The Europeans could look down upon the natives even at sea level, so their pursuit of hilltops must have been purely for pleasant weather. A whiff of their own homes. It was an obsession that would give free India its prized hill stations, Shillong being one of the more famous.
The beginnings of what would be called the ‘Scotland of the East’ go back to 1862-64, when the British obtained two large plots in the Khasi Hills in the North-East through their sharpest weapon – coercive negotiations. The agreement was extracted from Mylliem, one of the 25 Khasi states ruled by elected rajas.
Shillong is a pleasant 3-hour ride from Guwahati and as the city approaches, nature suddenly seems to put on its best face. All along the road, the scenes are laid out in true splendour and viewing points are hoisted to vantage heights. And as soon as you reach Umiam Lake, a little before Shillong, the mercury drops dramatically– as much as by 10 degrees in summer. Non-partisan nature must have extended such a welcome even to Britishers who wandered this far.
One such early visitor wrote to the Governor-General in Calcutta that he found the climate here “for six months of the year to resemble that of the west of England, and during the other six, to be superior to it”. And David Scott, Assam’s Commissioner who laid the foundations of British rule in North-East India, had already built a small cottage at Nongkhlaw, near Shillong, as early as 1829 to “eat the Europe air”, as he told his friends. After Nongkhlaw was overwhelmed in the resistance movement led by the Khasi national hero U Tirot Singh, the British moved their district headquarters to Cherrapunjee in1835. Only three decades later, in 1864, would Shillong finally become the hub of British rule in these parts.
Things to See & Do
Nobody wants to be part of England any more; but ‘piece of England’ is still a compliment. And that’s what Shillong was – a chip off the British Isles. But that description is a bit of an exaggeration now. In the last two decades, attempts to save the forests have reduced the numbers of the traditional wooden structures here. The polo and the weekly races have also almost vanished, along with the horses. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of beauty in Shillong and, thanks to a wonderful network of well-maintained roads, most of it is easily accessible.
The English Homes
As the district headquarters, Shillong was carefully planned for the resident and itinerant Englishman, as though two distinct people should not be roofed under the same architecture. The military authorities established their cantonment mostly in Upper Shillong, and in the remaining portion of this flatland, the civil station was laid out. This was British Shillong, the enclave of the Raj in the Khasi Hills.
Lands were allotted for offices, bazaars and various other purposes, but it was the residential area that would become the pride of the colonials. British officers used their influence to acquire personal property from local landowners outside British Shillong. Some of them were so atrocious in their acquisition methods that their hilltop would probably be as high as they went in the Christian afterlife.
European pensioners, serving officers, tea planters, businessmen – all built their cottages here, naming them after places in England: Stratmore, now the BK Bajoria School; Bonny Brae, housing the Survey of India today; Crowborough, where a hotel is now under construction; Redlands and La Chatelet in the cantonment... to name a few. A small lake was dug out in the midst of the area. Australian firs, eucalyptus and other trees were planted and English fruit trees and flowers were introduced. All this was in the 1860s but this building trend continued well into the 20th century. Rules were framed to protect this area and these were in force till the 1930s, preventing persons “not living in European style” from obtaining leases anywhere in the European quarters.
The Indian Manors
The station gradually extended itself beyond the limits of British Shillong. Both Europeans and Indians began to buy land and build their houses. Indian princely families also started their establishments: Tripura, Charkhari, Manipur and even Nepal built imposing houses. Mayurbhanj House, built by the Mayurbhanj princely family, is now the city property of the North Eastern Hill University. Tripura Castle, a heritage hotel now, was built in the architectural style that came uppost-1897 and Schloss Schonbrun, now the Charkhari House, is today a private residence.
A New Architectural Style
Shillong’s architecture underwent a change after the devastating earthquake of 1897 virtually flattened all buildings. The earlier stone masonry buildings were replaced by timber structures and corrugated iron roofs that became characteristic of Shillong. This new architectural style was labelled the ‘Assam type’, though most of these buildings kept the basic design of the English cottage. The Raj Bhavan, the old Government House of the Raj, is the best example of this style. Its wood shingle roof is unique. It’s not open to the public, though it can be viewed from the outside.
Lakes and Waterfalls
As you stand and marvel at the sheer number of lakes and waterfalls in these parts, here is a good point to ponder: why has the neighbouring Cherrapunjee, once known to receive the highest rainfall on earth, also suffered simultaneously from a shortage of drinking water? Not every question in India has an answer.
You will cross your first lake even before you reach Shillong. Umiam Lake, aka Barapani, lies 16 km before Shillong on NH 40. Umiam in Khasi means ‘water of the eyes’. The lake is the source of the Umiam River, which has been transformed into a reservoir to produce electricity. The Orchid Lake Resort offers a pleasant stay near the lake, boasting water sports facilities such as speed boating and rowing. The hills and the meadow around the lake are a good place to hang out. Sadly, the floating restaurant run by the state tourism department has been shut down.
