Often likened to Scotland for its rugged beauty, Meghalaya covers an area of 22,489 sq km with a population of 1,760,626 (1991 census). The state is made up of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills and the capital is Shillong. Located at an altitude of 1,500 metres above sea level, Shillong derives its name from the deity Shyllong, whose dwelling is said to be Shyllong Peak which towers over the town.
The state’s climate is cool and temperate through much of the year, although winters in Shillong are cold with temperatures plummeting to near-zero. Rainfall is very heavy and Meghalaya is home to a few of the wettest spots in the world. Indeed, torrential rain and mist swa,ping the hills and valleys are among the most enduring images of the rolling countryside, especially during the monsoons.
The Khasi Hills have many ancient sacred groves like the Mawphlang Sacred Forest 20 km from Shillong, which are traditionally preserved byvillage elders. The higher ridges of the state lie in the coniferous belt, gradually sloping down to sub-tropical and tropical zones. Rare orchids such as Blue Vanda (vanda ceorudea) and Lady?s Slipper (paphiopedilum insigne) are abundant in the forests. The forests and meadows of Meghalaya are home to myriad species of moths and butterflies. A sampling of this wealth can be found in the privately-owned Entomological Museum at Riatsamthiah in Shillong.
History and people
The people of Meghalaya belong to some of the earliest communities on the Indian subcontinent. The Achiks (popularly known as Garos) and the Hynniewtrep (or Khasis and Jaintias) are among the few communities in the world that follow the matrilineal line of descent in the family under which lineage and ancestral property passes down from mother to daughter. The people of Meghalaya are both hardworking and funloving, fond of music and colourful rituals.
The other tribes inhabiting western Meghalaya are the Hajongs, Rabhas, Koch, Bodos and the Dalu. The Garos also inhabit the adjoining areas of the Khasi Hills district, besides Goalpara and Kamrup districts in Assam and also Bangladesh. The Hajongs and Koch are found both in Meghalaya and Bangladesh. The Rabhas on the other hand are widely distributed and are to be found in western Meghalaya, southern parts of Goalpara and Kamrup districts in Assam and north Bengal. The Dalus were originally from Bangladesh, but later migrated to the Garo Hills.
These communities are dependent on plough cultivation and their lifestyle is modelled after that of the peasantry of the Brahmaputra Valley and Bangladesh. In matters of social organisation they have changed considerably, though distinct traces of a matrilineal society are still available.
The Khasis and Jaintias are the only Austric-speaking groups in the Northeast. Their strictly exogamous matrilineal clans are called Kur or Jaid, and they follow the system of matrilocal residence. The youngest daughter of a family, locally termed as Ka Khadduh, inherits all the household property and is regarded as the custodian of the family property. The role of the maternal uncle, however, in matters of property is quite dominant. Although the Jaintia Kings were Hindus earlier, over 70 percent of the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos have accepted Christianity.
Land ownership by the community or the village chief in some cases and the land tenure system often acts as a disincentive for proper development and maintenance of the agricultural holdings. Horticultural crops such as citrus, banana, pineapple, peach, plum, pears, apples, apricots and walnut are widely grown. Among spice crops, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and tezpatta (cinnamomym tarnata) as well as arecanuts are widely grown. Timber, fuel trees, cane and bamboo are major sources of income.
The heavy rainfall is a major factor in the state’s agriculture. Lack of post-harvest facilities coupled with an inadequate transport network are deterrents to marketing. For example, the brief closure of border trade with Bangladesh sometime back had affected farmers with a sizeable marketable surplus of agricultural produce like cashew, pineapple, banana, cotton, orange, potato and ginger. The ginger of the Garo Hills is exported to other parts of India.
A research institute supported by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research was set up in Meghalaya in 1975 to suggest feasible techniques suited for the area. The Shillong-based North Eastern Council has initiated farmers? training in the institution?s Krishi Vigyan Kendras.
Limestone, coal and the cement industry at Cherrapunjee have generated employment. The handloom and cottage industries are also significant. The state has significant reserves of uranium.
Art and culture
Wangala or the 100 drums festival is held in the Garo Hills in honour of the Sun God of Fertility. Doregata dance and Pomelo dance are the other two major Garo festivals of rhythm, fun and frolic. The Khasis have the famous colourful Nongkrem dance and Shad Suk Mynsiem festival, with display of traditional Khasi finery, besides the harvest dances. Again, the Jaintias celebrate the Behdienkhlam festival where decoration and artistic presentation reign supreme as well as the attractive Laho dance in bright, traditional attire.
Many parts of Meghalaya are wonderful trekking country. Lady Hydari Park, Don Bosco Square, St Paul?s Cathedral and the Botanical Garden are tourist spots in Shillong, besides the pleasant Ward?s Lake in the heart of the capital. The State Tribal Museum at the Central Library complex gives visitors a glimpse into the lifestyles and heritage of the indigenous populace. The Sohpetbneng Peak (1,343 metres), 20 km from Shillong, is regarded as sacred by the Hynniewtrep clan.
The Umiam Lake at Barapani, which is 17 km from Shillong, on the other hand offers various watersport facilities. The Shillong Golf Club with its 18-hole course at the Polo Ground area is set in low hills with groves of pine and rhododendrons.
Among the wettest places on earth are Mawsynram and Cherrapunjee. The famed Nohsngithing waterfalls is also close by. There are unexplored stalactite and stalagmite caves at Siju, Mawsmai, Mawsynram, Katsati, Syndai and Penda. Waterfalls abound during the rains. The better known are Elephant Falls, Mowsmai, Sweet, Bidon and Spread Eagle.
The state is also rich in wildlife, including elephants, golden cats, binturong, slow loris, monkeys of different types and colourful birds like hornbills, partridges, teals, snipes and quails. The state has two national parks, namely the Nokrek National Park and the Balpakram National Park, besides the Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary.
Visitors should contact the state Department of Tourism or the district administration concerned for reservations in guest houses, hotels, circuit houses and dak bungalows.