SITTING overlooking a heritage golf course nicknamed The Gleneagles, nursing a generous drop of Glen Grant, I draw my jacket closer as dusk and the temperature fall in gentle sync.
My gaze takes in a tartan-wearing family trudging up the stone-lined path, and clusters of porch lights twinkling to life on the surrounding hillsides, before I take another warming sip. A relaxing weekend break in the Highlands? Not quite.
Cool, misty and dense with fir and pine trees, the East Khasi Hills are all the way over to India’s north-east, a relatively less visited and less accessible region ensconced between Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. But it’s easy to see why they immediately struck a chord with the officers of the British Raj more than 150 years ago.
How palpable must have been their relief when, nostalgic for home and seeking refuge from the sweltering summer heat of the plains of Assam and Bengal, they came across these undulating green hills that so reminded them of the Highlands that they termed them the “Scotland of the East”?
Its old-world charm is a delight to unearth on a bracing wintry walk
By the 1860s, having established authority over the native Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes, they had settled the town of Shillong, 5,000ft closer to the clouds.
Now the capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and home to some 350,000 people, Shillong has retained more than just its colonial sobriquet. Its old-world charm is a delight to unearth on a bracing wintry walk. After a light drizzle, everything is green, fresh and wet, with coniferous trees and flowering bushes soothing the eyes at every turn. Under a mesh of overhead telephone and electric wires, steep streets wind past the stone walls of beautiful colonial bungalows. Low and sprawling, with wooden frames and corrugated tin roofs, these traditional “Assam-type” houses are perfectly suited to the wet climate. Though the relentless march of urban redevelopment goes on at the fringes, Shillong’s trove of heritage buildings, parks and lakes creates a timeless illusion of the good old days, of life moving at a slower, more sustainable pace.
Cathedrals dot the landscape, and attending the Sunday service is an important family ritual. Meghalaya is a Christian-majority state, the legacy of 19th-century conversions by Welsh missionaries. Interestingly, legend has it that the town derives its name from a deity named U Shyllong: conceived immaculately to a virgin mother in a nearby village, the boy was stillborn and was buried – before miraculously returning years later as a handsome youth to restore “democratic governance and the rule of justice”.
In recent times, Shillong has faced something of an identity crisis, as it struggles to absorb migrants from other Indian states and Muslim immigrants via the porous Bangladeshi border. The growing numbers of dkhars (non-tribals) have led to the emergence of “Khasi pride” groups intent on protecting, or occasionally enforcing, indigenous traditions. During my visit, one faction called for a district-wide bandh (shutdown) in protest against inbound migration. Nevertheless, compared with the militant secessionist movements in neighbouring Nagaland, Meghalaya remains a tourist-friendly bastion of relative calm.
India’s north-east situation is not dissimilar to that between Scotland and England
Over a mug of aromatic homegrown tea at a cosy little café off a busy market street in Laitumkhrah, it strikes me that the situation with India’s North-east is – armed factions aside – not dissimilar to the current state of the Union between Scotland and England: states torn by the desire to break away from a distant power centre and to chart their own course, yet held back by the pull of a shared modern history. But pondering the future seems a futile exercise, especially when there’s such a sensory feast to savour in the here and now.
Outside the café, the pavements are lined with women wrapped in tartan shawls hawking piles of fresh produce: mustard greens, red cabbage, bamboo shoots, corn, soh-phlang tubers, starfruit, gooseberries, oranges and pineapples. Down little alleyways, rudimentary market stalls offer up fresh cuts of pork and river fish, and everything from natural loofahs, brooms and cane baskets to slingshots, machetes and heaps of coal.
There is a certain neatness to it all, noticeable in a country that tends towards the messy and chaotic. I’m duly informed that Khasis as a culture take particular pride in being neat and clean – and it is no coincidence that Mawlynnong, billed as India’s cleanest village, is located in this state.
I enjoy a long stroll along the winding hill roads towards the commercial hub of Police Bazaar, dodging traffic and taking in the bustling Shillong evening. I pass innumerable bric-a-brac shops, poky bars, teer dens (a popular form of gambling involving archery) and roadside vendors filling the air with the tempting sizzle of stir-fried spicy noodles, Tibetan-style dumplings, the famous pani puri street snack, and hot, crisp jalebis, an irresistibly sticky, syrupy North Indian sweet.
I somehow hold out until I arrive at a jadoh stall – a small, basic rice-and-meat eatery run by a motherly looking Khasi lady – and tank up on dohneiiong (pork curried with black sesame paste), eaten over a mound of rice and boiled greens, seasoned with pickled bamboo shoot and fermented soybean paste.
It shares the wettest-place-on-Earth crown with nearby Mawsynra
The next morning, I join a resident friend for a drive out to Cherrapunji, or Sohra to the locals. With a staggering 12 metres of rainfall a year, it shares the wettest-place-on-Earth crown with nearby Mawsynram. We stretch out the 40 twisting miles with leisurely stops to sip tea from tiny wooden stalls by the roadside, and to soak in the panorama of velvety-green hills cradling deep, mist-obscured valleys, which explode into spectacular waterfalls when the rains come down. Along the way, British-built bridges and pipelines, solidly constructed to outlast governments and administrative borders, can be seen still rendering faithful service.
After lunch we venture into Sohra town. Neatly kept traditional houses line the quiet road, with curious elders and shy children peeping out from the windows. We pass the school founded by the fondly remembered Welsh missionary Thomas Jones, who arrived here in 1841, proselytising and teaching in the native tongue, forever changing the face of these hills.
Further on, we climb up a grassy hillock overlooking the town. Blackened, weather-worn gravestones carved with British names indicate the final resting place of many of these pioneering folk. They’re a long way from home. Or perhaps, amidst these misty green hills, they’re right where they belong.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Kolkata on Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) start from £500pp. Then fly on to Guwahati, £30pp each way on IndiGo (book.goindigo.in).
From Guwahati airport, catch the twice-daily (Mon-Sat) helicopter shuttle to Shillong (megtransport.gov.in/helicopter_service.html), £15-£20pp for the 20-minute flight. Alternatively, hire a taxi (£3-£4pp sharing or £12-£15 to reserve the car) for the three-hour, 80-mile road journey.
Royal Heritage Tripura Castle (tripuracastle.com), a former royal dwelling set within nine wooded acres, rooms £35-£80 a night.
Hotel Pinewood (megtourism. gov.in/hotels/pinewood.pdf), a plush, charming Raj-era building overlooking a lake, £20-£70 a night.
Hotel Centre Point (shillongcentrepoint.com), as it says on the tin – right in the centre of town, £15-£70 a night.
Aerodene Cottage (aerodene.in), a friendly B&B with spa in a restored Assam-type house, £30-£40 a night.