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In search of history

The history of Shillong city dates back to the 1860s when the British government, in search of a strategic location, decided to settle here. No doubt then that the city would be a treasure trove for heritage hunters. Old buildings, with typical architecture carved in wood, and monuments are an intrinsic part of Shillong. Monuments erected in memory of individuals, a group or a community dot many localities here. Several quaint Assam-type buildings tell stories of pre-independence era, the pride of time still palpable in their teakwood structures. But government apathy, absence of a proper law, lack of awareness among people and greed of private owners have belittled history over the years. While some heritage structures and old monuments have already vanished, many of the existing ones show signs of poor maintenance.
Sunday Shillong takes a peek at history and tries to locate monuments and buildings of value. Many of these remain inconspicuous to ignorant eyes amid the growing concrete structures. The chapters in history will be unfolded in two parts with the first focusing on some of the monuments.

1. Obelisk on the premises of State Central Library: The monument was put up by the State Congress’s Centenary Celebration Committee on December 6, 1985. The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated it. The triangular obelisk was erected to pay homage to the three freedom fighters of Meghalaya — Tirot Singh, Kiang Nangbah and Pa Togan Sangma. The over 40-ft tall monument is a daunting structure. However, the inscriptions on the monument are fading due to poor upkeep.

2. Memorial on the All Saints’ Cathedral premises: This monument pays homage to the British soldiers — James Wallace Quinton, Col Charles McDowall Skene, Frank Clair Grimwood, William Henry Cossins, Waiter Henry Simpson and Lionel Wilhelm Brackenbury — who lost their lives in the Anglo-Manipur war on March 24, 1891. The war ended in British victory. The Archaeological Survey of India has declared it as a monument of national importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. But even a monument of such importance is a victim of apathy and the fading letters on the plaque are testimony to it.

3. Plaque in memory of Rabindranath Tagore: Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s connection with Shillong is not unknown. He had stayed in different places in Shillong, including Brookside bungalow, where the plaque has been put up. Tagore came to stay in the bungalow in 1919. The plaque at the entrance is surrounded by bracken and wild foliage. Every year, during the birth and anniversaries of the bard, members of the Bengali community pay homage to him. There is a similar plaque at the entrance of Jeetbhoomi in Rilbong. Tagore had also stayed in Sidli House in 1927. The sprawling property on Upland Road belonged to the Raja of Sidli in Assam. A plaque in the bard’s memory was established on the premises by the Assam government in 1961. However, it vanished after the property changed hands and Sidli house was torn down to construct an RCC building. Now, the place belongs to Vincent Pala’s family. Despite several requests, the plaque was not reinstated.

4. Obelisk on Shillong Club premises: This obelisk was put up in the memory of Major TJ Williams, who was posted as the executive engineer in Khasi-Jaintia Hills for 12 years. He died in Shillong on July 4, 1886. The inscription on the plaque says an annual prize in his memory was also founded at Wellington College in England. It is a grand structure but with time has lost much of its sheen. The marble plaque has changed colour and the stones are turning mossy green.

5. Plaque in memory of Robert Blair McCabe: Robert McCabe was a policeman who died at the age of 43 in the great earthquake of 1897. A stone structure with a plaque engraved with his name was put up at Polo the following year. As the city expanded, the monument was reinstated closer to the Wahumkhrah. But with widening of roads and construction of buildings, the monument was removed and never reinstated. The successive governments never tried to salvage what was left of the memorial. A road at 4th Furlong named after him is some consolation. However, McCabe can rest in peace as his grave at All Saints’ graveyard is still intact. It is an ornamented granite structure that lies in one corner of the cemetery covered with thick foliage and wild flowers.

6. Motphran monument: The grand monument that stands at the junction of Bara Bazar is a tribute to the Khasi Labour Corps who fought in France during World War I. The name of the junction, Motphran, is derived from ‘Mot’, which means a commemorative monument in Khasi, and ‘Phran’, the colloquial version of France. It was originally called ‘Mot France’. The monument was built by the British in the memory of the 67 Khasi men of the 26th Labour Corps and was inaugurated in 1924. The names inscribed on the monument are Lyngka, Kyrwai Synteng, Nakshir, Pkan Marngor, Sholishon, Ren Sing, Don Marbaniang, Kyrdit, Jir Wallang, Pahoh Thabah, Muluk Nongrum, Mohon Khyriem, Likshon War, Hummu Marwein and Kdep Khongsir, among others. They were taken to France during the war as porters and none of them came back alive. A line from the Latin poet Horace’s Odes says, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, which means, ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’ While in Garo Hills, Garo Labour Corps Day is observed on July 16 every year, the sacrifice of these Khasi men is almost forgotten and the monument is often unnoticed in the bustle of the main junction. Two-wheelers can be seen parked near the monument and the dustbins near it are an eyesore.

7. Clusters of Khasi monoliths: Khasi monoliths, like the ones near Khasi National Dorbar in Mawkhar, can be found in many localities in the city. Though some are well-maintained, there are many clusters which lie neglected along the road.

8. Otto Hopfenmüller’s bust on the premises of Catholic cathedral in Laitumkhrah: Otto Hopfenmüller was among the first Salvatorian missionaries who came to Shillong. The grave of Hopfenmüller, who was born in Germany in 1844, was initially at the All Saints’ cemetery. In 1999, the mortal remains were exhumed and placed in the cathedral. There is also a theology study house in the city named after the missionary.

Next week: History of Raj Bhavan & other heritage buildings & monuments

(If you know about any old monument or heritage structure in the city that lies neglected, you can write to us at sundayshillong@theshillongtimes.com)

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