Along the southern edge of the Himalayas, one of the world’s most diverse geographical areas spreads out like a lush green carpet. The natural beauty – raved about for generations by natives and visitors alike – fell victim to the worst Mother Nature has to offer on June 12, 1897.
Shortly after 5pm that evening, a thunderous rumbling was heard emanating from the ground. After three foreboding minutes, the shock reached the surface, shaking for approximately 150 seconds and registering at a magnitude 8.1 on the moment magnitude scale. To this day, only a handful of stronger earthquakes have been recorded, including an 8.6 that rocked the same area in 1950.
Though scientific measurements from the time are considered somewhat unreliable, modern geologists believe the quake originated some 20 miles below ground. The rolling and heaving of the surrounding earth decimated towns and villages spread across more than 150,000 square miles, killing more than 1,500 people. Despite the tremendous loss of life, this was considered a blessing – initial fears that well over 6,000 were dead ended up being wrong.
Notable for its intensity, the 1897 earthquake shook residents as far away as modern Dehli in the west and Burma in the east. Thanks to the disruption of communication out of the epicenter near Shillong – telegraph lines were down for several days – newspapers worldwide erroneously reported Calcutta as the location at first. Five days later, damage reports from Assam began trickling in, detailing the destruction of buildings for as far as the eye could see. According to a local representative of the Geological Survey of India, the shock was so great it leveled most structures within the first 15 seconds.
The widespread destruction was primarily noticed on masonry – brick buildings were frequently leveled while lighter wooden construction, with no real foundation to speak of, often slid along the ground before tumbling into a heap. One could easily surmise that the death toll would have been much higher if not for these differences in materials.
Strong local aftershocks continued for several days – anecdotal evidence reported a hanging lamp swinging well into June 15th in the town of Tura – and lasted for more than a month, the last being recorded on July 15th. The ground shifted as much as 30 feet apart in some places, leaving bridges in twisted heaps of metal and, in some cases, causing floods in August and September – annual heavy rains were diverted in new directions due to terrain being three feet higher in some spots than it had before the earthquake.
The legacy of the disaster is unclear. Half a century later, the area shook violently once again. The 1950 earthquake, measured at an 8.6, killed just as many people and still rates as one of the worst recorded in history. For some, the area is indicative of the paradox humans encounter when dealing with nature: despite being filled with some of the most striking landscapes on the planet, one must also be aware of the danger presented by the ground underfoot.