Wettest place in the world fears a shortage of water: Rain falls only in bucketfuls for the Khasi people of north-east India, writes Tim McGirk in Cherrapunji

IN Cherrapunji, once the wettest spot on earth where an average of 444 1/2 inches of rain sloshed down in a year, the tribesmen are now beginning to worry about a drought.

The Khasi hillfolk who inhabit Cherrapunji, in the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya, have only one word - slaup - for rain. That is because there is only one kind of downpour: heaven-bursting, apocalyptic. Instead, the tribes' vocabulary is enriched with words like hynniew-miat, describing rain lasting nine solid days and nights without let-up, or the really fierce, 14-day khadsaw-miat. Until the past few years, everybody in Cherrapunji scuttled through the rain like beetles, hunched under body- length carapaces of woven bamboo.

'Nowadays,' said Freeman Singh, Cherrapunji's tribal chieftain, the Syiem, his voice dripping with contempt, 'it rains so little that people are even using those folding umbrellas'. When the Syiem's royal ancestors died, their corpses were embalmed in orange- flavoured honey, often for months, until the funeral rites were ready, and everything dried off enough after the monsoons for a cremation. No longer do they use honey.

A drought is expected this winter in Cherrapunji. The heaviest rains are from June to September, when the monsoon sweeps in from the Indian Ocean across flat Bangladesh and then collides with the Khasi Hills. Cherrapunji is perched on the edge of vertical black cliffs, with magnificent cascades bursting out, falling thousands of feet on to jungle hills, which give way to the vast flood plains of Bangladesh, where an infinity of green islets float. The view, on those rare moments when the sun's rays are shafting through the clouds, is like witnessing the planet's creation.

Usually, it rains because the monsoon clouds are forced up the cliffs, and the effect is like cupping water in your hands and squeezing it out in a fountain. June is the wettest month, with a record 223in bucketing down in 1956. In the winter months, though, it seldom rains hard in Cherrapunji. Now there is danger of a water shortage.

The tribesmen and the meteorologists disagree over what has befallen Cherrapunji's micro-climate. The precipice where Cherrapunji sits was once covered with oak forests, and under this canopy there lived 250 varieties of orchids, 500 species of butterflies and a tenacious variety of leech known as 'the buffalo'. But over the past 30 years, the forests were chopped down, and Cherrapunji swelled from a village of 5,000 to 69,494 people. A cement factory spews out grey filth. The orange groves that brought the bees that made the honey for preserving the Khasi kings died off, and the bees left.

Deforestation has made it impossible to collect rainwater. 'When it rains in Cherrapunji,' lamented the tribal chieftain, 'it floods in Bangladesh.' One district official, Rebecca Suchiang, explained: 'Without the trees, the water just washes away. There are no rivers, only a few springs which are protected by the people in each locality.' In winter a jerry-can of water can cost up to 6 rupees, or a fifth of a day's wages.

The Syiem also insists that the deforestation is making it rain less in Cherrapunji. Indeed, when I visited, the sun shone for four hours. 'At most we'll get a three-day rain, but not a hynniew-miat and certainly not a khadsaw-miat,' he said. There are still pockets of oak forest untouched, which the Syiem explained were sacred to the Khasis. 'If anyone tried to cut down those trees, they would be cursed. Their heads would twist around on their necks,' he said matter-of-factly.

However, the weathermen at the Meteorological Centre in Guwahati, Assam, claim that in Cherrapunji it is raining as much as ever before. Consulting logbooks and weather charts, the meteorologists explained that in terms of average yearly rainfall, Mawsynram, 4 miles up the road from Cherrapunji and forested, now ranks as the wettest spot on earth, with a deluge of 468 inches a year, followed by Mt Waialeale in the Hawaiian islands with 456 inches. But during the monsoon months, the downpour in Cherrapunji is still on top.

Most people would be grateful for a little less rain, but not the Khasi. 'We don't care how many times we get wet. The rain is like a medicine for us,' said the Syiem. His boast is backed by doctors at the local clinic, who claim that the resilient tribesmen rarely get the sniffles, the sneezes or other rain- related maladies. This benefical side-effect was overlooked by the British settlers who first chose Cherrapunji as their Assam capital in 1832, but then retreated under the barrage of raindrops the size of large-calibre bullets to the drier climes of Shillong.

Asked if the incessant downpour had any effect on the Khasi character, the Syiem shook his head. Any murders? The Syiem told of a 1991 incident. A Cherrapunji girl was stricken with hysterics. Blame for her illness fell on a witchdoctor. 'The villagers stoned him to death,' said the Syiem. 'But that's not all. They cut him open and ate his liver. Then they burnt the rest of his body in the forest.'

'Were they Christians?' asked Ms Suchiang, who was also listening, aghast. She was a young Presbyterian from elsewhere in the state. Welsh missionaries had been hard at work at Cherrapunji since 1841, converting the Khasi tribesmen. 'Oh yes,' replied the Syiem. 'Good Christians.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Content Manager - Central London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Central...

HR Business Partner - Banking Finance - Brentwood - £45K

£45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: ** HR Business Partner - Senior H...

PA / Team Secretary - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: PA / Team Secretary - Mat...

Mechanical Lead

£65000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Mechanical L...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on