The horseshoe-shaped Ward Lake is right in the middle of the town. Rowing and paddling are possible there. Surrounded by green meadows and colourful flowerbeds, the lake makes a good picnic spot for locals and tourists.
The waterfalls are also spread out all over Shillong. The Sweet Falls is located near Happy Valley, while Spread Eagle Falls near the Polo Ground has been named rather aptly, looking exactly like an eagle with its wings spread out. The Beadon and Bishop Falls are 2 km from Bara Bazaar and the Elephant Falls, on the outskirts of Upper Shillong, comes into its own during the monsoon.
One interesting aspect of the forests of the Khasi Hills are the sacred groves where felling of trees, by custom and tradition, is prohibited. Locally called Law Kyntang, one can see these reserves on the way to the Shillong Peak and at Mawphalang, off the Shillong-Cherrapunjee Road.
Golfing in the Hills
For the avid golfer, a stay at the Shillong Golf Club, situated in Golf Links in the Polo Grounds (not to be confused with the Shillong Club, which is on Shillong’s Kacheri Road), with temporary membership, will provide an opportunity to test the famed course. Known as the ‘Gleneagle of the East’, it has been around since 1924. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful 18-hole course lined with fragrant pine and flowering rhododendron trees.
Shillong Peak, at a height of about 6,433 ft, offers a wonderful view of the city and countryside, broken intermittently by drifting clouds. On a clear day, one can see the Eastern Himalaya, including Gorichen (22,000 ft), the highest peak in Arunachal Pradesh. Lady Haydari Park, with a mini zoo inside, stands near Pine Mount School. It was named after the wife of a former governor of Assam. The State Museum (entry fee â‚¹ 5, timings 11 am-4 pm), not particularly exciting, displays the lifestyle of the Khasis with life-size statues. The Butterfly Museum (entryfee â‚¹ 5, timings 11 am-4 pm) and the Botanical Survey of India Orchidarium (entry free, timings 9.30 am-6pm) have impressive collections of their specialities.
Your most memorable shopping experience here would be at Shillong’s Bara Bazaar and Police Bazaar, where the local weekly market known as Iewduh is held. The Khasis follow an eight-day week and the weekly market has always been held on the first day of the week, which is called Iewduh, hence the name.
You will see colourful stalls piled up with local village produce. Forest honey would be a particularly good buy. You can pick up small souvenirs like handmade knives, cotton bags, shawls, bamboo cutlery and other bamboo crafts in Bara Bazaar. Also try local fruit such as sayang and soh-phlang, sold wrapped in banana leaves. Most of the stalls are run by Khasi women, who drive hard bargains coated with friendly charm. Actually, shopping anywhere in Shillong is a pleasure, chiefly because of the friendly shopkeepers.
In Police Bazaar, you will find global products ranging from modern attire to music cassettes. If you look carefully, you might pick up a rare album no longer available in the big cities. From the Government Emporium near Police Bazaar, pick up a set of jainsayem,the traditional Khasi skirt. The price might be a little steep, but these are made from pure silk. Bargains can also be picked up at the Tibetan or Bhotia markets.
Where to Stay
Shillong’s hotels cater to a wide variety of tourists and it’s fairly easy to get a good place to stay without paying through your nose for it.
Meghalaya Tourism’s Orchid Lake Resort is situated on the banks of Umiam Lake in Barapani. Here one can savour a sight that to many is reminiscent of a Scottish loch. The resort has a restaurant and a water sports complex. Recommended for those who wish to get away from the hustle and bustle of a city.
Meghalaya Tourism’s Hotel Pinewood, one of Shillong’s two heritage hotels, was built in the 1920s on the pattern of an English country home. It includes several small cottages. It’s barely a few minutes’ walk from Wards Lake.
The Royal Heritage, private residence of the Tripura royal family, is now a hotel.
The veteran Hotel Polo Towers, situated near the Polo Grounds, has a popular coffee shop and bar.
White Orchid is a good budget option on Lachumiere Hill.
Hotel Alpine Continental (Tel:2220991; Tariff: â‚¹ 2,590-4,590) is near Police Bazaar. The Shillong Club (Tel:2225497; Tariff: â‚¹ 1,550-3,200) takes in guests on prior notice. It offers a bar, restaurant and various indoor sports.
Where to Eat
Shillong at one time had a significant Chinese population, known for their excellent handmade shoes and restaurants. Shillong’s Hong Kong, Elgin and Bamboo Hut Chinese restaurants are especially good. And almost every restaurant in Shillong will offer a wide choice of piping hot momos. For the more adventurous, the jadoh stalls, the ubiquitous little shops selling a rice-and-pork preparation, will be an interesting experience. Jadoh is the staple food of the region.
Other popular restaurants in the city are Kimpoo and Kowloon, which serve Chinese, and Broadway, which serves multicuisine fare. Swiss CafÃ©, a fastfood outlet, is popular with the college crowd, as is Bombay Bites. For local Khasi specialities, try the dhabas in Bara Bazaar. If you’re very particular about it, order in advance at the Royal Heritage in Tripura Castle, which also serves Khasi food.