Back in the nineties, mention of a state such as Assam would send a shiver down the spines of many. Militancy had branded it as a dangerous region. Now, however, on reaching Guwahati, the capital of Assam, one is greeted by a warmth that brings to memory the saying “Atithi Devo Bhava”. Assam has many attractions, but after having spent a night at Kaziranga National park and being greeted by the Indian rhinoceros at dawn, the traveller in me headed off for Meghalaya, its next door neighbour.
To many, Meghalaya is known by its capital city Shillong, which also happens to be one of the rock music capitals of the country, being frequented by a number of national and international rock acts every year. However, I wanted to focus on the hidden treasures of this land, the Barrapani lake, Nohkalikai falls, Mawlynnong and the people and their way of life.
The first stop was Barrapani lake, or “big water lake”. Located about 5 km from the city, Barrapani is one of the largest natural water lakes in India and in some parts, according to local boatman Thorkhey, as deep as over 100 ft. Boating is one of the many attractions at the lake, but the sheer beauty of it strikes you when you get down at the bank and stand on small pier on the lake, soaking it all in, the azure skies, white clouds and silence all around. Picturesque!
Nohkalikai falls was next on the map. Located about 25 kms from Shillong, ‘Nohkalikai’ or the falls that never dry up, serves you the sad tale of a mother who killed herself after being fed the flesh of her own child by her husband, according to local folklore. For the lucky traveller, Nohkalikai has a spectrum of seven colours waiting at the point it hits the rocks at its base. On the way back , one can see a number of betel nut or ‘guwa’ farms. A popular condiment all over India, guwa grows in abundance all over Meghalaya and Assam, the farm hands and the geometric shapes of these farms making for a visual treat. Road workers too are a common sight with the state now undergoing major development due to a huge inflow in tourists.
Mawlynnong village in the East Khasi hills on the border of Assam and Meghalaya is, according to a survey by UNESCO in 2003, one of the cleanest villages in Asia. My Bangalorean sensibilities got a severe jolt when I could not find a single piece of garbage lying around this hamlet. Mawlynnong is home to a number of guwa plantation workers and road labourers in Meghalaya, and the villagers welcome you with a platter of local hot delicacies, simple yet charming like everything else around here. Mawlynnong and its neighbouring areas, yet untouched by consumerism, are one of the very few places in the world where one can get 500 gms of cinnamon sticks and bay leaves for a meagre ` 10 each.
A striking aspect of Meghalaya is the fact that every day, at dusk, a veil of mist descends on this enchanted land. No matter where you are, whether it is by the foot bridge, Shillong city or at a quaint tea shop in Mawlynnog, you will feel the magic.
On the train back from Guwahati junction, all I could think of was a return. Indeed, magical Meghalaya makes the traveller wistful, seeding in a longing to spend the short days and long nights in this land of legends.