Cherrapunjee, where Mother Earth quenches her thirst

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Amit, the lovelorn visitor from Calcutta to this hill station in Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated novel ‘Shesher Kobita’, which has Shillong as its romantic backdrop, had spent a week with his family at Cherrapunjee.

In fact, Tagore, who had visited this land of pines thrice, had described the mind of Labanya, the central character in the novel as clean, pure and sparkling like a sunlit Shillong after a torrential shower.

Nevertheless, today’s Sumit from Kolkata or Gauravjyoti from neighbouring Guwahati are making a beeline for the ‘wettest spot on earth’, Cherrapunjee, locally called Sohra, where the monsoon has already cast its magic with rains and rainbows.

Driving through dense fogs, drivers have a memorable time negotiating the swirling roads from Shillong to Cherra.

Monsoon has already cast its magic spell over Cherrapunjee (Sohra), where Mother Earth quenches her thirst.  With the current month already recording high rainfall amounting to 484.3 mm, 374.2 mm and 210 mm on certain days, the total rainfall on the wettest spot on earth so far this year is 6769.2 mm.

“June and July can have continuous spells of rain lasting a few days to a couple of weeks or more. Sometimes you cannot see the sun for a week or more,” points out an official in the Met Department in Cherrapunjee.

At Cherrapunjee one can have a few days every year having more than 300 mm of rainfall in 24-hour period. Sometimes it rains upwards of 500 mm.

“On June 16, 1995 it rained 1563 mm. The internationally accepted rainfall-reporting format in four digits including one decimal digit proved inadequate on that day. On 19th July 2004 it rained 793.2 mm in 24 hours,” he informs.

Rain-heavy clouds hang overhead the lush green undulating hills dotted with wild flowers.

Situated at an altitude of 1,300 meters and about 56 km from Shillong, Cherrapunjee is considered the wettest spot on earth. A land of heavy rains and perpetual rainbows, during the monsoons, the place receives about 366” of rain making the area absolutely inaccessible.

With the onset of monsoon, Cherra is at her ornamental best with exotic flowers in full bloom. This is also the breeding season for rare species of frogs. Their presence is indicative of the rich environment and thick vegetation of the area.

Numerous meandering streams and rivulets cut through dense woods. Frighteningly high but absolutely beautiful waterfalls drop into deep gorges with a roar.

There is no dearth of waterfalls in Cherra, each more attractive than the other. The most beautiful ones are Mawsmai falls, Nohkalikai falls, Umhein falls, Kynrem falls, Dainthlen falls, and the Nohsngithiang falls.

Nohkalikai falls is fourth highest in the world while Nohsngithiang falls literally means “falls kissed by the sunset” in the Khasi language.

Hills of Meghalaya are home to some of the longest and deepest caves in South Asia. Mawsmai caves near the Mawlong Syiem Peak and Lum Lawbah caves are also big draws.

The name – Cherrapunjee – is actually a corrupt British form of the original Khasi Sohra. The Sohra region located on the southern slopes of the Meghalaya plateau is known as an area of the highest rainfall, ranging from 8,000 to 24,000 annually.

Daily rainfall in Cherra may amount to about 700 mm, even if their registered intensity does not cross 40 to 60 mm per hour. The heaviest showers occur from May to September, accounting for 88 per cent of the total volume.

More than 70 per cent of the annual rainfall is received during the southwest monsoon of June to September.

Situated about 15 miles north of the India-Bangladesh border, the terrain rises steeply from the border to the Cherra town, which sits at an elevation of 4,500 feet.

After passing over the plains of Bangladesh, the monsoon clouds hit Cherra with a vengeance.

Centre of Khasi culture and literature, evidence of the megalithic culture of the Khasi tribe can be seen in the monoliths that dot the landscape of Cherra.

Cherrapunjee became the first British hill-station of the North East in 1824, until headquarters were shifted to Shillong in 1876.

However, despite receiving the highest rainfall, Cherrapunjee is plagued with the crisis of potable water, leading it to be also referred to as the ‘wettest desert on earth’.

