The capital of Meghalaya, Shillong is also referred to as the Scotland of the East for the rolling hills that surround the town as well as India’s Rock Capital because of the locals’ passion for music and the number of concerts held in the town. Shillong is named after the God of the Khasis, U Blei Shillong.
Since being made the civil station of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills in 1864 by the British, Shillong has steadily grown in size. In 1874, on the formation of Assam as the Chief Commissioner’s Province, it was chosen as the headquarters of the new administration because of its convenient location between the Brahmaputra and Surma valleys and also because Shillong’s climate was much cooler than tropical India. Shillong remained the capital of undivided Assam until the creation of the new state of Meghalaya on 21 January 1972, when Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya, and Assam moved its capital to Dispur in Guwahati.
During the First Anglo-Burmese War, the British authorities felt the need for a road to connect Sylhet and Assam which would traverse the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Impressed by the favourable cool climate of Khasi Hills, the authorities negotiated with the Syiem of Sohra in 1829 for a sanatorium for the British and this began the consolidation of British interests in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills. A serious uprising by the Khasis against foreign occupation followed which began in early 1829 and continued till January 1833. Eventually, the Khasi confederate chiefs were no match against the British and they surrender with the leader of the Khasi resistance, Tirot Sing, taken to Dacca or present-day Dhaka for detention. After the resistance of the Khasis, a political agent was posted in the hills, with its headquarters at Sohra, also known by the name Cherrapunjee. But the climatic condition and facilities of Sohra did not make the British happy who then moved out to Shillong.
In 1874, a separate Chief Commissionership was formed with Shillong as the seat of administration. The new administration included Sylhet, now a part of Bangladesh. Also included in the Chief Commissionership were the Naga Hills in present-day Nagaland, the Lushai Hills in present-day Mizoram as well as the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo Hills.
Shillong was also the subject of the great earthquake that occurred on 12 June 1897. With an estimated magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale, the earthquake caused twenty-seven lives to be lost as well as a major part of Shillong destroyed. Lying on the Shillong Plateau, it is the only major uplifted structure in the northern Indian shield. The city lies in the centre of the plateau and is surrounded by hills, three of which are revered in Khasi tradition – Lum Sohpetbneng, Lum Diengiei, and Lum Shyllong. The Umiam lake lies between Shillong and Guwahati which lies about 100 km north of the town.
At the height of 6449 ft above sea level, Shillong Peak is the highest point of Shillong. It offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire city, the Himalayas, the waterfalls as well as the plains of Bangladesh. A telescope is available to get a bird’s eye view. Trekking up to this semi-circular Shillong Peak is highly recommended for the best views but it is often bounded by heavy fog. It is said that Shillong gets its name from Shillong Peak with a local legend that tells us of the patron deity Leishyllong who resides in the hills and protects the city from all evils. The U Shulong site at the top of the peak is sacred and every spring, a ritual is organised there. The peak is part of an airport base and features a radar station of the Indian Air Force. Due to security reasons, heavy checking is done at the gates, and tourists are asked to deposit their cameras. The peak is open between 9 am to 5 pm and entry is free. The telescope service charges INR 10 per person.
With a name that means the navel of heaven, Sohpetbneng lies 1343m above sea level and offers breathtaking views of Shillong. Diengiei Peak is located on the western part of Shillong at an altitude of 6200 ft Because of the peak’s steep and precipitous gradient, it makes for excellent mountain climbing as well as other adventurous sports like rock climbing and rappelling.
Named after an Elephant-like stone at its base, Elephant Falls are amongst the most popular falls in the North-East, located about 12 km from Shillong. The falls are a tourists’ paradise with three layers of the falls accessible from different vantage points. The stone for which the falls are named disintegrated and was washed away due to an earthquake in 1897. Also known as the Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew or the Three-Step Waterfall by the local Khasi people, the falls consist of three falls in succession. The first of the three waterfalls is tucked between the dense trees and is very broad. The second waterfall reduces to thin strands of water and is almost negligible in winters due to the receding water levels. The third and the most visible waterfall is the tallest with clear water flowing like a sheet of milk on the dark rocks in the backdrop. Out of the three, the third waterfall tends to strike the visitors as the most impressive. The best time to visit the falls is just after the end of the monsoon as the water flows at full strength. Closed on Sundays, the falls are open between 10 am and 6 pm daily and have no entrance fee.
