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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Cherrapunji and Shillong

What do Furnace Creek, Vostok, and Arica have in common? Bingo: they're climatic record holders. So is Cherrapunji, which received over a thousand inches of rain in 1860. That was exceptional, but the place still on average gets over 450 inches annually. That makes it among the world's wettest places. What does it look like? You might be surprised.

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We're starting about 60 miles to the north on the Brahmaputra River at Guwahati, another of those Asian cities of a million people that Americans have never heard of. The Brahmaputra is the main tributary of the Ganges, and it has about as much water as that river--say, a bit over 500 cubic kilometers annually. That number is impossible to visualize, but this is the river in early March, when it's at its lowest flow. There's no dam here or downstream: this is the natural river.

See http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/basins/gbm/index.stm

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Yes, there's a highway bridge, but for pedestrians the old ferry is more convenient.

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The dock shifts month to month.

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In March, you have to hoof it to get to the August shoreline.

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Come August, they'll float again. Like an elephant next to a mouse, Guwahati is next to Dispur, the capital of Assam. Oddly enough, Dispur has only been the capital since 1973. Until then, and ever since the British created Assam in 1874, the capital was 40 miles to the south, at Shillong. The official justification for locating the capital there was that Shillong is midway between the Brahmaputra and the Surma, a river flowing south toward Dhaka. The unofficial reason was that Shillong, in the Khasi Hills separating the two rivers, is 5,000 feet above sea level. Guwahati's elevation: 200 feet. You see where this is going. Shillong's average high temperature in August (the warmest month) is 76 degrees Fahrenheit; down on the Brahmaputra at Guwahati it's 90. No-brainer.

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Shillong is now the capital of Meghalaya, a state carved out of Assam in 1973 to include the Khasi Hills and adjoining areas.

There's not a lot of traffic heading south to the Surma River, because the Surma is now in Bangladesh, but there's a bit. Also, Shillong still has 150,000 people and draws Indians for the same reason it drew the British. Visitors to Cherrapunji come this way, too; it's 20 miles beyond Shillong. So maybe there's enough traffic to justify this toll road from Guwahati to Shillong. How the government justifies signs predominantly in English is another matter, since many drivers can't read it.

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You wonder if India has rules, procedures, and codes? Wonder no more.

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Rule-making has been elevated in India to an art form, an officious display of passive aggression.

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So we have smooth sailing up to Shillong.

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Except here at Umsning. The villagers rejected the offer the highway department made for their land. In China, of course, their objections would have been ignored or crushed. Not in India.

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Perhaps the villagers were right to decline the offer. Cropland here is scarce.

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The result was that the road engineers decided to build a 3-mile-long bypass around the village.

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Good idea? Good question. Here are the shops and autorickshaws of Umsning. As of 2016 they had lots of customers. What happens when the traffic skirts them? Lesson of the day: be careful what you wish for.

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We're climbing, but the picture is for the smoke. Forest fire? Not a prayer.

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The hills are deliberately burned late in the dry season by villagers who then plant crops watered by the coming monsoon. Forestry officers may weep, but traditions are hard to change, especially when livelihoods depend upon them.

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Rest stop. What do you think the charcoal's for?

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There's your answer.

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A competitor offers home-cooked food brought to the site. Why would someone who could afford this car do this? Answer: jobs in Shillong are scarce.

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Job scarcity notwithstanding, you can see why the British liked these highlands. In 1924 they laid out this 18-hole Shillong golf course. In case you're wondering how the British survived in Shillong for 50 years without golf, the answer is that they didn't. An earlier course opened in 1898.

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The town is still filled with old homes that made Britishers feel cozy.

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Metal roofs are handy when there's 85 inches of rain annually.

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This old house is now the Cafe Shillong B&B.

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Here's the inflated Pine Wood Hotel, in business since the beginning of time and considerably spruced up in recent years.

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In the lobby there's a German grand that surely has been here since the Raj.

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Many of the rooms are of the same vintage, but they're in better shape than they were 30 years ago. Here's Alexander Frater's account of his introduction to the hotel in about 1990: "The manager said the hotel had been built early in the century by an entrepreneurial Swiss couple, M. and Mme Perouse, for vacationing planters from the Assam tea gardens. My room was cavernous, with a shadowy dressing room and bathroom adjoining, but dank and dirty. The manager pointed this out himself in a smiling, good-humoured way. 'Pretty filthy, eh?' he exclaimed. 'No water and power only sometimes; if you need water a peon will bring. Oh, and rats also.'

