Hills and Clouds

I had first heard of Cherrapunji when I was a child. I would wonder how this wettest place on earth would be like. And I was proud of the fact that it was in my own country. Somehow, I could never visit Cherrapunji all these years. I was either too small, or too busy, or too old.

That’s why when Sturla Gunnarsson, the acclaimed Canadian film-maker, invited me to accompany him to Cherrapunji for the shooting of his upcoming film on the monsoon, I thought that it would be like a dream come true.

A hundred thousand people live in the town of Cherrapunji braving the rains. Thousands of tourists visit Cherrapunji every monsoon season just to get drenched and have fun.  

But as a meteorologist, when I began my long journey from Pune to Cherrapunji on 17 July 2013, I felt like a pilgrim. I was going to see for myself that place which nature blesses year after year, with bountiful rain, like nowhere else upon earth.   

The original name for Cherrapunji was Sohra, which was pronounced Churra by the British. The official name has now been restored as Sohra, but people still call it Cherrapunji.

It is easy to understand why Cherrapunji gets so much rain. The southwest monsoon current from the Bay of Bengal travels across the plains of Bangladesh until it encounters the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. These hills rise abruptly from the plains to a height of about a kilometer and a half above mean sea level. The monsoon winds make the clouds go up the mountain slopes. The terrain of hills and deep valleys is such that the clouds converge over Cherrapunji. The air is already saturated with moisture. It rises, cools, and precipitates. The heaviest rain occurs when the winds blow directly upon the Khasi Hills. Cherrapunji is a classic textbook example of the most extreme form of orographic rain.

Cherrapunji’s annual normal rainfall is 1,177 cm. Its normal rainfall for the monsoon season, June to September, alone is 867 cm. But these are average figures. In the year 1860-61, it recorded twice this amount. On a single day in June 1995, it recorded as much as 156 cm rain.

My travel date had to be postponed twice for logistic reasons. And when I actually began my journey from Pune it took 20 hours for me to reach Cherrapunji. The last lap from Guwahati to Cherrapunji itself took 9 hours on account of tyre punctures, wrong directions, bad stretches of roads and other causes of delay. But while on a pilgrimage, one does not complain.

When I was on the outskirts of Cherrapunji, and thought that I would be there soon, there was suddenly mist all around. We had to drive 20 km through the winding mountain road, with a visibility of barely 100 metres. This itself was a test of the pilgrim’s faith.

As I reached my hotel in Cherrapunji, the sky was blue. Is this what I came to see, I wondered. But I had not known that the atmosphere here changes every minute. One moment the sky is blue, the next moment it is gray and then it becomes threatening black. From across the Bangladesh plains, the clouds come charging like an army of elephants, looking menacing, and marching as if with a purpose. When it rains, you can see waterfalls from a distance. When the clouds have precipitated, the waterfalls vanish.

But what struck me most was that nature is benign to man. It rains heavily at night but not so during the day. The rains are so timed and come in such measure that human life can go on. Children go to school, usually by themselves. Housewives can be heard singing while completing their daily chores. Even clothes are hung outside to dry. So life goes on, even on this wettest place on earth.

My real encounter with nature occurred when Sturla took me to a location on the southernmost side of the Khasi hills. I was almost on a cliff overlooking the Bangladesh plains which occupied the scene from end to end. The horizon was so wide that one could see the curvature of the earth. Again the sky was blue with a few white cumulonimbus clouds developing rapidly. And once again the army of clouds could be spotted far away to the south, over Bangladesh, making a slow advance into Cherrapunji. The blue sky soon turned gray and then dark gray.

And in a few minutes I found myself engulfed within a massive cloud. There was darkness around and total silence. Not just an absence of sound and noise, but complete peace, tranquility and serenity. At that time the only thought in my mind was about the insignificance of life on earth, the briefness of human existence. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”, David had pondered in one of his Psalms in the Bible. And the awesomeness of God’s love in that he has given fragile man the authority and dominion over his creation! (Psalm 34:4,6) That’s not all. There is much more to come in the new creation that God has promised for his children!

While standing under the cloud, the story of Job, narrated in the Bible, flashed in my mind. Job, a righteous man, had challenged God to explain why he was in a miserable condition. God agreed but appeared before Job with a list of his own questions. “Does the rain have a father?”, God began, “Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm?” (Job 38: 22, 25, 28, 37)

I felt as if God was asking the same questions to me, a meteorologist. And like Job, I had no answers.

As I waited, the first raindrop fell on my cheek. Then came a drizzle and then the shower, and finally the torrent. I just stood there, getting soaked in the outpouring of God’s love and mercy.    

– R. R. Kelkar

Bangladesh Plains seen from Khasi Hills