Dry spell in rain capital of the world
Once the ‘wettest place’ on earth because of the copious amounts of rainfall it received, the beautiful town of Cherrapunji in Meghalaya now struggles with unexpectedly acute water shortage for several months of the year.
With a deafening roar, lightning pierced the night sky. Suddenly there was an awkward silence. Even the bush crickets and frogs that had been persistent with their calls until then seemed to have gone quiet. As our senses revived, a soft pitter-patter began. Before we knew it, the skies broke loose and down came a deluge of the kind unknown to us. It continued all night with raindrops drumming intensely on our rooftop, shaking off every sign of sleep. We were in the rain capital of the world—Cherrapunji.
Shaped by the rain
Perched on the near vertical cliffs of the East Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, at an elevation of 1,484 metres, Cherrapunji or Sohra is the real abode of clouds. With its flat-roofed concrete houses and lack of visible pools of water, it is hard to envisage the kind of rain it experiences. But in this place, it is easier to measure rainfall in feet than the more popular inches. Cherrapunji holds a record for being the second wettest place on earth, having lost the first spot to its neighbour Mawsynram a few years ago, although that still remains a matter of debate. In July 1861, Cherrapunji recorded 30.5 feet (366 inches) of rain! Even today, annual rainfall of over 35 feet (420 inches) is not uncommon.
One may wonder what makes it receive such high volumes of rain. There could be various explanations. If you were to go by the belief in my desert hometown, then Cherrapunji probably holds the largest congregation of virtuous souls. The predominant belief there restricts blessings of the rain-god to honourable souls alone. However, if we were to base our explanation on more widely-accepted theories, then it is possible to consider Cherrapunji as the perfect recipe for rain. Various elements of nature work in unison to allow this small region to be the rainfall capital of the world. The plateau, on which the town sits, is straddled by gorges on either side. Down below lie the flooded plains of Bangladesh. As moisture-laden winds from the Bay of Bengal ascend upon the plateau, they come in contact with the steep ridges of the Khasi Hills, cool, and come down as rain. No matter how much it rains, the water quickly drains off into the plains of Bangladesh, rejuvenating the numerous, splendid waterfalls in the process. If the cliffs of this region were higher, this after effects of rain would have been visible even in far-off places such as Shillong.
This natural phenomenon, possibly ongoing for millions of years, along with the geology of the area, has shaped various topographical elements that exist here. The numerous fissures and gaps in the plateau, allow water to trickle down into the subterranean layers dominated by limestone. These invisible drainage systems carve out ways for some of the most splendid cave formations, such as those at Mawsmai, with their elaborate stalagmite and stalactite structures. Eventually, the water emerges out along the cliffs of the plateau forming spectacular waterfalls. Although some of these falls are associated with rather morbid folklores, they are breathtakingly beautiful. Nohkalikai, plunging from a height of 335 metres, is a reminder of the tragic tale of Ka Likai, a mother who unknowingly ate her own daughter, and to avenge whose death, she jumped off the fall, lending it her name forever. Another one, Dain Thlen Falls reminisces the reign of terror inflicted upon the people by an evil gigantic snake. Nohsngithiang Falls or the Seven Sister Falls may not have any popular tales associated with it but it’s a sheer beauty to watch, especially during the short period when all channels flow simultaneously.
Rooted in nature
The persistence of rain in Khasi life has induced unique adaptations. The short-statured Khasi people traditionally built their houses on the lower slopes of the hills. This meant crossing fast-flowing streams cascading down several hundred metres. The War-Khasi people, in order to combat this challenge, created the most ingenious bio-engineering marvels that are in use even today. A tree common to this region is the Ficus elastica. Similar to the popular banyan tree, F.elastica also has long powerful roots and can be seen growing commonly along riverbanks. The early Khasis channelled the roots of this tree through sliced betel nut trunks across streams. Once the branches reached the other end of the stream, they were allowed to take root into the soil. This way, a natural bridge was grown. Multiple layers of roots, embedded with boulders allowed for a strong base, while side railings were made using the same skill. A game of patience, such bridges take a decade or more to become operational and can be as long as 100 feet in length in some places such as the one at Nongthymmai. Depending on their structure, they can take the weight of as many as 50 men at a time and continue to grow in strength over the period, lasting over 500 years. Some others are an outcome of aesthetic experiments such as the popular, double-decker bridge on River Umshiang at Nongrihat.