One of the country’s steepest and most mesmerising falls, Sweet Falls is located about 5 km from Happy Valley at a height of 96 metres. The route to the waterfall is not well maintained and is quite treacherous, surrounded by slippery stones resulting in some tragic stories. Unlike the tiered waterfalls of Meghalaya, Sweet Falls is a thick rush of water falling from a great height making it impossible to stand below or take a bath in the falls. Sweet Falls is also believed to be haunted by the locals who believe that if people visit the site in odd numbers, they return in even numbers. Surrounded by verdant greenery, Sweet Falls is a popular picnic spot which has a butterfly museum and a mini zoo nearby. While there is no entry fee, vehicles need to pay a fee of INR 70 to reach the falls.
Located in the East Khasi District about 6 km from Shillong, Spread Eagle Falls are considered to be the widest in all of Shillong. Also known as Sati Falls or Urkaliar because of the belief that Ka Liar slipped into it, the majestic waterfall gushes down steep hills, towering three sides into a massive pool of water which is ideal to sit and lounge. The Spread Eagle Falls, which looks like an eagle with its wings spread wide, hence the name is a popular picnic site amongst the locals.
Crinoline Falls are also called the Blue Heaven Falls and are a stunning waterfall situated near Lady Hydari Park. Located amid the forest the falls make for a breathtaking view and a great swimming experience. The waterfall cascades down from a height of about 40 feet and creates a pool at the base which is surrounded by beautiful orchids. The trip to the waterfall can be made by trekking through the green forest and it is the perfect location to relax in complete tranquillity. Trekkers can follow the water as it flows through the forest, enjoy listening to the sounds of gushing water, take photographs and also have a picnic here. There is a restaurant nearby where people can grab a bite to eat and evening programs are often organised nearby too. The falls are open between 10 am and 6 pm daily.
A man-made reservoir, Umiam Lake is located at a distance of 15 km north and was formed after a dam was constructed to generate hydroelectric power. The scenic Umiam Lake is encircled by the lush green East Khasi hills that form one of the best panoramic sights in the country. The sunrise at the lake is a treat to watch and shouldn’t be missed. There is a park adjoining the lake which is a picnic hotspot. The lake and reservoir are surrounded by thick coniferous forests and expand over an area of about 222 sq km. There is boating and other water sports available at the lake. In summers, the shores are adorned by beautiful Gulmohar trees while in winters, the water level recedes and turns azure. The name Umiam means water of tears in Khasi, and according to legend, there were once two sisters who began their journey from heaven to descend to Meghalaya. The younger sister lost her way during the journey and the grief of not being able to find her sister was unbearable for the elder sister who shed tears continuously which formed the Umiam Lake. The lake is famous for its lovely little boathouse on a lake island, Lumpongden Island. Visitors have to book the Boat House in advance and at any given time, only a group of six people can stay there. At the lake, visitors have to take a boat ride to the island which will cost about INR 1200 for both ways. While the lake is open all the time, water sports activities are open from 9 am to 5 pm. Fees for a pedal boat or a canoe or a kayak for 30 mins is INR 20, while skiing will cost INR 200, while scooters and river buses cost INR 50, and yachting will set one back by INR 100
Lying in the centre of Shillong, Ward’s Lake is an artificial lake surrounded by a prolific green garden and is a major tourist attraction around which the city has been planned. Also known as Pollock’s Lake, the lake is a popular picnic spot. In the middle of Ward’s Lake is a small bridge which allows visitors to have a panoramic view of the lake or feed the tiny fishes floating around in the water for which puffed rice is available at the entrance of the lake. The major highlight of the lake is paddle boating. Ward’s Lake is named after the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Sir William Ward, who initiated the construction of this lake. The lake is open from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm between November and February and from 8:30 am to 7 pm between March and October. Entry fees are INR 10 for adults and INR 5 for children.
A famous sulphur hot water spring, Jakrem is located about 64 km from Shillong and is believed to have curative medicinal properties. Also developed into a health resort and popular picnic spot, Jakrem can be easily reached using a local taxi or bus.
Perched on the East Khasi Hills, Laitlum Canyons are located about 21 km south of Shillong and is a less explored but eautiful tourist and trekking destination. Translating to the end of the hills, the canyons offer the best views of the whole of Meghalaya hedged by hills and valleys. It is ideal for quiet and peaceful getaways and to catch the canyons at their best, it is best visited during sunrises or sunsets. One has to hike for about 2 km via the shorter route or more than that via the longer route to reach Laitlum Canyons. From the top of the Canyon, one can also catch a view of Rasong, a small hamlet nestled deep in the ridges of the Laitlum gorge. It is a must-visit for nature lovers and photographers. There is also a challenging, yet interesting trekking opportunity down to the Smit village, which is about 6 km away from the Canyons. The flowing Laitlum stream, underneath an ancient-looking bridge en route promises wonderful views and a lush green path. There is also a 270-degree viewpoint where one can stop and stare, as well as click photographs of the four waterfalls nearby. Laitlum Canyons are open between 6 am to 5 pm and the best time to visit it is in the afternoon hours since during the mornings and evenings, it is covered with fog and one cannot catch clear views.
