As leaves turn yellow and orange in most of the Northern states of India, I take you to a place I visited last year for the first time : Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya (North East India). It has everything to offer to nature lovers… peaceful and at the same time buzzing with activities. The state has several unique features including its cherry orchards and the best time to visit the state is during the autumn when the cherries blossom. Below are my experience and feelings.
European lifestyle yet tribal
Cries of joy emanate from park at Ward’s Lake in the heart of the city of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. Hundreds of locals have gathered for a picnic after the Sunday Mass. They are all in their best Sunday attires, colorful dresses for the ladies and shiny costumes for the gentlemen. Also adorned with their finest jewels, including gold chains with a cross.
The spectacle is most joyful. Some children play, rolling on the lawn, and earn a sweet scolding from their grandmother. A group of young people is boating, one of them almost falls in the water, while trying to take a selfie, provoking his friends to break into an uncontrolled laughter. Couples walk around holding hands while men play cards, sipping from a bottle of local wine. These scenes remind me of a European lifestyle, which differs greatly from other cultures in the Indian subcontinent, influenced mainly by Hindu traditions.
The sky is blue on this autumnal weekend, it is not too cold and the weather is nice compared to the hot and humid temperatures in most other parts of India. As the leaves fall and nature prepares to face the winter, a unique phenomenon stands in Meghalaya: it is the flowering of the cherry trees.
“You’ve probably heard about cherry blossoms in Japan, but few know it happens here too. There are probably fewer cherry trees than over there, but it’s just as beautiful,’’ said Mary. With her black almond eyes, pale porcelain complexion and long ebony hair, Mary has all the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of the region.
Sandwiched between the state of Assam and Bangladesh in north-east India, Meghalaya boasts of one of the richest bio-diversities in the country, with forests and green hills, large lakes and multiple waterfalls. Autumn and cherry blossom herald the end of long months of monsoons and the beginning of Christmas festivities, which are celebrated with great fanfare in this state where nearly 75% of the population is Christian.
In an attempt to convert the cherry blossoms into a major tourist attraction, in November 2016, the state government launched the India International Cherry Blossom Festival.
“It is famous in Japan and the United States, but here the difference is that the flowering takes place in autumn and not in spring, which is absolutely unique around the world,’’ said Albert Chiang, a scientist at the Institute of Bioresources & Sustainable Development, which jointly organises the festival.
“With the global warming, the dates of flowering vary from one year to another but they generally take place during the month of November for about ten days,’’he added. The origin of cherry trees in this sub-Himalayan state is still unclear. According to the locals, they have always existed but the state has planted more over the years.
The festival is held every year in several places in Shillong; it brings together locals and tourists around musical and dance concerts, beauty contests, fashion shows and sports activities highlighting talent and local entrepreneurship.
On my last day in Shillong, I decided to party with the locals and attended a local rock concert for which the city is well known. A full moon was illuminating the city and the flowering cherry trees in Ward’s Lake then take on mystical airs and form a swamp of crystal branches above us. “The cherry blossoms symbolise both the renewal and the fragility of life,’’ reminded us Albert, before continuing, ‘We celebrate it to remind everyone to enjoy every moment that life offers us as well as our loved ones.’’
How to get there ?
By train: The nearest station is Guwahati (Assam), at a distance of 180 km from Shillong. You can then take a car for about INR 2000 rupees or a bus for as little as INR 30-50 to get to Shillong the capi-tale.
By Plane: The nearest airport is Guwahati (Assam) at a distance of 159 km from here. There is no bus from the airport but you can take a prepaid government taxi (inside the airport) for about INR 2500-3000.
The roads in Meghalaya are pretty good. It is necessary, however, to take precautions during the monsoon season.