See Frater's Chasing the Monsoon, (Penguin, 1991), p. 248.

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When the British first came to Shillong, they built in stone. An earthquake in 1897 persuaded them to reconsider, and the town was rebuilt in more flexible materials. Here's the entrance to the local office of the Survey of India, housed in one of the post-earthquake government buildings.

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Isn't it great? Almost Japanese, and none of the gothic or classical Greek frippery weighing heavily on the facades of government buildings in Bombay and Calcutta.

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On the fly: a record room that's absolutely vintage India.

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Here's the headquarters of the Public Works Department. Are you getting a sense of how the Brits coped with quakes?

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Same building, seen from across the street. Yes, Shillong has bad traffic. It used to be fun driving in India.

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Here's All Saints, the Anglican cathedral. If you made a list of the world's most modest Anglican cathedrals this would surely be in the top ten. But of course there was a reason for building it this way. Here's the way one British governor explained it: Government House, where he lived, "was single-storied, with what was termed wire-crete walls, wire-netting enclosed within a wooden frame and plastered over, designed to withstand earthquakes, which it did very well. The great earthquake of 1897 had practically laid all Shillong flat, including the old Government House. Buildings then were of stone, a material thereafter abandoned."

See Robert Reid, Years of Change in Bengal and Assam, p. 92.

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The interior. Calm as can be, but the memorials are a reminder of different conditions.

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Manipur is about 140 miles to the southeast and is flush against the Burmese border. It was a princely state during the Raj, became part of Assam in 1949, was granted statehood in 1972, and is still the home of a separatist movement.

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Outside the church there's a much bigger memorial to the victims of the Manipur Outbreak.

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The memorial leaves out the gory details, but the press at the time didn't. "The Manipuris state that the chief, Senaputty, after a durbar, signalled the massacre of the British. Mr. Greenwood, British resident at Manipur, was stabbed in the back, and then beheaded. Mr. Quinton, Chief Commissioner at Assam, Lieutenant-Colonel Skene, and the buglers were beheaded...." See: New Zealand's Northern Advocate, May 1, 1891, at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NA18910506.2.10.1.1

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The local cemetery recalls other attacks. The site of this one is now Alexandrapur, in Katlicherra town, Hailakandi District, Assam. It's about 90 miles southeast of Shillong, but a good eight-hour drive.

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Of course the Indians have erected monuments to their own heroes.

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U Tirot Sing was a Khasi chief who conducted a guerrilla war against the British. Betrayed in 1833, he was exiled to Dhaka. He died there two years later. The date of his death, July 17th, is a state holiday in Meghalaya.

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Fifty years after the earthquake of 1897, the Catholic church of Mary Help of Christians opened on the site of a wooden church built by German missionaries in 1913. It had burned, which perhaps explains the interest in concrete. To resist earthquakes, this one rests on trenches excavated in the bedrock, then filled with sand.

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The light-filled interior is almost skeletal, which reduces weight while simultaneously taunting the tectonic gods. There are reportedly 300,000 Catholics in the Shillong archdiocese, but other denominations have long been active in the Khasi Hills. We'll soon meet the Calvinistic Methodists who devoted themselves to Cherrapunji.

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The road continues south.

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The deeply incised plateau of the Khasi Hills.

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The extraordinary precipitation of Cherrapunji appears to be caused by the southern edge of the plateau blocking air masses coming from the south and forcing them to rise and cool.

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Oddly enough, most of the year there's very little surface water at Cherrapunji, and residents have to hunt for it.

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Any ideas?

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You might think that the path leads to some village across the canyon.

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Nope: it dead-ends at this spring, handy for laundry.

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The town stands close to the plateau's edge. The institutional buildings belong to the Ramakrishna Mission, a Calcutta-based organization operating here a boarding school and hospital.

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Lots of places advertise sunny weather; not Cherra. The rust seems appropriate.

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The less-than-picturesque central taxi stand.

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The adjoining market has a much greater variety than old people here knew as children.

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A butcher shop.

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Fish and poultry.

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Houses are raised to stay dry in the rainy season.

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Another example.

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Any idea what's in the sacks?

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Charcoal goes some way toward explaining why the forests on the hills have been decimated.

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And now to the Calvinistic Methodists, beginning with this fine old squeeze stile. The denomination is Welsh, is formally the Presbyterian Church of Wales, and has nothing to do with Scotland. It arose in the second half of the 18th century and until 1840 turned over the funds it raised for missionary activity to the London Missionary Society. When that organization began to look askance at the Welsh theology, the Welsh created that own missionary society.

