MeghalayaGeography & ClimateHistory & PeopleCuisineCultureGetting ThereWhen To GoPlaces of Interest

There are many places here that are referred to as paradise on earth, pockets around the world that have remained untouched, unspoiled by urban chaos, the last vestiges of how God had perhaps imagined humanity living in peace with nature. But there are few places that are perched in the great skies above, quite literally, the closest man can reach seventh heaven.

Meghalaya sits amid fluffy, puffy clouds. Its location is embedded in its name: Abode of the Clouds. This little state carved out of the large state of Assam in the northeastern part of India is a journey into the clouds. It is the land where time has stood still, where the noise and daily rigmarole of life on a treadmill are unknown, where every moment can be savoured, experienced and remembered. It is a land where life begins.

It is a state of calm, a place of bliss and a treasure worth seeking.

Geography

Meghalaya is a hilly strip in the eastern part of the country about 300 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide, with a total area of about 22,720 square km. The state is bounded on the north by Assam and by Bangladesh on the south. The capital is Shillong. It was previously part of Assam, but on January 21, 1972, the districts of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills became the new state of Meghalaya.

Now one of the Seven Sister States of India, Meghalaya consists mainly of Archean rock formations. These rock formations contain rich deposits of valuable minerals like coal, limestone, uranium and sillimanite. A land of heavy rainfall, Meghalaya’s many rivers are mostly rainfed and therefore seasonal. The important rivers in the Garo Hills region are Daring, Sanda, Bandra, Bhogai, Dareng, Simsang, Nitai and the Bhupai. In the central and eastern section of the plateau, the important rivers are Umkhri, Digaru, Umiam, Kynchiang (Jadukata), Mawpa, Umiam or Barapani, Myngot and Myntdu. In the southern Khasi Hills region, these rivers have created deep gorges and several beautiful waterfalls.

The elevation of the plateau ranges between 150 m to 1961 m, with the highest elevations being in the central part of the plateau comprising the Khasi Hills. This is followed by the eastern section comprising the Jaintia Hills. The highest point in Meghalaya is Shillong Peak, also a prominent Indian Air Force station in the Khasi Hills overlooking the city of Shillong. It has an altitude of 1,961 m. The Garo Hills Region in the western section of the plateau is nearly plain. The highest point in the Garo Hills is Nokrek Peak with an altitude of 1,515 m.

About one third of the state is forested. The Meghalaya subtropical forests ecoregion encompasses the state and are considered to be among Asia’s richest botanical habitats; its mountain forests are distinct from the lowland tropical forests to the north and south. The forests of Meghalaya are notable for their biodiversity of mammals, birds and plants. A small portion of the forest area in Meghalaya is under what is known as “sacred groves”. These are small pockets of ancient forest that have been preserved by the communities for hundreds of years due to religious and cultural beliefs and continue to be reserved for religious rituals and generally remain protected from any exploitation. These sacred groves harbour many rare plant and animal species. The Nokrek Biosphere Reserve in the West Garo Hills and the Balaphakram National Park in the South Garo Hills are considered to be the most biodiversity-rich sites in Meghalaya. In addition, the state has three wildlife sanctuaries – the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary, the Siju Sanctuary and the Bhagmara Sanctuary, not surprising given the rich variety of fauna that calls this state their home. The important mammal species include elephants, bear, civets, mongooses, weasels, rodents, gaur, wild buffalo, deer, wild boar and a number of primates. Meghalaya also has a large variety of bats. The limestone caves in the state such as the Siju Cave are home to some of the nation’s rarest bat species. There is an interesting population of red pandas in Garo Hills. The state has a remnant population of wild water buffaloes in South Garo and West Khasi hills.

Winged wonders too cannot be left behind, with a stunning variety of birds flying around the state. Meghalaya is also home to over 250 butterfly species, which accounts for over a quarter of all species found in India.

Meghalaya’s landscape as far as the eyes can see, would be stretches and stretches of rolling hills, bright green forest cover and undulating mountains. Not for nothing did the British call this the Scotland of the East.

Climate

Think climate and the thing that immediately comes to mind when you think of Meghalaya is Cheerapunji, the place that receives the highest amount of rainfall in the world. Given this splashy debut in the consciousness of people, you’d imagine that Meghalaya too is perpetually under a rain cloud. That, however, is not the case.

The state enjoys a temperate climate and it is directly influenced by the Southwest monsoon and the northeast winter winds. The state has the usual four seasons – Spring from March and April; Summer (the month of the monsoons) from May to September; Autumn in October and November; and Winter from December to February.

