Cherrapunjee: Where clouds come home – Friends Holiday 2023

Vast green, undulating grasslands lead to steep gorge drops with waterfalls dancing in silver streaks over deep yawning gorges. Lush tropical rainforests cling precariously to steep limestone cliffs, ending abruptly in the flat plains of Bangladesh that they in turn engulf. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn it was the Bay of Bengal itself.

It is a unique geographical border, doubling as a border between Bangladesh and the Cherrapunjee region of Meghalaya and I drive along the periphery, making the journey in the state’s famous and one and only season, its monsoon. To my delight, the hills are alive and dressed to kill in their finest monsoon canopy – lushness on the ground, a shelter from the gray sky above, with swirling mists occasionally veiling the landscape in a whiteout.

Cherrapunjee (Photo by Rishav)

The drive from Shillong to the manual famous Cherrapunjee is only 54 km, but is packed with gills of beautiful delights, easily turning my two-hour drive into five. Starting with the Mawkdok Viewpoint, with vast areas of thick rainforest lining the valley, we glide across the grassy plateau of Cherrapunjee, where the ‘rainiest place on earth’ sign greets me around a bend.

Read also: Cherrapunjee: A Drive in the Clouds

Cherra (you might call it that once you’ve been there), now renamed ‘Sohra’, may have lost that title near Mawsynram in recent years due to a few millimeters of rain, but it’s real the enchanting beauty of Cherra and the surroundings that the ex-beat travel company brings here. For someone who just loves the rain, I’m ecstatic about this offense.

As far as rain statistics go, consider this. On June 16, 1995, it rained 1,563 mm in 24 hours in Cherrapunjee. Compare this to Delhi’s 706.4 mm or Kolkata’s annual average of 1,600.8 mm. Cherra received a whopping 24,555.3 mm (or 80.56 ft) in 1974 alone. Between 1973 and 2005, the average annual rainfall was 12,028.6 mm. The fact that Cherra falls directly on the path of the Monsoon to the southwest, and that the orography of the hills surrounding Cherrapunjee helps to bury and converge monsoon clouds from a large area to a relatively small area, contributes to such heavy rainfall. Talking about meteorology.

Just outside the bustling town of Cherra lies the beautiful village of Mawsmai with spectacular clifftop viewpoints and Meghalaya’s only illuminated cave system open to tourists – the Mawsmai Caves. It is littered with imaginative limestone formations created over the years by the slow dripping of water. The Nohkalikai Waterfalls, Eco Park, Seven Sisters’ Viewpoint, Thangkharang Park overlooking Kyrnem Falls and Khoh Ramhah Falls in quick succession, all in a different order or no order at all depending on the moody mists. In one such magical moment, Khoh Ramhah reveals itself – a gigantic monolith rock, locally known as Mot Trop. It looks like the classic weathered wise man, but as legend goes, this is the inverted local Khasi basket of a wandering giant, which was turned into stone when the giant was poisoned by the inhabitants of the gorge. And then there was Kyrnem Falls. Although they captured quite a view of Thangkharang Park, even that couldn’t quite beat the thrill of standing at the bottom of the falls on Shella Road below, getting thoroughly drenched in the powerful assault of the misty spray.

Mawsmai Caves (Photo by Ppynomus)
Mawsmai Caves (Photo by Ppynomus)

But these beautiful sights, mostly visited by tourists in a day trip from Shillong, are not all there is to do and I rely on the family-run Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in the nearby village of Laitkynsew to further unfold its mysteries. The drive to the resort via the Mawmluh-Mawshamok ridge is a scenic traverse with numerous waterfalls draining the monsoon mass into the Umiam River gorge below and charming milestones along the route, all inviting the traveler to enjoy the monsoon of the area. “I will walk with you in the rain,” shouts one such sign near a bubbling stream.

