Abode of Clouds
Hidden away in the subtle hills of eastern sub-Himalayas is Meghalaya, one of India's most beautiful states. It is a land blessed with bountiful rainfall, sunshine, virgin forests, high plateaus, breathtaking waterfalls, clear rivers, and meandering streams; a land of ancient cultures where the people are intelligent and friendly.
In Sanskrit, Meghalaya means 'the abode of clouds' and signifies the state's rightful claim as being the wettest place on the planet. Most of the state is covered by vast expanses of tropical primary forests and flourishing biodiversity of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Some of the small pockets of forests are known as sacred groves which have been preserved since ancient times by local communities due to religious and cultural significance.
Three ancient tribes inhabit the land and live a free autonomous lifestyle which allows for their practices to be preserved. While the Khasis and Jaintas come from the ancient lineage of Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race who are considered one of the first settlers in India and reside in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the Garos belong to the Tibetan-Burman race and reside in the Garo Hills. The cultures of Meghalaya have a matrilineal society where inheritance and lineage is passed on to women. In his observations, anthropologist David Roy notes this aspect as "a man is the defender of the woman, but the woman is the keeper of his trust".
Agriculture is the predominant source of livelihood for the people while other sources include mineral-based industries, forestry, horticulture, and small emporiums that promote traditional arts and crafts. The flowers of Meghalaya are renowned around the world and in recent years an approach to organic and sustainable farming has been extensively promoted in the state.
The fascinating close relationship that can be observed when humans live alongside and in tune with their natural environment can be observed in the lifestyles of the people of Meghalaya. From creating sacred forests to building bridges out of living roots, beliefs in forest spirits and stone monoliths, and a compassionate approach towards nature, Meghalaya delights with plenty of secrets for travelers who seek an adventure off the beaten path.
Meghalaya is home to three indigenous tribes, the Khasis, the Jaintias, and the Garos. The three tribes live in distinct parts of the state; the Jaintias occupy the Jaintia Hills of eastern Meghalaya, the Khasis occupy the Khasi Hills of central Meghalaya and the Garos reside in the western Garo Hills. The Khasis and Jaintias along with the Bhois and Wars are collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people. Belonging to the Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race, they are one of the earliest ethnic groups of settlers of the Indian sub-continent. The Garos who prefer to call themselves Achiks and their land Achikland, belong to the Bodo family of the Tibeto-Burman race and are believed to have migrated from Tibet.
The people of Meghalaya predominantly follow a matrilineal system where lineage and inheritance are passed down through the women of a family, where remarkably the youngest daughter inherits all the property and cares for aged parents and unmarried siblings. When there is no daughter in a family it is not unusual for the parents to choose another female such as a daughter-in-law as the heir to the house and all their possessions. It is worth mentioning that Meghalaya has one of the world's largest surviving matrilineal cultures.
As per tradition, the Khasis believe that their religion is given by God and is based on the belief in one supreme God who is the creator U Blei Nongthaw. A Khasi is a deeply religious person with an intense love for life. He believes that life is God's greatest gift and is accounted for in the hereafter. The Jaintias have the same religion but have also been influenced by Hinduism. The Garos too believe in one supreme creator Rabuga who is the sustainer and commander of the world. Other spirits act as his representative, and are appeased by sacrifices but never worshipped. The village headman remains the religious head of the community. Though many tribals have today converted to Christianity, the ways of the ancients still remain a part of their lifestyle and culture.
The Khasi and Jaintia tribes are particularly fond of songs that praise their land and nature; their landscape of hills, lakes, and waterfalls. The Garo songs are folk-related or dedicated to marriage, birth, festivals, and love. The state also has a liking for western music with many rock bands that perform over the country and host concerts of popular national and international artists.
Weaving is an ancient craft of the three tribes, used on both cloth and cane. Cane mats, stools, and baskets are famous artifacts. The Khasi cane mat called Tlieng can last for around 30 years. Musical instruments like the mouth organ, flute, and cup violin are also made from cane and bamboo, along with other indigenous products such as tobacco pipes and tribal weapons. The people of Meghalaya are majorly into agriculture, growing common crops such as rice, maize, potato, jute, mesta, cotton, areca nut, ginger, turmeric, betel leaf, and black pepper along with fruits such as orange, pineapple, lemon, guava, jackfruit, and bananas. Arts and crafts are also popular occupations that preserve their ancient knowledge. In recent years, horticulture has been promoted with an approach to sustainable organic farming resulting in making some of Meghalaya's flowers the best in the world. However, it is to be noted that rampant illegal and unscientific coal mining is prevalent in the state which is a growing threat to locals and the environment.
