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North-East Diaries: The Autumn Cherry Blossom Festival in Shillong

Munmi Barthakur

"Picture perfect" is the phrase apt for North-East India in my mind-but, sadly, the North-East is a somewhat neglected or rather untapped region in our country. A deplorable, yet true fact, is that people from the seven sister states are even considered foreigners at times! Isn't that incredible?  As a torch-bearer of North-East India, I try my best to bring this extremely picturesque and culturally rich region, into the limelight. I am proud to announce that in November, 2017, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, would be hosting the Autumn Cherry Blossom Festival. This would be the first of its kind in the world, since cherry trees usually bloom during the spring season in other places.

Now, one need not visit places like Japan, New Zealand, parts of Korea or the United States and spend bundles of money. In Japan, the Cherry Blossom or the Hanami Festival is celebrated in spring. The Japanese, a race which staunchly believes in symbolism, have attributed the blooming of these flowers for a short period of time as a metaphor to the transitory nature of life itself. Steeped in legends and its people prone to indulging in transcendental beliefs, our North-East also has a similar culture.

In Shillong, the Cherry Blossom Festival was celebrated with gusto in 2016, amidst the vibrant colors and festivities associated with the event. Since, Shillong is only about 128 kms approximately from Guwahati, which is well-connected with the rest of the country; it is easier for tourists to participate here. Also, such festivals generate huge employment opportunities and revenue as they must attract tourists from all over the world.

The festival is usually held in November. It is a collaborative effort with the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), Government of India, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and of course, the Meghalaya Government. The IBSD conducts research on the biodiversity of the North-East. A magnificent opportunity to showcase the rich art and culture of this state, the festival is a much-awaited event.

A visit to Shillong in 2014, by the IBSD Director Dinabandhu Sahoo, inspired him to organize this festival to celebrate the seasonal bloom of cherry trees. His spur of the moment instinct escalated into a full-scale celebration. With this festival, Meghalaya would surely catapult into the limelight and ensure a secure spot on the global tourist map.

As the news spread, interestingly, a delegation from Japan arrived to make the country familiar with this festival. Subsequently, cherry trees were planted in Talkatora Gardens in New Delhi in February, 2016. Many states like Manipur, Mizoram and Sikkim have come forward to plant more and more of these trees. They usually take three years to bloom. It is evident that these states too are keen to host the Cherry Blossom Festival in the near future.

Excitement seems to be mounting and preparations reach a feverish pitch, as Shillong gets ready for the festivities. With prospects looming bright in the horizon, the whole state is geared up to set the tone for a boost to its fledgling economy. Mr. Sahoo's aim is "to bring peace and prosperity in the area" and change the very image of the North-East with the "Cherry Blossom Festival".

A positive effect of the festival, besides the anticipation and gathering excitement, is that the government has planted thousands of cherry trees. These have been neatly lined up inside beautiful tree guards for protection. Interestingly, the trees have been planted in avenue style, which means those of similar height are arranged painstakingly on either side of the road equidistant to each other. In full bloom, the scene reflects a paradise in a glorious pink and white array.

On one of my trips to the Khasi hills, the Himalayan cherry blossom trees carpeting the ground in wild, vibrant profusion reminded me of the poem "Daffodils" by Wordsworth. The sprightly flowers in the beautiful surroundings compelled me to burst out in sheer pleasure, the poignant verse:

"I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'ver vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze......"

The poem seemed to echo my very thoughts expressed so eloquently by the great poet. The valley, the rolling hills and the flowers appeared to be the perfect setting for the verse.

I look forward with great enthusiasm to attend the festival in November. To provide you with a glimpse of the events planned out, here are a few of the main highlights:

To the staccato beat of the drums, the inaugural ceremony would begin with its various cultural programs, live musical shows, rock concerts, traditional folk music so common amongst folk in the hills, dance performances from all over the North-East, the stalls displaying the rich art and craft and of course, the sporting events-bike and cycle rallies, the exciting Cherry Blossom Run and the dare devil bike stunts. The food stalls proudly displaying the sumptuous flavors of traditional cuisine and not to forget, local wine add to the great ambience. There would also be the Cherry Blossom Beauty Pageant, flower shows which would include bonsai, a particular favorite of the people of Meghalaya, as well as story-telling sessions with local folklore and tales from other places, and sketching, drawing and painting competitions.

The venues in Shillong are Ward Lake and the State Guest House opposite Polo Second Ground, Golf Course, the State Central Library, JN Stadium, Tara Ghar and the Fire Brigade Ground. One can safely take a leisurely stroll at night beneath the blossoms dressed in bright lights. There would be volunteers guiding tourists at Ward Lake between 5-8 pm. People are welcome to carry their golf sets to participate in the golf tournament also to be included in the festival. All events are free and open for all.

For the latest updates on the preparations and details on events, participation, partnering opportunities (Corporate sponsors/donors/Vendors), you can log on to Http://www.facebook.com/IndiaInternationalCherryBlossomFestival. Whatsapp is +91-7085465194. You can also log onto Http:/www.instagram.com/cherryblossomshillong.

To get to the festival, the nearest airport is Umroi, 35 km away. State-run buses ply between the Umroi airport and Shillong and shared taxis and airport shuttle buses are available between Guwahati and Shillong.

In 2016, nearly thirty thousand tourists, mostly domestic, participated in the festival. In 2017, it was close to fifty thousand. The atmosphere in the state seems to be brimming with positivity and going with the trend set by the 2017 Cherry Blossom Festival, one can confidently assume that the 2018 one is going to be a grand success.