Why Meghalaya is building new root bridges

Global attention, a growing tourist crowd and, at times, plain functionality trigger a new growth spurt in the living root bridges


A Khasi teenager at the site of the under-construction bridge in Rimai. Photo: Shamik Bag
A Khasi teenager at the site of the under-construction bridge in Rimai. Photo: Shamik Bag

In another few decades, an even greater number of under-construction living root bridges will firmly link nature with the traditional naturalist lifestyle of Meghalaya’s tribal communities.

In Nongriat, in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills district, a new bridge has been in the making for 15 years. The secondary roots of the rubber fig tree at one end of the proposed bridge have now entwined with the thin and long line of wire the villagers have put in place to create a third tier of the existing double decker bridge. Threads made of dried branches hold the smaller roots together in strategic portions, guiding them along. A couple of sturdier roots have struck ground on the other side of the Umshiang double decker root bridge.

A lot of work remains, though much of it is likely to be a labour of nature. In another 40 years, local villager Constantine surmises, a smile framing his betel-stained teeth, the bridge will be ready for daily use.

In this North-Eastern state, bioengineering meets human zeal. Bridges shaped out of the brawny roots of the fig tree (Ficus elastica), a member of the banyan family, connect villages and villagers, facilitate marriages and commerce, and bring in tourists. Living, breathing and growing constantly, the Nongriat valley region around Cherrapunjee has around six such functional bridges, says Jerelius Malngiang, assistant secretary of the Nongriat Elaka Sirdarship (the local administrative unit), and some more are in various stages of progress and completion. Malngiang estimates that four such root bridges are being fashioned in the Nongriat valley—a test of patience and perseverance that will, over three-five decades, form a robust bond between nature and human need.

A functional single-decker root bridge at Nongriat. Photo: Shamik Bag
A functional single-decker root bridge at Nongriat. Photo: Shamik Bag

The Umshiang bridge, popularly known as the Double Decker, is a naturalist’s delight. These living root bridges have gained fame in tourist manuals, and intrepid travellers brave a taxing 4- to 5-hour trek, including a climb (on the way back) up a knee-wobbling flight of around 2,500 steps, to marvel at the approximation and manipulation of nature by the Khasi tribal community.

The ingenious fashioning of these bridges seems innate to the Khasis. While the first reference to living root bridges reportedly goes back to 1844, when they were mentioned in the Journal Of The Asiatic Society Of Bengal, the bridges themselves may go back a few more centuries, says Prof. B.K. Tiwari of the department of environmental studies at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong.

The new bridge being engineered by villagers will make Umshiang a triple decker. Constantine admits that since two bridges already exist, its main functionality will be the additional tourist attraction. “The tourist economy has been good for the region,” adds Malngiang, shovelling sand as he helps in the construction of a café that he is planning, overlooking the green vista. A noticeboard in Khasi at the village square spells out the dos and don’ts, asking villagers to help in the construction (and maintenance) of the bridge, avoid doing any damage, shun a public display of drunkenness or use of abusive language.

Near Rimai, a tiny village that can be reached only after a 2-hour trek through forests and hilly trails from the roadhead to Mawlynnong village, the under-construction bridge is intended for more practical use. About 20 years in the making, the rickety bridge over a rainfed, gushing river connects Rimai to Nongtyngur village. Mawlynnong village, which has its own gorgeously intricate centuries-old bridge, has gained fame as a particularly clean village.

The bridge under construction is still infirm and wobbly, the roots filling the void still feeble, so a misstep could mean a plunge 30ft into the torrent below. Yet, once the roots struck ground at the other end, the human interactions with it began: trade and exchange of supplies between the two villages picked up, and Rimai villagers found a shorter route to the metalled road. Jes, a Khasi teenager from Rimai, talks about the time a villager fell through a gap in the bridge, his life saved from hitting the rocks below by the fact that the river was in spate.

Happily, this living root bridge also facilitated the flowering of a love story that culminated in a marriage. Jes remembers with a laugh how a groom from Nongtyngur, in all his wedding finery, had to cross the tremulous bridge over raging waters, much to the consternation of his family. He made it across safely, and the young living root bridge became a metaphor for life, the future and bonding itself.

A careful study of this under-construction bridge reveals the human interventions: the roots of the rubber fig trees at both ends (there are also instances of the roots of a single tree forming a bridge) have been supported by bamboos and almost camouflaged wire covering the breadth of the river. The roots wind themselves around these till the human-supplied props become redundant in some years. Small rocks are placed within the gaps in the roots, forming the solid pathway of the bridge. Initially, young roots are allowed to pass through the trunk of betel-nut trees to protect them from the elements, the roots drawing nourishment and moisture from the hollowed-out betel-nut trunk till they become sturdy, says Malngiang. Building a root bridge is a collective effort, and as Jes crosses the bridge at Rimai, he draws and strings together some wayward roots and gives them direction. In another 30 years, the bridge should be zero-maintenance and ready for use for a few centuries.

“The geo-environmental condition of the Khasi hills and the strong association the community has with nature and the environment make these living root bridges unique to the terrain. The Ficus elastica also has a tendency to produce strong prop roots, which help the bridges stand. These bridges are part of the traditional knowledge base of the Khasis, passed on over generations, helping in the creation of newer bridges,” says Prof. Tiwari.

Moss and lichen decorate the living root bridges in a soft velvety green. New leaves sprout off their frames. Snails stick to the sides of live roots that run across streams and rivers, tangling up a natural architecture that is both sustainable and surreal in design. The bridges breathe life.

On the way to Nongriat, one crosses a Khasi sacred grove—the revered and protected forest patches that are often a repository of endemic and rare botanic life—before reaching the emerald green waters of a broad, swiftly flowing river. A local villager points to the wire covering the span of the river banks, around 100ft-wide. A fig tree stands at one end, its roots waiting to be guided along the line of the wire. The villagers live in the hope that in another 50-odd years, this will grow into yet another living, breathing root bridge.

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Root of the matter

■At least half-a-dozen root bridges are in various stages of completion in Meghalaya; it could be around 50 years before some are fully formed.

■The bridges fashioned out of the living roots of the rubber fig tree never really stop growing and are known to survive a few centuries.

■Experts consider mass tourism one of the threats facing the root bridges; dozens of tourists can often be found standing on them.

■The close interaction between nature and Khasi society is represented by the traditional root bridges as well as the community’s role in creating steps and ladders out of the branches and roots of trees.

■In Meghalaya, the living root bridges are largely concentrated in the East Khasi Hills district and the Cherrapunjee region.

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