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.

King Rat Loves You

You see all kinds of artwork on trucks, but you seldom see Rattus Rampant displaying a message for St. Valentine’s Day, clutching the escutcheon blazoned sable, bend sinister sanguine rose argent. This is a special from the highways of Meghalaya.

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?

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. This is a very apt description of this layered beauty. 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.

Fooding Center

When I don’t have much to do I go around taking photos of restuarants. At the Mawsmai caves, while I waited for people to make up their minds about which way the arrows point, I decided to record for posterity the variety of food available. No matter what food you could find, all the restaurants around here were neat and very clean. Indian and Chinese food, of a kind unrecognizable by any Chinese, are expected, I guess, but one restaurant added Bengali to the list. Interesting. I don’t suppose they have many visitors from Bangladesh, although the border is not far away.

Another place was no less inventive; it threw Assamese food into the mix. Indian food should mean food from every part of India. If you start differentiating between Bengali, Assamese, Goan, and Guajarati food, then I wondered what Indian food meant. Perhaps roti, dal tarka, and paneer, typical truck-stop food on the highways. I suppose the subtext is that these places do not have Khasi food.

But the chocolate cake goes to the little board which you see here. No fancy names like Victuals or Spring, this cut to the bone: it was a Fooding Center. It meant that this tea stall did not serve momos. We had to find our chicken momos at a different stall, next to a restaurant with the Khasi delicacy called jadoh, rice and meat.

Light fails at the border

The distance between Shillong and Dawki is 82 kilometers. Although these are narrow and winding roads, with several choke points where the traffic crawls, most cars would be able to do this run in about three hours or a little more. After starting from Shillong just before 9 in the morning, The Rath of the Clan reached Dawki as the sun was setting. Dawki is the gateway through which a large fraction of the India-Bangladesh trade passes, since it sits on the Shillong-Sylhet highway. It is also a place where every tourist to Meghalaya wants to come. The result is that the narrow highway was completely jammed. Our driver wisely decided to stay far from the jam. We got off the bus and walked between unmoving trucks to get to what we wanted to see.

The Goyain river makes a sharp bend here, and, according to the map I’d seen, all of the river belongs to Bangladesh. The Umngot river falls into the Goyain at the bend, and this river, as well as the bridge over it is in India. In fact, the northern bank of the Goyain belongs to India, as does Dawki town which lies on the far side of the bend, and across the bridge over Umngot. In the photo above, you can see trucks lined up after the bridge, waiting to pass through Dawki town and the border checkpost beyond it. The boats drawn up on the bank belong to Indian boatmen who take tourists for a ride on the river.

The Family and I hurried along to rough stairs cut into the cliff between the road and the river. This was immensely crowded and I was a little apprehensive about coming back up after the light faded even more. While planning this trip, The Family and I had thought of spending a quiet new year’s eve by ourselves in Dawki after the rest of the clan left. My idea was to spend a day boating on the Umngot and driving to the many waterfalls which make the leap from the Shillong plateau down to the plains of Bangladesh. But The Leafless was set on driving here with the rest of the clan, so we changed our plans. Unfortunately, we would have only half an hour at this place before it became dark. We climbed down and looked at the famous bridge over which so much of the Bangladesh trade passes (photo above).

Did we want a boat ride? The rest of the clan had joined us by now, and we had a conference where eventually it was decided that we don’t. It was a nice place for a conference; I got a few good photos here. The river comes from the right, turns around at the bridge and flows down towards the center of the frame. The far bank on the left is in India, and there is a barely visible channel between that and the far bank on the right, which is in Bangladesh. This “bank” is actually an island, chor in the local languages.

The special geology of Meghalaya is apparent here. The Shillong plateau falls suddenly into the plains of Bangladesh, at a line of fracture called the Dawki fault. This part of the plateau is mainly clay and limestone, with very little visible igneous rock. I took a last photo of leaky boats settling into the water before turning to go. These boats are easy to build, and require constant bailing. As long as the wood is kept painted, they are usable. Lack of paint means that the boat has been given to the wind and water.

The climb up to the road was now even more crowded with people coming down for a last look at the river before it became completely dark. Inexpensive internal tourism is clearly booming. I hope that this means that reasonable hotels will be available at a lower price in future. Join me in a moment of hope, Indian travel bloggers.

The biology of bridge-building

When you think of bridges you don’t usually think of biotechnology or gardening. But that is exactly what the Khasis traditionally did. First you have a gorge to be bridged, then you find two rubber trees facing each other across the gorge. Next you coax the roots towards each other, perhaps along poles or planks. Then, when the roots meet each other, you begin pleating them together and, by a process called pleaching, encourage them to fuse. That’s how the bridge that you see in the featured photo was built.

Once the platform is ready, layers of mud are laid down over it to make a easily traversed road. I suppose the weight that the roots can carry is a concern. On the day that we were there a couple of people were standing at each end of the bridge to do some traffic control, mainly to make sure that the platform was not overloaded.

If the general shape of the bridge looks familiar, it is because it is structurally a cable-stayed bridge. The framework of joined roots forms a platform which could sway in a monsoon storm. As you can see in the photo above, branches are brought
down to stay the platform. As an engineering design, Mumbai’s sea link is no different from this. Interestingly, it seems that the whole community which uses the bridge is trained to carry out repairs on it, so that a villager passing by can braid the roots a little and put up a truss to guide a branch.

