Shillong: India's Secluded Shangri-La


Margaret Deefholts invites you to take this Magic Carpet Journal to India to visit Shillong; soak up the beauty and culture of this northeast Indian town.


Archery: A Traditional Khasi SportA flash of tartan, the scent of heather and tendrils of mist clinging to the hillsides; houses with Tudor-style framework, church steeples and cottages with names like "Oaklands", and "Bellevue". I could be pardoned if I fancied myself in the Scottish Highlands, or in some small hamlet in heart of England. In actual fact, I am en-route to Shillong, a hill town tucked away in the northeast corner of India.

Earlier on in the journey, before my ramshackle bus, packed to the rafters with people and baggage, began its ascent through the foothills, the scene outside the window was tropical: dense jungle, bamboo clumps, banana and pineapple plantations. Now, as we pant up a steep gradient and corkscrew around rocky promontories, the road edge falls away into deep gorges. Valleys open up between the folds of the hills, lakes sheen silver in the pale sunlight and cottages cling to hillsides festooned with flowering creepers and wild ferns.

As we approach Shillong, at a height of 5, 000 feet above sea level, a cool breeze carries with it the tang of pine and wood smoke. Shops and tea stalls flank the road, and houses spill helter-skelter down the hill slopes. We dismount at Police Bazaar-a swirling hub of traffic, vendors and pedestrians.

Shillong was established in the mid-1800s by Colonel Henry Hopkinson, agent to the Governor General of India, as a refuge for the officers and staff of the East India Company during the sweltering summer months. To the homesick expatriates, Shillong's shifting mists its winding country lanes and its gardens with phlox, pansies and roses, were all reminiscent of Devonshire or Sussex.

 

       

Although the ghosts of its colonial past still linger on in its rambling old manor houses, Shillong's commercial core is typical of most Indian towns. Concrete offices and shops have replaced wooden structures, and the streets are clamorous with the sound of beeping taxis, scooters and buses. As the capital of the state of Meghalaya, it is home to a diverse indigenous population: hill tribes such as the Khasis, Jantias, and Garos in addition to people from the neighbouring states of Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur.

ToMeat market at Shillong experience Shillong's Indian heartbeat, James Perry of Cultural Pursuits takes me to Burra Bazaar, the town's main poultry, meat and produce market. We plunge into a warren of narrow lanes and squeeze past porters bent double under sacks of potatoes, burlap-shrouded furniture, and goods encased in wooden crates-all of which are carried on their backs and anchored by straps across their foreheads. I linger to photograph old women as they sit behind baskets heaped with oranges and pineapples. Their eyes are wise and unfathomable. Doll-pretty Khasi women wearing traditional jain kyrshahs - an apron of chequered material worn slantwise from one shoulder over a blouse and skirt - fill their shopping bags with purple aubergines and pearly new potatoes. Men with round turbans smoke pipes as they chat to shopkeepers. Vendors and customers alike, sport ubiquitous tartan shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders to ward off the chill morning breeze.

Market lady displaying meat.Beyond the produce lanes, the smell of blood, bone and raw meat hangs heavy on the air, and butchers gleefully hold up pork entrails, beef livers and mutton hocks for the benefit of my video camera. A massive bull's heart - still warm and a-quiver, I'd swear - is laid out for inspection on a piece of blood-soaked newspaper. A haggling session is in progress in the poultry section: the vendor lifts a brace of live chickens, while a housewife prods the flesh under their feathers. Cockerels crow and shuffle inside wicker baskets, a cat slinks under a wooden stall platform in search of pickings, and crows bicker over scraps of offal. Brawling and chaotic, Bara Bazaar is not for the squeamish. It is, nonetheless, a seething pastiche of colour and movement. Irresistible. Unforgettable.

An equally memorable, if totally different experience awaits me the following day, as James Perry drives me 37 kilometres out of Shillong along the Cherrapunji road to the village of Mawphlang. The road weaves past paddy fields awaiting the spring sowing. They now lie fallow - rows of furrowed earth covering the hillsides like brown knitted rugs. We drive past small village clusters with huts propped on stilts, their walls and roofs made of woven bamboo mats. A tribal woman wearing a red and green tartan shawl, a baby strapped to her back, pauses to smile and wave to us.

