‘Through the Green Door’, Book by Nigel Jenkins – Earthquake of 1897
Pages: 198 – 202
It killed a total of 1,542 people and, as it literally redesigned the area’s mountain landscape, reduced to dust and splinters every church, school, hospital and mission house the Welsh had built, both in the Hills and down in Sylhet. Miraculously, as they saw it, none of the Welsh community was killed, but of the 916 Khasi Jaintias who died, 600 were from Cherrapunjee and neighbouring villages. Many more died later of hunger and disease.
In mission compounds all over the hills that Saturday afternoon, the Welsh were taking tea: some, no doubt, were putting the final touches to the sermons they’d be preaching the following morning. Providence, Destiny, Judgment, those bywords of Empire, might have offered themselves as subject matter, for this was the Jubilee Year, and in ten days’ time, on June 22, there would be rejoicing throughout the Empire as the Great White Queen celebrated her fiftieth year on the imperial throne. The Rev. Robert Evans, the musical farmer’s son from Aberffraw who is remembered still as the man who taught the Khasis tonic sof-fa, was at home in his bungalow at Mawphlang, savouring a lull in the monsoon deluge that had drummed on his roof for most of the day. There were no advance tremors to warn the impending catastrophe.
“This time there was danger everywhere and instantly upon us”, he wrote in Y Ddaeargyryn yn Khasia a’i Heffeithiau (The Earthquake in Khasia and its Effects). “Quarter of a minute made the biggest change possible to every building in the land; and even the face of the land itself was hugely altered. At the end of this short period, all stone buildings were in ruins, and every wooden house had been twisted and turned, into every imaginable shape, until it was entirely unfit for habitation. Hundreds of thousands of tons of earth were carried away in colossal landslips, falling hundreds of feet with the sound of deafening thunder…”.
After the first great shake, which continued for some minutes came to an end, we had a short, dreamy respite of about a minute, during which we could look around us, and take in the damage that had been done… We thought now the worst was over…but very soon the earth started to shake and roar in so fierce a manner that it seemed it would flatten every house that it had not yet fully destroyed. The earth was somewhat like a child having convulsions. It would hurl itself about with indomitable strength, and then quieten down for a short while. It roared with every shake like a wounded beast in tortuous pain; indeed, it was as if all the beasts of the earth were howling together.”
Night was beginning to fall, and the sky was clouding over again, but the terrifying antics of the earth’s crust were all too visible.
“The surface of the earth was like the surface of the sea in a storm, lifted by waves, so that no-one could stand on their feet. It would have been bad enough to see these waves coming from one direction, but they were being pushed and shoved at us from all directions… And casting our eyes for a moment over the surrounding country, we’d see the earth torn open to the horizon, like a great curtain in a strong wind; and the highest hills looked as if they were pursuing each other, trying with one surge to tumble over one another.”
There were smaller quakes through the night and hundreds of tremors in the weeks that followed. Hillsides that once been covered with grass or forest were stripped in seconds of soil and vegetation: they looked like vast quarries, and the acres below them resembled crudely ploughed land. The government dispatched a surveyor to assess changes in the landscape: he reported that one mountain had had so many rocks shaken from its summit that it was now many feet lower than it had formerly been; another had been lifted many scores of feet higher than it had stood before, and a lake had been formed nearby where previously there had been none. The surveyor’s superiors found his observations bizarre that they sent the presumed incompetent back to the Hills and told him to take his measurement again, but he reported back with the same results.
The Emperor of Japan also sent an expert. This distinguished professor, noting the way in which stone walls had been not only simply demolished, but scattered over a distance of several feet, calculated that the earthquake had sent a shock-wave through the Hills that had jerked everything forwards at least ten inches, and then jerked it back ten inches – a cataclysmic whiplash movement which no stone structure could possibly survive.
In material terms, the earthquake was a catastrophe for the Mission, it lost 21 missionaries houses, 30 chapels, two hospitals, 250 schools and its Theological College. But spiritually, it built as it destroyed, driving hundreds of dismayed and battered Khasis into the arms of the Church.
“I incline strongly to the belief that perfecting His people and saving souls was God’s great purpose in this earthquake,” wrote the Rev. Robert Evans. In the months that followed, some two thousand Khasis became Calvinstic Methodists.
The poet Robin Ngangom has written of the “tremendous fear / of the earth shaker / who turns violently in his sleep..”, but prior to 1897 the Khasis seem to have been relatively unconcerned about the frequent minor shakings that the restless Himalayan massif inflicts on their Hills. Cherra had two mildly damaging earthquakes in 1851, and Shillong had suffered a couple of shocks in the 1860s. These certainly rattled the Europeans in their stone houses, but the Khasis, in their light pliable wooden huts, seemed to the missionaries remarkably unperturbed. In the many stories the Khasis told of events that happened three or more generations ago, there appeared to be no recollection of any particularly destructive earthquakes; and the presence, for longer than any one could remember, of monoliths as high as twelve, fourteen or even twenty-seven feet suggested that there could not have been a really serious earthquake in the Hills for perhaps hundreds of years.
But the quake of 1897 which toppled several of these stone giants, violently altered perceptions; as a landmark year by which, for instance, people used to reckon their ages, it dwells like a scar in the Khasi mind. While there may not, indeed, have been anything like it in living memory, there is at least one long-standing taboo that hints, after all, at some deep collective consciousness of the danger of earthquakes: the prohibition in Khasi religion against building a house with stone walls on all four sides. Perhaps centuries ago, even before their arrival in these Hills, the Khasis learned from some seismic catastrophe that to surround yourself with stone in earthquake country is to box yourself into a potential tomb.
After the earthquake, the use of bricks and stone in residential buildings was carefully avoided: houses built of planks and reeds daubed with plaster sprang up all over Shillong.
But with an influx of non-tribals and an absence lately of any sharp reminders from mother Earth, the protective reflexes of tribal consciousness are not what they were, at least in the towns: bricks and concrete and killer buildings rule.