Terrain in and Around Cherrapunjee
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 just 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. Usually, and even now in most cases, the fruits are carried in baskets strapped to the head of the carrier up the steps, through sheer human power from the villages in the deep gorges.
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. Mining has scarred many of the hills around Sohra forever.
Mawmluh Cherra Cements Ltd., a Government of Meghalaya undertaking came up in the 1960s to generate employment and usher in development to this place by utilizing the locally available limestone and coal mineral resources. The cement factory had helped to stave off acute poverty by infusing money flow into the local economy. Over the years political nepotism led to a large pool of less productive labour being infused in its rolls and the mismanagement of the enterprise resources. Once the original wet process machinery started aging and required replacement, a dry process plant was chosen. By that time, the production dipped to negligible levels and production had to be frequently stopped for maintenance.
The machineries that were brought for the dry process were allowed to lie out in the open for a few monsoons before getting assembled to make the dry process plant. The workforce did not have the expertise to handle the dry process plant. There were many hiccups for the dry process plant to start operating. Now, the plant is not producing and wages have not been paid to the workers for many months. It is understood that efforts are on to get a private party for a Public, Private Partnership. The Pandemic has increased the hardships for all those dependent on this defunct Cement Plant.
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 was attracting a sizeable flow of tourists from the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. These hills experienced a pleasant climate when the surrounding plains simmered in the summer heat. Shillong and Cherrapunjee provided a welcome relief from the debilating heat of the surrounding plains and provided refreshing cool climes, scenic beauty and frothing waterfalls for enjoying a cool summer holiday.
Subsequent to the introduction of Low Cost Airlines in India, many major Cities in the Country were connected by direct or one hop flights to Guwahati, the Gateway to North East India. In May 2008, the Central Government introduced a Leave Travel Concessional Offer to all the Central Government employees and Central Government Undertakings that they can fly to North East India even if they are otherwise not eligible to fly. This helped generate interest in the North Eastern States amongst the Central Government employees across India. This singular act helped to spread the word about the scenic beauty and exotic cultures of North East India, that was home to many ethnic communities much different from other communities living in the rest of India. Few Regional language Films that got shot in Cherrapunjee and other areas captured the attention of more people in different pockets of India. The popularity of treks and other adventure activities in these amazing terrain magnetised the young IT professionals from the major IT hubs to flock to Meghalaya.
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 started picking up at a quick pace. The Khasi Hills with its salubrious climate, an outgoing people, thin population and impressive scenery caught the fascination of expatriate European, American and Australian population living in Bangladesh. Cherrapunjee and Shillong became easily accessible to them from Bangladesh through the land entry point at Dawki / Tamabil.
With the broadcasting of documentaries on the Living Root Bridges by BBC Wales and BBC London since 2004, Meghalaya got spotlighted across the World. The foreign diplomats posted in New Delhi also started to take interest in visiting Meghalaya to see the Living Root Bridges.
As the flow of tourists across India and from other parts of the World began to grow, the people of Sohra / Cherrapunjee and the villages around started realising the business and employment generation value of Tourism. Many in Sohra started taking to Tourism by establishing many Homestays, Hotels and Resorts. Tourism has now become a major income generation avenue and employment generator for the youth of the area.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus Pandemic forced the closure of all tourism businesses since March 2020. By October 2020, the tourism businesses were allowed to restart operations gradually. Slowly and steadily the flow of domestic tourists re-started very gradually. No one expected the second wave of Coronavirus. All the establishments are shut again from the last week of April 2021. There is talk of the third wave in about six month’s time after the second wave peaks. We are all keeping our fingers crossed and looking forward to the restart of care free travel days again.