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map locating Cherrapunjee, India

The quest begins

Cherra is located in the Indian state of Meghalaya, which means "the abode of clouds" in the local language, just 15 miles (24 km) north of the India-Bangladesh border. To get there, I flew from San Francisco to London to Delhi to Guwahati; then, took a helicopter to Shillong and finally a two hour taxi ride to Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, a small six room hotel.

I arrived in Cherra on the afternoon of June 20, 2001. June is the month with the most rain; about 108 inches (274 cm) on the average. My plan was to walk five to six hours every day, hopefully in some heavy rain. The town of Cherra is green but not as lush as you might expect. Most trees have been cut and turned into firewood. However, my hotel was a few miles outside the town of Cherra and the surrounding area was quite lush.

photo of the author with weather instruments at Cherra
The author with weather instruments at Cherra. The instrument on the left graphically records minute by minute rainfall. The other two are electronic and manual rain gauges.

So, why does Cherra get so much rain? The terrain rises steeply from the India-Bangladesh border to Cherra, which sits at an elevation of 4,500 feet (1372 m). After passing over the Bangladesh Plains, the monsoon clouds hit Cherra with a vengeance. A world record 1,042 inches (2647 cm) of rain fell between August 1860 and July 1861. More recently, the year 1974 saw 967 inches of rain with an astounding 323 inches in just the month of July. That's 10 inches (25 cm) a day for an entire month! There is only one kind of downpour; Noah's Ark comes to mind. On June 16, 1995, a record 62 inches of rain fell in just 24 hours.

photo of three Khasi boys
Khasi boys

It rained about an inch the first night, but as I walked the next morning, there was only heavy mist. The road ended in about a mile, and soon I reached one of the many villages tucked away in the hills and accessed only on foot by stone steps. Even though I could not speak Khasi, the local language, I had no trouble finding someone who could speak English. Hindus comprise almost 90% of India's population but the missionaries had good luck converting the residents of Meghalaya. As a result, it is the only Indian state, albeit a small one, with almost a Christian majority. Another interesting fact is that the Khasis are of Mongolian stock and have a matrilineal society. Among the Khasis, it is only the youngest daughter who is eligible to inherit the ancestral property. During an especially brutal conflict a few centuries ago, a large number of young Khasi men were killed. Many young Khasi women had no choice but to marry their servants and the elders decreed that henceforth the children would be named after the mother.

photo of Joel with waterfalls in the background
Joel with waterfalls in the background. I could see 16 of them from my hotel.

A descent too far

In the afternoon, accompanied by Joel, the 15 year old son of the resort's owner, I headed for a river, five miles (8 km) and 2,000 feet (610 m) in elevation below the hotel. We had descended over 1,000 stone steps, and were only minutes from the river, when I slipped and fractured my arm. As I lay in the verandah of a hut in the village near the river, semi-conscious and unable to focus my eyes, I wondered how I was going to get back to the hotel. Meanwhile, a couple of villagers had gone looking for their medicine man. Eventually, a man showed up with some liquid concoction that he had just made using local plants. He applied it to my arm, pulled and tugged at it for a few minutes and stepped back. Amazingly, my bone appeared to be straight and my pain almost gone. I gave him 200 Rupees, about 4 dollars, and he seemed genuinely pleased. Joel and I then climbed the steps and walked back five miles to our hotel. The next day, an orthopedist in Shillong reset other smaller fractures near my wrist and put my arm in a cast. The total cost, including an overnight stay in the hospital, amounted to $35.

photo of an overloaded intercity bus
A typical overloaded intercity bus. Passengers risk injury and death every day due to poor visibility on the winding mountain roads.

The rain gods

I felt quite comfortable with the cast and decided not to hurry back home. But, another disappointment was in store for me. The rain gods didn't cooperate. In the two days prior to my arrival, it rained 19 inches. During my seven day stay, it rained only 10 inches and all of it at night. I have no explanation, but apparently, Cherra gets a lot of its rain at night. Exasperated by a lack of opportunity to experience the rain, I finally walked out at 3 A.M. one night with an umbrella in one hand and a small flashlight in my mouth. Luckily, the temperature was quite pleasant. Even though Cherra is at the same latitude as Key West in Florida, the higher elevation results in a pleasant temperature range of 68 to 74 degrees F (20 to 23 degrees C) during the summer. The heavy raindrops hitting the pavement soaked me up to my knees in a matter of minutes, but I was elated at finally getting my walk in the rain.

photo showing no standing water after heavy rain
No standing water! This picture was taken in the morning, just a couple of hours after it had rained almost 3 inches.

The ultimate irony of my trip was learning that Cherra, in winter, has a drinking water shortage. Besides the main reason, government apathy, several factors combine to create this ludicrous situation. The population has surged from 5,000 a few decades ago to nearly 70,000 now, primarily due to jobs available at the town's cement factory. The springs on which the water supply scheme depends have a very poor rate of discharge. The town sits atop a very porous limestone layer; there is hardly any flooding or standing water.

Dinesh Desai
Los Altos, California
July 2001


After my return from Cherra, heavy monsoon floods in July caused many deaths in various parts of India, but no flooding was reported around Cherra.

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