India: Meghalaya

Double Decker Bridge

Double Decker Root Bridge, Cherrapunji

November 2022

Upper Phe Phe Falls

As of date, there are ten states in India where we have not taken a selfie, or a selfless-ie for that matter. Six of those are confined to the north-eastern corner. The month was November. India was coming off one of its better monsoons and all of Northeast was bathed in post monsoon sunshine. One of the six states, aptly named Meghalaya (abode of clouds), is home to an astonishing array of mesmerising waterfalls. It is little surprise that we were queuing to pay big money to IndiGo to fly us there. IndiGo did what they could: picked us from Mumbai and deposited us in Guwahati. If you guys have better memory than me, you would remember that we were there six and something years ago on our Assam Odyssey. There was a small unfinished business from that trip that goes by the name of Kamakhya which had to be attended to first.

Lower Phe Phe Falls
Upper Phe Phe Falls

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva's consort, Parvati, once took an avatar as Sati, the daughter of king Daksha. When she grew up, she married Shiva against the wishes of her father. One day, Daksha performed a yagna and decided against inviting Shiva. Sati decides to attend anyway and unable to sit through her father's insults aimed at Shiva, jumps into the fire and commits suicide. This angered Shiva and he takes Sati's body and starts his Taandav, the cosmic dance of destruction. In order to save the universe, Vishnu sends his chakra and dismembers Sati's body and removes it from Shiva's grasp. A Shakti-Peeth temple now exists at every one of the 51 locations Sati's body parts are believed to have fallen. Her womb fell at Kamakhya and the temple here has been celebrating female menstruation from antiquity. Kamakhya cannot be visited as a pitstop. The queue to enter it starts somewhere in Mumbai, the place we had left a few hours earlier, via an aeroplane. But what we could do, thankfully, was to walk around the temple and click selfies to brag on Instagram.

Lower Phe Phe Falls

Three hours south of Kamakhya sits Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya and the hill station that the British carved out in the 19th century. And on that route lies Umiam, a picturesque lake formed by a dam, one of the many created during the Nehru's great infrastructure push of the 1960s. After taking our first pictures of the state and steadying our head reeling under the effect of negotiating blind curves at breakneck speeds, we reached Shillong by early afternoon. That gave us enough time to wander its streets, check out its century old cathedral and meet up with our old neighbour who had relocated here recently.

Krang Shuri Falls Jowai

The following day we had our first tryst with the famed falls of Meghalaya. The tryst started with Tyrshi, a wonderful cascade over a near vertical cliff reached via a path offering sweeping views of the valley below. Second in line was the Phe-Phe, which took much more effort to get to. One has to bribe a Charon to drop us across a river. If you don't give him enough he won't be there on the way back. Then you wade through ankle deep quick sandy clayey goo. Then you walk down a rickety slippery 500 m ladder. Then you get to the falls. Aparna lost a shoe, slipped and nearly fainted. This was all just on the way down. Way back was the same route, but all uphill. And that day was Aparna's birthday. I was "gently" reminded that husbands usually gift their wives spa massages on their birthdays. On the positive side, we got to see two of the most picturesque waterfalls on the planet (yes, there are two Phe-Phe falls, Upper and Lower). My English vocabulary is inadequate in describing their beauty. I will just leave their pictures on the side and hope they are still worth a thousand words, despite the recent global inflation. By now we were in the heart of Jaintia Hills, a region known for its natural beauty and we headed to the last falls of the day - Krang Shuri. Thankfully, the walk to the falls was just a stroll and falls pretty enough to hold our attention after the high of Phe-Phe. I don't know what the Meghalayans do to colour their water. The turquoise coloured pool at the base of their waterfalls is truly unbelievable.

Krang Shuri Falls Jowai
Mawsmai Caves Cherrapunji

Our original plan for the day included just these three falls. But we had a 6 am start, a SUV and a maniac for a driver. So it was just lunch time at the end of Krang Shuri. We decided to head south to Dawki, the place where the Umngot river leaves the hills of Meghalaya for the plains of Bangladesh. It is marketed as the cleanest river in the country and the pictures of it were too good to be true. Well, in the end they were. The river was pretty and the waters reasonably clear, but not boats-floating-in-air clear like the pictures suggested. And there were plastic bottles all around. I was assured by the boatman that they all had an owner and they were all holding onto baits for the fishes. Just because the plastic had a purpose it does not automatically make the place any prettier. Moving on. We still had some daylight time and wanted to end the day on a high note. We have seen the best of the falls. But we needn't fret. This is Meghalaya and she is no one trick pony. She is home to one of most ingenious of human inventions - a bridge that lives and breathes. This is how the local Civil Engineers have been building bridges since antiquity: take two young fig trees growing on either side of a stream and inter-twine their roots together. As the trees grow, so do the roots and eventually the roots become solid and inter-twiney enough to form a traversable bridge. The bridge stays functional as long as the trees live. One of the most photographed specimen of such a bridge is an hour north of Dawki, near Mawlynnong and we could get there with just enough sunlight to see it in all its glory.

