practised by the War Khasis of the area, the bridge is engineered from the roots of ficus elastica, a species of the Indian rubber tree with exuberant root growths found along and in the midst of these streams. In an ingenious feat of bio-engineering, the canyon dwellers planted the tree at strategic locations along the riverbank and proceeded to direct its numerous root vines through hollowed splits of betel nut or bamboo pipes until they bridged the torrent bed and took root on the far bank. I step on it gingerly and am awash with an unexpectedly strong sense of security. With more than two protective base spans and intricately woven guard railings, roots from the higher branches of the tree join the middle of the bridge as support spans making my trespass a whimper on its solid spread. Living root bridges are unique to Meghalaya and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
I top off the evening with some choice monsoon delicacies — Thur Chor Chora (banana flowers), potal gravy and pork neiiong, an outstanding Khasi preparation made with black sesame seeds. At night, the sky comes down in buckets, my roof is pounding under the din and I sleep deeply, lulled by its hounding lullaby.
Since my return from Cherra, I am not the same person anymore. My head clouds over often with visions of rainforests and rain, twirling mists and cloud and that pelting din on my roof, a sound that refuses to leave my mind haunting me like never before, as I make do with what is termed ‘monsoon’ in Delhi. So beware, if you go to Cherrapunjee in the rains, this destination, which is like no other, will get under your skin like no other.
By Ahtushi Deshpande
Ahtushi Deshpande is a freelance travel and documentary photographer, writer and ardent traveller based in Delhi.