North By North-East
Our sing-along retro fest of old Bollywood numbers is suddenly interrupted. “Look, a rhino! I promised you I would show you one and there it is,” proclaims the Innova’s driver as his cheekbones almost touch his eyes in a smug smile. Even the nap-happy passenger sits up, astonishingly alert, reaching for her camera in auto mode. “Stop, stop,” she yells, zooming in on the silently watchful animal standing about 200 yards away. And we have just about approached the boundary of Kaziranga on the main highway. The animal may have strayed from the forest towards a waterhole, surmises the driver. One of the oldest National Parks in India, Kaziranga in Assam is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest habitat for the Indian single-horned rhino.
The following day as dawn breaks we gather our stoles and caps to head for the early morning elephant safari, the reservations of which border on the dubious. The previous evening has witnessed some of our group belting out a master class in queue discipline for entry passes, to the open-mouthed wonder of the officials, the disappointment of the touts, the bewilderment of the foreigners (who are led to believe they enjoy priority status) and the delight of harangued tourists.
Three baby elephants follow us on our trail into the tall grass as we go rhino, deer and wild buffalo spotting while sitting astride on their mothers, itself an exercise in body tolerance, for at the end of the safari, you feel you have given birth all over again!
Kaziranga, I note, is not really meant for the serious wildlife enthusiast (which frankly, a lot of us are not); it is, however, a well-oiled tourist trap. Even the elephants get into the act. Seconds before you click a picture, they will raise their trunks in a salute. You admire a bobbing blossom on the route, your ride will stop mid step, pluck the flower and offer it with its trunk. The rhinos, when you spot them, don’t appear menacing, so the urge to catch a glimpse of one of the 86 tigers in residence becomes an obsessive desire – which I am informed is rarely fulfilled.
Our cozy abode for three nights is the steeped-in-history Wild Grass Lodge, engulfed by antique photo frames, eclectic artifacts, dim lamps and ancient trees labelled by name and species. The water may take its time to heat and the rooms may be bereft of air-conditioners and TVs but the experience of warming our toes around a bonfire watching a young troupe perform the traditional jhumar dance, followed by a meal bursting with homely flavours exudes a quaint charm of its own.
Aerodene Cottage in Shillong is also imbued with a charismatic charm. Restored with passionate intent by childhood friends Sharlene Das and Rukma Sen, the 60-year-old heritage structure that came their way through marriage, is a little fairytale abode bursting with blooms, Cherra stone flagstones, pinewood flooring and lace curtains fluttering at the windows. The eight-room homestay tucked away down a narrow lane is one of the last surviving colonial-style houses in a hill station wooed by the British for its then uncanny resemblance to Scotland.
Shillong, presently in the grip of an identity crisis, has metamorphosed into a hyper active town bludgeoned by smoke-spewing traffic, unstoppable construction mania and mindboggling migration from neighbouring territories. In fact, en route to Cherrapunjee, claimed to be the wettest place in Asia, Bangladesh is quite visible through a thin veil of mist. (At Dawki, which we visit later, you can even wave out to the boatmen across the border). We drive through clusters of villages peppered with waterfalls in the valleys and hawkers (mostly women) on the highway selling small, sweet oranges, roasted peanuts and pineapple chunks spiked with red chilli powder. Little souvenir stalls abound near all the tourist sites and as we later discover, these are storehouses of handmade treasures which are hard to come by in the central markets, sourced as they are from the surrounding regions.
Mawsmai Cave and the living root bridge at Riwai are the highlights of the day. The limestone cave, not to be attempted by the equilibrium-challenged and rumoured to be inhabited by bats — though they are invisible in daylight — is a haven of natural stalagmites circumvented by damp, narrow tunnels which could border on the eerie if not for the busload of visitors staggering inside in an uneven line. The root bridge near Mawlynnong, said to be over 300 years old is accessed by 300 steps, half of which are differently sized rocks. The steep descent has not deterred a local televison crew from recording a live musical rendering where we cheerfully play the appreciative audience requesting an encore! Root bridges in Meghalaya, and primarily in Cherrapunjee made an appearance when manmade bridges kept collapsing due to the heavy rainfall. So, sturdy, secondary roots of ancient banyan-like rubber trees were manually guided to grow in a particular direction by Khasi tribals to form natural bridges across fast-flowing streams. It takes almost 15 years for a root bridge to ‘grow’ into a functional bridge. For trekking enthusiasts and the adventure-inclined, the two-tiered root bridge in Nongriat village 20 km from Cherrapunjee beckons from a 2500 feet descent at the bottom of 3000 moss-laden steps!
Along with these natural wonders, Meghalaya also boasts about 50 sacred groves, many of them struggling to survive in the age of concretisation. These bio-diversity hotspots fringed by clumps of dense foliage are usually communally or owner protected and preserved by traditional religious sanction. The 78-hectare Mawphlang Sacred Forest in the East Khasi Hills, witness to animal sacrifices two centuries ago, draws nature lovers and groups such as ours who pounce delightedly on fallen rudraksha seeds, pocketing them for good fortune. “You cannot take anything out of this forest,” pronounces our 18-year-old guide dryly. “It’s bad luck.” Immediately, the seeds are on the ground again! And we are back in our vehicles driving past a scenic paradise of cherry blossom trees in full bloom.
Our last day in Shillong is swallowed by a whirlwind tour of the cathedral, its cross-like structure visible from an aerial view; the seven-floor Don Bosco Museum with its futuristic skywalk and electricity-saving sensor lighting; the car-free Police Bazaar for bamboo shoot pickle and fruit wine; the Royal Heritage Tripura Castle (where we were led to a room where Tagore spent a night) for steaming cuppas at their cafe. In the morning as the weather turns chilly and we tighten the knots of our newly bought Naga mufflers it is to the mighty Brahmaputra at Guwahati that we are headed to next….
FAR AND AWAY
Bring back: pure honey, Assam tea, fresh pepper, beaded necklaces, woven saris, cane thingummies, wooden spoons, super-spicy Bhut Jolokia chillies. Optional visit: Defloo Tea Gardens. Watch antiquated machinery wheeze and press the plucked leaves into another state of being. Owners need to regroup. Must taste: an authentic Assamese thali of three varieties of fish on a banana leaf at Iora in Kaziranga and snappy Chinese fare at Déjà vu in Shillong. Totally missable: Kaziranga jeep safari. All heat and dust. Animals in hiding. Vehicle breakdown, a distinct possibility. Mawlynnong, promoted by an Indian travel magazine as the cleanest village in Asia. As a nation reared on the dirt track I guess we should be fascinated?