The monsoon usually starts by the third week of May and continues right to the end of September, sometimes well into the middle of October. Maximum rainfall occurs over the southern slopes of the Khasi Hills, which receives the heaviest rainfall in the world. The average rainfall in the state is 12,000 mm, giving it the dubious dictinction of being the wettest place on earth. The western part of the plateau, comprising the Garo Hills Region with lower elevations, experiences high temperatures for most of the year. The capital, Shillong, with the highest elevations, experiences generally low temperatures. The maximum temperature in this region rarely goes beyond 28 °C, whereas sub-zero winter temperatures are common.

History

Even for such an old land, Meghalaya is young; in fact, it is younger than most other states, formed as it was only in 1972, when two districts from the state of Assam, the united Khasi and Jaintia hills, and the Garo Hills were carved out to form a new state on January 21 of that year. Prior to attaining full statehood, Meghalaya was given semi-autonomous status in 1970. In 1971, the Parliament passed the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganization) Act, 1971, which conferred full statehood on the Autonomous State of Meghalaya. And so began the life of a new Indian state, complete with a legislative assembly of its own.

The Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia tribes each had their own kingdoms until they came under British administration in the 19th century. Later, the British incorporated Meghalaya into Assam in 1835. The region enjoyed semi-independent status by virtue of a treaty relationship with the British Crown.

When Bengal was partitioned on 16 October 1905 by Lord Curzon, Meghalaya became a part of the new province of what was then known as Eastern Bengal and Assam. However, when the partition was reversed in 1912, Meghalaya was absorbed into Assam.

On January 3, 1921, in pursuance of Section 52A of the Government of India Act of 1919, the Governor-General-in-Council declared the areas now in Meghalaya, other than the Khasi States, as “backward tracts”. Subsequently, however, the Government of India Act of 1935 regrouped the backward tracts into two categories, “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas.

At the time of Indian independence in 1947, present-day Meghalaya constituted two districts of Assam and enjoyed limited autonomy within the state of Assam.

People

The main ethnic communities that make up the demographic fabric of Meghalaya have their own distinctive customs and cultural traditions. The different groups that people the state include the Khasis of the Mon-Khmer ancestry who live in the east and west Khasi hills, the Garos of Tibeto-Burman origin found in the east and west Garo hills, and the Jaintias believed to be from southeast Asia and inhabiting the Jaintia hills. Though different, there is a common factor binding the three communities – the matrilineal system, in which the family linage is taken from the mother’s side and the immovable property of the deceased, is inherited by females, especially the youngest daughter.

Meghalaya is mainly a Christian-dominated state with many members of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo communities having converted to Christianity and one can see a number of churches as well as temples, mosques, gurudwaras and monasteries in Meghalaya. But before the immigration of the Christian missonaries in Meghalaya in the late 19th century AD and later, most inhabitants followed tribal religions.

Distinctive and disparate, with different traditions and diverse customs, the one fact that is universal among the people of Meghalaya is their hospitable, cheerful and friendly nature, which will be experienced first hand by visitors to this ‘state of clouds’.

Meghalaya’s staple food comprises rice along with fish or meat preparations. The main food crops grown in the state are rice and maize. Fruits too are an important part of the state cuisine and many varieties are grown here including oranges, guava, pineapples, bananas and lemon.

Apart from rice and maize, local food also includes liberal doses of millet and tapioca, as well as meat such as goat, pork, duck and fowl. Game too is relished by the people, like that of bison, deer and wild pigs (a la Obelix anyone?). Fish, crabs, eels, prawns and dry fish also form a major part of the diet.

Moreover, the people of Meghalaya practise jhum cultivation; the yields from these jhum fields form a integral item in the food of Meghalaya.

As far as imbibing liquids is concerned, Meghalaya boasts its very own, home-brewed beer. A special kind of beer prepared by fermenting the rice, and then distilling it is a popular alcoholic beverage. The use of this rice-beer is most prevalent during the various religious ceremonies.

The culture at Meghalaya, with its genesis and evolution, is an aspect that attracts most of the tourists towards Meghalaya. The Khasis, Garos and Jaintias all come from a rich heritage, one that they have kept alive well into the 21st century. The important crafts of the Khasi and the Jaintia districts are artistic weaving, wood-carving and cane and bamboo work including poker work (in which designs are burnt into the bamboo with a red-hot pointed rod). Carpet and silk weaving and the making of clay toys, dolls and musical instruments, jewellery and pineapple fibre articles are the lesser-known crafts. Basket making, winnowing fans, the typical Jaintia fishing traps are other known crafts. The popular art of the state includes Dakmandes, Jympien and Ka Jainsem Dhara.

Meghalaya is also the home of music and dances. The dances are associated with their festivals or seasons and can be enjoyed through out the year and are generally held out in the open air.

