With its rolling hills of pine conifers and pineapple shrubs, SHILLONG was known to the British as “the Scotland of the East” – an impression first brought to mind by Barapani (or Umiam), the stunning loch-like reservoir on its fringes, and the sight of the local Khasi women wearing gingham and tartan shawls. At an altitude of around 1500m, Shillong became a popular hill-station for the British, who built it on the site of a thousand-year-old Khasi settlement and made it Assam’s capital in 1874.
Sadly, the city has lost some of its charm, the surrounding hills have suffered severe deforestation and the influx of settlers from the plains has placed a strain on natural resources, especially water. Much of the original Victorian town, however, is still evident, and the large gardens around Ward Lake and the buildings surrounding it conjure up images of a colonial past. North of the polo ground is one of Asia’s oldest golf courses, founded in 1898 by a group of British civil servants. Rabindranath Tagore wrote Raktakarabi in Shillong, and the city also features in his masterwork Shesher Kobita.
Life in Shillong used to revolve around the decorative Ward Lake and the European Ward next to it, with large bungalows in pine-shaded gardens, and the governor’s official residence, Government House. The ambience here is in stark contrast to the narrow streets of Police Bazaar, packed with vendors, or, further west, Bara Bazaar, where Meghalaya’s oldest market, Iewduh, is held: in the days of the Raj, a British officer on horseback patrolled the market to ensure no one littered. The shabby State Museum in Lachumiere has exhibits on tribal customs, while the sparkling Don Bosco Museum offers a fascinating insight into the region’s tribal groups – just skirt over the woefully one-sided portrayal of Christian missionaries. To get here, head to Hotel Polo Towers, then follow the river round to the west for 1.5km until you find the signs pointing uphill to the museum. The Museum of Entomology, 2km northwest of Police Bazaar, is dedicated to moths and butterflies.
Shillong is peppered with small booths filled with punters betting on siat khnam, a local sport in which Khasi men fire arrows at a target and spectators bet on the final two digits of the total. Daily games start around 3.30pm opposite Nehru Stadium.
For some respite from the city, head to Tripura Castle, from where a short uphill walk takes you into pine-forested hills, while Shillong Peak (1965m), 10km west of town, also offers great views, as well as being home to the last four ilex khasiana, a high-altitude tree on the verge of extinction.