IN THE ABODE OF CLOUDS

East Khasi Hills, India I 2019

IN THE ABODE OF CLOUDS

Life in the wettest place on earth 

Clouds wrap everything in Mawsynram, a remote village in the state of Meghalaya, in northeastern India. With an average annual rainfall exceeding 11,800 millimetres compared to 650 millimetres per year in Paris or 590 in Berlin - this small town is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the wettest place in the world. Despite this, deforestation and the lack of rain collection systems mean that, in winter, the population ironically faces water shortages.

We are in mawsynram, the village that boasts being the wettest place in the world. During the long monsoon season, from June to october, this corner of the indian state of meghalaya - one of the ‘seven sister states’, in the northeast region - lives almost permanently under the clouds. the reason lies in its location in the east Khasi hills, very near bangladesh: warm and humid currents from the bay of bengal concentrate in this area and produce condensation due to the temperature difference with the plateau. this is the cause of the mist and humidity that are present everywhere, and also of the origin of the name meghalaya, perhaps the most fitting title of any of india’s 29 indian states: in sanskrit, it means “the abode of clouds”.

At an altitude of 1,400 metres above sea level, mawsynram has found its place in the volatile world of fame by appearing in the Guinness book of records as the wettest place on earth, a title for which it competes with its neighbour sohra (also known as cherrapunjee, its name during the british raj), which registers very similar rainfall. the two locations are on facing hills, at a distance of less than 15 kilometres apart as the crow flies. by land, getting from one to the other is an odyssey of almost three hours and more than 80 kilometres of bends, ascents, and descents, on a road often blocked by landslides. here, visibility is a whim of the clouds: in just one split second the horizon can be reduced to a grey wall, which dissolves - or not - within a few minutes.

The east Khasi hills are inhabited by the Khasi tribe, one of the three groups that live in meghalaya. their language is completely different from hindi. in fact, almost no one in this area speaks hindi; they use english to communicate with the rest of india. Khasi society is also very different from that of the rest of the subcontinent: it is a matrilineal community in which they inherit the mother’s surname. also, unlike in many other places in india, it is the man who traditionally leaves his family home and moves to live with his wife’s relatives after getting married. it is estimated that there are about 1.4 million Khasis in meghalaya. this tribe had its own kingdom until it came under british rule in the 19th century. religion was one of the legacies left by the british, among other things: currently about 75% of the population of meghalaya are christians. the villages of this remote area of india contain a mix of presbyterian, catholic and pentecostal churches.

Meghalaya’s imposing nature is what has made the region an increasingly popular tourist destination in india, especially attractive to the population of the neighbouring state of assam, who go there looking for the coolness, humidity, and beauty of the hills. the area has really taken off in the last two or three years and is now facing that fragile balance between uncontrolled tourism and awareness of the importance of sustainable development. in 2013 there were only four tour operators in the sohra area; now there are more than a hundred, explains alan west, entrepreneur and founder of the meghalaya rural tourism forum, a hotel business organisation seeking to create a tourism development model that is respectful of the environment and natural resources. the challenge is to find that difficult balance in which tourism and respect for the environment can coexist. “here, we don’t have the taj mahal, or the Great wall, or the London bridge. so, why do people come? Just for the nature. if we don’t look after it, we could lose it. but it’s not just about the money: it’s our duty to protect mother earth”.

Original text in Spanish by Maribel Izcue.

Twitter: @Izcue