At Mawphlang, a stocky young Khasi guide, Tambor Lyngdoh, escorts us through the Sacred Forest-a 70-acre wilderness preserve. He warns that desecration of the forest triggers malefic consequences; we must also walk and talk softly for the spirits of the forest are sensitive to intruders. In times of crisis, representatives of twelve clans gather here to offer a sacrificial bull and beseech their Creator for guidance. A breeze whispers secretively through the trees, and sunlight glimmers against old blood stains on a stone altar. Lyngdoh speaks in hushed tones about vampire snakes, guardian spirits in the form of panthers, and shape-shifters who change from men into night-prowling tigers, distinguishable by their five-pad pug marks instead of the normal four.

We emerge from the forest cover and I am relieved to be in open country once again. A rough pathway leads to a hillock commanding a panoramic view of the surrounding Khasi hills. At the summit, drenched in sunshine, are obelisks vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge. The Khasis are a matrilineal society and the hillock is the resting-place of a Boadicea-like matriarch, founder of the Sacred Forest and the revered Ancestral Mother of Lyngdoh's clan. Her stone memorial is surrounded by other monoliths, which commemorate the lives of heroic ancestral warriors.

Archery in Shillong, MeghalayaOn the way back to Mawphlang village, I peer at a group of square-topped stones. Lyngdoh tells me that in olden times these were erected by wronged husbands to shame their wayward wives! Monuments to infidelity. Hmmm. Wonder how that would go down in a Canadian provincial park!

Back in Shillong I am intrigued by an age-old tribal skill couched in a new guise: an archery contest which takes place every afternoon at 3.30. Betting booths line one side of a field; along the other edge, a series of bamboo-framed speakeasies offer both imported liquor and fiery indigenously brewed libations. The atmosphere is much like a horse-racing meet with bookies and gamblers exchanging money, groups discussing odds and contestants edgily testing their cane bows or examining the tips of their bamboo-split arrows.

The target is a cylindrical reed drum about thirty inches high, mounted on a short bamboo pole. The contestants, ranging in age from boys of twelve to men of seventy-plus, hunker down on their haunches in a line, fifteen yards away from the target. At the signal the air is thick with the 'whop' of arrows whizzing like meteors across the field. In the space of five minutes the drum bristles with feathered shafts, and the counting process begins. This afternoon the first round yields a total of five hundred and ten arrows - which means that the winning number is ten-i.e. the last two digits of the total.

Performers of the Traditional Khasi Warrior Dance ("Shad Thma")Later that evening, Arwan S. Tariang, Secretary of the Archery Association of Meghalaya, invites me to a performance of Shad Thma, a Khasi Warrior Dance. Women mince daintily onto centre stage, while men in orange turbans, fringed jackets and flowing pantaloons, kneel to receive their blessings before going to war. The drums tattoo a rhythm below a shrill pipe recitative as the warriors engage in mock battle, first with bows and arrows and then in face-to-face combat with swords and shields. In the third act, the soldiers are welcomed back by their jewellery-bedecked women folk.

While the performance itself has much in common with folk dances the world over, the underlying Khasi tradition of matriarchal empowerment is its distinguishing feature. The warriors must obtain their women's consent and blessing before leaving the village and, on their return, be cleansed of vengeful thoughts by the symbolic sprinkling of water on their ankles. Only then are they permitted to cross the thresholds of their homes.

Khasi Musicians wearing traditional jackets, turbans & sashesShillong lacks the spectacular snow-capped Himalayan peaks, which form a backdrop to Darjeeling and Shimla. But there are compensations. Away from the town's busy core, small lanes meander through tranquil residential neighbourhoods, sunlight slants through pine glades and scudding clouds throw shadows across undulating moors. Hiking, jogging and biking are simple pleasures. So is boating on Ward Lake adjacent to urban Shillong's Lady Hydari Park. Visiting golfers are welcome to use the Shillong Club golf links; Umiam Lake, 16 kilometres out of Shillong, offers campsite facilities for fishing enthusiasts.

Unlike other Indian hill stations, Shillong remains unspoiled. Few tourists throng its streets and, most striking of all, there are no beggars or touts whining at one's elbow. How long it will stay that way is anyone's guess. But for now, Meghalaya "Abode of Clouds" lives up to its name and at its centre in the Khasi Hills, Shillong dreams gently under dappled sunlight and shade.

