Shillong, originally known as Yeodo, was a small village until 1864 when it was established as the new civil station of the Khasi and Jaintia hills by the British colonial administration. From a small administrative headquarter and a hill station, Shillong has grown exponentially over the last few decades which has impacted the natural hydrology and terrain. This essay looks at the unsustainable urban development of Shillong and attempts to understand the effects of building structures over natural water systems.

Archana Sharma and Ruchita Belapurkar

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is one of the most famous hill stations of India. The city is located on a plateau which lies in between the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The plateau is surrounded by the Umiam Gorge on the north, by the great mass of Diengiei on the northwest [1] and the hills of the Assam Valley to its northeast. The Khasi and Jaintia Hills are adjacent highland systems that form a single range of tablelands and have an elaborate riverine system that has over the years created deep and steep-sided valleys. Umshyrpi and Umkhrah Rivers are the major river systems of the city which merge and form the Umiam River.


Few written records about the Shillong Plateau from pre-colonial times are available. Anecdotal references of the region are found in the accounts of important Khasi kingdoms and in the chronicles of the neighbouring Ahom and Kachari kingdoms. It is mostly mentioned in relation to the Surma-Kushiyara Valley [2] and to Sylhet [3]. In the 13th century, several small territories had emerged in the Surma-Kushiyara Valley which were ruled by Khasi and Garo chieftains. Shah Jalal [4] conquered the local chieftains and established Islam in the valley in 1303. In 1346, when Ibn Battuta (the famous Moroccan scholar and traveller) travelled to Sylhet to meet Shah Jalal, he wrote about Sylhet, Shillong Plateau and the hills surrounding the plateau in his travelogues. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, Sylhet was mostly ruled by Khasi and Jaintia rulers.  

After the Battle of Plassey in the 18th century, the East India Company acquired Sylhet [5] along with Bihar and Orissa and residents of the region had their first contact with the British. The land to the north of Sylhet was inhabited by Khasis, while Jaintias inhabited the land to its northeast. Even then, half of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, including the land of present day Shillong, remained outside the governance of British India.

During this period, Khasis were involved in trade with the Nawab of Bengal which also included trade in limestone. For this purpose, the Khasi traders used to travel to the border of Sylhet, but after the acquisition of Sylhet by the British, the colonial administration started trading in limestone themselves and established their headquarters at Cherrapunji. In 1858, when the Khasi and Jaintia Hills were annexed by the British, the district headquarters continued to be in Cherrapunji. However, the Jaintia rebellion in 1860-61, established the inadequacy of Cherrapunji as the district headquarters for the colonial rulers, as the town did not have sufficient means of transport and communication to function as a district headquarter. It was due to this reason that the British decided to shift their headquarters to a more strategically as well as climatically, suited location. A colonial surveyor, F.A. Rowlatt, was given the task to find the location for the new headquarter. Rowlatt finalised on Shillong and among the other places that he marked in this search, he also came across the plateau located north to Shillong Peak.

Before the advent of colonialism, the plateau had a small village which was known as Yeodo. In 1864, when the colonial administration decided to build a metalled road between Guwahati (earlier known as Gauhati) and Sylhet, around the same time, Rowlatt too submitted his survey report. He also mapped out a convenient route between Guwahati and Sylhet that passed through Yeodo. These circumstances  worked perfectly to the advantage of the British administration in choosing Yeodo as the location of their new district headquarters. Thus, the district headquarters was shifted from Cherrapunji to Yeodo and the latter was established as the new civil station of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.

Location of Shillong and map of the route from Guwahati to Sylhet. Image Courtesy: Shillong Cultural Landscape Studio, 2015 (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi – M. Arch 2014-2016)

These hills were an ideal location for the colonisers because the landscape was reminiscent of the rolling hills of Scotland. Yeodo was not only selected to serve as the new headquarters, but also as a sanatorium and cantonment for British troops. Yeodo was later renamed as Shillong in 1866 after the Shillong Peak by Colonel Henry Hopkinson. Later, when Assam Province was separated from the Bengal Presidency in 1874, Shillong became capital of the Province.