Expressing concern over the prevalence of “wet drought” in Cherrapunjee (Sohra), eminent scientist and father of the Green Revolution Proffessor MS Swaminathan, who had called for urgent steps for harvesting of rainwater in the wettest spot on Earth.

“Every year between December and May, the 10,000 people living in Sohra experience a ‘wet drought’ as the natural springs which are the main source of drinking water dry up completely during this time,” he had pointed out during the course of a public lecture during the Indian Science Congress at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) premises in Shillong in 2009.

“People have to walk long distances to the plains to collect water and many children spend their time just collecting water,” the top scientist rued and emphasized that the only solution is to hold rainwater where it falls. “Every household must have tanks to hold rainwater that can be collected from the roof,” Swaminathan had stressed.

“Jaisalmer, a district in the hearth of the Thar desert with annual rainfall of 100 mm has shown that if we harvest just 100 mm of rainfall on just 1 ha of land, we can receive as much as 1 million litres of water,” he pointed out. “In Mizoram, every house collects rainwater in tanks made of tin or concrete situated either on the ground or underground which lasts for the non-monsoon months,” he had pointed out.

“Cherrapunjee, which receives more than 12,000 mm of rain every year, can follow the same method,” Swaminathan had said and called for the formulation of an action plan for fostering water use efficiency.

Pointing out that Cherrapunjee, which is “dotted with waterfalls” is located on top of a limestone plateau, he had said limestone “sucks up water”.

“The surrounding hills are denuded and more than 50 % of the forests are lost. Repeated soil erosion has meant that some of the hillocks around the town are completely denuded. The top mantle which can be recharged by rainwater is extremely thin and is less than a meter in some places and therefore water does not stay because rain hits arid, dry soil and flows off,” he had explained.

Complimenting the Meghalaya Government for constituting a Rain Water Harvesting Mission to accelerate rainwater harvesting by constructing impounding weirs, he had said the National Rain-fed Area Authority can also provide technical help in this regard.
 
Though Sohra receives 12,000 mm of rainfall every year, it faces acute water scarcity during post-monsoon months. Every year after monsoon, the wettest spot on earth simply dries up, making it difficult for people even to find drinking water. Experts blame large-scale destruction of forests in the area for the disappearance of perennial springs in the hills leading to acute water crisis.

In fact, it is the Ramakrishna Mission in Cherrapunjee, which had pioneered rain water harvesting by setting up requisite infrastructure.

On the other hand, though considered the prime tourist spot in the ‘Abode of Clouds’, Sohra (Cherrapunjee) lacks in basic infrastructure and has remained neglected by subsequent governments over the years.

Though the State Government has been successfully running a well maintained restaurant-cum-hotel, it has been flayed by several quarters for its failure to improve the infrastructure of various tourist spots located in and around the ‘wettest spot’ on earth following which some amount of work has been carried out in the recent times, even as experts say much more needs to be done in order to prop up the place as a world class tourist destination, as it rightly deserves.

“Although the government has been talking about boosting tourism in order to bring about economic development and create more job avenues, nothing concrete has been done in this regard so far,” points out Jeremy Warjri, a local entrepreneur involved in tourism.

“Whatever Cherra has been able to achieve so far in the field of tourism is because of its majestic beauty and natural wonder and the hard work and dedication of the local people,” agrees Umesh Sing, who conducts site-seeing trips for tourists.

“With all its scenic beauty, Cherrajpunjee is still a hidden paradise and the authorities should gear up to provide better infrastructure in order to make it a visible paradise to attract more domestic and foreign tourists to boost the economy of the State as a whole,” says Rupanjali Bordoloi, a resident of neighbouring Guwahati, who visits the scenic place every year during monsoon.

Globally famous for the highest rainfall that it annually receives, Cherrapunjee offers little in terms of basic amenities for the tourists who flock the place from far and wide.

Incidentally, the tourism department has identified 69 tourist spots spread across the state with officials claiming that work is on to develop these places to attract more tourists.

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