Mawsmai caves

The southern part of the Shillong plateau is largely made of limestone. The intense rainfall in this region has carved huge cave systems into these rocks. The plateau of Meghalaya is full of these caves, from the 24 kilometer long monsters to the touristy maze of the caves we visited near Sohra.

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Half the clan was off on a long trek down to yet another living root bridge, while I and the other equally jaded people rode the Rath of the Clan to Mawsmai village. In the five years since I was here last, a veritable strip mall has sprung up outside the caves and the Khasi sacred grove. My new phone was much better at taking photos of the ill-lit interior than my top-of-the-line bridge camera of half a decade ago. These photos of the grotesque and tortured shapes of the rocks in ambient light are brought to you by the consumer electronics revolution.

In the last few years much has been written about the danger that illegal limestone quarrying poses to the caves, and the rapid dying off of life that is adapted to these caves. Part of the response has been to encourage more tourism to the caves. While this may put pressure on the illegal miners to stop, it is not clear that it helps the lifeforms in the caves. During our short walk in the Mawsmai caves we saw many tourists and no non-human animals.

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Mawkdok Dympep Valley

I had wonderful memories of the Shillong Sohra road from our visit five years back, when we stopped wherever we wanted, and occasionally even took long detours to look at interesting things. I knew that on a trip with twenty people it would not be possible to do everything, but I did want to stop at what I remembered as the most beautiful sight of all: a view down the long Mawdok Dympep valley. It was still a superb view. I wouldn’t mind living in that house that someone is building there now, except that there will soon be a whole village around it, blocking the gorgeous view.

Five years ago we’d stopped here at a time when monsoon storms had not completely dissipated. I found this photo from that time: the valley was clear when we looked down it at first, but clouds came swirling through it in no time. In minutes the valley had filled with fog, giving me this wonderful shot. This time around I think I had an even better shot, with the golden sun slanting down through clouds in the late afternoon. It was different, and I was happy to have seen both views of the valley.

Now there is a bridge which spans the gorge and it is said that the view from the bridge is spectacular. We didn’t have time to do that. Near where we stopped a zip-line had started up, and several of the Clan tried it out. I didn’t, but I could believe that the view from the zip-line would be fabulous.

The Fall of the Python

On our earlier visit to Sohra we’d taken a detour from the Shillong-Sohra road to see the Dain Thlen waterfall. It was a few kilometers away from the main road on a black-top road which was not in perfect repair. There is a interesting story associated with this waterfall. The short version is that Thlen was an enormous snake which would eat every second person who passed this road. It was killed here and cut into pieces (dein is a Khasi word meaning cut) which were thrown over the cliff. The rocks that you see below the fall are supposed to look like pieces of the snake.

Raju drove along the narrow road. We couldn’t see a waterfall anywhere in that flat land, and wondered whether we’d taken a wrong turn. Then we came to the bridge which you see in the photo above, and crossed it. On the far side was a battered board which said “Dain Thlen waterfall”. There was no one in sight. The rocks were uneven and full of large hollows. We parked the car at the edge of the road and walked across the amazing rocks. Where was the waterfall? It struck us after a while that all we had to do was to follow the stream.

Sure enough, the stream tumbled over the edge of a cliff where these rocks ended. There was a safety fence across the edge. We peered over it to look at the stream disappear from view, and appear far away as a narrow river. Now I see from a map that we could have gone another few kilometers down the road, and maybe we could have walked upstream a bit to see the waterfall from below. At that time, without a map, we just followed the fence around to a curve in the tableland. From this other angle I could take the featured photo.

The rocks here were amazing, and I went a little mad taking photos. I guess smaller rocks driven by monsoon waters must have eroded these hollows on the rocks. They are distinctive enough that an alternate form of the story of Thlen refers to them. We left completely charmed by this place, which, at least five years ago, attracted no tourists.

Elephant Falls

A little way out of Shillong, on the Shillong-Sohra highway, you come to Elephant Falls. Among the many waterfalls of Meghalaya, this is the one which is most easily accessible from Shillong. As a result, when we reached the waterfall one morning, it was crowded. A board near the entrance told us that the Khasi name for the waterfall translates to Three Step Waterfall, which is a very apt description. The English name referred to a stone which is said to have resembled an elephant. Since this rock was destroyed in the earthquake of 1897 CE, there is no telling what it may have looked like to modern eyes.

It was a short walk from the car park to the first stage of the waterfall. This is a considerable drop. The flow was pretty meager in winter, as you can see in the photo above. The channel is pretty wide, though. So I guess during, and just after, the monsoon, this will be a pretty impressive falls. The photo was taken from a big rock face around which the stream runs after the drop. Steps cut into the drop lead down to the second stage. Before taking the steps down, the clan gathered for a long round of taking photos of each other. Only when everyone was convinced that each of us had been photographed by everyone else (this takes a long time when there are almost twenty people involved), did we move towards the steps.