Shillong Guide Map, Survey of India, 1925. Image Courtesy: (


Hill stations were developed by the British in colonised lands as settlements to make themselves comfortable. These hill stations were typically developed in areas that the British identified as similar to landscapes back home. Garrisons were established along with health sanatoriums, which helped in forming a retreat from the summer heat. The urbanscape of these hill stations reflected quaint British towns with anglicised names, wide avenues lined with trees similar to those found in Europe, meandering walks and trails, low population density, and large estates. Several hill stations also developed as educational towns where Catholic boarding schools were established. These areas were exclusive and often developed into being summer capitals with entire offices being moved there to avoid harsh Indian summers.

Such planning and architecture led to the development of a unique typology of settlements which had several points in common, such as high altitude locations (similarity to European landscapes), isolated and spacious estates with a large bungalow or manor, and a church with a Mall Road (promenade) with access allowed only for Europeans. Another distinguishing factor of these areas were that the settlements in the plains, commonly known as cantonments, were often rigidly planned in a grid pattern, while the hill stations were planned along the slope of the land and integrated into natural land-forms.

Popular hill stations established by the British in India’s northeast in the 19th and early 20th centuries were Shillong, Tawang, Cherrapunjee, Dawki, Champhai, Kohima, Gangtok, Pelling, Rangpo, and Yuksom. Some of them like Shillong and Kohima, later evolved to larger administrative towns.

Landscape of Shillong before the 1897 earthquake. Image Courtesy: The Adventures of Mr. Biped (


Shillong, when established, also had an elaborate river and stream system like Wah Umshyrpi, Wah Umkhrah and Umsohsun, which shaped the landscape of this city. Shillong Plateau, on which the city was established, is a major watershed area of the Shillong Range and Laitkor Ridge. All these streams originate from the Shillong Range (located to the south of the city) and flow northwards, according to the slope and terrain of the land. For the Khasi people, these streams are divine as they originate from Shillong Peak which they worship as their chief deity. Wah Umkhrah holds a special place for the Khasis as it is considered as one of the khyndai umtong (nine streams) of mythic origin.

Hydrological Map of Shillong showing rivers and streams. Image Courtesy: Shillong Cultural Landscape Studio, 2015 (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi – M. Arch 2014-2016)

When the British decided to shift their district headquarters to Shillong, they used the streams, water bodies, and topographical features to demarcate the boundary of their settlement. The land between Wah Umshyrpi and Wah Umkhrah was deemed fit for establishing the settlement, where Wah Umshyrpi formed the southern boundary, and Wah Umkhrah, the northern boundary. Additionally, there are several water falls near the southern and western boundary such as Crinoline Falls, Bishop Falls, Beadon Falls etc., and these are the main sources of water supply. To the north of Crinoline Falls, there is a spring used for drinking water (presently near the Governor’s Residence). The area around the spring was developed as a storage/tank for drinking water by Colonel Hopkinson  which was later renamed as Hopkinson’s Tank. In 1893, the area was further developed by Sir William Ward, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, by constructing a small dam on its northeastern side to collect water from several streams into a large water-body which came to be known as Ward’s Lake. Most of the lake was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1897, when the stored water gushed out of the lake. In the reconstruction years of Shillong, Ward’s Lake was developed again with a garden adjoining it which was constructed according to European architectural norms.

Area around Ward’s Lake from the Shillong Guide Map, Survey of India, 1925. Image Courtesy: (
Ward’s Lake before the 1897 earthquake. Image Courtesy: The Adventures of Mr. Biped (

The core hill station known as the European Ward, along with the cantonment had structures that were located on gentle slopes and the steep slopes were retained as they were ‘unbuildable’. The existing landform of the area was not changed at all. Recreational areas such as the Race Course, were built on areas with gentle slopes to accommodate large flat grounds. The steep slopes were protected from erosion by planting forests. We examine the European Ward to understand the ecological impact of the un-planned infrastructural development on Shillong. Most of the European Ward was constructed along the catchment area of Ward’s Lake because the garden of the lake was designed as a typical English garden with walks, a bridge across the lake and seasonal blooms amid tall pine trees. The road surrounding this garden was the promenade (also known in colonial lexicon as Mall Road) for Europeans in Shillong. Most of the larger estates faced this lake and the Mall Road.