See http://daibach-welldigger.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-swansea-newspaper-reports-revival-2.html

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The first missionary they sent here came almost by accident: his name was Thomas Jones, and in 1841 he came to Calcutta with his wife because a ship captain offered him a discounted rate. He's remembered on the memorial you see here. It stands before the Cherrapunji Theological College, established in 1897. The college now operates in Shillong, and this building is now the Thomas Jones missionary school.

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Old name and new.

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Many years later, Governor Reid would write that "it is difficult to exaggerate the Welsh missionaries' benefits to Assam. Their first representative, Thomas Jones, walked up the hill to Cherrapunji in 1841, and since 1887 [sic] it has been where their teachers and preachers have trained. It was he who reduced the Khasi language to writing." Jones chose to render Khasi in the Latin alphabet, not the Bangla that others had abortively chosen earlier.

See Reid, p. 98.

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Memorials leave out the bad stuff, such as the fact that Jones' wife died in childbirth five years after their arrival in Cherrapunji. She's buried in the local cemetery. Jones then remarried a 15-year-old, which displeased the church authorities, and he was finally obliged to leave Cherrapunji and the church. He died in Calcutta of malaria in 1848, when he was 39, and he's buried there.

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A string of missionaries followed.

The name Sohra is the indigenous name of the place. The British managed to pronounce it "Cherra," to which "punji" was later added.

Note numbers 12 and 16.

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Here's Number 16 on the list.

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Evans was a friend of Evan Roberts, a leader in the 1904-05 Welsh Revival. Evans participated in the fervor and married the sister of Evan Roberts. Fifteen years later, long after the revival had died down, Evans at age 37 moved with his wife, Mary, to Cherrapunji. The two stayed here for 25 years, with Sydney serving through that period as principal of the bible college. In 1945 the couple returned to Wales, where Sydney served as minister of the Bethel Chapel at Gowerton, near Swansea. He died in 1960, aged 76.

See: daibach-welldigger.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-swansea-newspaper-reports-revival-2.html

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A good-sized bungalow must have helped a lot during the interminable monsoon downpours. When the pink was added is anybody's guess.

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Mary Evans worked at the nearby school run by the mission.

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She's remembered, too.

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Had they not retired to Wales, the couple might have ended in one of Cherrapunji's two cemeteries--one Anglican and the other Presbyterian.

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The Presbyterian cemetery overlooks the church. The former theological college is the building to its left.

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Most of the stones are now illegible.

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There are a few elaborate but still illegible monuments.

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Here's one that's fared better than most.

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Here's Missionary Number 12. Roberts was the founding principal of the theological college. With minimal medical training, he also treated thousands of patients over the years, though he did so apparently less to heal them than to shake their faith in traditional medicine and so prepare them for conversion. A recent student writes that Roberts was swept away in a cholera epidemic that he might have survived "if a simple bladder catheter had been available."

See D. Ben Rees, Vehicles of Grace and Hope: Welsh Missionaries in India, 1800-1970, p. 161.

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A newer memorial has been added. The last line alludes to the fact that Roberts translated the Bible into Khasi.

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Here's another Jones, one well-known to Thomas, though apparently unrelated to him. This Jones stayed permanently, so to speak, dyingwithin his first year at Cherrapunjee.

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What about the unconverted Khasi people, "covered in black darkness," according to the missionaries.

See Martin Wellings, ed., Protestant Nonconformity and Christian Missions, p. 16.

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The Khasis have left stones like these scattered about. They carry no inscriptions.

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British officers knew them well. Here's what one officer wrote shortly after 1900: "The Khasi monoliths are a prominent feature in the landscape in almost every portion of the district. They are generally arranged in rows, varying in number from three to nine. The centre stone is invariably the tallest and is sometimes crowned with a piece of stone the size and shape of a plate. A flat table like stone, supported on small pillars about one foot high, is placed in front of each group of three monoliths, and for each extra pair of monoliths there is an additional flat stone. Some of these monoliths are of enormous size. At Nartiang there is a stone which is 26 feet 6 inches high, 6 feet 9 inches wide, and 2 feet 3 inches thick. These memorial stones fall into two classes, those which are erected by the family or clan in memory of their ancestors, and those erected by children in honour of their parents. They are generally placed near paths where they will be continuously in the public eye, and are often far away from the place where the ashes of the person in whose honour they have been erected are buried."

See B.C. Allen, The Khasi and Jaintia Hills..., Assam District Gazetteers, vol. 10, 1906, p. 53.


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