An Age-old Connection: The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, A Natural Engineering Marvel

Crisscrossing scenic northeast India often takes you across many bridges that you might swear not to visit again, or maybe the other way round. Many such in the land of the rising sun, Arunachal Pradesh, dangle almost into nowhere supported by long cables and bamboo sticks. The Kabu Bridge in Aalo, the hanging bridge over the Yomgo River in West Siang district, and the hanging bridge over Ithun River in Dibang valley are a few among the many in the hill state that helps the locals to commute and connect to the other part of the world. One common factor in all these bridges is that they start swaying the moment you step on them, and if you are a first-timer it’s no less than a “Khatron Ke Khiladi” type test.

However, on my recent trip to one of the wettest places on earth, Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, chasing calming rains and clouds that rise from the land, it was a decision made in haste to trek to Nongriat and tread on the unique hanging bridge. A bridge that hangs with the help of Mother Nature.

India, Northeast, hills, jungles, forests
These living root bridges are found in the Northeast. Pic/News18

I reached the place from where I needed to descend, a bit too early in the mid-August morning. The place has changed a lot since my last visit in 2007. There is a proper tourist information kiosk, local guides, and a few young Khasi boys renting out bamboo poles that help one climb the stairs in the ascent. Finishing my cup of hot Sha (tea as it is locally called), I made friends with James, a local man who runs a kiosk selling chips and water for tourists. He agreed to be my guide and company though I literally did not need one except for understanding the local dialect.

The overnight drizzle had made the steps a bit slippery which made the adventure even more arduous. Tips from James helped a lot to scale down approximately 3,500 steps to reach the place which I deem Paradise. There are places to rest on the journey and magnificent rivers which you need to cross. For an avid trekker, it takes around three hours to reach Nongriat, the abode for the Double Decker Root Bridge.

If you ask me about my experience, it was simply out of the world. Standing on the handing bridge, I felt like the famous character immortalised by Rudyard Kipling. A double-decker bridge over the gargling brook with moss and lichens on its supports looked prehistoric. One needs to be on it to believe it.

The living root bridges are one of the most beautiful tangible heritage sites of Meghalaya. The natural bridges have very recently been included in the UNESCO world heritage site list. These natural marvels are laced with intricate works of intertwined roots. Standing firmly for centuries engineered by the indigenous people of the land (Khasis and the Jaintias), the natural bridges are used by the local people to cross the overflowing rivers during the monsoon season. Not only is it a naturally built ecosystem of local flora but it also symbolises the relationship and knowledge that the local people have over their region and the cultural significance that it holds for them. Under ideal conditions, a root bridge is thought to be able to persist for hundreds of years. These bridges frequently rise 50 to 100 feet in the air. The state’s longest-living root bridge is said to be a whopping 175 feet in length. There are approximately hundreds of known living root bridges across different villages. Some of the most popular ones are in Nongriat, Cherrapunji, Nongbareh, and other nearby locations.

WHAT IS A LIVING ROOT BRIDGE?

These are naturally built bridges, mainly built by first planting two rubber trees of the Ficus elastica on either side of a river. These trees usually take about a decade to grow and generate secondary aerial roots. These roots can then be weaved to construct sturdy structures and then form enormous roots for reinforcement. Next, the local bridge builders of the region would then direct the roots of the bridge by weaving a bamboo scaffolding. This scaffolding is used to gently push the aerial roots across the river until they are planted on the opposite side after being weaved into it. Every two years, they change the bamboo scaffolding since the moisture and humidity might damage it. The roots ultimately become thicker and intertwine with those of a different tree on the other side. Over the period of 20 to 30 years, they continue to guide the roots on the existing bridges until the roots can stand on their own. At that point, you have live root bridges that must be continuously checked and cared for. Once mature, some bridges can have as many as 50 or more people crossing, and have a lifespan of several hundred years.

Living root bridge, Northeast India, Meghalaya
A living root bridge. Pic/News18

WHY ARE THESE BRIDGES IMPORTANT?

These bridges have a major significance for farmers and villagers of the region. This is so because these enable them to get to their respective plantations, homes, or areas where they need to deliver products.

These bridges also have a big cultural significance. This is so as the entire community must collaborate to design, manage, and maintain each bridge. They also take more than one generation to work on them. This is done so that these bridges can also be used by future generations of the people who are presently gently tending to the younger bridges. Many residents in the surrounding areas of these bridges have also now become financially independent because of them.

These bridges are also crucial for biodiversity. This is because they support pollinating insects, promote the growth of moss, and provide a habitat for squirrels and bird nesting places. By turning the trees into bridges, the Khasi people have been successful in creating many places where animals may cross rivers securely. Bark deer and clouded leopards are known to utilise root bridges to cross gaps in the forest. These bridges not only add to the beauty but also support the growth and well-being of the area in which they are located.

Things in Nongriat have changed over the years, once a sleepy hamlet tucked in the cradle of nature, now has modern amenities for tourists including luxury hotels. More tourists, increased revenue, and better accessibility. What has not changed is the Double Decker Root Bridge and the engineering ingenuity of the indigenous. A bridge that hangs with the help of natural cables and stands firm. The villagers now are in the process to add a third deck to the double-decker bridge.

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