The second stage is the shortest fall. The photo that you see above was taken from a bridge which leads across the stream after the second stage of the fall. Both the times that I’ve been here, the pool was a deep green in colour because of the overhanging trees and other plants. There are pretty impressive ferns here, as you can see from the photo. The featured photo was made from the bridge looking down towards the third stage. The rock here is granite; you have to travel a little further south to get into the part of the Shillong plateau which is made of limestone.

This seems like the highest fall. Steps are cut into the rock face next to it, and some concrete has been poured recently over the stone to make smoother steps. It was very crowded on the day we were there, and I was happy with the stout guard rails on the side of the stairs. I stopped part of the way down to take the photo that you see above. Most of the action was below. The steps lead down to the pool at the bottom of the fall. The deepest part is off limits, as a rope across the area warns you. But the edge of the pool is full of people taking photos. This is not the most impressive fall that I’ve seen, but it has wonderful greenery around it in all seasons. The first time that I had gone to this place there were very few people, and the place had an air of soothing calmness. I thought it was worth stopping here on our way to Sohra.

Back at the car park we had time to explore the veritable mall that had sprung up in the years since I was here last. Chai and jalebi was welcome, but I was looking for something more substantial. Niece Mbili said a pork sandwich would be welcome. We explored nearby stalls and found one which said pork roll on the menu. We ordered two, and waited a long while for them to be prepared. That was a good sign, I thought. The Family came in to investigate what we were doing, and then others came by. Eventually we got piping hot, fresh and juicy, pork rolls. “Heaven”, said Niece Mbili and then we munched our paratha and meat in blissful silence.

Lookout point

The Rath of the Clan stopped at a place that the driver called a “viewpoint”. It was once a bend in the road overlooking a long valley. The view (featured photo) was very nice. The stop was now a jumble of shops and restaurants and a concrete structure enclosing the rock that you had to climb in order to get the best view. There was a ticket office and a minimal entry charge to see the view. The clan immediately dispersed, and a few of us went straight for the view. These rolling hills covered with forests are what Meghalaya was famous for once. The big brown scab that you see in the middle of the photo looked like yet another tourist resort being built. Note how much larger it is than the open fields of the village behind it.

When I looked away from the valley, I could see something interesting. The hills did not jut out of the line of the horizon. Quite to the contrary, the horizon looked flat. The impression of folds, hills and valleys, is formed by a process quite different from that which formed the Himalayas. The Shillong plateau is a flat slab of stone pushed up by the collision of continental plates. The hills and valleys are carved by water flowing over this land for several million years. The volume of water is intense, since this is among the wettest places on the planet. But the land is still rising, so over the last ten million years or so, erosion has not managed to keep pace with the uplifting of the plateau. In fact, in the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the plateau is said to have risen by 11 meters.

Behind us this plateau was being systematically cut down. Someone had put out their washing to dry on a line just above the quarry, probably the workers. All along the route we had seen limestone hills being quarried. The British annexation of this land was driven by greed for this limestone, necessary to the then new building industry. Since then the construction boom has increased the demand for limestone, and the locals here are stuck in a vicious economic cycle which makes them cut away the ground beneath their feet. The picturesque south eastern part of the plateau is largely made of sedimentary limestone, and we would see more evidence of quarrying during our trip.

I gravitated to a restaurant which was serving tea and found part of the clan already inside. Between long queues at the toilet, finding the best place for selfies, and sitting down for a chat, the clan seemed to move at a geologically slow pace. Several cousins and nieces joined me for tea while I waited. I had time for many cups of strong and sweet tea, and also enough time to line up the cups so that I could take photos. By late morning we were done and on the move again.

Gobsmacked by extreme weather

As I read the news about the weak polar vortex which is responsible for the abnormal, and abnormally long, cold weather as far south as Mumbai, I was reminded of the time when the tail end of the world’s most extreme weather hit me in the face, and I didn’t recognize it till later. A few years ago we visited Meghalaya at the end of the monsoon and decided to drive down from Shillong to Mawsynram. The village of Mawsynram is known to every Indian from their school days, since it is supposed to be the rainiest place on earth. It usually receives between 11 and 12 meters (yes, that’s meters; 430 to 470 inches if you prefer) of rain a year In 1985 it received 26 meters of rain (over 1000 inches) of rain.

The monsoon was just over in the rest of the country, but we’d seen storms and heavy rain while flying in to Shillong. I asked The Family, “What’s there to see apart from the village?” We consulted Raju, who was driving us, the web, and the hotel, and found a couple of cave systems and waterfalls. Meghalaya is famous for caves and waterfalls; although they are everywhere, the more famous ones are worth seeing. The recommendations were enough to tip me over into going along with The Family’s plan.