Umiam River (Photo by Vikramjit Kakati)
Umiam River (Photo by Vikramjit Kakati)

At Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, I quickly discover, it’s all about a celebration of the monsoon. Dennis, the owner, along with the nearby Met department in Cherrapunjee, keeps track of guest rainfall and updates his website daily. A hygrometer in the main room shows alarming humidity levels (100 percent during my entire stay) in addition to informative displays on various rain and cloud phenomena – air-sea interactions, temptation inversions, Walker and Hadley cells, etc., etc.

Mrs Dennis is a charming, petite lady who runs the place with her husband and has perfected her local Khasi staff to prepare quite an extensive menu to suit all palettes in addition to a special ‘Monsoon Magic’ menu. There is lots to do, especially the many walks in the area, and the resort provides good maps and local guides. I’m quick to decide on the nearby ‘living root bridge’ as my first port of call.

But the Scottish mists of the previous day are dissipated the next day in the strongest cloud precision I have ever seen and I move on to the weekly Cherra market for some local flavor and some shopping. Negotiating a busy market under umbrellas or Ka Khups (reed) is something the Khasis do with ease – bargaining, looking at the healthiness of the very fresh produce, while they chew kwai (paan with arecanut and lime), their teeth painted blood red with lime. I make my way through the market, the local greeting “Khubleih” giving me friendly smiles and a chance to interact with the locals. Tropical fruits, vegetables, tobacco, hot local peppers and dried fish sell alongside cow meat blocks, pig slices and intestine steamers. The locals I encounter are not as enamored with the monsoon as I am, especially when it rains non-stop for like two weeks straight; it hinders daily activities and clothes remain damp for days. “Sometimes, even when the ration is over, one has to wait it out,” lament the butchers, Joining Star and First Born. The Khasis have a penchant for retaining euphonious names, regardless of meanings or context. The evening in Cherra comes alive with a local dance troupe spilling out, yes, euphonic Khasi love songs, the rain a constant melodic drone in the background.

Nakai Fall (Photo by Prem Prakash Das)
Nakai Fall (Photo by Prem Prakash Das)

Wampyndap, a young girl from the nearby village of Sohsarat, accompanies me the next morning as a guide to the living root bridge in the ravine below. Head in clouds, feet firmly planted on the ground, I carefully step over the mossy, slippery stone steps that provide a steep descent to the bridge. Areca nuts, bananas and palms line the route, which soon gives way to untouched wilderness. Weaving its way across the flowing torrent of the stream called the Ummonoi, the bridge of roots is an outstanding living phenomenon.

Shrouded by a canopy of lush tropical forest, the bridge over the stream, made up of intertwined roots, looks jagged, like something out of Hobbit land. An ancient craft practiced by the war Khasis of the area, the bridge was designed from the roots of ficus elastica, a species of Indian rubber tree with exuberant root growth found along and in the middle of these streams. In an ingenious feat of bioengineering, the canyon residents planted the tree at strategic locations along the riverbank and then directed its numerous rhizomes through hollow crevices of betel nut or bamboo pipes until they bridged the stream bed and took root on the far bank. I carefully step on and am overwhelmed with an unexpectedly strong sense of security. With more than two protective foot spans and intricately woven guardrails, roots from the tree’s higher branches converge in the center of the bridge as the support span makes my offense a groan on its solid spread. Living root bridges are unique to Meghalaya and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

I end the evening with some delicious monsoon delicacies – Thur Chor Chora (banana flowers), gravy and pork neiiong, an excellent Khasi preparation made with black sesame seeds. At night the air comes down in buckets, my roof pounds with the noise and I sleep deeply, lulled by the rushing lullaby.

Since returning from Cherra I am not the same person anymore. My mind often clouds with visions of rainforests and rain, twirling mists and cloud and that din of din on my roof, a sound that refuses to leave my mind haunting me like never before, as I do with what is called ‘monsoon’ in Delhi . So beware, if you go to Cherrapunjee in the rain, this destination, which is like no other, will get under your skin like no other.

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