The mere mention of sakura or cherry blossoms brings stunning images of the delicate flowers in full bloom in Japan. But one doesn’t need to travel to Japan to sight these florescence. One just needs to make one’s way to India’s Northeastern state of Meghalaya. While cherry blossom trees around the world usually bloom in spring, Meghalaya’s capital, Shillong, wears the dainty pink hues of Himalayan cherry blossoms in autumn, giving it the unique distinction of celebrating the flowers in November. This phenomenon turns the East Khasi Hills into a floral paradise. A fact reiterated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his monthly radio addresses to the nation, Mann ki Baat. Referring to images of beautiful cherry blossoms on the Internet, PM Modi had said, “You might be thinking that when I am referring to cherry blossoms I am talking about Japan’s distinct identity but it’s not like that. These are not pictures of Japan. These are pictures of Shillong of our Meghalaya. These cherry blossoms have further enhanced the beauty of Meghalaya.”
Shillong, the district headquarter of the East Khasi Hills, hosts the annual Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival that is regarded as one of the most vibrant and colourful events in the state. Begun in 2016, this festival is organised by the Government of Meghalaya in association with the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD). Tourists from far and wide come to feast their eyes on the delicate blooms. One of the best views of the blossoms can be had while taking a boat ride on the waters of Ward’s Lake. Considered to be one of the most endearing attractions of Shillong, the 100-year-old Ward’s Lake boasts a pretty wooden bridge, verdant slopes and manicured gardens, making it a much sought-after recreational spot for locals and tourists alike. The Shillong golf course is another spot in the city ideal for spotting cherry blossoms. Nestled inside a border of pine trees, this 18-hole golf course in the heart of the city is a popular place for relaxation. Long walks and leisurely strolls on the lush expansive meadows are enjoyed here. Visitors can even bring their golf set along to participate in the amateur golf tournament that is organised as a part of the festival.
But Shillong is more than just the city where cherry blossoms bloom in India. It is a major tourist hub, welcoming travellers with open arms to experience its natural wonders and charms of a bygone era. Those seeking respite from the cacophony of everyday life will find it in the quaint environs of the Phan Nonglait Park, earlier known as Lady Hydari Park. Located in the heart of the city, this sprawling park boasts a miniature zoo and a deer park. A stone’s throw away from the park (about 1.5 km) lies the Cathedral Mary Help Of Christians. High arches, stained glass windows and interior artworks made of terracotta are major attractions of this beautiful building.
About four km away from the cathedral lies another popular city attraction – Wankhar Entomological Museum. This privately-owned museum run by Werwina Wankhar, the daughter of noted Indian entomologist Dr S Sarkar, has a stellar collection of rhinoceros beetles, and 1,600 species of butterflies and moths on display. Around 10 km away from this lepidopterology haven lies a natural marvel – Elephant Falls. Called Kshaid-Lai-Pateng in the local Khasi language, this mesmeric waterfall plunges three levels into a sparkling pool. The best experience to be had here is the walk (along a railed path) that begins from the head of the falls and ends at the bottom. About 10 km from the city, and perched at an elevation of 1,966 m, Shillong peak is the highest point in the city. It offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire city and, on a clear day, the Himalayas. A telescope is available here for enhanced viewing pleasure. On the outskirts of the city, about 25 km away, lies Mawphlang, one of Meghalaya’s most sacred groves. A must-visit spot for nature lovers, it houses a variety of flowering plants, trees and butterflies. According to local legend, the forest is protected by the Lyngdoh clan, who is believed to be the custodian of all sacred groves in the East Khasi Hills.
An approximate 65-km road drive from Mawphlang leads to Mawlynnong, one of Asia’s cleanest villages. It is home to the state’s iconic Nohwet Living Root Bridge – a simple suspension bridge created by weaving the roots of the Ficus elastica (rubber fig) tree around a framework through generations. For science enthusiasts, the balancing rocks (or Maw Ryngkew Sharatia, as it is called locally) are a big attraction. Located on the village outskirts, it features a giant boulder that is naturally balanced over a small stone. Locals claim that the structure has been like that for several years and that no force of nature has been able to disrupt the balance. Meghalaya does more than just offer natural wonders at every step. It acquaints us with mother nature and inculcates in us the importance of respecting and preserving her plentiful bounty. It welcomes visitors to its sacred groves, enchants them with its varied blooms and mesmerises them with bridges made of living plant roots. Meghalaya, which literally means ‘abode of the clouds’, is, in the truest sense, nature’s paradise.