Memory does not die – how, to the question: “Which is the wettest place on earth”, I used to jump in class and shout: “Cherrapunji”. A long-desired visit shows many faces even more enchanting. You walk on bridges that live and flower. And enter a cave on a hill and wash your feet in the saline water.
A waterfall that does not reach the earth
One of the first sights that greeted me was a waterfall – thin and straight, starting almost at eye-level, and plunging down into a sea of mist, into obscurity. The waiter at the home stay told me it had been raining incessantly for the past fortnight; nothing of that precipitation remained because it had all drained off to cause floods in Bangladesh.
It is a place full of contradictions
Though one of the wettest places on earth, it suffers from a scarcity of water. The vegetation varies from evergreen species to those found in arid landscapes. Normally it is mountains we have to climb up; here it is the abysmal valleys that we have to climb down. Cherrapunji is on the top of the hill range. We stand at the head of waterfalls, but it is very difficult to see where they fall. All the water that precipitates as rain drains into Bangladesh, leaving little behind.
Originally, this place was called Sohra in Meghalaya; and then changed to Cherrapunji during the British days, and now it is the old name once again. I had traveled from Guwahati in a friend’s car. The lake Umiam near Shillong was charming. We saw no waste through little villages like Mavdok or Maylim. Sohra is on a plateau, 4869 feet above mean sea level on the Khasi Hills. The green meadows remind one of Vagamon in Idukki. But the abysmal valleys that intersperse the terrain plunge down into the plains of Bangladesh. The high ground stops the moisture-laden winds from the Bay of Bengal, and the rains precipitate, to drain off into the plains.
The average rainfall per year is 11777 mm, about four times the average in Kerala. It gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records with a precipitation of 9300 mm in July 1861. But now, it has been forced into second place. Nearby Mawsynram gains the first place, but the board recording that it is the wettest place on earth remains at Sohra.
It is scarcely populated and buildings are few and far between. Some old-fashioned buildings are seen near the church in Nomgsilla. But the landscape is scarred with mines. We went to explore some memorial buildings.
The Presbyterian cemetery (established 1845) is on a hill visible from anywhere in Sohra. They were among the first Christian missionaries in the Khasi Hills. The people here are known as the “Khasi” people, and the places are also named after them. They are matrilineal, the women enjoying prestige and freedom. They assert their choices in the selection of mates and are the leaders in many sectors of business and society. They lead in the business (shops) and hotel sectors.
The main means of livelihood is horticulture, especially of apples and oranges. It is said that the word Cherrapunji means the “land of oranges”, and Sohra means a "market for fruits”. Means of transportation are scanty – the Maruti Alto is the common taxi car. Their language does not have a script. They use the English (Roman) script to transcribe their language. There are even newspapers now in Khasi language. The result is somewhat like our “Manglish”, and therefore not intelligible to those who know only English!
Across a little stream beyond the cemetery, there is a memorial to a Siem, a king, and also to his mother. There is a board that announces that the last internment here was in 1921.
Saline caves on the hill tops
The place is famous for its limestone hills. Caves as long as 30 km long, among the longest in the world, have been found among them. There is one close to the town, the Arva Loshiana Caves, wide enough to walk into. Water seeps into it, and there are fossils of marine creatures along the walls. They prove that eons ago, this region was under the sea. Though fascinating, they are too dark to be attractive. The Meghalaya Adventure Association conducts tours for those interested, including foreigners. The place is famous for its bamboo artifacts.
Strange and unique are the bridges over some streams. They are the roots of ficus species trained across the waterways. And they live and put out branches, leaves, and flowers. About three-quarters of an hour ride away from the town, we visited one at Tirna, a Khasi village. The trip is eventful, up and down over about 3000 steps, over three suspension bridges. Beyond, three hours walk away is the little Khasi village of Nomgriya. It is difficult to get tools and building materials in such far off places. The Khasi had found the solution long ago. They train the long roots of ficus trees across the stream. The roots live and grow, and are trained into lattices to form the famed “double-decker” bridges. It may take decades for such a one to form. They place planks in order to get a practicable walk-way. Sometimes, a third deck is formed on top of the second.
Happy in having witnessed one of the wonders of the world, but depressed that we did not get wet in the rains at Cherrapunji, it as a pang to leave the Land of the Clouds (Meghalaya) to return to the God's Own Country. How nice to be able to tell the teacher: Cherrapunji is NOT the wettest place on earth any longer; it is Mawsynram!”
Guwahati airport is 181 km away from Sohra
Umroi airport at Shillong is 91 km away
Guwahati railway station is the nearest rail head
Buses and cabs are the easiest ways to reach from airport or railway station
We were put up at the Serene Home Stay. Most of the rooms accommodate two beds. The door of one room may interfere with that of the next. It is so moist that it smells. But it is heaven to those tired after the long walk. The hosts the family of Byron. His wife does all the work, her baby tied in a cloth bundle on her back.
(This article was first published in Manorama Traveller)