The estates surrounding the Ward’s Lake were large with open spaces including driveways and landscaped front yards and backyards. As the settlement was designed before the advent of the motorised vehicles, the pathways were designed for use by horse and mule carts, palanquins and pedestrians, which meandered gently along the slopes. The roads ended in cul-de-sacs from where one could access the large estates located around the promenade and Ward’s Lake.

Present day map of the European Ward. Image Courtesy: Shillong Cultural Landscape Studio, 2015 (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi – M. Arch 2014-2016)


From a small administrative headquarter and a hill station, Shillong has grown exponentially over the last few decades with a growth rate of population of two to three percent annually. Some of the factors which have contributed to this growth rate are increased accessibility which has led to convenience of opening of the area to the outside population, setting up of new businesses, increase in tourism, and influx of people from nearby villages and towns in search of employment.

Population trends from 1950 to 2020. Source: Archana Sharma & Ruchita Belapurkar and CEIC Data.

Since the city does not have much area for expansion due to its topography, it causes a strain on the limited land available for housing. Hence, multi-storied high rise buildings have come up in the European Ward. It is also a major tourist area with hotels, restaurants and other tourist services which causes large influx of blue-collared workers who prefer to stay near their workplaces. The rise in population density in the European Ward is evident when we compare the Shillong Guide Map published in 1925 by the Survey of India with Google’s satellite map of contemporary Shillong. The 1925 map shows several large estates as well as, small cottages surrounding Ward’s Lake. Today however, we see an uncontrolled growth over slopes that would have been traditionally left un-built or open. Larger estates have been subdivided and created into smaller structures with individual access roads which cut across the steeper slopes. This has caused a loss of open and public spaces and made dense the original estates which had large open spaces.

A comparative analysis of densification of the European Ward. Source: Shillong Cultural Landscape Studio, 2015 (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi – M. Arch 2014-2016)

Today the vestiges of the past remain only in large structures such as the Pinewood Hotel and the Governor’s House, but the smaller cottages have almost vanished from Shillong’s urban fabric. Instead, large multi-storied structures catering to tourists have emerged, built on retaining walls [6] and leveled land. Such structures cause the slopes to become unstable, and also change the hydrology and terrain of the landscape.  

Oakland, which was once a medium sized cottage, is now a three-storied government guesthouse. Image Courtesy: Google Image Search

The roads constructed during the 19th and early 20th centuries were slightly sloping roads which were gently undulating and did not cut across the slopes. Whereas, the roads constructed in late 20th century cut through the slopes, are steep and narrow, and not designed for heavy vehicular traffic leading to bottlenecks and traffic jams. Newer roads that are being constructed do not adhere to any laws and are being built without any assessment of the risks that they may pose, including landslides.

The river and stream systems which were once considered divine and were worshiped are now in a tragic state. Rivers such as Umkhrah and Umshrypi were an integral part of Shillong. Houses were built facing the rivers and an interconnected network of open spaces on the riverfront was constructed and this network was protected from erosion by planting trees which also added to the aesthetics of the space. Today, there are only few such spots available at the river bank as the rivers are being encroached from all sides. Open spaces along the river front are being reduced due to the rapid construction of private residences as well as, commercial establishments along the river bank. Multi-storied buildings have been constructed in the flood plains of these rivers while due to the encroachment mentioned above, the banks are now encased in cement which prevent absorption of flood water. Areas around Umkhrah are impacted by severe flash floods due to continual rainfall, encroachment, decreasing width of rivers and flood plains, and due to garbage dumping. Floods in Polo Grounds are a common occurrence now while other affected areas include Polo Market, Golf Link, Mawlai Phudmuri, Mawlai Nongpdeng, Lumshyiap and Langkyrding. The condition of Umshyrpi is almost the same with encroachment on the riverfront, cementing, construction in flood plains, reduction of buffer zone, and excessive discharge of solid-waste and other pollutants. The rampant encroachment over these streams has caused bottlenecks, silting and unstable slopes along the banks of these water bodies. Houses totter precariously over the banks of these streams causing unstable slopes and thus, increasing the danger of landslides and altering the drainage pattern of these streams.


