Home to Asia’s cleanest village, world’s longest sandstone cave, numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and one of the wettest places on earth, Meghalaya in northeast India is a true surprise. Hit the road to discover an extraordinary landscape, which features ubiquitous waterfalls, picturesque lakes, and ancient living root bridges. By Sugato Tripathy
The National Highway-6 intertwined between Meghalaya and the neighbouring state, Assam, as I started my journey from Guwahati. On either side of the road and sometimes on the same, the sign boards of shops read Assam or Meghalaya—in no particular order. It took just over two hours to reach the first stop on my itinerary—Umiam Lake. It was late evening when I checked into my room at a hillside property overlooking the picturesque lake. I woke up early next morning for a walk by the lakeside followed by a gentle boat ride on the pristine waters. On enquiring about the meaning of Umiam, my boatman Lepang was eager to share a folklore involving two fairies and how one of them lost their ways here. The locals believe the lake was formed as a result of the fairy’s relentless weeping. I later realised that Meghalaya is steeped in Khasi folklore and legends. As I watched the shifting shadows of the clouds and the surrounding hills on the calm waters of Umiam, like a spectacular light show, I wondered how an artificial lake built just 55 years ago can become part of popular hearsay! Next on my list was the capital city of Shillong, about an hour’s drive from Umiam Lake. Besides the earthquake-resistant Cathedral Catholic Church and the sprawling Shillong Golf Course, the city is most visited for its delectable chilly pork offerings.
Located in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Catholic Church in Laitumkhrah looks impressive. The two-storey structure, with its pale blue exteriors, tall arches, and stained windows, is built on a combination of sand and rocky platform for greater elasticity and flexibility during earthquakes. Inside, German terracotta installations depict scenes from the life of Jesus, while refractive coloured glass windows, brought from France, light up the space in myriad shades. A short drive away is the Shillong Golf Course—one of the oldest natural golf circuits in the world. It was designed in 1898 by the British to escape the hotter months elsewhere in India. Surrounded by pine and rhododendron trees, the circuit is open to tourists and the perfect place to lounge on the fine grassland and end your first day in Shillong on a pleasant note.
The capital is the ideal base to drive to one of the wettest places on earth, Cherrapunji (55 km) or to dine with the locals in Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong (80 km) or row on the clear waters of River Dawki along the Bangladesh border (40 km from Mawlynnong). I chose to explore Cherrapunji first. As I drove along the East Khasi Hills, with every bend the landscape changed—ravines, rolling hills, and ubiquitous waterfalls welcomed wide-eyed visitors. A dark grey cloud surrounded by its fairer companions hovered over the distant hills and kept chasing my car as I entered Cherrapunji. It was an invigorating moment. As I lowered my glass windows and looked outside, the first droplet grazed my eyelashes. I was waiting for some unrestrained downpour that would add a touch of credibility to a good monsoon story. But nature had other plans—at the end of the day, I realised the first raindrop to fall on me was actually the last one! However, Cherrapunji is much more than just clouds and rainfall.
As you drive from Shillong, take the diversion off the Sohra-Shella Road, just 5 km before Cherrapunji, to reach the magnificent Nohkalikai Falls. Falling straight as an arrow from a height of 1,000 feet, this is the most breathtaking sight in Cherrapunji. The blue puddle is a unique feature of the waterfall and is best viewed on a bright sunny day. A nominal fee of less than a dollar is required to enter the hill top (which offers the best views). The more adventurous travellers can undertake a two-hour trek downhill to reach the base of the waterfall, where local Khasi women sell souvenirs, jute hats, puffed masala rice (a local snack), bells, and trinkets—a reminder of Meghalaya’s matrilineal culture.
A 45-minute drive from Nohkalikai, through the small town of Cherrapunji, took me to Mawsmai Caves, where for the first time, I discovered my unknown anxiety for constrained spaces. Walking through a 150-metre-long, dark cave with natural limestone formation, cranky bridges over underground streams, and the occasional attendance of bats, can be quite challenging. And I thought cramped aeroplane seats were the only place where I had an anatomical issue! A few kilometres from here is the Thangkharang Park that offers breathtaking vantage points. From the 220-feet tall Khoh Ramah rock, to the meandering rivers cutting across the Bangladesh plains, and a spectacular view of the 1,000-feet high Kynrem waterfalls—the experience is unforgettable.
