Perched atop a plateau at 1,496 metres in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya (the ‘Abode of the Clouds’), the capital city of Shillong is widely recognized for its cool, wet climate and high annual rainfall. It is the only hill station in India that is accessible from all directions. Shillong was the capital of undivided Assam, and now acts as a gateway to Meghalaya itself, a state which boasts impressive flora and fauna and a topography of high peaks and long caves, and a fusion of indigenous and Western culture, creating an experience unique to the region.
The earliest inhabitants of the region were the hill tribes of the Garos, Khasis and Jaintias. Their unique culture was impacted by the West in the eighteenth century upon the arrival of the British, with 1842 marking the beginning of Welsh Missionary activities from their base in Sohra (present day Cherrapunji). Shillong city itself – born on 28 April 1866 and built on land purchased by the British from the Chief of Mylliem – undoubtedly bears the mark of colonial influence. It was chosen to be capital of Assam in 1874 due to its serene weather, reminiscent of their home country, even earning the nickname ‘Scotland of the East’.
Shillong is home to a heterogeneous yet harmonious culture. Plenty of the cityscape retains the old Assam Type houses, built to withstand earthquakes, and old marketplaces like Iew Duh that cater to the entire region. Found alongside these are British constructions like the Shillong Golf Course and the All Saints’ Cathedral, which are further juxtaposed with more urban additions, such as the busy market-street of Police Bazaar. Similarly, commemorating the summer capital of Jaintia kings, 62 kilometres from Shillong, lie the monoliths at Nartiang juxtaposed with modern war memorials like the Mot Phran, built as homage to Khasi labourers who laid down their lives in the First World War.
Not all of Shillong’s culture is driven by the past, however. Plenty of traditions are more recent, such as the city’s famed association with rock music and concerts with national attendance, such as the NH7 Weekender, as well as the multitude of quaint cafes that serve large varieties of locally sourced tea and coffee, like the You & I café.
The Khasis, a matrilineal tribe, form 48 per cent of Shillong’s population, bringing with them old practices that survive to this day. Their inextricable link to nature outside the cityscape allows them to view their surroundings as sacred, which has varying manifestations. Some translate into contemporarily relevant conservation techniques, such as sacred forests watched over by guardian clans, housing a plethora of unique flora and fauna as well as ancient living-root bridges, and a rich culture of using abundantly available wood and bamboo to make houses and daily ware. Much of these practices manifest themselves today in a modern context; Shillong now houses promising start-ups like Shillong Bamboo, giving international acclaim to the relevance of bamboo in their society, while much of the city’s handicraft industry is involved in keeping age-old wood weaving traditions alive.
Other customs endure including a rich legacy of festivals and folklore. Khasi celebrations are incomplete without traditional music and dance; for instance, the festival of Ka Pom-Blang Nongkrem, celebrated in hope of a bumper harvest, is denoted through a ritualistic dance performed by young girls and men, and the Ka-Shad Shyngwiang-Thangiap is danced to mark a death in the family. Similarly, almost every element in their environment, whether man-made or naturally occurring, is brought alive by magical tales and legends about their origin. Shillong acts as a base for various sites of heritage, both in the city and in surrounding areas. The Ever Living Museum at Mawshbuit, eight kilometres away, and the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures offer insight into Meghalaya’s ethnic past, while the Ing Sad house of the royal family of Khyrim stands testament to native building practices.
Much of Shillong was destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake of 1897 leading to construction of more ‘Assam type’ architecture, which was characteristic of indigenous building techniques and made of wood and reed. Today, the urban landscape sits alongside the city’s natural topography, including the much-loved and frequented sites of Ward Lake, Lady Hydari Park and Elephant Falls. The city also boasts richly curated cuisine, available within the city and in the adjoining food market at Mylliem. The food in Shillong is unique to the region, and rarely found outside it; this includes Dohneiiong or black sesame pork, and Jadoh, a fragrant rice dish cooked with meat.
Shillong serves as a meeting point between ancient customs and modern tradition, and acts as a marker of the rich heritage in the north-east. Having inherited a particularly plentiful culture in the form of practices, traditions and beliefs, the city offers more than just visual pleasure, but rather a myriad of assorted experiences.
As a part of the My City, My Heritage launch, Shillong is celebrated through a social media campaign showcasing heritage mapping done therein as a part of the project. This includes sharing interesting facts and anecdotes about the city, quizzes, competitions and a digital walk.