I had written this during my memorable journey to Meghalaya in February, 2008.
It was early February and my exams had just got over. Exams had gone well, but as usual; I never hoped for good results (and they never happen either). It had been a great semester. I reached home on 5th Feb. Baba (dad) had planned a trip to Assam & Meghalaya, starting from 6th Feb.
We reached Kolkata, early in the morning; on the 7th of Feb. Our train to Guwahati was at 4 in the evening so we had almost the whole day. Baba decided to take us to Belur Math.
Situated on the banks of Hugli (a distributary of Ganges), Belur math was the place where the Ramakrishna Mission was established in the late 19th century. This is where Swami Vivekananda lived the last few years of his life and finally attained mahasamadhi. The atmosphere here is serene and peaceful. It was an honour to be in the place where the great saint and his disciples dwelt and meditated.
On 8th Feb, we reached Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Assam is quite similar to Bengal. The only major difference is that Assam is heavily guarded by BSF jawans, with a tight security system in place. The fact that my cell phone (BSNL prepaid) had no signal here; did not surprise me. Actually due to security reasons, prepaid phones are not allowed in Assam (and also other disturbed regions like Kashmir). Only post-paid cell phones with proper address proofs are used here. Thankfully, baba’s connection was the BSNL post-paid, offered to him by the Indian Railways. That evening we visited the famous Kamakhya temple. It is located on the top of a hill not very far from the River Brahmaputra. It’s always very crowded. The air smelt holy here. We were back by evening. Due to an important work, I happened to pay a visit to the railway station. The entrance was guarded by Army jawans & every passenger’s entry was monitored. They were being checked thoroughly (including luggage). I soon realized that there was another gate (mainly for parcels), which had been left completely unguarded, and a large number of people passed through these gates unchecked. I complained to the station manager with an authority of being a passenger and the son of chief division transportation inspector, Ranchi (karna padta hai). He responded immediately. 3 days later, when I passed through the same place (during my journey back home), I saw 2 guards stationed at those gates!!
The next morning, that is, on 9th we started for Shillong, Meghalaya; our next destination. It’s a three hours journey from Guwahati to Shillong. There are Tata Sumos and Indicas running to and fro, on this route at all times (except at night). I was disappointed to see that at the Assam-Meghalaya border, the guards usually let vehicles pass without a thorough check; on payment of bribes. On the brighter side, the cell phone’s signal was back and I was more than happy.
Now about Megahlaya, “The Abode of Clouds.” All I knew about the state was that it consists of three hills- Khasi, Garo and Jaintia, and that Cherrapunjee is the place with maximum rainfall in the world. I had expected Shillong to be a small town, judging by all the villages I passed through, on my journey to Shillong. I had assumed it to be heavenly and filled with clouds. I’m afraid it was not so…
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya and the capital of the undivided Assam, is like any other big city in India, with houses of a special type, for protection from heavy rains. Cars, especially Maruti 800 and Sumos are the public vehicles here. Very few people actually use motor cycles (obviously, it rains so much)! It was disheartening to see the beautiful valleys here littered with garbage and polythene bags. While searching for a hotel to stay; we met a cab wala, who was being very friendly. He offered to help us in our hunt for good hotel. A suspicious Baba drove him away. We boarded in a hotel and after freshening up, when we left for site-seeing, we ran into the same cab wala. He offered his services and after all the price negotiations, baba agreed.
The cab wala, Raja, was a pure Khasi, i.e., he was a native of the Khasi hills and belonged to the Khasi tribe. The old churches here, in Shillong, were a great sight to behold. On our way to the Shillong peak, Raja explained that Shillong and most other parts of Meghalaya, were under the surveillance of the BSF jawans and proudly exclaimed that it Meghalaya, in fact, was a very peaceful state. Men here are mainly farmers growing Potato, Carrot, Radish, and Paddy; or do other laborious work (driving, manual labour); and women in the family run small shops or help their husband in the fields. I was amazed to know that women here head the families and that the husband adopts the wife’s surname after marriage. Also the youngest daughter inherits the family property. Raja also told me that during their crop harvesting festival, the virgins from the family offered their souls to the nature God. Later in the day, we paid a visit to the museum, where the diversity among the three major tribes here- Khasi, Garo and Jaintia was on display. Raja also had a lot to tell us about Shillong, that was the capital of the undivided Assam. During the 1972 split, when Meghalaya was formed, Guwahati was made the capital of Assam. A view of the city from the top of Shillong peak was a patch work of small houses and army barracks. I must admit that Shillong is much larger than Ranchi.
People here are very generous and patriotic. They worship the INA (Indian National Army) Jawans and idolise Subhash Chandra Bose. I must quote here that Netaji, with his Azad Hind Fauj had entered India through the north east. Great men like Victor Banerjee (a great Bengali and English actor) and Arundhati Roy are from this very state. People in Meghalaya are a witness to the Bangladesh war of 1972 and are deeply patriotic. The young generation of Shillong loves low waist jeans, ironically. There is a big stadium (Jawaharlal Nehru stadium) for Rock concerts & Sports here. There are many schools and colleges, quite a lot of them built during the British rule. Many Don Bosco institutions provide educational services to the people. They include a school, a degree college and a training institute. The St. Mary College for girls is also among other notable institutions. There is a golf course, where mainly Army and Air force officers enjoy their moments of peace and luxury. There is also a huge Air force base here which boasts of a radar, a set of helipads and also an air force museum.
Our next visit was to the Elephant falls or three step falls (water flows down in 3 huge steps). By 4:30, Raja had brought us back to the hotel in his Maruti 800 cab. Here we planned our trip for the next day, to Cherrapunjee. By evening, it was absolutely cold, unlike Guwahati. By 8, all shops were shuttered close.
