GETAWAY In the heart of the charming Khasi hills, MALAVIKA BHATTACHARYA finds a lake with a legend
The Khasi hills in Meghalaya, with their repository of waterfalls, caves and limestone formations, conceal within their reaches more than a few natural treasures. In keeping with the mystical allure of the region, many of these places abound in legend and folklore.
Khasi history is full of stories and mythology. Fables are passed down through generations, providing a fascinating backdrop to the sights in these misty hills.
Umiam Lake in the Ri Bhoi district of the East Khasi Hills is one such place, a popular site set in a quaint story. Situated 15 km north of Shillong along NH 40, the Guwahati-Shillong highway, is an expansive lake spread across a catchment area of 221.5 sq. km. Owing to its size, the lake is popularly known as Barapani, which literally translates into ‘big water’. It is the state’s largest artificial lake and a major source of fresh water fish for the region.
A serene alcove in the shadow of thick pine forests and gentle slopes, the lake has a lovely legend associated with it. The story goes that the lake was formed by the water of tears. ‘Um’ in Khasi translates into ‘water’, while ‘Umiam’ in essence means ‘water of the eyes’ or ‘water of tears.’ Some also say ‘Umiam’ translates into ‘crying river’ or ‘flood of tears’. Whatever the translation, the legend remains unchanged.
Once upon a time, two sisters from heaven decided to descend to the abode of clouds, Meghalaya. They began their journey together but ultimately only one sister reached Earth. The second sister was lost along the way. Consumed by grief for her lost sibling, the sister who reached Meghalaya shed tears enough to form a lake: the Umiam Lake.
In much less romantic reality, the lake is a man-made reservoir formed in 1965 when a dam was constructed on the River Umiam for the Umiam Umtru Hydro Electric Power project, the North-East’s first hydel power project. In fact, a part of the original Guwahati-Shillong road is now underwater, submerged after the construction of the dam. For over 40 years now, the lake has been an idyllic picnic spot for families and groups from nearby towns. Famous Shillong schools such as St.Edmund’s and Don Bosco have regularly brought students here for annual picnics.
Now, in an effort to boost tourism in this area, the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation is promoting Barapani as a tourist getaway. With pine forests fringing the water and a view of the undulating Khasi Hills, the locale has all the makings of a holiday hotspot. Water sports like kayaking and water skiing are on offer, along with boating and angling.
As the lone boat I was on chugged mildly towards the centre of Umiam Lake, the water skis and kayaks were conspicuous only by their absence. The water sports organisers had taken the day off and the silence was palpable on the day I had chosen to visit. The lake mirrored the surrounding hills, swathed in natural shades of green, brown and blue, concealing so many other legends of their own.
Reach Barapani via the Guwahati-Shillong national highway, approximately 15 km before Shillong when coming from Guwahati and Jorabhat
MTDC runs the Orchid Lake Resort (www.meghalayatourism.org) in Barapani, designed by Charles Correa
Ri Kynjai (www.rikynjai.com) with cottages designed like Khasi huts is one of the state’s first spa resorts