Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 February 2020

My Kind of Place: Shillong, India

We head to the western-fashion-loving capital of the rainy north-eastern state Meghalaya.
Nohkalikai Falls, 50 kilometres outside Shillong, is among several stunning waterfalls in Meghalaya. Daniel J. Rao / Alamy / phocalmedia.com
Nohkalikai Falls, 50 kilometres outside Shillong, is among several stunning waterfalls in Meghalaya. Daniel J. Rao / Alamy / phocalmedia.com

Why Shillong?

Shillong – capital of the north-east state of Meghalaya, famous for the highest rainfall in India – is home to a dramatic landscape of green cliffs and spectacular waterfalls that are at their peak at this time of year (the driest weather is from October to April). The area is also home to the Khasi tribal group, who are predominantly Christian.

It was developed by Britain as a garrison town and retains a colonial charm – it’s dotted with schools and churches founded by Scottish missionaries, as well as Tudor-style cottages. The hills of conifers reminded the settlers of home, and they called it the “Scotland of the East”.

The Khasi people are great followers of western fashion – girls with the latest hairstyles, dressed in leather jackets and boots, are a common sight.

The town is also India’s “rock capital”, famous for its buzzing music scene; it even has an annual Bob Dylan festival. Shillong has emerged has an educational hub for the north-east, and is also home to one of the oldest golf courses in Asia, created by British officers.

A comfortable bed

The most luxurious option is Ri Kynjai, a resort with views across Umiam Lake where the cottages have the traditional Khasi roofs like upturned boats to weather heavy rain. Double rooms cost from about 8,000 rupees (Dh441) per night, including breakfast.

Tripura Castle Hotel is a heritage hotel located in the summer palace of the erstwhile royal family. Rooms are furnished with period furniture, and the restaurant serves Khasi specialities. Doubles cost from about 4,500 rupees (Dh248) per night including breakfast.

Find your feet

To get a bird’s-eye view of the city, drive up to Shillong Peak inside the air force base. Legend has it that the deity Shyllong, after whom the city is named, once lived here. Today, families picnic here as they take in misty views of this sprawling city, surrounded by hills. A few minutes’ drive away is Elephant Falls, surrounded by lush vegetation and fern-covered rocks – named after a rock that resembled an elephant.

Go back in time at the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures, which has 17 galleries giving a peek into the lifestyle and culture of north-east India, from costumes and crafts to agriculture and music.

Meet the locals

Walk through Bara Bazar, a sprawling local market with different sections for fruits, vegetables and meat, where women wrapped in tartan shawls slice chunks of meat and chew kwai, the local betel leaf and areca nut. There’s a section for just chillies.

Make your way to Ward’s Lake, a tranquil retreat in the middle of the chaotic city, with gardens, fountains, small white bridges and ducks. In autumn, cherry blossom trees are in full bloom around the lake. Local families come here for a picnic or a spot of boating on the lake.

Book a table

The Ri Kynjai resort’s north-eastern restaurant, Sao Aiom, overlooks Umiam Lake. Try local specialities such as smoked tomatoes and chillies or do o pura (chicken in green mustard leaves and powdered rice). A meal for two costs about 1,500 rupees (Dh83).

For authentic food, head to Trattoria (Police Bazar Road) to try tadoh – a rice dish cooked with turmeric and spices, along with meat with jhur kleh (local vegetables). A meal for two costs about 500 rupees (Dh28).

Café Shillong (Laitumkhrah Main Road) offers chicken momos, thupka and local noodles. Evenings are lively here with local bands playing an eclectic range of music.

City Hut Dhaba (Oakland Road) serves local specialities, as well as Chinese and Indian, from thalis to momos and duck curry. A meal for two costs about 500 rupees (Dh28).

Shopper’s paradise

Pick up wicker baskets and bamboo artefacts from the many shops in the Police Bazar, including the Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts Development Emporium at the Police Bazar, which offers a selection of local weaves, traditional Garo tribal fabrics and souvenirs made from bamboo. The markets also sell brightly patterned Naga and Manipuri shawls and traditional Mizo skirts. At Burra Bazar, you can buy local spices, orange honey, bamboo shoot pickle and black mushrooms.

Don’t miss

Watch an archery lottery – a local obsession called Teer or Siat Khnam. This sport involves archers from the Khasi Archery Association firing at a cylindrical bamboo target within four minutes. The last two digits of the number of arrows is the winning number. Daily games start at about 3.30pm at the Polo Grounds, opposite Nehru Stadium.

If possible, try to time your visit for the Shillong Autumn Festival, held at Umiam Lake every November, It has dance and music performances from across north-east India and culminates in a rock concert by the lake.

What to avoid

Public transport is unreliable, so it’s best to hire a local taxi with a guide. Also, remember that the sun sets relatively early, so by 5.30pm, it will be pitch dark. It’s better to plan for an early dinner, because restaurants tend to close early.

Getting there

Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Kolkata, then you can connect to Guwahati with Indigo or Jet Airways, from Dh2,200 return, including taxes. From Guwahati, you can hire a cab for the drive to Shillong, which takes two to three hours.

Updated: August 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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