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.

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The Road to Sohra

Shillong was a British creation, but Sohra (called Cherrapunjee by the British) was a tribal capital. The road between these two towns is probably the best traveled in Meghalaya. As we trundled along on the Rath of the Clan, The Family got a window seat, and therefore the best opportunity to photograph the lovely countryside we were passing. I’d got one photo of this countryside the previous day when we’d passed for a while along this road.

The land is flat, mostly full of low growth. The hillsides, when they are not being quarried for limestone, are full of trees. This makes me believe that the plateau must have been wooded till recent times. The fact that there are Khasi sacred groves in plenty on the tableland also indicates that there were more forests in the near past. There are small houses, with colourful doors, which look nice, partly because they stand in this still-beautiful landscape. I was to notice deforestation later on, so I guess this enchanting land is changing fairly quickly. If you want to see Meghalaya before it becomes fully urbanized, visit soon.

I knew from our earlier trip that there were many things to see along this road. Five years ago we’d visited all the places we’d seen on a map at the side of the road. How many of them would we be able to visit this time?

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.

Family holdings

Four of us were dawdling in Mawlai. When I’m with nieces then every few steps seems to be an Instagrammable opportunity. Our progress down the lane towards our Clan Bus was very slow. While they Instasnapped their stream of consciousness, I began to push my camera through every closed gate I could see to take photos of the houses behind them.

These were really picturesque houses. many built in the old style with slanted corrugated metal roofs. Meghalaya builds against the monsoon. After all, Shillong is only 61 kilometers from Mawsynram, which is the wettest place on earth. Mawsynram gets 11.8 meters of rain a year. Shillong gets 3.3 meters of rain a year, which is substantially larger than what Mumbai gets. So I wasn’t surprised to see the pitched roofs.

I was also not surprised to see the verandahs. These were placed where you could drip off excess water if you got drenched in rain before reaching your house. Also, it would be great to sit on one of these verandahs with a steaming cup of chai watching the rain. The houses were very similar to the style that I’d seen in Kerala, which is another place which gets heavy monsoon rains.

As we were busy photographing the houses and exclaiming over the well-maintained garden each had, a lady who’d been tending the garden came out to talk to us (you can see her in the featured photo). After asking us the usual questions (where were we from, what were we doing there, was this our first trip to Shillong) she started telling us about the houses. It turned out that she and her sisters owned three of them. The others were owned by other grand-daughters of her grandmother. Halfway through this description it dawned on me that among the Khasis property is held by women, and passes from mother to daughter. When I threw a question about her brothers into the conversation, it sank without a ripple. She wished the best of luck to the nieces as we left.

A curiosity shop

Four of us climbed off the Clan Bus and meandered into an incredible shop in Shillong. From outside it was not clear what the shop contained. The Family peered at the window, which was full of blankets and little figurines. The clay figures piqued her interest, so we walked into the shop. Very little light filtered into the place, but the little that came in lit up a trove of marvels: tribal clothes, metal and glass chains, arrows!

There are three major tribes in Megahalaya: the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo. The tribes had maintained independence from the Ahom kingdom, and lay on the periphery of the sultanate of Sylhet. With the fall of Bengal in 1757 CE, the Jaintia and Khasi tribes expanded into parts of the plains of Assam and Bengal. By the end of the 18th century CE, British interest in the limestone quarries of modern-day Meghalaya drew them into this region. Following the discovery of wild tea in Assam in 1821, and the British-Burma war of 1824, the British East India Company entered in force into this region. The city of Shillong, in the middle of a plateau raised over the north-eastern shield of India, was a creation of the British administration. It needed an administrative capital for the north-eastern frontier, which it then called Assam, and created this town in 1829, making it a municipality in 1878. In 1972, when Assam and Meghalaya were separated, it became the capital of Meghalaya.

A young man came out of the house behind the shop and sat down at a counter full of feathers and began chatting with us as he worked on a head-dress of feathers. I asked him which tribe would use the things he had. This was the best question I asked, because he gave me a complete run down on the differences between the headgear, clothes, and arrows of the three tribes of Megahalaya. A quick and limited reply is that the headgear is nearly the same; the length of the feathers is the main difference between the usage of the different tribes. We pottered around the enchanting shop. Christian symbols have been incorporated into tribal life today, since the proselytising British rule. However, more ancient tribal customs, like matrilineal inheritance, remain intact. The man was working in his mother’s shop, and would eventually leave when he got married.