Apart from the rivers, most of the natural streams which formed the backbone of the river system of the Shillong Plateau, have either disappeared or have been converted into drains. The disappearance of streams draining in the catchment area of Ward’s Lake has compromised with the quality of water stored in the lake as there are no sources of fresh water available now except rain. This improper management of water system and developmental pressure has led to excessive pollution and degeneration of the streams, which in turn, has led to severe imbalance in the hydrological system of the whole city.

Efficient land management and controlled growth is necessary to ensure sustainable growth of Shillong without destroying the city’s inherent characteristics of being a hill station. Unchecked and rampant development across the city and its ever expanding borders may cause damage to the natural flora and fauna as well as, destroy the hydrology of the area. Shillong must be protected from becoming just another urban sprawl in India by ensuring that the built and natural heritage is conserved through a sustainable model. The way forward is to develop a management plan for the urban and cultural landscape of Shillong, one which takes into consideration both the natural hydrology and land forms as well as the pressures of being a tourist town and an administrative center.


[1] Located at a distance of 40 kilometers from Shillong, Diengiei Peak is the second highest peak in Meghalaya with an altitude of 6200 feet. The highest peak in the state is the Shillong Peak.

[2] The Surma River originates in northeast India near the Manipur Hills and is known as Barak River in Meghalaya. The river divides into Surma and Kushiyara rivers at the Bangladesh border and then re-joins to form the Meghna River which ultimately flows into the Bay of Bengal.

[3] Presently, Sylhet is a city located in the northeastern part of Bangladesh and is at a distance of about 136 kilometers from Shillong city. Sylhet is located on the banks of the Surma River.

[4] Shah Jalal was a Sufi saint who was born in Turkestan. He is mostly associated with the conquest of Sylhet and the subsequent spread of Islam there.

[5] Sylhet came under the British administration in 1765 and was later made into a district of Bengal Presidency.

[6] Retaining walls are used for supporting soil laterally so that it can be held retained from both sides.


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  2. “Census of India, 2011”. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner of India. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
  3. “Census: Population: Meghalaya: Shillong”. CEIC Data. URL: (accessed 25 February’ 2021).
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  5. Hussain, Imdad. From Residency to Raj Bhavan: A History of the Shillong Government House. New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2005.
  6. Kennedy, Dane. The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  7. Ray, B Datta. “History of Shillong”. The Shillong Times. URL: (accessed 23 February’ 2021).
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  10. Shillong – Cultural Landscape Studio – M. Arch in Architectural Conservation, Batch of 2014-16 (Semester III), School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi  (2015).
  11. Syiem, Klur M. “Sweepers Line’ is not a communal issue but a historical one”. URL: (accessed 20 February’ 2021).

[The essay has partly developed from a study that was undertaken under the Cultural Landscape Studio of School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi in 2015. The aim of this studio was to devise strategies for mainstreaming of heritage resources of the historic core of Shillong within the Area Development Schemes for Retrofitting and Redevelopment provided for under the SMART City and AMRUT programmes of the Government of India. The authors would like to thank their classmates and professors at SPA Delhi for encouraging them to study and write about Shillong.]

Archana Sharma is a conservation architect having an experience of almost four years in architectural conservation. She has worked on heritage sites of Punjab, Srinagar, and Mathura. She has been the recipient of the Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellowship 2018, where she researched and documented an art form known as Manjusha.  

Ruchita Belapurkar is a conservation architect from Pune and has done her Bachelors from Pune University and Masters from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. She has worked on several conservation and preservation projects in India, both private and government ones.  She has also written exclusively on Paithan, a small town in Maharashtra through a Sahapedia grant in 2017.  Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at Sinhgad College of Architecture and also freelances as an architect and heritage professional.

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