Budding stage: The cherry blossom brings fresh bloom to Shillong
A burgeoning festival in the Meghalayan capital brings hope for tourism, opportunities for locals and mild confusion for a nation with no history of celebrating the flower.more lifestyle Updated: Nov 05, 2017 00:04 IST
In Shillong, a lot is resting on a delicate flower. The pale pink cherry blossom, which blooms for barely two weeks a year and whose petals need only a gentle breeze to detach and float away, is the week’s star attraction.
The capital of Meghalaya will host the second edition of the India International Cherry Blossom Festival, from November 8 to 11. It’s billed at the world’s only autumn cherry blossom event, as opposed to the better-known spring flowerings in Japan, Korea and the US.
So at picturesque Ward’s Lake in the centre of town, guided viewing tours are planned after sundown. There is to be a beauty pageant and a fashion show (with one round of pink-and-white outfits to match the blooms).
But that’s where the connection to the flowers ends. Don’t expect boozy office picnics under pink-dotted boughs like in Tokyo. Avenues and riverbanks won’t turn pink overnight as they do in Washington. Not yet.
Shillong’s native cherry blossom trees are few, and planted in random clusters. Much of the country still associates the term Cherry Blossom with a brand of shoe polish. New saplings – 4,000 planted enthusiastically along the roads leading into the city; 20,000 by 2022 – will need at least four years to mature.
So what does a city do until then? It parties, north-east style: with a rock concert, an archery contest, a local choir, folk music and dance performances from across the seven states, stalls for local food, and dramatic readings of regional folktales and poems.
“We want visitors who travel to America and Japan to see the cherry blossoms there to make a stop in India too,” says Aldous Mawlong, secretary to the Government of Meghalaya, which is organising the festival along with Manipur’s Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD).
“But this is more than a themed holiday. People who come to see the flowers will want more. They’ll want to taste the cuisine, buy local crafts, see the sights and appreciate the culture. We want to showcase the best of the north-east – show them it’s a safe and rewarding destination.”
Getting Shillong to think pink has largely been the work of Dinabandhu Sahoo, the director of the IBSD. Sahoo was a botany professor at Delhi University when he visited Shillong to deliver a TEDx talk on algae in February 2014.
“I remember looking out of the window of my hotel and spotting a cherry blossom tree,” Sahoo says. It wasn’t flowering then, but an idea bloomed in the botanist’s imagination. “I wondered what it would be like to have a cherry blossom festival in India.”
- It is believed that cherry blossoms originated in the Himalayas and were taken to Japan thousand years ago.
- In Japan, the flowering seasons starts in mid-April in the south and travels northward over five weeks. In the US, it is typically from the end of March through early April.
- In the most common Yoshino variety, all the flowers on a tree bloom at the same time
- Cherry blossom flowers bloom for just two weeks a year. Predicting when they will flower keeps Japan’s botanists busy, with complicated mathematical tables broadcast on TV.
- To the Japanese, the short-lived blossoms represent the cycle of life, a woman’s beauty, and new beginnings.
- Seeds of the plant were sent to the International Space Station in 2008 and orbited the Earth for eight months. The resulting saplings bloomed six years ahead of schedule. No one knows why.
The locals had no idea what cherry blossom trees were, he says. “But Shillong was so beautiful, with better infrastructure and connectivity than other cities in the region; I was determined to start a festival here.”
Sahoo was determined enough that he quit his job at the university to take up a position at the IBSD in Manipur, closer to Shillong, in 2015. He began mapping Shillong’s existing cherry blossom trees, and convincing Meghalaya’s chief minister, Mukul Sangma, to plant more and host a festival.
It was a bit of a challenge, admits Albert Chiang, a scientist at the institute. “People thought there would eventually be cherries,” he says. “We had to keep explaining that the ornamental tree has no fruits, but that its flowers would transform the landscape.”
Sahoo’s efforts made Mawlong notice the trees for the first time too. “I’d grown up with them but never really seen them,” he says. “The comparisons to Japan and South Korea made me realise we’re endowed with great natural beauty and we should draw the world’s attention to it.”
BANKING ON A BLOOM
It was to be a local triumph, a showcase of north-east culture in a newly pink north-east location. Then the Japanese found out.
The island nation has long used the cherry blossom tree as a symbol for international diplomacy. Cherry blossoms have been planted as far away as Australia and Canada, in nations with climates as varied as Brazil’s and Turkey’s.
“They had been trying to collaborate with India for the last decade but there was just no enthusiasm,” Sahoo says. The festival was the perfect entry point. In February 2016, the Japanese Cherry Blossom Association planted saplings at the Talkatora Gardens in Delhi.
In Shillong, the festival organisers are determined to localise the celebrations. “The Japanese have a deep philosophical connection to the flowers, but that’s not what we’re about,” says Chiang.
Even at the low-key first edition last year, Mawlong ensured that “we would give people what they want”. In Meghalaya, that means rock gigs for the young and twilight viewing tours in a region where the sun sets by 5.30 pm. The festival saw 30,000 visitors. This year, they expect 50,000.
This year’s lineup includes open-mic nights, local rappers, stunt bikers, a women’s football match, a study-in-Japan fair, a golf tournament and a gig by Meghalaya’s all-bling rock quintet, Light After Dark.
At Rainforest Guest House, a government lodge in Shillong where auditions were held for the beauty pageant and fashion show, 17 hopefuls stood shivering. It was partly from the 14-degree Celsius weather and partly because opportunities to sashay down a runway are so infrequent in the city.
Choreographer Priti Thapa, who polishes the women’s half-turns, poses and hand placements, seemed happy with the turnout — a mix of students, teachers, lawyers and other professionals from as far away as Arunachal Pradesh.
“A platform like the Cherry Blossom Pageant helps tremendously,” she says. “We hold a Miss Shillong contest almost every year. But there are far more shows in Guwahati and upper Assam. A show like this gives locals a chance to polish their skills for bigger events.” Plus there’s a cash prize of Rs 30,000 for the winner.
Hubert Malngiang the keyboardist and manager of Colours, one of Shillong’s oldest rock bands, looks forward to playing at this year’s festival as well. In 2016, they played rock classics and Khasi fusion originals to 2,000 people over four days. Colours plays about six gigs a month, but the festival may eventually draw older people — meaning a higher-spending crowd with a taste for rock classics.
“The festival also paves a way for all the seven sisters to come together as one in Shillong,” says Malngiang.
The flower is also a peaceful symbol of unity for the seven north-eastern states. Sahoo has plans for mass plantation drives in Mizoram, Manipur and Kashmir, where entire avenues will be taken over by the tree to maximise the effect in autumn. Jacaranda plantations are on the agenda in Meghalaya and Manipur too. “People in Gujarat and Rajasthan have also been asking about the blossom, but their weather does not permit it,” he says.
The blossoms take about five years to mature into small flowering trees, but left to grow can reach almost 35 ft, meaning even Shillong has a while to wait before the views match those abroad.
Mawlong plans to use this time to improve roads and infrastructure. “It occurred to me recently that we could brand Shillong as Cherryland,” he says.
For Sahoo, however, the blossoms are their own reward. “They change your mood; you can watch them for hours and no one’s unhappy under a cherry blossom tree — its fleeting beauty creates a positive vibe, and we have only just tapped this resource.”
I asked him if he also sees flowers in his dreams. He said yes.