Deep in India’s northeast, villagers use grass to sound-proof their huts from deafening rain, clouds are a familiar sight inside homes and a suitably rusted sign tells visitors they are in the “wettest place on Earth.”
Oddly enough, lifelong residents of Mawsynram, a small cluster of hamlets in Meghalaya state have little idea that their scenic home holds a Guinness record for the highest average annual rainfall of 11,873mm.
“Really, this is the wettest place in the world? I didn’t know that,” says Bini Kynter, a great-grandmother who estimates she must be “nearly 100 years old.”
“The rain used to frighten me when I was a young girl, it used to make our lives hell. Today people have it easy,” she says, wrapping a green tartan shawl tightly around her shoulders.
Meteorologists say Mawsynram’s location, close to Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal is the reason the tiny cluster receives so much rain.
“What happens is that whenever any moisture gathers over the Bay of Bengal, it causes precipitation over Mawsynram, leading to a heavy, long monsoon season,” Sunit Das of the Indian Meteorological Department said.
While annual monsoon rains lashed the national capital last week, causing traffic chaos and flooding at the international airport, such problems are mild for Mawsynram.
Just 30 years ago, Mawsynram had no paved roads, no running water and no electricity, making its six-month-long monsoon an insufferable experience for its mostly impoverished residents.
Landslides still occur regularly, blocking the only paved road connecting the hillside hamlets. Rainwater still seeps into the mud huts occupied by some villagers. And, while most homes now have electricity, outages are commonplace.
Every winter the people of Mawsynram spend months preparing for the wet season ahead, anticipating nonstop rain and no sunshine for several days at a time.
They repair their battered roofs. They cut and hoard firewood — a source of light and fuel for cooking. They buy and store foodgrains, since few will venture out to shop during the wettest months between May and July.
The women make rain covers known as knups, using bamboo slivers, plastic sheets and broom grass to create a rain shield that resembles a turtle shell, meant to be worn on one’s head while being large enough to keep rain off one’s knees.
The labor-intensive process of weaving a knup — each one takes at least an hour to complete — occupies the women of the village right through the rainy season, when they are cooped up indoors for months at a time.
Bamboo and broom grass — a delicate, fragrant, olive-colored grass used to make Indian brooms — are among the chief plants grown in this rocky, hilly region.
Broom grass is dipped in water, flattened using wooden blocks and finally dried on rooftops across Mawsynram. According to Prelian Pdah, a grandmother of nine, this makes the grass stronger and more likely to survive a downpour.
Pdah, 70, spends part of the winter and all of the monsoon season making bamboo baskets, brooms and knups which are bought by visiting businessmen who sell them around the state.
“I don’t like the heavy rainfall, it’s boring to stay indoors all day. It’s annoying,” she says.
Although few Mawsynram residents seemed to know or care about their record-holder status, the right to the Guinness title has been hotly disputed by a nearby town, Cherrapunji, which used to lay claim to that honor.