The popular Lady Hydari Park is named after the first lady of the state and wife of the Governor of Assam, Lady Hydari. Built in the form of a Japanese garden, the garden is filled with round-shaped hedges, willow trees with leaves touching the ground as well as many scattered small ponds. There is also a small lake where one can find ducks and colourful fish. The park has a children’s zone with swings and slides. There is also a small zoo inside the park which houses over 73 species of birds and over 100 reptiles including the Himalayan black bear, leopards, jackals, porcupines, serows, hornbills and kites. This zoo is the only zoo in Shillong and so is always crowded. The park is also home to a small museum that displays photographs of rare species of wildlife and exhibits such as the skins of elephants and a giant python and aims to highlight the state’s rich biodiversity. This sprawling park is located in the heart of the city and is a local favourite destination and picnic spot.
The Malki Forest is locally known as Khlaw Malki and is popular amongst those who want to take a break and spend some time amidst nature. Home to towering trees, especially British pine, which create a covering and provide shade to those exploring it, there are a few trails through Malki Forest which make it ideal for walking or trekking as well as different kinds of flora like wild flowers and mushrooms. There are also tiny streams that flow throughout the forest which also act as water sources. The best time to visit is early in the morning when all is quiet, sunlight peaks through the trees and one can hear the sound of birds chirping. It is also a great place for nature photography.
Some 78 km away from Shillong, a unique giant rock made out of red granite, Kyllang Rock is a giant dome in the West Khasi Hills. The Rock which is 5400 ft above sea level and has a width of around 1000 ft is a mammoth block of granite which is part of the Khasi folklore and is beautiful in shape. Surrounded by red rhododendrons, Kyllang Rock is said to have a special magnetic field that makes sure that people don’t fall off it. The mammoth dome is inaccessible from its southern side whereas the northern side is full of rhododendrons and bushes. Rock climbing lovers flock to Kyllang Rock to test their skills and enjoy some unhindered adventure. Trekking to the top of the rock takes around 30 minutes but the view from the top is worth it. One can also climb to the top by the staircase at the site. The rock can be visited any time of the year, barring the monsoon season when the ground is slick and wet.
Motphran, also known as the Monument of France was erected in memory of the 26th Khasi Labour Corps who served under the British in France during World War I. It bears the words of the Latin poet Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori which can be roughly translated as it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country. Due to government neglect and public apathy, this monument is now in a dilapidated condition.
Shillong has one of the largest natural golf courses in Asia known as the Gleneagles of the East. The Shillong Golf Course enjoys the rare distinction of being one of the few natural golf courses in Asia. Not only is the golf course scenic and enjoyable, but it is also challenging. A group of British civil service officers introduced golf to Shillong in 1898 by constructing a nine-hole course and the present 18-hole course was inaugurated in 1924. The course is set in a valley covered with pine and rhododendron trees. The tight fairways, carpeted with local grass which hardens the soil, are difficult to negotiate. The number of out-of-bounds streams that criss-cross every fairway makes it all the more trying. Obstructions come in the form of bunkers, trees and rain. The longest hole is the 6th, which is a gruelling 594 yards. It was set in a valley at an altitude of 5,200 ft in 1898 as a nine-hole course and later converted into an 18-hole course in 1924 by Captain Jackson and C. K. Rhodes.
The Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians, also known as the Laitumkhrah Church is Shillong’s most beautiful church built on a steep plateau that requires one to climb a set of steps to reach and is named after Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The church with its towering arches and big stained-glass windows has two levels: a chapel and a huge cathedral. A distinguishing fact about the church is that it is constructed to resist earthquakes. The church is erected on the same site where the first-ever church of Shillong was built. It was made into a shrine in 1980 and it also houses the grave of the first archbishop of the city, Hubert D’Rosario near the altar. One can visit this church to look at the varied artwork depicting various chapters and scenes from the holy scriptures and the life stories of several saints. Besides admiring the architectural beauty and pristine scriptures, one can also catch the breathtaking views of the Brahmaputra River and the snow-clad mountains, on a clear day. Also the Grotto church that lies directly below it and can be best viewed from the viewpoint near the church should not be missed. The church is built in the Gothic style with interiors comprising of the terracotta cross stands, a bronze monument of the cavalry, huge stained glass windows made of Grenoble to reflect the colours in the sunlight and tall arches. It is built on sand, with trenches cut from rocks and half-filled with sand to absorb shocks during earthquakes. The church has two levels: the lower level which is a small chapel with a prayer hall filled with candles and prayer books and the upper level which is a huge cathedral having a big seating area. There is a set of 14 stations of the Holy Cross which are terracotta pieces depicting the life stages of Jesus Christ. The church is open from 7 am to 6:30 pm daily.