End your day at the beautiful Eco Park built on the edge of a cliff. Set up by the state government on top of a plateau, it houses indigenous orchids and a golden expanse of autumnal grassland. It offers magnificent views of the surrounding Khasi Hills and the Sylhet plains of Bangladesh with which Meghalaya shares more than 400 km of border. More often than not, strong gusts of wind bring greyish white clouds to this place, which engulfs the entire valley.
Touted as Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong is a three-hour drive from Cherrapunji. Close to the Bangladesh border, cleanliness is a way of life for the villagers. Here, almost every house sports a lovely flower bed in their courtyard. The pathways are impeccably clean and one would struggle to find even a single piece of paper or plastic on the ground. Beautiful bamboo dustbins are placed at every nook and corner of the village. Food is humble with the options of roti/rice, fish, potato, carrots, and ladyfinger. Most of the supplies come from Bangladesh except potato, which is a local produce. I wondered what else the villagers do apart from attending to tourists. What about agriculture? “The villagers cultivate betel plant, pineapple, black pepper, and other local fruits—portions of which is also sold across the border,” a local school teacher, Khongothrem, informed me, adding that the proceeds from the parking fee of INR 100 per vehicle (outside the village), is directed towards the village cleansers.
Just outside the entrance of the village is The Bamboo Sky Walk. An eco-friendly staircase-like structure made of bamboo, tree branches, and jute—the site offers a bird’s eye view of the Bangladesh plains. Ten minutes away is the Living Roots Bridge. Built over centuries by the local tribes, Khasi and Jaintia, the natural bridge is used for easy commute within the forest. The process involves the intertwining of the roots of a particular rubber tree (Ficus Elastica) on raised river banks and takes around 15-20 years. There are several other living root bridges across the state that are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Most of these require four to five-hours trek and a bit of determination and fitness. The trek to the famed Double Decker Bridge starts at Tyrna Village (30 minutes from Cherrapunji) and descends down to 2,400 ft.
The River Umngot flows from India to Bangladesh through the last border town of Dawki (35 km from Mawlynnong) in Meghalaya. One must reserve an entire day to fall in love with the transparent water of the river here. At some places, the river bed is visible upto 10-12 feet below. It’s a popular spot for boating and an emerging destination of interest among photographers from around the world.
On my way back to Shillong, I realised Meghalaya deserves so much more than a four-day or even a week-long trip. With waterfalls everywhere, each with a tale of its own; thousands of ancient old cave systems, each with an ecosystem of their own, and innumerable living root bridges hidden away in gorgeous forest covers, there’s a barely a land more mystical than Meghalaya.
Though Shillong has a small airport, it is advised to fly into Guwahati, Assam (3 hrs from Shillong). Direct flights operate from Kolkata, Delhi and Bengaluru to Guwahati. Rent a car from a local agency, like Zoom Car, in Guwahati and go on a self-drive. The days are short in this part of the world; therefore, deciding the day-to-day itinerary requires good planning.
November to May
• Try the grilled pork at Police Bazaar street in Shillong. An unnamed eatery, next to Don Bosco Museum, serves Meghalayan Smoked Pork. Don’t forget to try pork momo from street vendors.
• The world’s longest sandstone cave (25 km approx.), Krem Puri is 90 km from Shillong. Discovered in 2016, the site is popular among cave enthusiasts.
•Situated in Mawlynnong, The Balancing Rock is a wonder of nature where a small stone balances a huge boulder and has remained, since centuries, unperturbed by rain or wind. Locals believe it to be an ancient shrine, which lost its significance over the years.
•A sweet and sour local delicacy made with rice, mint, ginger and pork—Jadoh is one of the most popular dishes of Meghalaya. It’s sold both, on Police Bazaar street and near Don Bosco Museum.