Wednesday, November 12, 2014

North of Northeast – Part II

After a rather tiring day of air travel, I manage to get a good night’s sleep and find myself refreshingly fresh and fully woken up around 5 AM itself in the morning. I slide the curtains provided on the solitary window in my hotel room slightly and have a look outside. It is surprising to see that at such an early hour, the dawn has already broken through the darkness of the night. I realise though, that my watch, showing Indian standard time, is actually slow by at least an hour, when compared with the local time at Shillong. The sun rises in Shillong about an hour earlier, compared to my home town Pune, because it is situated so much in the east. With local time and Indian standard time differing so much, there are anomalies such as sunrise at 5.30 AM and sun setting at 4.30 PM. What is really needed is to have an eastern Indian standard time, something similar to what they have in the US, where east and west coasts have different standard times. But with the bureaucratic set up of mind of the federal Government in Delhi, who cares if people living in some far away parts of country, face practical difficulties such as schools and offices closing well past sunset.

I get ready and after a sumptuous breakfast, get out in the warm late morning sun. The weather is crisp cool, extremely pleasant and reminds me of the winter weather in my home town Pune. The hotel courtyard is nicely designed with number of flowering shrubs and orchids having been planted all around. Some of the shrubs are blooming and the camera enthusiasts from our group get clicking. Soon it is the time to move on our first day's sight seeing.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state of India, is a charming city with a population that touches just about one hundred and fifty thousand. This city, located amongst the "Khasi" hills of Meghalaya, with an average altitude of about 5000 feet, is more like a hill station, with almost all the major roads laid along steep climbs and slopes. I am much reminded of the downtown area of San Francisco city. The city appears quite clean and well maintained. I can see wicker baskets placed on steel frames mounted on the footpaths for garbage collection. The city appears to have a large vehicle population though, as we encounter traffic jams almost on every street corner. A military cantonment is located right in the middle of the city and one needs to crisscross it all the time while travelling within the city. I am reminded of having read somewhere that Shillong is called Scotland of the east, because of its rolling hills. Since, I have never been to Scotland I can not vouch for it, but I like it nevertheless.

Our first destination is what is known as "Shillong peak," a misnomer really. It is just the top of a small hillock having an altitude of 6500 feet. The road, leaving the main city, starts climbing up almost immediately after,and the scenario undergoes a sudden change. I can see lush green foliage at many places with pine and other connifers in abundance with their needle like leaves.I do not see any cones on the trees as yet. In fact this entire hillock appears covered with lush green foliage. More than half of the Shillong peak hillock is occupied by the Indian air force with their Eastern Air Command headquarters built on one side. A huge radar antenna looms on the top of the hill. The tourists still can go to the top of the hillock and see the views but only towards northern direction. It is nevertheless a wonderful drive up and I enjoy every mile of it. On one of the sharp bends, a tree is in full bloom with pinkish white flowers. From the distance, it appears as striking as a blossoming Cherry tree. We are stopped at an entry gate and the drivers are needed to get their names registered with air force authorities. We move on, with even thicker and bigger pine groves, appearing on road sides. We take a sharp bend and finally arrive at the parking ground on the top.

The authorities have built two observation towers that look towards north with winding staircases. I climb to the top of one of them and have a panoramic view of the Shillong city. Far beyond the city and towards northwest, I see a huge reservoir of water, gleaming and shining in late morning sun. The waters are of a huge lake, that supplies water to Shillong and is called "Bada Pani" or huge water. I am not much impressed with the view from the observation tower though, which I feel is quite ordinary. What is far more interesting is a cluster of 9 or 10 shops on hilltop selling curios, souvenirs and odd ethanic things like hats, caps, scarves and shawls.

Everyone in the group, crowds around the shops. One of the shops lets on hire, tribal traditional Khasi clothing, worn by Khasi men and womenfolk. Soon we have 15 or so, ladies from our group, dressed in long black skirts, red blouses and a bright yellow cloth draped around with beaded strings worn around their necks. One of our energetic young male member also dresses himself in a male tribal dress consisting of a red dhoti, black short coat and a brightly coloured red turban complete with a sword and a shield. It is an interesting sight, photo opportunity and great fun for everyone. Rest of us get busy in clicking the snaps. I buy for myself a hat and then spend rest of the time looking for odd stuff displayed in the shops. We are served freshly cut pineapple pieces, which taste quite nice and go well with the upbeat mood of the group.

