A view of the guest house. Photo by Devraj Chaliha
A view of the guest house. Photo by Devraj Chaliha

House on the hill: a slice of old Shillong

  • A 140-year-old house is a surprisingly good example of the cosmopolitanism of Meghalaya’s capital
  • La Chaumiere House was built by the late Khwaja Salimullah, the third nawab of erstwhile Dacca

Shillong is a city in a hurry. In the 20-odd years since my family moved to Guwahati, I have seen the city that was my first home go through a myriad transformations. Every return is welcomed by new cafés, bars and lounges sprouting up in hot spots like Laitumkhrah and Police Bazaar, catering to the high student population and rising number of tourists.

Much of the Shillong of yore is only to be found in nostalgic memories, as heritage structures and regal restaurants—like Abba, famous for its Chinese cuisine, where my family would invariably dine on weekends—have given way to fast-food chains and coffee outlets. Even the traditional jadoh stalls and kong dukans (women-run rice and tea hotels) are slowly modernizing into café-like holes serving “chow" and momos, with cappuccino on the menu.

Away from this bustle, La Chaumiere House, cloaked by a row of 100-year-old pinewood trees and surrounded by a high perimeter wall draped in ornamental shrubs, took me back to the Shillong of my childhood. In a city that has expanded rapidly, haphazardly, this is one of the few heritage buildings to have retained its original form and character. In fact, the 140-year-old property once served as a summer villa for the British, going by the name of Holders Hotel.

However, for a property so historic and scenically located, it is astonishingly little known. Perhaps because appreciation for a heritage stay is still novel in a town that was once a summer capital for the British, and a provincial capital for erstwhile undivided Assam. Until the 1990s, Shillong and nearby tourist spots like Sohra (Cherrapunji) mostly attracted families and honeymooners, leading to an explosion of hotels and guest houses. With the recent increase in travellers seeking authentic local experiences, residents have partially converted their houses into home-stays.

Vanishing heritage

La Chaumiere House was built by the late Khwaja Salimullah, the third nawab of erstwhile Dacca (East Bengal) and a historical figure in the partition of Bengal, the formation of the All India Muslim League and the establishment of Dhaka University.

According to Farooque Hussain, whose family has a house on La Chaumiere hill, opposite the big house, the nawab owned a 38-acre plot. “When we moved here, the house had a thatched roof. The British chappie, Holder, was the nawab’s secretary," he tells me at his home, which is also a heritage guest house now. “It was Mr Charles H. Holder, however, who developed the estate’s potentialities as a resort and a multi-unit hotel for Europeans," writer I.M. Simon had written in an article for The Shillong Times before 1990, of his time growing up around the property during the days of the nawab.

Salimullah sold his estates after Partition, and, by the 1950s, La Chaumiere House was allotted to senior government functionaries working in the Assam government (Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972). Sometime in the same decade, the European-styled thatched-roof cottage was acquired by an Assamese couple from Guwahati, Shiva Prasad and Anjali Devi Sharma, who rented it out to government departments. When their descendants got possession of the house in the 1980s, it was in a sorry state and breaking it down seemed the best option. Shiva Prasad, however, urged his sons to restore it, which took the better part of the 1990s. It was after this that the heritage house started welcoming guests, mostly by word of mouth.

La Chaumiere does not have a heritage tag. Despite the Meghalaya Heritage Act, 2012, the procedure to get it is riddled with red tape. Many historical buildings have given way to commercial plots. Often, owners and managers of the property don’t know much, and there has been little effort to preserve relics and documents from the past.

PERSONAL TOUCH

Today, La Chaumiere House has the façade of an early 20th-century English clubhouse, with an extended porch overlooking the lawns. Every piece of red pinewood from the original structure was reused when the house was restored with a few minor renovations, like the introduction of the mezzanine floor and the stone slabs on the front porch walls, a classic Scottish feature of heritage buildings in the city.

The house’s most attractive feature are its large bedrooms, filled with antique Burmese teakwood beds, dressers, long-armed chairs and closets. Each of the four bedrooms is tailored for a different kind of traveller, from the “Brady Bunch" to honeymooning couples.

An antique bed in one of the rooms at La Chaumiere. Photo by Devraj Chaliha
An antique bed in one of the rooms at La Chaumiere. Photo by Devraj Chaliha

Sinking into the warmth of a Burmese bed in one of the cosier rooms, I read Insider Outsider: Belonging And Unbelonging In North-East India, a book about the cosmopolitanism of Shillong.

The personalized touch of the Sandilyas (the current generation uses their gotra title instead of their surname) makes you feel more like you are visiting your grandparents than basking in the decadent luxury of a heritage hotel.

I note that two generations of this Assamese family have taken great care to maintain a nawab’s cottage and restore its English architectural décor, while introducing the practical features of an Assam-type house and Burmese furniture. And this is what makes La Chaumiere House stand out as a proud symbol of the cosmopolitanism that Shillong is known for.

For more details, call 9774294539; rooms start from 2,500 a night for double occupancy.

Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based writer.

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