July 27, 2008 1:00:34 pm
A Tamil meets a Khasi in Cherrapunjee and together, they change the economy of the region. So now, it’s pouring tourists in one of the wettest regions on Earth
OVER three decades ago, a young Tamil arrived in Meghalaya as a member of a project evaluation team for a Delhi-based firm. He later married a Khasi and settled down in Cherrapunjee, then the wettest place on Earth. But 30 years later, Denis P. Rayen is not just a typical case of an ‘outsider’ marrying into a matrilineal Khasi family; he is the man responsible for changing the economy of Cherrapunjee (Sohra, as it is officially known these days).
“I met Mary Carmela Shati the very day I landed in Shillong in 1977. But believe me, it was much later that we fell in love and decided to marry,” recalls Rayen, working on the accounts ledger of Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, a six-room facility that boasts of being the first hotel-resort in and around Cherrapunjee. There was the government Circuit House but that was mostly occupied by official visitors.
Rayen, who married Mary in 1982 after taking up a bank officer’s job, quit when he fell out with the management. That’s when he decided he would set up a resort in Cherrapunjee. “It was a difficult decision. It was difficult to convince the local community, including my in-laws, that it was a business proposition that would bring more money to the village. It was difficult to find a plot of land because non-tribals, by rule, cannot purchase land in Meghalaya. But my in-laws were finally convinced,” he says. The land was registered in Mary’s name and Rayen got going in 2000.
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“It is a fact that Cherrapunjee did not have a place where visitors could stay for the night. They would come early from Shillong and return before sunset,” says Ila Pynsuk Diengdoh of Coniferous Resort, who admitted it was Rayen and Mary who inspired her to set up the second hotel in Cherrapunjee. She is soon increasing the capacity of her resort from five to 10 rooms. “Thanks to the initiative taken by Rayen, Cherrapunjee today can accommodate at least 100 visitors on any given day,” she says while talking of the number of resorts that have come up in the past couple of years — like the Sai-Mika Park, a beautiful restaurant-hotel with four rooms in the heart of Cherrapunjee, and the Sohra Plaza, a two-room facility. With the Central government recently announcing special leave travel allowances for travelling to the Northeast, business has never been better.
Going by conservative estimates, Cherrapunjee gets around 800 visitors every weekend who get there early morning from Shillong or Guwahati and return before early afternoon, and about 150 visitors a week who stay overnight.
Rayen’s pioneering activity has not only triggered a new kind of tourism-related entrepreneurship in and around Cherrapunjee but has also brought about significant changes in the local economy. “As many as 11 of us from the village work at Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, while several families regularly supply vegetables, chicken and other items to the resort,” says Lateilang Wahlang, who looks after the front office and house-keeping at Rayen’s holiday home.
“At least 20 young boys and girls are enrolled with us as part-time guides,” says Mary Carmela. A five-member team plays music at the resort every evening, except, strangely, on Sundays.
But the best thing that has happened, says Rayen, is the state government is beginning to wake up to the magic of Cherrapunjee. “Over the last three or four years, the state tourism department has organised a series of training programmes on hospitality and other tourism-related activities for the local population. A room each in 50 households have been already selected to accommodate tourists as the demand begins to grow,” says Rayen.
A 10-hectare rock garden is coming up on the outskirts of Cherrapunjee and the state tourism department is setting up watch-towers and platforms at vantage points for tourists to watch waterfalls. Village treks are also being organised so that the tourist is compelled to extend his stay here, rain or no rain.
But, what do people take back home as a souvenir from the second wettest place on Earth? “Cherrapunjee is famous for its orange honey. It’s special because bees go down to the Bangladesh plains to collect nectar,” says Mary Carmela. Cherrapunjee also produces the bulk of Meghalaya’s famous bay leaves. “But what I am planning to offer soon is a small bottle of water to every tourist. And it will be free of cost. Won’t it be wonderful for a visitor to carry home 100 ml of water from a place where it rains all the time,” asks Ila.
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