The music of the state evolved down the ages echoes with the history and tradition of its people. The Garos usually sing folk songs relating to birth, festivals, marriage, love and heroic deeds sung to the beat of various types of drums and flutes. The Khasis and Jaintias are generally fond of songs about nature. Songs are accompanied by different types of musical instruments like drums, duitara and instruments similar to guitar, flutes, pipes and cymbals are also played.

The traditional dances of Meghalaya are:

Nongkrem dance

Nongkrem Dance is a religious festival held in thanksgiving to God for good harvest, peace and prosperity of the community. It is held annually during October – November, at Smit, the capital of the Khyrim Syiemship near Shillong.

Shad Suk Mynsiem

This is a colourful thanksgiving festival celebrated during the spring season all over Khasi Hills. The locals dressed in traditional and colourful costumes participate in the dance, which is accompanied by drums and pipes called tangmuri, the queen of musical instruments.

Behdienkhlam

Behdienkhlam is celebrated annually in the monsoon season in the month of July after the sowing period. It is the most important dance festival of the Jaintias. The festival is primarily to invoke the blessings of the Creator for a good harvest and to drive away disease and plague.

Wangala

A major festival of the Garos, celebrated during autumn after the harvesting season. The festival includes propitiation ceremonies to the deity Patigipa Rarongipa and is held in every village. It is followed by other rituals for four days and nights, accompanied by dancing and merriment. It culminates in the warrior’s dance – the Dance of a Hundred Drums – on the final day which is a spectacular sight.

By Air:

The state has no airport and the nearest one is in Assam’s capital Guwahati, which is 128 km from Shillong. From Guwahati, you can get to Shillong on a helicopter, a service provided for in Guwahati and Tura as well.

By Rail:

Again, the state has no railway station of its own, with Guwahati having the nearest one.

By Road:

Meghalaya has a good road network which encompasses the entire state. NH 40 connects the state with Guwahati and other cities of the country.

Foreign tourists need a valid visa which can be further extended while Indian tourists need not obtain any permit for entry.

While rains generally may dissuade visitors from venturing into rain-soaked areas, Meghalaya must be visited during the months of March to July. The rainfall in this cloud covered state should be seen to be experienced. There is no place on earth that can give you a similar sense of walking in the clouds, surrounded by lush wet foliage, a paradise on earth to be sure

Meghalaya India has many destinations that attract hordes of travellers.

Shillong: The capital of Meghalaya, Shillong, is marked with charming valleys, towering mountains and lush parks. Some of the famous destinations here include the Lady Hydari Park, Shillong Peak, Museum Of Entomology, Golf Links, waterfalls, And Ward’S Lake.

Cherapunjee: Known to get the maximum amount of rainfall in the world, this village is famous for the Nohsngithiang Falls.

Mawsynram: Situated about 56 km from Shillong, this place is known for the huge stalagmite creation shaped like a shivlinga and known as ‘Mawjymbuin’.

Jakrem: Famous for its hot water springs, Jakrem offers wonderful picnic and angling spots, like Nawphlang and Ranigodam.

Jowai: The gateway to the village of Nartiang, famous for its collection of ‘druid stones, Jowai is an amusement park. It also has a tribute to India’s independence struggle – a monument dedicated to the first freedom fighter hanged by the Britishers.

Adventure in Meghalaya
With its bountiful nature, Meghalaya offers a number of options for thrill-seekers.

Trekking: The treks are charming and sometimes challenging and take you through villages, up gently sloping hills, through meandering brookes and down valleys. Some important trekking routes are Weiloi to Umngi, Mawlyngot, Smit and Pynursla.

Caving: You will too when you take your first steps into the deep caves of the state. Caves like Siju, Syndai, Mawsynram, Mawsmai are mainly made of stalagmites and stalactites.

Golfing: It’s as modern as modern can be, but for the diehard golfer, Meghalaya doesn’t mean getting away from your favourite sport. The Shillong Golf Course, referred to as the ‘Gleneagle of the East’, boasts lush expanses and poses an adequate challe nge to golfers.

Archery: This traditional sport of Meghalaya has been an inseparable part of its culture and the festivals, with men and women being inherently skilled at weaving archery accessories.

Boating / Rafting: The wettest place on earth would most certainly offer water-based activities. Boat rides, water skiing and kayaking, water-scooters, cruise-boats, paddle-boats, row-boats and sailing boats are all available for tourists. The popular water sports destinations in Meghalaya are The Water Sports Complex, The Ward Lake and Thadlaskein Lake.

Camping and Biking: The treks of Meghalaya are perfect for biking and camping expeditions. The adventurers enjoy riding through the roads in the hills and spending a night out in a camp.

Angling: Anglers will most certainly take the bait here, in a state known for its many varieties of fish. Ranikor is the important site for angling. Golden Mahseer and Barbus Tor are of major interest for the anglers as are Boka, Sal, Trout or Korang and the Gorua or Goonch.