The next morning by 8, we had started for Cherrapunjee village, a 2 hrs journey from Shillong. The roads here are good and the weather was absolutely perfect, though cold. Raja explained how difficult it is to drive during rains. Raincoats are a must, he said, umbrellas would never stand the rough weather and heavy rains. Strange as it may sound, the hills here are made of either sand (yes, sand), or coal, or limestone, or rocks (obviously). Even Uranium is found here. The coals mines are privatized here (unlike Jharkhand). Needless to say, the army guards the Uranium mines here (the same is true at the Jharkhand- Rakhamines, near Jamshedpur as well).
Cherrapunjee is locally known as Sohra. The entrance to Cherrapunjee was marked by Ramakrishna Ashram, established in 1931. Now I don’t know why I have this strong affinity towards RK missions but this great institution in this corner of earth brought a big smile to my face. The land here seemed so dry. The grass was grey, or rather, not so green, and the same was the state of the jungles around. The waterfalls were huge (HUGE) but lacked water during this dry winter season. I could only imagine the volume of water that would flow down these falls during the monsoon. “When it rains heavily Shaabjee, the plains of Bangladesh are completely submerged”, Raja exclaimed with a Godly grin. From the top of the hills I could see the plains of Bangladesh, or at least, Raja claimed it was. Everyone here in Cherrapunjee knew Raja. They called him Raja Hindustani. He had been driving on these roads for the past 25 years and was an expert at his work. He was very lively and enthusiastic. I liked him and enjoyed his company. He told us a lot about his family. Both his parents had passed away. His wife learnt computers and at the same time she coached the kids in the neighbourhood. On the other hand he was not very educated and he knew very little English (though English is the commonly used script here).
Now the village Cherrapunjee, in fact all of Meghalaya is mainly described by clouds, rain, jungles, waterfalls (huge ones), caves, monoliths, the Army, patriotism and a women dominated society. Monoliths are huge rocks erected by the tribal people (mainly Jaintias) as a tribute to their ancestors. The caves of Cherrapunjee are another major tourist attraction. These caves; some of which were more than 150 metres long; were a natural wonder. The caves were very difficult to explore, especially for maa baba, but they enjoyed it. Since it was winter, the falls were dry and the forests, pale (hated it!). At the same time the caves were open and safe, transportation was easy, and we could enjoy the beauty of the place without being interrupted by clouds or rains (loved it!)
The churches (and old graveyards) that I saw here are worth a mention. They were beautiful, at times standing secluded, on the top of hillocks. The people here, mainly Hindus, often visited these churches. I saw portraits of Gautam Buddha and Jesus Christ in the Ramakrishna Mission. The spirit of secularism is truly ingrained in the minds of people here, and it touched my heart.
I saw some villages in deep valleys here. Raja said that it took the people, two hours of steep trekking to reach Cherrapunjee village (to purchase food and other items of daily necessity), and an equally long, tiring, dangerous journey back to the village. The village and the surrounding mountains looked so serene, so still; straight out of a painting. The people here had learned to patiently stare at the hills and rains for days at a stretch, without complaining. Girls here wore lungis and looked a lot more beautiful than the low waist types in Shillong.
Three important things I’d love to mention here are 108- the wheels of hope, the state elections and my short conversation with a group of BSF jawans here.
The emergency helpline number 108 is in heavy and consistent use here. “Police, Fire, Hospital- any emergency? Just give a call.” This was commonly seen on billboards in Guwahati, Shillong and even in Cherrapunji. Army jawans guard these wheels of hope.
On the day of my visit, the Meghalaya state elections were being held in full swing. People including women & senior citizens were out on the streets to cast their precious votes. It was such a pleasure to see people participating with such enthusiasm.
During lunch at a restaurant in Cherrapunjee, I met a few jawans of the BSF. We spoke for a long time. They explained that they were posted on the Bangladesh border, 30 kms away from Cherrapunjee. They didn’t seem to be happy about their personal lives. I told them about my organization, Sankalp, and what we young volunteers are doing to bring 100% voluntary and safe blood donation in Karnataka. Coincidentally, I happened to be wearing my Sankalp T-shirt on that day. They were all ears when I told them about Mission Siachen. I expressed our deep admiration and heartfelt respect for them, and also told them how they were a great source of inspiration for the youth. They congratulated me on our achievements and even took mine and Rajat Sir’s number (Rajat Sir is the President of Sankalp India Foundation). This was truly a great experience.
We were back in Shillong by 4 in the evening. This place was expensive. Even vegetables were as costly as those in Bangalore. One thing I could understand was that cost of living in this part of the world is actually high out of necessity, not luxury.
On the next day; the 11th February, we visited other parts of Meghalaya. Obviously, Raja was our guide cum driver again! We visited the Mawjymbhuin cave. There is a natural Shiva linga here with a bent rock over it. Water flowed over the rock and fell over the linga, drop by drop. There was a Nandi shaped rock beside this. Such a natural wonder! We also visited a natural hot water spring and a sacred forest (due to innumerable monoliths here). The forest was extremely dense (as in Jurassic park) and during rains these are completely covered with orchid flowers of different colours.
Today it was different from Cherrapunjee. This part of Meghalaya was completely deserted and not a single person was in sight. The roads were not good which made it impossible to access these places during monsoons. We saw untouched pine forests, deep valleys & huge waterfalls (obviously with no or very little water). We were back in the crowded city by the evening.
Next day, we journeyed back to Guwahati and reached Kolkata early in the morning of the 13th. On 12th, during my train journey, I wrote my long delayed 200th poem. Though this journey, to an untouched, beautiful part of my country was over, I could still sense the echoes of the caves, the silence of the green valleys and the breeze near the waterfalls. And.. the beautiful people there.