Shillong to Sohra: growth and decay

Five years ago The Lotus, The Family and I were in a car traveling between Shillong and Sohra. Raju assured us that it was not a long drive. So we took our time to stop and look at anything we found interesting. It was a nice day; sunny sometimes, but the mists which give Meghalaya its name kept creeping up on us.

Shillong seemed charming and picturesque. Jammed-up traffic filled most roads, but next to them plants seemed to take over everything. We wondered how long a bulldozer has to be left to itself before it is hidden by bushes. Megahalaya seemed so very laid back, in spite of traffic woes.

The road to Sohra was full of other charming sights, like this cabin with sagging walls. The sunlight which broke through the trees lit up some wonderful weathered wood. Raju did not mind stopping at every whim. I got quite a few interesting photos that day.

When we stopped for a chai, the shop fit exactly into my mental picture of what it should look like. Sloppily painted wood was showing its age. Inside the shop bright clothes hung on a line which passed over the open fire. Perhaps they were drying there. Stainless steel utensils gleamed in the light.

Elsewhere we found a newly built cabin. It had brick and mortar walls. The window was already broken and completely boarded up. The roof was made of thin metal sheets. It looked as if someone had started wrapping a box in foil and stopped before completing the job.

We stopped at the Mawkdok Dympep valley and climbed up a slope on one side of the road to find a nice meadow, full of flowers and sun. Beyond it we saw a pong, a newly constructed tank to hold water for irrigation (featured photo). We sat down on the meadow and enjoyed the sun for a while. When clouds rolled in, we got up to leave.

After detours to Dein Thlen and Nohkalikai waterfalls, we entered Sohra. The roads were even narrower than in Shillong, but the load of traffic was less. We saw a rusted hulk of a jeep by the road. We were in civilization again.

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Sohra market

If there’s one thing you will see in a market in the northeast, it is chilis. Not the variety that can be safely grilled and eaten, but the things that look like a parrot’s beak: red and dangerously sharp. The main market of Sohra lived up to expectation. Walking between the cramped aisles I came to a stall which held an enormous heap of chilis and nothing else. Another time The Family would have picked up a good quantity to take home, but she gave it a pass.

This time around we didn’t have time to go back to the market, so I dug up some of the photos I have from our visit five years ago. I didn’t know it then, but Sohra is famous for its oranges. A large square-footage of the market was given over to them. The oranges are flavourful. The women selling them were in tribal-style dress, the shawl tied across the body so that it can be used as a back pack, as well as raised into a hood to cover the head.

Being able to cover the head at short notice is clearly important in one of the rainiest parts of the world. Outside the market a young boy sat guard next to his family’s shopping bags and umbrella. He couldn’t make up his mind whether I was trying something funny. The center of Sohra was not full of tourists then.

A new hope

I’ve written again and again about the destruction of the beautiful land of Meghalaya, this week and before. I’d said already that I have no stake in the place, no livelihood to maintain; I was only a tourist. I did not have to balance a desire for a good life against preserving the land. But the people of this place reached a new balance. This is a post about a small victory in sustainable living, and the opportunity for a breathing space.

When I traveled from Shillong to Sohra five years ago, I saw open quarrying of the limestone hills everywhere. For decades schoolbooks had proclaimed Sohra as the rainiest place on earth, but its place had recently been taken by points in other continents. The reason was not hard to guess. Large-scale deforestation was evident, and now the ground was being cut away from under their feet. Rivers were being polluted not only by ground up limestone, but by other chemicals mixed into it.

On our way to see the Seven Sisters waterfall then we stood aghast in front of another quarry. A hill was being eaten away, leaving something looking like an apple core. This was what the place looked like then. The scene was like something out of Mordor. This image stayed with me for years: a horrifying vision of development gone mad.

Greed for limestone, an ingredient of cement, brought the British here in the first place, and seeded this disaster. Five years ago I talked to people and everyone was in despair. But fortunately, I was not the only one who noticed this destruction. Locally, in Meghalaya, a movement sprang up to demand that the quarrying be regulated. Mountainsides are still cut away for limestone, but the industry is now controlled. Sohra’s cement factory seemed to be shut (featured photo; credit The Family). The apple-core-hill, as I call it, remains as it was five years ago (new photo above). The land still looks desolate, but it hasn’t disappeared in the five years that passed between my two visits.