A heavy mist descended as we drove along the Shillong-Mawsynram road. The surface was pretty bad too (at least then) so between the mist and the road, Raju had to slow down quite a bit. We stopped a bit at a Khasi sacred grove to look at monoliths raised to the memories of ancestors, but after that the mist began to get heavier. Usually we could see a little way beyond the edge of the road (that’s how we spotted the group of cows having their mid-morning snack). Now and then we would hit a pocket which was fairly clear, like the stream in the photo above.

By the time we got to the Mawjymbuin caves it was well past the normal time for lunch and we were enveloped in very thick mist. The caves are meant to be open all day, but the person who mans the gate and collects tickets was not at his place. We walked in hoping to see him on the way out and realized that the mist had cut off all light inside the cave. We could vaguely see exotic shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, but there definitely wasn’t enough light to negotiate the slippery rocks. We walked around the caves outside, looking at the pools of water large enough to serve as swimming pools. A light drizzle had begun, and we came out. There was only one restaurant nearby, and it could serve jadoh, Khasi for rice and meat, or ja with eggs.

I looked out of a window at the back of the hut, and saw that we were at the side of a small stream. The fog was too dense to make out clearly what was on the other side. It looked like a wooded slope. As I took the photo, The Family discovered a wonderful sight out of another window: a spider’s web on which the mist was condensing. We had our meal, and a good strong chai. The lady who served us food suggested another cave system which wasn’t too far. Raju knew of it, but said he preferred not to drive in this light. We paid up, thanked the lady, and left. It was a wasted day as far as tourism went, we thought as we left. Over the years The Family and I came to realize that it was not. In the rainiest place on earth getting heavy cloud cover and a drizzle when the rest of the country was bone dry was exactly what we should have recognized as a great experience. Fortunately, we had photos which could jog our memories.

I hadn’t worried about the rains in Megahalaya for years, but recently, while I tried to read some papers on the geology of the Himalayas, I came across an image which explains this well. You see that Meghalaya lies on the so-called Shillong plateau, a 1-2 kilometers high plateau that juts out of the surrounding lowlands. When moisture-bearing winds come off the Bay of Bengal and sweep up north, this is the first rise that they hit. The Bay of Bengal is a warm sea, so the air over it moist even outside the monsoon. Only during cold winters does the moisture content of the air over the bay drop to a point where the southern parts of Meghalaya (land of the clouds in Sanskrit) is not full of megh. Several places on this plateau are among the rainiest parts of the world for this simple reason.

Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

Love me two times, baby

Coming in to Shillong from Guwahati the road passed over the dam on the Umiam river. We had a quick glimpse of the enormous lake before the Clan Bus turned on to the bridge. On one side of the dam I could see large pipes threaded through the channel of the old river. They lead to a power generating station (approximately) 150 meters lower down. I was reminded of the time, five years ago, when we’d stood on the far side of the lake and watched the sun go down over a lonely fisherman in his boat (featured photo). The sun was going down again (photo below), although the day was not as spectacular as the previous time I’d come here. This second time round I found the place quite as charming as I remembered.

This 220 square kilometer lake was created by damming the gorge of the Umiam river in the early 1960s. That was a more idealistic, more naive, time. Little was known about the smaller questions of geology: how much silt is carried by rivers, how future deforestation would affect waters, how often small earthquakes occur. The inauguration of the project, eventually costing USD 15 million, on January 9, 1960 by Nehru signalled the opening of the flood gates of US aid to India, in the form of PL-480 funds. Across the world new dams were being erected. The previous day Gamal Abdel Nasser had inaugurated the Aswan high dam. In those days engineers and planners didn’t think of the rapid silting of these dams, or the incredible amounts of bio-waste which would be discharged, untreated, into the rivers of the plateau. The north-east of India is also geologically unstable, being caught between the Himalyan arc in the north and the Indo-Burmese arc in the west. In 1897 there was an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale; the Shillong plateau rose up by about 11 meters (yes, meters!) as a result. A dam would not survive an earthquake of this kind. Smaller quakes, of the kind which happen a couple of times a decade also call for regular maintenance of the dam.

The Clan Bus stopped at a spot designated as a viewpoint. This meant, of course, that most of the view was obscured by shacks and temporary structures built by people who are eager to sell you tea and snacks. We walked down the bank until we could get an unobstructed view of the lake. The calm surface was broken by the wakes of speedboats; apparently the lake has become popular as a sports destination. What a strange thing to do to the water supply, I thought. That was before I discovered that the lake’s water is so polluted that it would require heavy cleaning to be potable. I took this last photo, like the first one, five years ago. I found that I love to stand here and stare at the calm waters of the lake, watching the sun go down. But this calmness is deceptive.

