Meghalaya, Abode of clouds

Separating the Assam valley from the plains of Bangladesh is the hilly Meghalaya, literally translating from Sanskrit to the ‘Abode of Clouds’. This is a cool, pine-fresh mountain state, set on dramatic horse rocky cliffs with waterfalls cascading down the cliff fronts. The regular, and incessant rains that beat down the state create a watery beauty that is not found elsewhere in the world. Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram are statistically the wettest places on earth. These create impressive waterfalls and carve out some of Asia’s longest caves.

The state’s population predominantly comprises the Jaintia, Khasi and Garo tribes, and these live in the eastern, central and western parts of the Meghalaya foothills respectively. A very good time to be in Meghalaya is the time of the Wangala festival, in the Garo hills in the autumn. The people of the state are cheerful, sociable and hardworking. The tribes of Garo, Khasi and Jaintia have matrilineal and matriarchal societies.

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Culture of Meghalaya

Song, dance and rhythm permeate the soul and culture of the people of Meghalaya. They live their lives to the rhythm of nature. Even educated in the modern system, they have not bid goodbye to their traditions, and this is evident in the way they dress, sing and speak. The Garo women are expert weavers and the Dakbanda, a kind of saree, or wrap- an unstitched short cloth tied around the waste, and is decorated with woven designs. Other crafts that make memorable souvenirs, in addition to the Dakbanda are the intricate bamboo and cane work. Handmade orange honey and shawls are beautiful collectibles too.

Unlike other Indian states, Shillong is identified across the country for its rich metal and rock music tradition. Youngsters, while keeping alive their heritage, are widely embracing the culture of the world, and different genres of music, and as a result, artists from around the world are invited for live performances. The crowds assemble and work hard to make a historical note in the metal and rock music world. Attend any of the famous bands from Shillong, such as Prisoners of Chaos, Native rules, Nemesis and many others.

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Culture and cuisine entwined

The cuisine of Meghalaya is mostly rice, dried fish and meat. The food is bland, compared to the rest of the Indian palate, but is seasoned with a hot fish chutney. One of the local favorites, and a must try preparation is Jadoh, a dish prepared with pork and rice. The population of this state is largely non-vegetarian, and wild game such as deer, bison, wild pigs, fish, prawns, crabs, eels and dry fish are widely consumed. Apart from rice, millet and tapioca stews are also must try for the visiting vegetarian. Bamboo shoot is the primary, and most favorite vegetable of the people of Meghalaya, which is turned into a bland stew and often spiced up with fish or ghost chilli (bhootjhalokiachilli, the hottest in the world). They use a kind of potash in their food, which is obtained by burning plantain stems or young bamboo, locally known as Kalchi or Katchi, and it imparts the distinct taste and flavor to the pork dish Jadoh. The people drink a lot of locally brewed rice beer called Kyat. Alcohol is the flavor of the people in Meghalaya and features in everyday life as well as every festive occasion. They chew unripe betel nut with tobacco, betel leaf and lime, and try this with caution, as this potent blend of nicotine is bound to give a novice a headache and even vertigo.

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Tribal festivals

Festivals are a significant occasion to celebrate and make merry. The Nongkrem dance, Wangala dance and Behdienkhlam are major festivals celebrated by the Khasi, Garo and the Jaintia tribes respectively. Nongkrem, held in October/November is a thanksgiving to the almighty for the beautiful harvest. Young men and women perform he dance in the open, wearing expensive silk costumes with heavy gold, silver and coral ornaments. Wangala is also called the dance of the hundred dunks, and marks the end of a period of toil and heralds a good harvest and yield. The week long festival, held in November is performed to Satyong, the god of fertility. The Behdienkhlam is celebrated in July every year, right after sowing of the crop. Young men beat the rooftops of every house with bamboo poles, a symbolic gesture to drive away the evil spirits, plague and pestilence. Long bamboo poles are held perpendicular to each other, with people dancing to the beat of drums amidst these poles, and trying to avoid injury, and this makes for a magnificent sight.

Things to do

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Take a trip to the picturesque Shillong, the capital of the state, and visit the innumerable waterfalls, lakes, parks and churches. The Barapanilake and the enchanting caves of Siju, carved out by seasonal waterfalls are worth a visit. There is much to do in this state for the adventure enthusiast. Angling, boating, caving, golfing, trekking and various water sports of every description and denomination are a possibility in this state and various clubs and agencies organize these activities. Anglers go to the Dawki lake look for the carp, Mahseer, Catfish and other abundant fresh water fish. The scenic lake of Umiam also houses enormous and rare fish, often seen swimming with their brilliant and lively colors. Trek along the calm and composite trails of low granite and sandstone cliffs amongst rolling hills. Often, one comes upon a serpentine stream, and green carpet of grass and moss. The living foot bridge- in the most ecofriendly village in the world, the Kyllang Rock and the SophetBneng are brilliant trekking opportunities. River rafting in Ranikor, an offbeat destination around Shillong and offers one of the best white water rafting experiences in the country. Kayaking at the Kynshiriver will satisfy even the most ardent of water babies. The elephant falls, while known widely for their scenic beauty, also offer opportunity for waterfall rappelling, which is slippery and risky, but enough to satiate any adventure hungry soul. And if not, waterfall hopping at the spread eagle falls, sweet falls and Crinoline falls are just for you.

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Tucked away in the northeast, this is a state where you will see clouds cradling hills, grass glistening with dewdrops and azure blue skies. Pine groves will whisper to you and the streets with winding lanes of English style cottage will enchant you. It will feel like you are in Scotland, but it is actually picture postcard perfect Meghalaya.

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- Picture courtesy Akshay Gururaj

Getting there

By air

The most important airport of Meghalaya is the Barapani airport at Umrol in Shillong, which is serviced by Air India and some of the important commercial airlines, with round trip fares starting at Rs. 11,000. Another convenient airport is the Gopinath Bardoloi airport in Guwahati, about 128 kms from Shillong.

By road:

The MTC bus service runs regular buses between Umrol and Shillong. Shared cabs are larger SUVs from Guwahati are available too. They take less than 3 and a half hour to reach Shillong. For places within city limits, city buses are a good option. Taxis, the black and yellow un-metered ones ply within city limits too.

Train:

There are no regular rail lines in Meghalaya, and the nearest railway station is in Guwahati, which is well connected to the rest of the country by the railways.

Best time of visit is anything except the rainy season, which is June to September, when torrential rainfall pummels the state. The other season is winter, and temperature ranges between 10 and 30 degree Celsius.

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