But new times bring new challenges. I stopped the Rath of the Clan to take my “after” photo of the before-and-after pair. Across the road was this other hill. The Family and my nieces climbed up it as I took photos. There is now a graveyard on top. The community that uses it has newly settled across this landscape. You can see a sign of the development in the second photo of the apple-core-hill: power-lines cross this area now, bringing electricity to the new blocks of houses. Human growth also brings problems of deforestation, but it is a slower problem. It gives us time to talk and discover ways to minimize damage. At least the hills now remain. There is a small hope for improvement, but it is a new hope.

Life in Sohra, remembered

Five years ago we spent a single night in Sohra, and regretted that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. The town was a small and charming place, and the single hotel was a traditional cottage perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a village and a valley below that. A walk to the nearest living bridge would take us through the village.

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When engineered structures are living objects, it was appropriate that the place was teeming with life. In one night I probably saw more species of moths, beetles, and other insects than I remembered seeing in the rest of my life. The most interesting was the stick insect, the first I’d ever seen. I had a hard time figuring out where the third pair of legs of this insect was. Note how often a moth has a substantially smaller insect nearby. I wished I had a microscope attachment to look at these millimeter sized living creatures. The insects that I photographed were strange and beautiful. I’m sure that stranger and equally beautiful things would emerge if we could zoom into these smaller beings.

The post has the word “remembered”, because I went back now to a place I was enchanted by. There is construction all across Sohra. I saw no moths this time around. This ties in with a recent report of a worldwide decline in insects. It is shocking because Meghalaya is at the edge of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. A decline in insect population drives a collapse in plants, and animals higher in the food chain.

Ecology destroyed for an “Eco Park”

In Sohra one morning five years ago, The Family went off on a trek down a steep slope to see a living root bridge. I gave up on that walk quickly and asked Raju to suggest an alternative. He suggested a short drive to a point where there was a good view of Bangladesh. We parked on the road, and then followed a narrow track through overgrown bushes and around a thicket of trees to reach the edge of a cliff.

The Shillong plateau fell into the plains of Bangladesh below us. There was a sturdy fence at the edge of the cliff. Raju and I leaned on it and looked down at the enchanting landscape of the country of shifting waters. British imperialism had created a disaster here, and, in ebbing, left a permanent scar in the form of borders which cut off both Raju and me from our ancestral homes. Neither of us knew Bangladesh as anything more than grandmothers’ tales and old songs, genocide in a generation-old war, and tales of floods and natural calamities. It was a typical early winter morning in Sohra, overcast and foggy one moment, clear ten minutes later. In the hazy distance we could see a braiding of rivers, and no sign of humanity except for forests cleared for agriculture.

Before we left I spotted several species of butterflies. The common sailer (Neptis hylas, featured photo) was everywhere in this area, as were several species of tigers. I took my first photo of a red lacewing, Cethosia biblis, here (photo above). I did not realize then that the part I paid little attention to, the trees and the tumble of bushes, would not be here when I came back. My only record of that ecosystem full of butterflies, insects, and the birds which feed on them, are the few photos where the vegetation is the background.

Five years later, after some of the clan had left for the same trek that took The Family away that long-ago morning, the rest of us piled into the Rath of the Clan and the driver took us to an “Eco Park”. This was exactly the same place. The vegetation had been totally cleared. Now there was a large parking lot full of vehicles, a gate and tickets to see a leveled field of bare earth at the edge of which was the same fence where Raju and I had stood and tried to spot villages in Bangladesh. There was a desultory attempt to make a garden here with marigold and rose bushes. There were no trees, no butterflies, no birds, but an amazingly large number of humans and shops.

A fellow blogger who grew up in Shillong has been shadowing the blogs of my trip through Meghalaya, and, through her comments, adding a very welcome perspective. In one of her comments she said that she hoped that Meghalaya would follow Sikkim in developing tourism, not Darjeeling. Unfortunately, this “Eco park” was Darjeeling transplanted to Sohra, destroying precisely what people earlier came here to see. Five years ago, as we walked back to the car, Raju pointed out to me an underground stream which you could see through an opening in the rocks. He recommended the water for its taste and coolness. The opening was now covered with an iron grille, and the rocks around it were littered with empty packaging, the detritus of civilization.

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.

Likai’s Leap

Evening was falling when we reached Nohkalikai waterfall five years ago. Thick clouds had descended over the waterfall. When we walked up to it all we could hear was the thunder of water in India’s tallest waterfall. The 340 meter drop would have been a wonderful sight, but the sound was impressive enough. We had tea in a stall nearby and waited for the fog to lift. I kept my hand in by taking photos of a work gang tarring the road. Later I would read the tragic legend of Likai, gory enough to rival Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The fog did not lift, and we never managed to go back. Sometimes the journey is all you have.

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.

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?