Cherrapunji is locally known as Sohra, which was mispronounced by the British as “Churra”. This brought about the current name Cherrapunji or the ‘land of oranges’. The drive to Cherrapunji is quite scenic. It is easy to forget that one is in India while driving amid the rolling hills and picturesque grasslands that the journey has to offer. It is no wonder that Shillong and the Khasi hills were referred to as the ‘Scotland of the east’ by the British. The panoramic views along the way are indeed a spectacle to behold.
Along the way we spotted a hill with singular white cross standing erect above it. Upon further exploration we found a cemetery on top of the hill that was hidden from the view of passers-by. The remarkable white cross atop the hill stood almost as a guardian of the departed souls.
During our trip we saw many such cemeteries on top hills all over Cherrapunji. However, I have not been able to find the reason for them being situated as such anywhere.
The road to Saimika resort diverts from the main highway and is an unsteady one. It is easy to miss if one doesn’t know where to look for the signboards. We arrived at our destination at around 4:30 p.m. The resort is divided in two sections over a large area. On one side of the property is a dormitory style hostel and a traditional Khasi cottage (with no hot water), while on the other end is a row of four or five snug and rustic looking cottages (with hot water) that are situated on top of a cliff. We obviously chose the latter! The interiors of the cottages were very quaint and inviting, tiled with wooden pallets. It was equipped with was a charming fireplace and an incredible view. A kindly gentleman named Frankie manages the property.
It was pitch black and exceeding cold outside by about 5:15 in the evening. The sun sets early and it can become quite windy and chilly in the evenings in Cherrapunji, so we counsel carrying a warm jacket and torchlight with you. The sunset, nevertheless, is rather astonishing. The sky is incredibly clear here, where one can even see the smallest of stars glimmer up in the heavens.
A warm cup of tea and a hot shower later, we were ready for dinner. We strolled towards a pleasant melody playing in the restaurant. We stepped into the restaurant to find the staff jamming to The Beatles. The restaurant encompassed a few wooden tables, chairs and benches for seating and an open kitchen, where a couple of young boys were playing the guitar and singing the chorus of “Hey Jude”. We later found out, to our disappointment, that we had missed a rock concert at Saimika by a day, which was attended by numerous rock groups from around the country. The mood of the day before, nonetheless, was still in the air.
We had ordered our dinner beforehand, as is the practice at the resort. We enjoyed a delightful meal of ‘Dohneiiong’ (Pork cooked with black sesame seeds), ‘Dal’ (lentil soup), ‘Aaloo sabzi’ (potatoes), rice and ‘chapattis’ (Indian bread).
Dohneiiong is traditionally a dish of the Jaintia people. Khasi food is usually prepared without too much oil or spices. Khasi meals chiefly comprise of pork and rice. Pork is usually prepared with ingredients such as soya beans, chillies, ginger and bamboo shoots. Another food enjoyed by the Khasis is fermented fish and pork. ‘Kwai’ or betel nut is commonly chewed by the Khasis and is a central part of many ceremonies, along with rice beer.
We spent a pleasant evening relishing the scrumptious meal and gazing at glittering stars. Afterwards, a good-natured boy named Morningstar was kind enough to light a fire in our rooms to save us from the blustering cold outside. With warm hands and feet and sweet melodies in our ears, we slowly drifted into a deep slumber.
We woke up to a stunning sunrise at 6 am. As the sun’s rays touched the grasslands of Cherrapunji, the earth turned golden. We had to make our morning tea ourselves, as the kitchen doesn’t open before 8:00 a.m. We went for a morning trek around the grounds surrounding the resort.
A long winding road connects Saimika to the valley below. The grass is tall and the path is steep and winding amongst large black rocks. The cliff that Saimika stands on itself is black in colour. Once we were at the bottom of the cliff we followed a clear stream that flowed through the valley.
Along the way, we found a group of women busy washing their clothes. We decided to stop and take a rest. Our exhaustion was remedied almost immediately as we dipped our feet in the refreshingly cold water. The walk back was uphill and confusing and we soon lost our way. After a long time of stumbling and avoiding gorges through our hike we finally found a bridge over the stream.
The path after that was further uphill but relatively straightforward till we came across a large field decorated as if for a rock concert. (This was the rock concert we had missed). This area marked the beginning of the Saimika’s property. A long and winding road brought us back to our cottage.
