As a child, geography was my favourite subject and memorising trivia was my pasttime on summer nights when power-cuts were common. My mother would ask me, “Which is the wettest place on earth?” and I would enjoy saying Cherrapunjee — enunciating the lyrical syllables filled with mystery. Now years later, I was in the Northeastern state of Meghalaya, driving from Shillong to Cherrapunjee (which by now had been unseated by neighbouring Mawsynram). When this state was carved out in 1972, it was called Meghalaya or the abode of the clouds referring to a geographical phenomenon where the monsoon clouds move unhindered over the Bangladesh plains and hit the Khasi hills, funnelling up the deep valleys and gorges, bringing heavy rain. I had expected a land plagued by rain and instead had arrived in the dry season when the parched terrain has earned it its peculiar moniker — ‘the wettest desert’!
My driver, Bado, is Khasi, belonging to a matrilineal tribe where woman power is stellar and property passes to the youngest daughter. Khasis are mostly Christians — the result of the work of Welsh Christian missionaries who came here in British times. The road to Cherrapunjee (locally called Sohra) is winding through vast, barren stretches of land and towering cliffs dotted with waterfalls. Yellow, overcrowded tourist jeeps and cement trucks move adroitly avoiding potholes and roadblocks with élan. We pass tiny villages; miles away from civilisation, with small houses built from bamboo and perched on stilts on the steep slopes.
Strips of meat hang from clotheslines and rows of yellow corn strung like garlands dance from the eaves of homes. Women with their babies bundled up on their backs, dressed in a colourful tartan wrap called the Jansiem, do their work unhindered by responsibilities. Everyone’s lips are red, thanks to the constant chewing of kwai — paan or betel leaf with a mixture of lime and areca nut — which has a mild intoxicating effect. All along the way there is quarrying, mining of limestone and coal, denuding the land forever. Large-scale deforestation and the failure to harness rain water have given rise to an irony — the wettest place on earth has water shortage. Women carrying pots of water over long distances is a common sight as we drive past. Moss-coated crosses marking burial sites jut out of the bald hills, providing a surreal backdrop to our drive.
The British used Cherrapunjee as their summer capital but the incessant rain and many suicides by British officers, perhaps fuelled by the bleak landscape and the inclement weather, made them shift their operations to Shillong in 1866. The 19th Century Welsh missionary Thomas Jones is revered in these parts. “He was the one who gave our Khasi language a script,” says Bado. I drive past gunny bags of bay leaves lying carelessly on roadsides, waiting to be picked up by trucks, to the austere Presbyterian Church in Nongsawlia, the first church of Meghalaya, established in 1848. There is plenty of Welsh influence even today in this area, evident from the lace curtains on the windows to the hymns sung in the church. Bado takes me to Mawsmai village where Stonehenge-like monoliths called mawbynnas (huge rocks) are erected in memory of the ancestors. There is no ornamentation, just rough hewn chunks of craggy rocks like lonely sentinels. Close by are the Mawsmai caves, the only completely-lit caves in the State. Meghalaya has more than a thousand caves, many of them not charted or even explored. The caves are located in a sacred grove or Ki Law Adong, one of the many in Meghalaya. For centuries, locals have been prohibited from plucking flowers or felling trees or even removing a leaf. I explore the rugged caves with narrow passages, spooky reflections, shallow waters and ducking at many places to avoid low hanging stalactites. A million colours bounce off the walls and ceilings and calcium deposits twinkle like stars in a galaxy.
Cherrapunjee is the land of legends. The locals weave tales of sorrowful maidens and fierce giants with mountains, rocks and waterfalls. The spectacular Nohkalikai falls is fronted by stalls selling orange honey; cinnamon strung together carelessly and bundles of aromatic bay leaf. The falls is linked to a legend about a local woman, who after a family tragedy jumped off the cliff next to the falls. Furious even in the dry season, I imagine how it would be in the monsoons. A short drive away is the peculiar Koh Ramhah, a conical knoll, resembling an upturned typical Khasi basket or Koh. Legend has it that a giant, tired after his hard day’s work, left his basket on the ledge.
I drive down to Cherrapunjee Resorts to meet the owner Denis Rayan, who I have heard was responsible for ‘discovering’ the famous living roots, the bridges that natives built out of the roots of ficus trees. These bridges made out of the secondary roots stretched through the trunk of the betel nut tree are great feats of bio-engineering — strong and resilient, capable of withstanding the heavy rainfall. The road to the resort is winding, overlooking gorges and the faraway plains of Bangladesh and lined with bright yellow signs with references to the weather and being environment-friendly. We reach the resort finally but I have bad news: Denis Rayan had to go away to a friend’s funeral and will be back only the next day. I resign myself to a leisurely lunch and look down at the village of Laitkynsew and wonder about this man who came away from banking in Madurai, married a Khasi woman and plunged himself into eco-tourism and promoting the living root bridges. It has a kind of end-of-the world feel to it, which is strange but enjoyable…