Rolling hills, colonial architecture and breathtaking scenery are but few things the Meghalayan capital has to offer, with its latest 18 Degrees cultural festival bringing the region to life
Shillong is all about never-ending views, colourful culture, a vibrant music life and a mesmerising history. Usually you need several days in a new place to soak in these things, but in Meghalaya’s capital city these are obvious all at once. I might never have stepped foot in Shillong had it not been due to my work here in India, and now I am more than thankful that it took me there.
Long journeys make me a little apprehensive – I hate leaving important things behind that I can’t simply nip back home to pick up. Running over my checklist a number of times, I made an early start to the airport. More than 12 hours later, I was making the last leg of my journey from Assam’s Guwahati airport up to Shillong along winding roads hugging the mountainsides.
I had a room booked at The Pinewood Hotel, which like many parts of Shillong, puts you in a time warp to the British heyday. The rolling hills reminded the British of Scotland, and to escape the stifling heat of the plains they first moved to Cherapunjee. This town is, however, the wettest place on earth, holding the record for the highest rainfall in a calendar month and in a year. It sent the British off to Shillong, which was wet enough to remind the Westerners of home, but not so much that it would make them uncomfortable.
Their stay in Shillong meant much of the architecture was influenced by their whims. Many old buildings have been maintained as they were many years ago and a walk around the city proffers a wide variety of photo opportunities. One of the interesting stops to make includes Ward’s Lake, a pretty man-made water body complete with an ornamental bridge. Many older houses and architectural gems have stood the test of time and an afternoon walk around this quiet place is very relaxing.
An interesting facet of Meghalayan culture is its matrilineal society in which an individual is considered to belong to the descent group of his or her mother, instead of the more widespread system of following the line of the father. Here, children take on the last name of their mothers, with some considering the woman the custodian of the household wealth. Property is generally handed down to daughters, empowering women to a position of importance in society.
Shillong is predominantly Christian/Catholic and a large number of churches dot the area, their serene spaces providing an ideal location to take a spot of time for one’s self. But I wasn’t there for the peace and quiet. I was there to attend 18 degrees, Shillong’s multi-faceted festival of music, culture and the arts, called so after the enviable average temperature of the city.
It was held under the aegis of the Department of Art and Culture under the Government of Meghalaya, and was organised by the State Central Library of Shillong. From all over the region, painters, cartoonists, artists, rock band musicians, photographers, quiz masters, etc headed to the city to showcase their creativity.
It was a three-day cultural festival that saw a teeming crowd of youngsters engage in a myriad of activities. The various communities of Meghalaya came together to celebrate through b-boying and freestyle biking, tattoos and graffiti, workshops and games. As I took it all in, I saw the enthusiasm of youngsters as they soaked in all they could from poetry and literary workshops, those interested in films pouring over schedules to find screenings they wanted to watch and bubbling conversations about folk performances by artists from within the state and outside.
Renowned cartoonist Keshav, whose doodles bring laughs to all who read The Hindu newspaper each morning, conducted a workshop, while World War II models of tanks, aircrafts and anti-aircraft guns made of plastic by Barry Lyngdoh and Johna Kharpphuli drew many visitors.
The event also showcased a match between Shillong Lajong and Pune Football Club. As I-League lovers, people turned up in hordes to cheer on the teams. It appeared to be the worst weather ever to watch some footie, the rain pelting down in sheets and the blistering wind maximising the cold of the chill factor. This had no effect whatsoever on the locals, with more than 20,000 attending the match, colourful umbrellas bracing them against the wet. The weather and love of football certainly took me back home to Ireland!
Blues singer-songwriter-musician from Australia Kara Grainger took the stage and enthralled the audience, most of whom were young people. The tag-line of the event was ‘Let’s Create Culture’, a vision that already seemed half-way there with the turnout and vibrancy of the people.
My work unfortunately got done too soon and I found myself not wanting to leave Shillong. But the sunshine beckoned in Goa and I said goodbye to my new friends looking forward to my next trip to the ‘Scotland of the East’.