We move on to our next destination for the day; the elephant falls, which are located roughly about 8 or 10 Km from the "Shillong peak." There is nothing even remotely elephantine about the fall, which is just a large impresive waterfall with water falling in three short steps. The name was given to it by the Britishers, because they imagined that a rock near the falls resembled an elephant. However this elephant shaped rock was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897 and now only the name remains. The original "Khasi" tribal name for the falls perhaps describes it correctly as a three step fall. Our flotilla of cars stops at a parking lot near top of the falls. From here it is a climb down to the bottom and then climbing all the way up.

At the first glance, elephant falls look like a manicured city garden; well cut steps in the rock on a side of the falls, tubular steel railings for support, while climbing and going down. They even have a small bridge across the falls, to approach the side steps that have been cut on the other side of the fall. The water falls in three steps in a disciplined fashion on a well defined course controlled by concrete walls on sides. Just about a month back, I had visited some natural waterfalls at “Thoseghar” near my home town. Compared to those falls, elephant falls look like a domesticated animal; no hint of raging, wild behaviour, There is no wilderness at all here.
Nevertheless, I walk down all the way to the bottom. From here the falls look fairly impressive.

There are a few souvenir shops here too, on the side of the parking lot near the top of the falls. Ladies from our group, again get themselves engrossed in shopping. After climbing back, I sip some nicely brewed hot "masala" tea served by a local woman and relax for a while. Finally, it’s the time to move on again.

Our next stop, 70 Km away, is at "Sohra" town; commonly known as "Cherrapunji." It is one of the wettest places on the surface of earth. In preparation, I have been carrying a raincoat with me just in case the downpour starts during the visit. We take state highway 5 leading to the south. The road appears to be in moderately good conditions, however I keep seeing scores of landsides on both sides of the road with huge, yellowish brown tinged, large sized boulders strewn around with heaps of clay of similar hue.

I feel confused about the landslide theory as how can there be so many of them on a short patch of road. Then I see some of the trucks ferrying on the road. They all carry either sand, gravel or cut and chiselled stone bricks. It is obvious that quarrying is being done here on a huge scale probably to feed the construction activity in the area. Seeing the colour of the boulders and the gravel, I get a feeling that they are probably limestones or sandstones. However a lady in our group, who is a geologist, confirms that the stones are actually of a special variety of granite known to geologists as Gneiss.

According to wikipedia, Gneiss is a common and widely distributed type of rock formed by high-grade regional metamorphic processes from pre-existing formations that were originally either igneous or sedimentary rocks. It is often foliated (composed of layers of sheet-like planar structures). So much so for the Geology, what is important to me is that these are granites. Soon the landscape changes with the lush foliage of pine and conifers all disappearing as we reach the plateau, on which "Sohra" town is located. The land is all barren now with just a few shrubs growing that too at some spots only. The plateau however is not flat or a tableland. There are series of small hillocks, almost of half-round shape, around. I was expecting plenty of vegetation, considering the fact that this place gets an average rainfall that is in the vicinity of 10000 mm every year. However surprisingly the landscape is devoid of any big trees. All that I can see around are some shrubs and grass that is yellowing. This perhaps is due to fact that rainfall in the months of November to January is minimal here. There is no chance of rain today also. This means that we would miss to experience the famed “Cherrapunji” showers.

The cars stop near an impressive building that houses the "Ramkrishna Mission School." This school was founded in 1924 by Swami Prabhanandji of Ramkrishna order, who was inspired by the prophetic message of SwamiVivekananda. We are here however not to visit the school, but to visit a small anthropological museum that consists of just two large rooms on the first floor. I climb the stairs overlooking the courtyard of the school and a giant statue of Swami Vivekananda. The museum hosts a fairly large number of exhibits that concern the tribal people of Meghalaya; the Khasi, the Garo and the Jaintia tribes. Their traditional clothes, the gadgets and appliances manufactured by them mainly from bamboo and used by them for catching fish, smoking tobacco leaves, playing music are all nicely displayed along with lots of anthropological information. Models of typical tribal houses and villages of these three tribes also find a place. I however find that it is virtually impossible to remember much of what I am seeinghere, because photography is prohibited for unknown reasons and can only mention my general observations. I see number of old ladies selling Cinnamon pieces and bay leafs found in the forests in the valleys outside of the school buildings for tourists like us.

