They look like a thick cluster of intertwined trees from a distance. A closer look, and one realises that these are the living root bridges that Meghalaya is known for.
Nurtured over generations by members of the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, these act as natural crossings over rivers and streams. The northeastern state is dotted with over a hundred such living root bridges, most of them in the villages around Cherrapunji, Nongriat and Mawlynnong.
The most well-known is the double-decker bridge across the Umshiang river. Located at a height of 2,800 feet above sea level, a waterfall in the background makes for a picturesque setting for tourists who have the resolve, and stamina, to trek to the spot.
The first reference to these bridges is believed to have been made in the “Journal Of The Asiatic Society Of Bengal”, a Kolkata-based journal, in 1844. But the bridges themselves could date back several centuries before that.
Bio-Engineering Meets Human Perseverance
These cost-effective and largely self-sustaining bridges are built using rubber fig trees that are believed to have existed for hundreds of years.
The bridges are made by weaving together the tangles of thick and heavy roots on either side of a water stream. Young fragile roots are kept in the trunk of betel-nut trees from where they draw nourishment and moisture to become sturdy over time.
As the regions of Meghalaya experience heavy rain almost throughout the year, the living root bridges remain soaked in water.
A network of bamboos supports these single trees, covering the river’s breadth. Gaps in the roots are filled by small rocks which form the solid and strong pathway of the bridge.
It is left to nature to make these bridges strong enough to take the weight of 30-40 people in one go. This happens over a period of 10 to 15 years, as the roots grow deeper into the structure and the natural wires weaving them together get more firmly intertwined.
Living root bridges also breathe life in the form of moss, snails and lichen; these stick to the sides of the bridge.
Living Root Bridges, In The Lap Of Nature
Most of these bridges are a 5-6 hour journey from state capital Shillong, and a substantial distance has to be covered on foot.
- The Umshiang double-decker bridge is located in Nongriat, Cherrapunji; there are nearly a dozen other “functional” bridges in the area.
- The Ritymmen Root Bridge, one of the longest such bridges, is in Nongthymmai village.
- The Mawsaw root bridge is about half-an-hour from Nongriat.
- Mawlynnong’s Riwai village is a home to a unique single root bridge. Mawlynnong, incidentally,is known as one of the cleanest areas in the country.
Living, Breathing And Growing Constantly
Efforts of the locals have kept the existing bridges from being destroyed, and there is a constant attempt to create new living bridges.
A new bridge is being grown using a bamboo and wood scaffold in the Rangthylliang village and Nongriat valley.
The villagers also plan to transform the double-decker at Umshiang into a triple decker bridge to attract even more tourists.
Another one, a rickety bridge which will connect Rimai to Nongtyngur village, would take around 20 years to construct and many more to become a stable structure.
There are at least half-a-dozen root bridges in different stages of completion in Meghalaya. Some of them will be fully formed in the next 50 years!