Wei Sawdong Falls
Mawsmai Caves Cherrapunji

Next up, the wettest spot on the planet - Cherrapunji. Well, it used to be the undisputed champion in wetness, but as the monsoons got unpredictable, it has now been reduced to one of the top five. Unlike most other wet-spots, Cherrapunji gets all its rains during the short-ish monsoon season. When it rains, it well and truly pours. True for Morten, true for Cherrapunji. Since this was November, we were privileged to see its deep verdant valleys basking under bright blue skies. Our first stop - Garden of Caves. Although it suspiciously sounds like a tourist trap, it isn't and is in fact one of the top attractions in town. It houses an array of pretty falls, couple of which you can walk around and peer from behind, a small cave, and a smattering of interesting rock formations. After clicking them all we went to the prettiest falls in Cherrapunji - Wei Sawdong. Not sure what's up with these "prettiest falls". They sulk and play hard-to-get. This one requires you to drive an hour on the worst road in the state and then walk down a series of rickety, slippery, makeshift ladders. But in the end you get to see this breathtaking sight. Thank goodness for India's aversion to take a dip. Although the place had a reasonable footfall, there was no half naked pot-bellied dude swimming in the water and spoiling your postcard perfect shots. After a quick in-and-out of the more traditional Dainthlen Falls, we headed to yet another Meghalaya masterpiece. When a state is blessed with waterfalls and root-bridges, what better can it offer? How about caves? Not any old caves, but the deepest and longest in the nation. Not yet impressed? How about a cave system, geologically unique enough to have an actual era named after itself? Yes, Meghalayan Era exists and is the youngest of the three Holocene subdivisions. Most of the important caves need permits and/or speleological experience. But there are couple of small samples in Cherrapunji that are uncle-auntie friendly. Arwah, the first one, although bare, was a delight to walk through and the views of the valley from the caves were nothing short of spectacular while Mawsmai, the second, made me realise that Khasi uncles are considerably thinner and fitter than their Madrasi counterparts. To compensate for the trouble, the narrow Mawsmai sports some intriguing formations, a challenge to photograph at tight angles. Now that we have tasted the samples, we got back to the falls. Nohkhalikai, with a straight plunge of 340 m, enough to take the bronze, greeted us with a roar. The Seven Sisters which was really Seven Trickles in disguise, disappointed us. And the tall and majestic Kynrem, a three-tired cascade, tumbling a hop, skip and a jump away from the Bangladeshi border, embraced the fading light of the dusk and brought our eventful day to an end.

Nohkalikai Falls Cherrapunji
Wei Sawdong Falls

We had kept the best for the last. We had kept the beast for the last. On the final morning we got up wee early to say hello to the Double Decker. A statement that could be as true in London as it is in Cherrapunji. The crowning glory of all root bridges is the famous Double Decker, a two-tiered root bridge, a probable over-design for the light traffic of the Khasi Hills. But just as the falls, the beauty hides behind the beast. This time a brutal, knee-busting 2900 concrete steps separates the comfort of the car park and exhilaration of making it to one of the wonders of the world. A 6 am start helped us get there with no one else around and take our first we-did-it Insta snap. The climb back did make us ponder why we are into Instagram when we are closer to retirement than college. Answering the constant "are we there yet" from the incoming traffic helped us take our minds off the pondering.

Nohkalikai Falls Cherrapunji

We could have ended the trip on the high note. But life isn't a fairy tale. The last thing we remember from Meghalaya is its underwhelming Elephant Falls (well, only because it came last, had we seen this first, we sure would have been blown away). But that feeling shouldn't last long. As the memory fades, we will only have the fond memories of the Double Decker, Krang Shuri, Phe Phe and Wei Sawdong. Their pictures are well and truly etched in our memory. Their names, not so much.

For the first time in history, a travelogue of mine isn't ending with the usual bitching about delayed flights and tight connections. Not because we walked back home or something, but only because this wasn't the end of the trip. We continued onto the nearby Tripura. In this day and age where a two-line tweet is routinely TL;DRed, I better stop here to give my blog a fighting chance of finding an odd eyeball or two to reach until this point.

Click here for more photos from Meghalaya.

TRIP DETAILS AND ESSENTIALS
Click here for more photos from Meghalaya.

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