One of the oldest churches in Shillong, the All Saints Church was built during the British colonial period and boasts a colonial style of architecture. The church is completely made of wood and is busiest during Sunday mass. Situated opposite the State Central Library and quite close to the Police Bazaar, it is very convenient to reach the All Saints Church through any means of local transportation. The church is open between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm daily.
Hailed as Asia’s largest Museum of Indigenous Cultures, the Don Bosco Museum houses the beautiful culture and tradition of North East India. A seven-storeyed structure, the museum has 16 galleries that showcase artefacts, paintings and figures significant to the Northeastern culture. The museum is more of an institution with its research wing, publications, newsletters and cultural calendar. Another striking fact about the museum is that it is built in a hexagonal shape, which is why it is referred to as Shillong’s architectural pride. The museum is closed on Sundays and national holidays and other days it is open between 9 am to 5:30 pm during the summers and between 9 am to 4:30 during the winter months. Entry fees are INR 100 for Indian adults and INR 200 for adult foreigners while Indian students will need to pay INR 50 and foreign students will have to shell out INR 150.
Situated in the Mawshbuit village, the Ever Living Museum is a privately owned museum depicting nature, culture, tradition, posterity and history. An ethnographic museum, it houses the objects of the hill tribe of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills and is divided into three sections. The first section houses contemporary and ancient weapons and armoury used by the Meghalayan tribesmen. The second gallery displays bamboo handicrafts items and the third gallery is a beautiful lawn of orchids, wildflowers and fruits. The museum is open from 11 am and 6 pm daily between March and September and from 11 am to 5 pm between October and February. It is closed on Good Friday, Easter and Christmas and has an entry fee of INR 50 for adults and INR 20 for children while students need to pay INR 30.
Also known as the Entomological Museum, the Butterfly Museum is a very popular tourist attraction in the city. The museum houses an extensive collection of butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects as well as also cultivates butterflies for commercial purposes. Owned and managed by Riatsamthiah Wankhar, who also organises regular programs for the conservation of moths and butterflies, the museum is a great place to visit if travelling with children. The museum is open from 10 am to 4:30 pm on Mondays to Fridays and from 10 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays and has an entry fee of INR 5 per person.
Situated in the Upper Shillong area, the Air Force Museum is a showcase of the Indian Air Force and its defence history. The museum has aircraft models, uniforms of pilots, miniature models of missiles, rockets, machinery and technology demonstrations of the Indian Air Force Eastern Command along with pictures of the Indo-China and Indo-Pakistan wars. During the winter months, the museum is open from 9:30 am and 4:30 pm and from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm during the summer months. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays and there is a lunch break when the museum closes its shutters between 1 and 2:30 pm daily. Entrance is free.
The Meghalaya State Museum exhibits a vast collection of artefacts of the tribal era and a collection of ancient scriptures. The museum is situated within the State Central Library complex and is managed by the state government. The museum is closed on Saturdays and Sundays and is open between 10 am and 4 pm on Mondays to Fridays and has no entrance fees.
The Rhino Heritage Museum is a museum dedicated to the army and gets its name from the pink-coloured rhinoceros sculpture installed outside the premises. Among other exhibits, the highlight is the display of the weaponry of the Japanese army. Built in 1928, it is believed that the site of the museum is where the Japanese prisoners of war were imprisoned. It was later built and renovated by Lt. Gen Shokin Chauhan, the director general of the Assam Rifles. The Rhino Heritage Museum has distinctive galleries and photographs showcasing not just military paraphernalia but also depicting the local culture Closed on Thursdays, the museum is open from 9 am to 1 pm and then again between 3 and 5 pm daily.
The Capt. Williamson Sangma State Museum offers insights into the lifestyle of the local people. This museum is in the State Central Library complex where monuments to Indira Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose have been erected.
In the next part, we will see more of Meghalaya’s beauty.