Breakfast was ready and served by 8:30 a.m. We ate the most delicious cheese omelettes and toast. After breakfast we drove through the charming hills to the Mawsmai caves. Meghalaya has an extensive network of underground caves and speleologists have found as many as 1580 caves here. The longest of these, Krem Liat Prah, is 30,957 metres in length and is found in the Jaintia Hills. The Mawsmai caves are located around 6kms from Cherrapunjee and are a popular tourist destination with a small entry fees of Rs. 20.
Although these limestone caves are long and widespread, only 150 metres are accessible to tourists. However, even this restrained space is enough to keep one mesmerised by the impressive beauty of these caves. The caves are well-lit and the entrance to the caves is large and spacious.
The atmosphere inside is wet, cold and low in oxygen. A bridge connects the passage of one of the chambers inside, where the ground is too rugged to walk on otherwise. Through years of natural abrasion and underground water, the peculiar formations of the stalactites and stalagmites allow for one’s imagination roam wild. Although the caves are magnificent and inspirational, we were ever so glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel on our way out!
At the entrance of the Mawsmai caves stands a tall row of monoliths. These monoliths are raised as a symbol of remembrance. One of the monoliths had a crown on top of it.
Monoliths that stand upright are called “Ki Moo Shynrang” and signify males, whereas monoliths that lie flat are called “Ki Moo Kynthai” and signify females. Such stones are scattered all over Meghalaya, crafted to commemorate fallen warriors and clan members.
Subsequently we visited the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church, which the oldest church in Cherrapunjee. It was established in 1846 and the first church was built on the hilltop where the current Nongsawlia Cemetery lies. An earthquake destroyed it in 1897 and the new church was built in 1898. Nongsawlia was essentially the birthplace of Christianity in the Khasi- Jaintia hills. The locals were so captivated by the Welsh that they assimilated it into their own culture.
The interiors of the church are well preserved, decorated with wooden pallets and wooden beams that run symmetrically forming arches through the church. Wooden chairs are lined up neatly for the audience and the walls are lined with endearing red doors and windows. At the back of the chapel, high on the wall stands a stunning stained glass window. The church is quite glorious and is another characteristic reminder of the remnants of the British Raj.
Soon it was lunchtime but we still had more sightseeing to do. So we decided to visit the Arwah caves. The road leading to the caves is long, uphill and rough. We were almost about to give up and turn around when we met an old friend. We were extremely happy to see her and she advised us that the caves are worth our time. Following her advice we carried on until we reached a small market. Here we ordered some Maggi for lunch and were told to it would be ready by the time we finished our trek. Hungry, tired and grumbling, we went ahead for our trek. There is an entry fee of Rs. 20 for visitors. The ascending path to the caves is set in concrete with a drop on one side and natural vegetation on the other. Our weariness soon disappeared as we appreciated the beauty of the hills and the tranquillity of nature.
The entrance of the cave opens as an inverted “V” and is large and spacious. We had to go down a few stairs to join the main tunnel. Although the Arwah caves have low ceilings at many points they are relatively more spacious as compared to the Mawsmai caves. A stream flows through the length of the cave, which makes the ground very slippery. Long tunnels with sharp turns define the ensemble of the cave. We had to turn around and make our way back towards the entrance to exit the caves. By the time we returned from our wander lunch was hot and ready.
After stuffing our empty bellies we made our way to the Dianthlen Falls. Legend has it there once lived a very large snake in the area that ate all who travelled that path in odd numbers. The villagers were very afraid to go the market and barter goods as the path to the market crossed that of the snake (or Thlen). One day a brave warrior fought the snake and killed it with a hot iron poker on the spot of the waterfalls. To celebrate the victory, there was magnificent meal where the villagers feasted upon the flesh of the snake. One old lady took the meat home for her granddaughter but kept forgetting to feed it to her, until one day the snake was revived again.
As it was winter the flow of the river was low and we could walk over most of the falls area. However, during monsoon season one can see gigantic waterfalls in the area. There are natural potholes along the breadth of the falls and one can follow a path towards the bottom of the fall to enjoy the full splendour they have to offer. The length of the falls is 80-90 metres and rocks and trees surround the bottom of the falls.
Soon the sun had set and we made our way back to the resort. We found ‘Frankie and the gang’ singing to the melodies of The Beatles and Bob Dylan once again. We ate pork stew for dinner, which was just what we needed to warm up our cold bodies. Soon the fires in our rooms were lit and we were off to la la land once more.