Story and photos by Margaret Deefholts

If you enjoy Margaret's writing you may be interested to know that her book "Haunting India," is coming out this fall.  Check in your favorite book store.  The contact for further information can be found on our links page.

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If You Go:

Getting There:

FlightsTribalwoman and baby, Khasi hills, Maghalaya from Vancouver to either Delhi or Kolkata (Calcutta) include Singapore Airlines (via Singapore), British Airways (via London), Gulf Air and Air Canada.

Rail: The nearest rail terminus to Shillong is Guwahati, with trains to and from Kolkata and Delhi.

Air: Indian Airlines have daily direct flights to Guwahati from Kolkata and five flights a week from Delhi. Jet Airways also services the same routes.

Road: Shillong has no airport or rail station. It is a three-hour trip (103 kilometers) from Guwahati along a well-maintained road. Buses and taxis are available from Guwahati airport and train station. A one way fare by "deluxe" bus is Can$2.50, although hiring a shared taxi is the most convenient, and comfortable option, and worth the cost of approximately Can$4.00 per person, one way. Single passengers can expect to pay a one way taxi fare of up to Can$36.00.

Tourist Information:

In Shillong: Government Tourist Office at G.S. Road (near Police Bazaar)

In Canada: 60 Bloor Street, (West), Suite 1003, Toronto, Ontario M4N 3N6. Ph: (416) 962-3787/3788; Fax (416) 962-6279; e-mail india@istar.ca <mailto:india@istar.ca>

Organised Tours:

Cultural Pursuits organizes comprehensive tours through Meghalaya, Assam, and the surrounding states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. They are flexible and are open to customizing group or individual itineraries to fit all budgets (students, families etc.) and time schedules. Cultural Pursuits also arrange car trips/rentals, mountain bike/Royal Enfield Bullet rentals. Group tour prices range from Can$17/day and up (based on minimum of 8 people in a group). Host/owner James Perry is knowledgeable, welcoming and helpful. A Canadian, born and brought up in Shillong, he speaks fluent Khasi and straddles both worlds with confidence.  Phone: (011+91+364) 250573; Fax: (011+91+0364) 221816.

Where to Stay:Khasi "Shad Thma" Dance Performers

(Tariff information is approximate, and subject to change.)

Budget:

There are several budget hotels in the Police Bazaar area, all fairly similar, in the price range of Can$10/$25 single/double with attached baths. Budget Hotel on G.S. Road has non-a/c rooms (fans but no windows or natural light), minuscule but clean bathrooms, and a good, inexpensive restaurant, with eye-catching wall murals. Blue Pine Hotel also on G.S. Road has clean rooms ranging from Can $10/$16 single/double. Their restaurant serves Indian and Chinese food.

Mid-Range:

Centre Point Hotel is very good value. Their Executive Rooms are large, bright, airy and meticulously clean. Room service is prompt and La Galerie restaurant serves excellent Indian and Chinese cuisine. It is centrally located at Police Bazaar-which is both an advantage and disadvantage as the rooms facing the road are noisy but great for people watching. Hot water is on tap only in the mornings from 6 am to 11 am. Their regular and standard rooms run to Can$26/30 for double occupancy and Can$22/26 for single occupancy; Executive Rooms/Executive Special Rooms cost from Can$48.00/$72.00 double occupancy, and Can35.00/$60.00 single occupancy. Their luxury Executive Suite is Can$100/$80 for double/single occupancy respectively. Phone: (011+91+364) 225210; 220480;229839. Fax 225239.

Top End:

Pinewood Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Shillong. It is away from the noisy centre of the town, has a pretty garden and plenty of "atmosphere". Standard rooms have bathroom tubs with peeling enamel, which look as though they are stricken with leukoderma. The cottage suites are worthwhile as they have spacious living rooms, comfortable beds, tasteful drapes, adjoining dressing rooms and newer bathroom fittings. The pricey (Can$100.00) Presidential Suite has an opulent (if rather garish) bathroom lined with blue marble tiles. Tariffs range from Can$36.00 for standard rooms to Can$50.00 upwards for cottage suites. "Raj" style cuisine is served in the restaurant where orders are taken by the 'butler' as in the days when "pukka-sahibs" dined here. Phone: (011+91+364) 223116;223146; 223048; fax 224176.

