There are a few moments or scenes in life for which the varied forms of human expression seem inadequate. How does one describe the ineffable beauty of a sunset in the mountains? Or, for that matter, conjure up a pithy sentence that offers a sense of what it feels like to dip one&’s feet in fast-flowing streams? Meghalaya abounds in landscapes and natural scenery that might well leave a wordsmith at a loss and, without question, the state is one of India&’s most picturesque nooks.
Its capital, Shillong, though, combines both the quaint and quotidian in equal measure — beautiful one-storey houses and flowering cherry blossom trees stand beside winding roads teeming with honking vehicles and carefree jaywalkers. The city&’s thoroughfare, Police Bazaar, perpetually hums with life as both locals and tourists throng its many lanes that burst at the seams with shops, restaurants and hotels. The place seems like a forest of signboards! Disconcertingly, however, a couple of men in Army fatigues stand watch at the main intersection during the busiest times of the day — a gentle reminder perhaps that one is in the country&’s North-eastern region.
Such feelings melt away when one goes to the Laitumkhrah area of Shillong. Dotted with schools, colleges and cafes, “Laimu” — as city dwellers call it — immediately makes all comers feel at ease. The cacophony of Police Bazaar seems a world away as one lazily downs steaming hot bowls of pork noodle soup at Jeeves Corner on Don Bosco Square or samples generous helpings of Jadoh (in the Khasi language, “Ja” is rice and “Doh” stands for meat) at the Jaintia Jadoh Stall. Although it might seem a bit bland for people accustomed to a spice-rich diet, Jadoh, which constitutes rice cooked in pig&’s blood, is a must-have for the adventurous sort. Shillong in particular and Meghalaya in general, is pork country and there is a plethora of dishes for red meat lovers. Mention must also be made of the smoked pork, done to a nicety on skewers and served at roadside stalls in Jail Road near Police Bazaar. And not to forget the momos at Tibet Kitchen located on the top floor of Glory&’s Plaza in AC Lane, again near Police Bazaar. All the food mentioned come at prices ranging from Rs 20-100 a plate at the most. If one is in the mood to splurge, however, Café Shillong in Laitumkhrah is the place to go, with its live music nights on weekends and lip-smacking fare. Right across the city, the food is delicious and one would be hard-pressed to get a bad meal anywhere.
If you know somebody inside to take you around, then visiting the 1,250-acre campus of the North Eastern Hill University at Umshing Mawkynroh is highly recommended. With upwards of 20 hostels and filled with students and faculty from across the world, its sheer size and state-of-the-art facilities is jaw-dropping, to say the least. Every member of the teaching staff is allotted a separate bungalow! Established in 1973, a few years after Jawaharlal Nehru University by an act of Parliament, one wonders why it doesn’t get as much attention as its more renowned older sibling in New Delhi.
But away from the city is where the real reward lies for the discerning traveller. Mawphlang village, situated about 25 km from Shillong, is the site for one of the Khasi Hills’ sacred groves. The villagers believe there is a deity in the forest and a walk through it certainly imbues one with a sense of calm as the place has a mysterious tranquility to it. The Khasi boys who double as guides asked quite innocently on learning one was from Kolkata, “Are there forests in Kolkata?” And in that moment, with rhododendrons and orchids strewn about, one could only go, “No”, because the only jungles that come to mind are of the urban variety!
Cherrapunji, formerly receiving the highest rainfall in the world, seems a must for whoever goes to Shillong but almost all the spots there have been obscenely commercialised and are crowded throughout the year with cackling tourists. That said, taking in the Nohkalikai Falls — India&’s tallest plunge at 1,115 feet — from the designated viewpoint makes for time well spent. As one watches the cascading water collecting in a green-coloured pool, it boggles the mind to contemplate the timelessness of that act.
The highlight of any trip to Meghalaya has to be the living root bridges. The indigenously constructed structures from the aerial roots of living banyan fig trees must be seen to be believed. Typically taking about 15 years to complete, they last for centuries and become stronger as days pass. The easiest one to reach is near Mawlynnong village — dubbed Asia&’s cleanest —, which lies 90 km from Shillong. The bio-engineering on them is astounding and attracts people in their droves but that doesn’t seem to bother most villagers who go about their lives regardless.
From there, one can visit the busy smoke and dust-filled checkpost of Dawki that is located on the Indo-Bangladeshi border, complete with goods-laden trucks going in and out of the two countries. A dose of nationalism is being much advised these days and that feeling wells up in earnest, once there.
What stays in the memory, however, are the verdant green mountains and the snaking roads that go past villages with children running back from school and khowai-chewing women selling their wares. The news of insurgents giving up arms in the Garo Hills, the liquor ban in Shillong or the media-created myth of the city being the country&’s rock music capital, all form faint footnotes. The primary narrative is of beauty, simplicity and a certain type of innocence.