Shillong was a quiet place when I was growing up, with only a few tourists from Kolkata making their way up to it during summer. The cherry blossoms of autumn and the bright sun and juicy oranges of winter were reserved for residents. People walked everywhere, in every season. In the evening, neighbours played various sports together, and during festivals, friends from all sorts of backgrounds gathered to share food. Buckets of rainwater cleansed the town during the monsoon.
Since then, Meghalaya’s capital has become a popular destination, with travellers coming here to hike to the living root bridges, to see Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village, and to immerse themselves in the quintessential hill station experience. Much has changed, yet the familiar sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the Shillong I grew up in are still recognisable to me, if often missed by travellers. Here are some quintessential Shillong experiences that always fill me with nostalgia.
Shillong offers picture-perfect views of dramatic skies above green valleys and hills. One of the most captivating sights is Dainthlen Falls, a 262-foot-tall waterfall about 55 kilometres south of the city centre. A steel bridge next to the falls affords a great view over the gushing stream. However, most people walk up to the falls along the rocky riverbanks.
The monoliths of Nartiang are also well worth the two-hour journey from the East Khasi Hills to the West Jaintia Hills. Approximately 65 kilometres east of Shillong, these rocks date to A.D. 1500 and were supposedly erected by U Mar Phalyngki, lieutenant to the Jaintia king. The stones are believed to be a way to remember the Jaintia kings and their reign. Though the monoliths are casually scattered around Nartiang’s houses and fields, there is one main cluster which has a large number. There are two types of monoliths: the vertical menhirs locally considered “male” and called Maw Shynrang; and the horizontal “female” dolmens, or Maw Kynthai. The tallest is about 26 feet high. On a warm summer afternoon, the light filtering through the trees and the shadows cast by the stones are a lovely, restful sight.
A quiet place within the city is the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians, more casually known as Shillong Cathedral. Located on the road between Dhankheti and Laitumkhrah, the cathedral has an imposing blue facade set with stained-glass windows. Inside, it is peaceful and welcoming and whenever I’m there, I soak in the quietude, and silence assumes a whole new form.
In the outskirts of the city, the groves of tall, evergreen trees of Upper Shillong constantly draw the eye. Drive through these forests towards Shillong Peak for a rewarding panoramic view of the city. Or take the turn leading to the Air Force Museum and 5th Mile to explore the woods further. This wide road can be busy, as it also leads to the popular Elephant Falls.
Music is important to Shillong, and house parties and bonfire evenings usually involve impromptu jam sessions. There aren’t too many gigs in public spaces, but one place I do recommend is Café Shillong, my favourite among the city’s coffee shops. Located opposite Akashi Book Depot, the first-floor café has a nondescript entrance. It’s furnished with comfortable couches, perfect for a group of friends sitting down for a chat, and has live gigs on Sundays. Even musician Lou Majaw, known as “Shillong’s Dylan” counts it among his favourites. Don’t miss their velvety hot chocolate.
The smell of coffee pervades the air around Don Bosco Square, or Laimu—short for Laitumkhrah—the city’s café hub, where Swish Cafe is one of the oldest. It is a trendy spot with comfy books, couches, and free Wi-Fi, and is said to have introduced the “café culture” in Shillong decades ago.
Shillong’s omnipresent aloowallas—purveyors of aloo muri, the town’s most iconic snack—are the gods of its streets. Easily identifiable by their painted wooden stands, they mix boiled potato with puffed rice and raw cabbage, then sprinkle it with powdered spices, salt, mustard oil, and tamarind water. There are many variations, including one popular derivative that’s served with a thick yellow potato gravy garnished with finely chopped onion, peanuts, and bhujia, or crispy fried gram flour. Everyone has their favourite stand, near schools, tourist sights, the All India Radio station at Hopkinson Road, or at Don Bosco Square; and their own quirks in terms of customisation. Momos filled with shredded cabbage and pork are another Shillong favourite and these delicious Tibetan dumplings are just as easy to find. Police Bazaar, colloquially called PB, has some traditional momo eateries, but Laimu is the main place for these steaming morsels. There are sit-down restaurants, such as The Wok, near the Fire Brigade, that have consistently been popular for momos, but I look forward to the joy of gulping them down at the small, temporary momo stands along Laitumkhrah Main Road.
Nothing beats a brown paper bag of hot, sticky, spiral jalebis eaten in the cool air of the hills. The 83-year-old Delhi Mistan Bhandar in PB makes the best jalebis in Shillong, fried up right next to its steps by a man who looks as if he’s been there, hovering over the hot oil, from the first day the store opened. Palace restaurant nearby is equally famous for its spicy samosas and tea. Try to bag one of the two most sought-after tables overlooking PB’s main intersection, and watch the world go by while you savour your snack.
For heartier fare, stop by Jadoh at Laimu Point for a Khasi meal, including the restaurant’s namesake, a very popular local delicacy made of red rice and pig’s blood. For a special treat, head to Royal Heritage Tripura Castle, nestled in the quiet Cleve Colony neighbourhood. As a child, I remember being smitten by its wooden decor. The heritage hotel is adjacent to the summer palace of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, the former royals. Its restaurant, The Rice Court, has a first floor beautifully decorated with wood, and serves up delicious Chinese meals as well as local Khasi food.
Exploring Shillong inevitably means stretching one’s legs. The steep climb up Jacob’s Ladder, which connects St. Anthony’s College to Don Bosco Square in Laitumkhrah, was once pedestrianonly, but one-way traffic is now permitted. Start your walk downhill from the steps of All India Radio, towards the Guru Singh Sabha gurudwara and St. Anthony’s College. The incline from here is sharp, but the walk up through the crowds of college students is worth the effort. Reward yourself with a snack at the cafés of Don Bosco Square.
It’s also worth rising early to take the scenic roundabout route on Camel Back Road, from All India Radio to Ward’s Lake, which is a much-visited tourist site. The two-kilometre walk takes only about 30 minutes, is amazingly green and scented with pine. Morning is the best time to witness the glistening lake as the slopes around it lose their charm as the tourist taxis begin queuing up.
If your shopping muscles need some flexing, look no further than Glory’s Plaza—or GP, as it’s called by fashion-forward locals—a multi-storey shopping complex in Police Bazaar. GP’s plethora of quirky shops carry everything from Tibetan goods to Goth and Rasta style clothing. The dinginess of the building can be off-putting, but if your haggling skills are sharp, you can get away with some choice steals. This is probably where I was introduced to many fashion trends.
Iewduh, or Bara Bazaar, is the loud, buzzing heart of the city. The wholesale market teems with people, negotiating deals over food and meat products, traditional garments, and local tools like daos, knives, and betel nut cutters, among other things. It is believed that everything is available in this space, if you have the time to scour each stall. This is prime people-watching territory, and also offers great photo opportunities. Complete your retail therapy by sunset or latest by an hour beyond. Shillong winds up early.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Shillong in Sepia”.
Amrita Das is a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit her corporate job to become a traveller. She shares her off-beat and cultural adventures through her writing. She tweets at @Amrita_Dass.