Hotel Polo Towers is a 3-star hotel with a reputation for excellence. Standard rooms cost Can$28/36 for double/single occupancy; deluxe rooms range between Can$60/80 double/single occupancy.

Places to Eat:

Plenty to choose from and most restaurants are affordable. Trattoria Dukan Ja Doh (near Centre Point Hotel) offers Khasi food. No menu, but you can try pig's brains with ginger and fried rice flavoured with pig's blood. White rice and curried chicken are options. Broadway Restaurant is a popular hangout, and serves tasty Indian and Chinese food. If you are craving for pizza, Pizza Fast Food near the Meghalaya Tourist Office, is the place to hit.

Shopping:

Check out handicrafts at Porabshree, an emporium on M.G. Road. Meghalaya Handicrafts and Khadi Gramodyog also stock regional and national cottage industry products. Bara Bazaar is the place to browse for hand woven baskets, shawls, bamboo bowls, cooking pots, and loofahs (dried scrubbing pads derived from a fibrous gourd-like plant).

Poultry Market, Burra Bazaar, ShilongEntertainment:

Not much. Shillong closes down after dark (see "Warnings" below). However Khasis have music in their souls. Khasi voices in church choirs soar to the rafters - while rock, disco, jazz, blues and pop bands are in demand at concerts. Bob Dylan's songs are hugely popular, as is the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Eagles.

Other Attractions:

Lei Shyllong, (known as Shillong Peak) derives its name from the deity Shyllong. It is 10 km from the town and is the highest point in Meghalaya. Among the many churches, the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians has interesting stained glass windows. The Butterfly Museum displays lepidoptera from India and abroad. Waterfalls in the vicinity of Shillong, include Sweet Falls, Bishop Falls, Beaden Falls and Elephant Falls.

In the Vicinity of Shillong:

The Sacred Forest at Mawphlang provides an insight into Khasi history and religious beliefs. Cherrapunji (58 km south of Shillong) has lost its reputation as being the wettest place on earth, to neighbouring Mawsynram, but visitors may take a peek at traditional Khasi homes in the area. The Mawjynbuin caves near Mawsynram enshrine a Shiva lingam in the form of a giant stalagmite, worshiped by Hindu pilgrims from all over North Eastern India.

Festivals:

Behdeinkhlam: An important Jantia festival which occurs in July. Men beat roofs with sticks to drive away evil spirits, plague and pestilence; women make sacrificial offerings to the spirits of their ancestors.

Nongkrem Dance Festival: Held in Smit (20 km from Shillong) in November each year, it is a celebration of thanksgiving to the Almighty for a plentiful harvest, peace and prosperity.

Shad Suk Mynsiem: A three-day spring festival which takes place in April all around the Khasi hills. Men and women, dressed in traditional finery dance to the accompaniment of drums and flute.

When to Visit:

The best time is October to end-May, although in the hotter months (March/May) Shillong has an influx of tourists from the plains, and hotel prices are higher. June-September are literally a 'washout' as the monsoon drenches the area. November-February are chilly, with night temperatures dipping below 8 degrees Celsius. Many hotels provide heaters (for an additional fee) on request.

Warning:

Meghalaya has been a political hotbed for decades. The papers regularly report murders, kidnapings and public demonstrations of extremist groups (student unions among them) threatening to shut down the state unless their demands for autonomy are met. Consequently, 'bundhs' which close down the entire commercial and civilian activity in the town, are random and unpredictable.

Despite media hype, daily life is peaceful; shops and offices carry on business as usual and people go about their usual chores, unfazed. Assassinations zero in on specific political targets. To the best of my knowledge, no tourist has yet been affected or caught in the crossfire.

The one concession to potential danger is after-dark activity. Police checkpoints criss-cross Shillong and identification is required of motorists/pedestrians. Other than attendance at private house parties, most people prefer to stay within the security of their own homes. Consequently nightclub floor shows and late-night movies are non-existent. No statistics are available on increased birth rates in Shillong, but perhaps the population growth of India owes something to Meghalaya's unstable political conditions.

 

By Margaret Deefholts


 

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Last Updated on November 07, 2008 by M. Maxine George editor.  © 2003 Magic Carpet Journals. All rights reserved