We continue with our southward journey till we reach almost the end of the plateau ending into a deep valley with almost vertically cut rock faces. In fact, this kind of geographical situation is the basic reason for "Cherrapunji" to get all that world beating rainfall. The monsoon clouds from the Bay of Bengal, fly unhindered over the plains of Bangladesh, before they hit the Khasi hills. The rains push the clouds up to the height of more than 4000 feet through the deep valleys on the "cherrapunji plateau" and cause extreme rainfall here. I find that the phenomenon exactly similar to what happens on Western Ghat mountains in Western India.

There is a small restaurant near the cliff face and we have hot lunch here, which turns out to be quite enjoyable in the given setting. Just ahead of us is one of the major attractions of "Cherrapunji;" The Nohkalikal falls. After lunch, I walk to the edge of the cliff, where nice observation galleries have been built. I see in front of me a deep valley, almost semi-circular in shape, the bare cliff faces cut off in straight vertical lines and are devoid of any vegetation. Near the top of the cliffs, on the lower side and everywhere else, there is plenty of thick green foliage. Around the middle point of the semi-circular cliff top, a huge stream of water suddenly bursts out of the foliage and falls hopelessly down to a height of 1115 feet and crashes in a pond at the bottom, creating a cloud of mist. This water plunge is tallest in India and fourth tallest in the world. I stand near the cliff face, totally mesmerized by the fury and anguish of the falling water. It is wilderness at it's best. Local tribes associate with the fall, a gory tale of a young woman, who had jumped off the falls and has given her name to the fall.

There is another observation point at a lower level with paved steps. The view from here is even better. I take few snaps and reluctantly realise that its now the time to move on. I am back to the parking ground and we motor further in southern direction still keeping to the plateau. We are actually going along a circuitous route along the edge of the plateau. Our driver tells me about another water fall on way called "Seven sisters fall," but adds that there is no water there in the fall. From there we start moving northwards and enter a densly wooded area known as Ecological park, signalling that the "Sohra plateau" has perhaps ended. The road is also known as "Sohra-Shella road." 

The cars stop near a vista point with a slightly rusted board on display, which describes the place as "Kho Ramhah or Mow Trop." As I stand on the age of the cliff, directly in front of me is a natural wonder; a monolith rock formation approximately 200 feet high that resembles a huge upturned conical wicker basket used by Khasi people. It is a sight worth seeing no doubt, but what interests me more is what I see lying beyond the rock and ahead almost stretched to the horizon.

Roughly a thousand feet below, the hills end abruptly and a vast stretch of flatland with scores of lakes, small and big, and all interspaces filled with wetland marshes and lush green paddy fields stretches to the horizon. This is the Sylhet province of Bangladesh and seems to contain every possible shade of green. I can see the Indian border fence about 30 or 40 Km away as a sharp black line through my binoculars from this height. It was in this area, where Indian Army's first heliborne troops had attacked between 7th and 15th December 1971, against the Pakistani defences during Bangladesh liberation war. The scenario before me is so spell binding that I have to be reminded that we need to move on.

We continue our southwards journey and soon reach the last bit of today's sightseeing plan; The Mawsmai cave. To venture into unknown dark world of a cave is not exactly my piece of cake, but I have seen at least one of them earlier. I can recollect a visit to Luray Caverns in the state of Virginia in US, where weird shapes formed by dripping water containing Stalagmites and Stalactites surround you. The Mawsmai cave is a typical example of this type but is of very short length;just 150 meters. Our cars stop at a huge parking ground and we climb a short flight of steps lost in dark dense foliage, to face the mouth of the cave. The cave has a spacious opening and is well lit with electric lights and I can see the weird rock shapes hanging from the ceiling and formed on the wall. I am in two minds, whether to proceed, because of the severe foot pain and a general constrain on my left leg movement, because of a flat foot problem that has developed since last several weeks. I enter the cave and proceed for about 20 or 25 feet inside the cave. But the cave is now squeezed into a small neck. The cave also haapens to be a one way road and in the middle region, there are places, where you've to bend and squeeze yourself out. Considering the state of my left leg, I become accutely aware that probably I may not be able to make it as at number of places the cave bottom is quite slippery. I finally give up and return back the same way I had entered. It is no doubt a disappointment but there really was no chance of my completing the journey through just of 150 meters.

Its dusk already and a hot cup of tea welcomes me at the point from where I had started for the cave. We start back for Shillong and reach there right at dinner time. Somewhere on the way, the rain catches with us with a blinding fury. There was no rain at Cherrapunji, where I was expecting it. I keep wondering about the vagaries of nature. However, back at the hotel, It is  the time for a warm dinner and bedtime as the night had already turned chilly.

( To be continued)

12th November 2014

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