This particular living root bridge was close to Mawlynnong village. There are many of these bridges scattered across the Khasi and Jaintia hills. I guess it takes time for the tree to grow, but it can’t be many years. I’ve seen other Ficus trees grows roots which touch ground within months. So I guess it might take no more than a decade to make a bridge. Ficus elastica, the rubber plant, is said to live for about 200 years in the wild. So, during its lifetime the bridge would get stronger. If the community plans well, then they can even begin to replace an old tree before it dies. It is said that one of the root bridges near Sohra (Cherrapunji) has lasted 500 years. This could be hearsay, since the earliest documentation of these structures was published in 1844 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. However, it is not unthinkable that this could happen, given that the technology is widely shared between tribes.

The banks of the river here were not very high. In winter the water reduces to a trickle. So I climbed down to the river bed to take a look at the interesting flat stones along the bed. Much of the clan had already gathered here. The pools and stones were nice and cool after the climb down to the river from the road. I was impatient to get back up. People were selling cut pineapples dipped in red chili powder on the track, and I needed some of that.

The village of scattered stones

On our first trip to Meghalaya, five years ago, we did not come down towards Mawlynnong (maw=stone, lynnong=scattered, in Khasi) and Dawki on the Bangladesh border. When you start planning a trip to this state, you cannot miss mention of Mawlynnong, supposedly the cleanest village in Asia. This time round The Family and I considered staying in a home-stay in this village and exploring nearby Dawki and the Umngot river as well as Pynursia and its spectacular living root bridges from this base. That did not happen, but we came here with the clan for lunch.

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Walking through the village is a pleasure. I wouldn’t know how to judge a cleanest village contest, but this is undoubtedly clean. There are dustbins made of woven cane (featured photo) every so often, and there is no plastic visible at the edges of paths. The place looks and smells clean. The large number of tourists included mothers scolding their children for dirtying the place, and telling them to pick up things and put them in dustbins. I hope these are lessons which are carried back to the rest of India. Even Shillong, only about 80 Kms away, would gain from it. I suppose tourism has its problems, but the number of home-stays in this village is so large, that I think they can’t do without it.

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The church did not look like it played a major social role in the life of the village. Perhaps that is because it is less than a year old. The snowy tree was made from cotton wool, and also the cotton wool “snowman” next to it. I wonder how it is that a religion which started in West Asia and grew for a few hundred years in south-east Europe is now so firmly north European that even when it is exported to a tropical rain forest it brings symbols of snow along with its major festival. In any case, it is being localized again, as you can see by the fact that this cottonman’s eyes are made of mosquito coils.

Some of the clan saw this tree house or watch tower and decided to climb it. Everything is a little slow because of queues of tourists, but when The Family eventually came down again she had a marvelous photo looking southwards. In the photo you can faintly see the plains of Bangladesh over the line of trees, with the glint of rivers seen through the blue haze. We were perhaps 10 kilometers from the border.

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.

Camera or phone camera?

I made the trip to Shillong by an airline which charges high and behaves like a cheap airline. The baggage rules were so awful that if it hadn’t given the fastest routing to my destination I wouldn’t have taken it. How could I cut down my baggage? I cut down much, and, after much thought I decided to sacrifice my camera. I’d used both my camera and phone extensively during my trip to China and realized that a smartphone camera is pretty good.

On my phone the sensor which captures the image is about the same size as that in my camera. Phone cameras use CMOS chips, which are more noisy and somewhat less sensitive than the CCD sensors common in cameras. My phone has a fixed wide angle f2.0 lens. The relatively wide aperture means that it focuses a large fraction of the light that it receives on to the sensor. However the lens is tiny, so the amount of light it captures is very much smaller than what the camera gets. The combination of small lens and CMOS sensor means that low-light or strong contrasts should come out badly, if everything else were the same.

But other things are not equal. Phone manufacturers have paid more attention to modern computational imaging than almost every camera manufacturer. As a result, I often find that the out-of-box image from my phone is better than that from my camera. Even image stabilization on my phone seems to be better than in my camera. For those who care, I could pull RAW image out of my phone if I wanted. (Why would I, when phones have more versatile software than commercial image processors?) In defense of cameras, I must say that my camera was launched almost three years before my phone. Phones and cameras launched in the same year may compare differently. Of course, my images are only shared with friends or posted on blogs. If you are a professional photographer your standards will be very different.

So, with much second thoughts, I decided that on a trip with the clan I would probably not do the extreme photography that I might otherwise. So maybe I could leave my camera behind. Here are two photos that I took with my phone camera on this trip. The panorama in the featured photo is no better or worse than what I’d expected to get. It has no details in the shadows, and the telephone tower in the distance is definitely blurred. On the other hand, the butterfly has come out significantly better than I’d expected. Although the contrast is high, but the phone has captured texture both on the lit and dark sides of the stone. The image is sharp, and there is no difficulty in recognizing the Large Yeoman.

If only my phone camera had not been broken by the latest software update from the vendor, I would have ditched my camera for it more often, at least when I travel on work.