The terrain in and around Cherrapunjee is undulating grassland with pockets of shrubbery. The steep slopes in the gorges are covered by tropical rain forests. In many places in and around Cherrapunjee there is hardly an inch of topsoil or it is exposed rocks. The condition of topsoil in most other places is rocky and is not conducive for supporting vegetation. Geologists feel that the table land of Cherrapunjee must have been thickly forested once upon a time. Progressive deforestation and the local system of ‘jhum’ cultivation involving slashing and burning of forests for shifting cultivation together with heavy rainfall over a very long period of time washing away the top soil must have contributed to its current barrenness. Writings dating back to 1840s comment on the barrenness of the place. Now, the land in and around Cherrapunjee cannot support cultivation.
The people of Cherrapunjee have, therefore, to find their livelihood by pursuing other occupations. Cherrapunjee i.e. Sohra has evolved as a market place for the produce of the villages around Cherrapunjee and the needs of provision for the people of the area. The fruits from the villages around are sold in Sohra market as the fruits of Sohra, whereas almost nothing grows in Sohra. In Khasi language, ‘Soh’ means fruit and ‘rah’ means carry. Since the fruits of Sohra are carried from the villages around, it is alluded that ‘Sohra’ got its name from ‘Soh’ and ‘rah’. We cannot vouch for the correctness of this assumption. Cherrapunjee’s original name is ‘Sohrapoonjee’. ‘Poonjee’ refers to the head village where the seat of power of the Chieftain is. The English who ruled over this place from 1830-1947 could not pronounce ‘Sohrapoonjee’ correctly and as was typical of them named it ‘Cherrapunjee’. People who do not know the origin of the name also spell Cherrapunjee as ‘Cherrapunji’. Popular usage is Cherrapunjee, while we the people of the place continue to call it ‘Sohra’ only. Some old colonial period writings refer it as ‘Chirra’ too.
The people of Cherrapunjee and surrounding villages on the tableland have been resorting to mining of coal, limestone and sand. The ravaged sides of the hills stand mute testimony to the unplanned and unscientific methods of mining adopted. Some of these places are already suffering the consequences, one being the poor quality of potable water in some of these places. Mawmluh Cherra Cements Ltd., a Government of Meghalaya undertaking came up in the 1960s to generate employment and usher in development in this place by utilizing the locally available limestone and coal mineral resources. The cement factory has helped to stave off acute poverty by infusing money flow into the local economy.
The captivating beauty of Cherrapunjee and its surrounds with its amazing terrain, mesmerizing clouds, scores of frothing waterfalls leaping from lofty mountains down precipitous gorges thickly covered by tropical rain forests and lush green grasslands have thrilled many a nature enthusiast of all ages, down the ages. The breathtaking scenic beauty and the popularity of Cherrapunjee as the rainiest spot in the world has been attracting a sizeable flow of tourists from the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and others and from around the world over the years. With the abolition of Restricted Area Permits for foreign nationals, western interest in the miniscule ethnic communities with exotic cultures and unexplored virgin terrain with pristine natural beauty untouched by pollution with abundant scope for adventure activities is picking up at a quick pace. The Khasi Hills with its salubrious climate, an outgoing people, thin population and impressive scenery has caught the fascination of expatriate European, American and Australian population living in Bangladesh. Cherrapunjee and Shillong become easily accessible to them from Bangladesh through the land entry point at Dawki / Tamabil. Tourism is now beginning to attract the people of Cherrapunjee as an income generation avenue and as a means for gainful employment for the youth of the area.