Freshwater on a beach

I’m a city person. As far as I’m concerned, water comes out of a tap. I’d not thought much about the water supply to the fishermen who live in Dhanushkodi until I noticed a woman drawing water from a well outside the church of coral. Suddenly the absurdity of my assumption struck me: the villagers could not possibly have had water piped in from the mainland. I walked up to the well and looked in. The water was fairly close to the surface. I wondered whether this was potable water, or strongly contaminated by the sea. At lunch we asked the fisher family which managed the shack we ate in. They said that they could drink the water. I was intrigued by the shallow aquifer near the sea.

There must be studies of this, The Family said. A quick search led me to many studies of the quality of ground water in this region. It seems that seepage of sea water into these aquifers is a continuing problem. But the papers don’t answer the question which puzzles me: how large must the aquifers be on this island? It has seen large numbers of visitors over centuries, even before the population exploded in the last hundred years or so. For there to be any potable water at all, the aquifers must be either large, or quickly replenished.

There is a lot about the geology of this area that is not well understood. The Ramarpalam which is visible above the ground, and the water table below are probably just two aspects of the interesting geology of this area.

Shifting sands

The high and low tides were at convenient times when we were at Dhanushkodi. The morning’s low tide was at 10:30. This would give us two to three hours at the beach before lunch. We could have a short break after that, before going down to the sea side again for the incoming tide. Sunset was about an hour after high tide. The sun, the moon, and the earth were cooperating with us for a wonderful holiday as we drove down a long narrow spit of land which pointed at the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. That border is a great story, whose beginnings we would see during the day.

Driving to Dhanushkodi at low tide, we saw breakers on the sea to our right. We parked and walked to the beach past a signboard warning us not to go into the sea. I love to tread a path at the very edge of the surf before getting my feet wet; the popping of the millions of tiny bubbles sprays your feet with cool water. This side of Dhanushkodi faces the Gulf of Mannar. The hard packed sand sloped into the waves. The sky was a little overcast, but the contrast of the warmth in the air and the cool water was wonderful. We obeyed the signboards and stayed out of the sea; standing on the beach for breakers to land on our legs.

When we got back in the car, Sathiamoorthy had decided to protect it by laying newspapers on the floor. On the left the level sands stretched far away to the horizon. The waters of the Palk strait was a faint blue line very far away. Clearly this side sloped very little. Sathiamoorthy said something about “soft sand”. Later I realized that this meant quicksand. I would have a much closer look at quicksand later. All I could see from the car was that some parts of the sand looked much more wet than others. I loved the look of the boats beached so far from the sea.

The road now ends at Arichamunai, the very tip of this spit. We walked down to the beach. Along the way we had stopped at empty beaches, but this part was full of people. We walked along the edge of the water, noting the stillness of the water in the Palk strait and the strong contrast with the breakers on the Gulf of Mannar. As we walked, we noticed how the waters are eroding the beach on one side and depositing sand on the other. This turns out to have been studied extensively. The tip of Arichamunai is not a fixed point on the map. It waves back and forth by more than a kilometer when observed for a decade. Sandbars detach themselves, and join the land somewhere else. This is land as fluid as the sea.

When we stepped on to a very wet patch of sand, people around us shouted for us to get back. That’s when I realized that this “soft sand” is quicksand. A policeman had begun to shoo tourists away from this area. It was time for lunch, in any case. We climbed up to the traffic circle. Beyond this beach the extended pattern reefs called Adam’s Bridge or Ramarpalam form a link between India and Sri Lanka. Sandbars accrete around them, some more stable than others. One of the longer lived sandbars, about 15 Kilometers from here nowadays contains the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. If you walked across Ramarpalam from the east, then Arichamunai is where you first know you are in India, from the low-cost version of Ashoka’s pillar planted right at the center of the circle. Some help in recognizing the country is also provided by the rickshaws lined up to take you to Rameswaram, or the many people selling freshly sliced watermelon and pineapple around the circle.

When we came back at high tide the wind had picked up. At Arichamunai the wind was driving the sand very hard. On my legs below my knees I could feel the constant prickling of blown sand. What little I remembered of Bagnold’s classic book verified the evidence of my eyes: the sand grains here are big. The beach is not old enough to have created dust. My slices of pineapple spiced with red chili powder were safe from dust and sand. The sea had come in very close on the Palk strait side. If it hadn’t been for a causeway the Kothandaramar temple (photo above) would have been cut off from Dhanushkodi. I took this photo just before high tide. Right at the horizon you can see a white salt-encrusted sand bar. The day’s tide was too low to drown it.