The weather of the Khasi Hills impressed the British to such an extent that they established this little town as the capital of the Britsh province of Assam. The joy of continuous rain, however, did not last forever and the idea was eventually abandoned after a few years. Nonetheless, the town continued to be a sanatorium for British officers plagued by the fevers of the plains.
Today, Cherrapunji draws rain-starved visitors from across the world. They come to enliven their senses with one of the most incredible natural phenomena that we know. And most of them, at some point in their travels to Cherrapunji, would have met a man by the name of Denis P. Rayen. Uncle Denis, as I call him, stands out in this land of Mon-Khmer warriors. Hailing from the southern part of India, he married Mary Carmela Shati, a Khasi in 1982, and became a part of the Khasi society. Today, he owns a popular resort that hosts people from different parts of the world, while he endeavours to provide employment to the local people in the village of Laitkynsew, 18 km from Cherrapunji. Much of my understanding of the region is an outcome of conversations with this couple, and rain is our favourite topic. Although they both love rain, the maladies of excess sometimes become visible in their conversations. For instance, there are times when they have to drive to Shillong (almost 70 kilometres away) to dry their resort laundry during the wet season!
My most enlightening conversation with Uncle Denis was during my last visit to the region in April 2013. He sped past, rapidly apologising for not being able to spend time with us. He was in a hurry to attend a meeting with the village council of Laitkynsew. There was an evident problem at hand—acute shortage of water. The meeting was about reallocating water budgets to different consumers in the area. Uncle Denis was visibly upset, “Can you believe, in the wettest place on earth, we are fighting over water?”
When the taps run dry
Laitkynsew is not the only village in Cherrapunji plagued by water deficit. The town has lately been in the news for its acute water shortage. Various reasons ranging from deforestation, climate change and increase in water demand have been attributed to this shortage. Village councils deliberate over how best to tackle the problem. People such as Uncle Denis consider routing their own channels of water, while I wonder what really could be the reason behind lack of water in a place where rains lash for the most part of the year.
The situation in Cherrapunji is unforeseen. Whether water shortage in this place is an outcome of deforestation or not, is a topic worth exploring. One may wonder if this flat topography with lack of topsoil was ever a tropical forest protected from torrential rains by evergreen canopies. So far it seems unlikely. It appears that even in the early 19th century, this plateau constituted mostly of rolling meadows interspersed by small valleys with species such as Pandanus or screw pine. Sacred forests in the region still find guardians in the Khasi people. While at least at surface level, the green canopy of the slopes appears dense and luxuriant, on the other hand, rainfall in Cherra still comes in quantities unknown to most other parts of the world. Besides, this rain caters to less than 15,000 people. Clearly, something is amiss in this rain desert island.
As I descend the small steps towards the village of Nongriat to witness the living-root bridges, a Khasi response to the unnaturally high rain, I ponder over how easily too much one day can become too little on another. I notice a series of community faucets installed on the side with water piercing out wildly from all parts of the tap. I stop to fix it. It seems an impossible task. The moment I succeed with one, the others break loose. The water pressure is too high to prevent the wastage. I look down to notice that the taps have given rise to a small stream, which continues to flow down until it joins the first stream whereon it goes waltzing down into the plains of Bangladesh.
Cover Photo: Khasi monoliths comprising single large stones are a prominent sight around Cherrapunji. Standing sometimes as high as six metres tall, these stones represent memorial sites for male ancestors. | Photo: Sandesh Kadur
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