Meghalaya is a mountainous land geographically rich with stretches of valleys and highland plateaus that remain laced with caves, waterfalls, and forests. The state has large deposits of minerals such as coal, limestone, uranium, and sillimanite. There are many rivers in the state mostly rain-fed and seasonal. Shillong Peak at the center of Khasi Hills is the highest point in the state at 6,434 ft.
Almost seventy percent of Meghalaya is richly endowed with beautiful forests, considered to be among the richest botanical habitats in Asia. Most of the state consists of dense and open forest lands which fall under reserved forests, protected forests, and national parks. There is a rich diversity in the types of forests here; there are sub-tropical pine forests, grasslands, bamboo forests, evergreen forests, and moist deciduous forests. Due to the excess rainfall, there is a vast variety of floral and faunal biodiversity. The Nokrek Biosphere Reserve and the Balphakram National Park are considered to be the most biodiversity-rich areas of Meghalaya. In addition, there are three wildlife sanctuaries - Nongkhyllem WS, Siju WS, and the Bhagmara WS famous for its carnivorous pitcher plans.
Small pockets of ancient forests known as sacred groves can be found across the state which have been preserved by the communities for hundreds of years due to religious and cultural beliefs. These forests are reserved for community rituals and remain protected from all exploitation. Collectively, they protect and preserve numerous rare plant species and act as corridors for animals.
The varied climate and topography of Meghalaya allows for a vast diversity of flora, including parasites, epiphytes, succulent plants, and scrubs. Sal and teak are the two most important trees. Then there is a diversity of fruits, vegetables, spices, and medicinal plants. A fascinating 325 species of orchids are found in the state.
The faunal diversity of Meghalaya is equally stunning with the presence of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. More than 140 mammals are found in the state. Some of which are elephants, bears, red pandas, wild cats such as tigers and leopards, civets, mongoose, rodents, slow loris, weasels, wild buffalo, deer, wild boar, and primates such as the hoolock gibbon. There is a large variety of bats; the state's numerous limestone caves are home to India's rarest bat species. Common reptiles include lizards, crocodiles, tortoises, and numerous snake species such as the python, copperhead, green tree racer, king cobra, and vipers.
Meghalaya is a very important bird habitat hosting more than 600 species of which many are endemic to the region and surrounding areas. There are 34 species of birds in the state which are listed as worldwide threatened and 9 species remain critically endangered such as the oriental white-backed vulture and slender-billed vulture. Important birds of the state include the greater spotted eagle, hornbills, blithe kingfisher, white-cheeked hill partridge, grey peacock pheasant, and the tawny breasted wren babbler. Almost a quarter of India's butterfly species can be found in this tiny state.
Nongkrem Dance Festival (held annually in November) is a five day festival which is celebrated for the harvest thanksgiving by the Khasi tribe. The Nongkrem Dance is the most important festival of the Khyrim state. The festival is associated mostly with goat sacrifice and is held at Smit, which is around 15 kilometres to the southwest of Shillong.
Wangala or the harvest Festival runs for two days. The festival is dedicated to the sun god of fertility. Wangala is the greatest traditional festival of Garo tribes, who live in Meghalaya, India, Assam and Greater Mymensingh in Bangladesh. The tribes celebrate this festival at every harvesting period in late autumn. The festival falls during the second week of November each year.
Behdienkhalm Festival is celebrated by the people from Jaintia Tribe of Meghalaya. The festival is the most celebrated religious festival among the Jaintia tribe. Behdienkhlam is celebrated to chase away the Demon of Cholera. This festival is celebrated annually in July after the sowing period. This festival is also celebrated for seeking blessings of god for a bumper harvest.
With an average rainfall of 12,000 mm (470 in) in some areas, Meghalaya is the wettest place on earth, with most of the rain falling during the monsoon season from June to October. The weather from April to October is a mix of hot-humid and cold-rainy days with the rains peaking during the mid of monsoons. Summer nights are cool/cold depending on the elevation. The weather during the winter months remains dry. Day hours are sunny making the season ideal for the outdoors. Nights are cold depending on elevation and subzero temperatures are common in higher elevated parts of the state.