Living with nature: The Khasi’s ingenious living root bridges

Meghalaya is a land of many wonders, with lush green hilltop plateaus that hide towering waterfalls, yawning limestone caves, and charming villages (spotlessly clean!). However, for all its beauty, nothing is more fascinating than Meghalaya’s unique synergy between man and nature. The most admirable partnerships of these are the amazing living root bridges.

The monsoons in the state, unrelenting and fierce, create an acute problem for the Khasis, an indigenous tribe that live in the hills of Eastern Meghalaya. As swollen streams and rivers gush down the hillside, pregnant with rainfall, crossing them becomes all but impossible, cutting off access and isolating villages in the valleys. While some streams had bamboo bridges in place, they simply weren’t strong enough to withstand the monsoon fury. So about 200 years ago, the Khasis hit upon a unique solution: to build bridges with the roots of trees.

It is no coincidence that this innovation of natural bridge building has come out of this part of the world. The Khasis have a symbiotic relationship with the hills, rivers and forests

The roots of the rubber trees of this region, thick and strong, are manipulated across a river, supported by betel nuts trunks and bamboo. Over the years the roots, painstakingly nurtured, intertwine and grow thicker and stronger, slowly crossing the river, where they are fastened onto the opposite bank around rocks or other trees. Eventually the mass of roots becomes large and strong enough to hold the weight of men. This industrious process of natural construction takes time, and building a single root bridge can take upto 20 years!

It is no coincidence that this innovation of natural bridge building has come out of this part of the world. The Khasis like other tribes around Meghalaya and parts of the North East have a symbiotic relationship with the hills, rivers and forests on which they depend for sustenance. There exists a keen awareness that their survival is closely with Nature; an awareness we fast seem to be losing in other parts of India and across the world.

Riwai’s popular living root bridge is a marvel to behold • Image Credit: Hoshner Reporter

Besides growing a number of varieties of rice, the locals here supplement their diet with herbs, ferns, mushrooms and other greens foraged from the forests. Culturally prolific hunters, for food and sport, they are now self-regulating the practice to ensure regeneration of species which were once in danger of being hunted out of existence. Many communities have also banned rampant logging to slow deforestation and here in the East Khasi hills, whilst fish is a major source of food, fishing with nets is disallowed by village councils, to ensure that you only catch as much as you need.

The root bridges, an unimaginable solution in today’s breathless day and age, are typical of a people who have always strived to live their lives sustainably, much before it became a lifestyle accessory.

While the East Khasi hills have a few different living root bridges, the most popular one is the beautiful structure at Riwai village. The setting here is lovely, with the small bridge stretching over a gurgling stream. But easy access and Mawlynnong’s title of cleanest village in Asia, has resulted in a large influx of tourism.

For a quieter experience, travel farther afield to Nongriat, deep in the valleys of Cherrapunji, where you will find Meghalaya’s only usable double decker root bridge! What makes this root bridge special – besides its two levels – is the intense 3500-step descent to reach it. Honestly, it’s worth every step.

Thick with intertwining roots, the double decker dominates the space. Both the levels of the bridge grow out of a single tree whose thick far reaching branches provide a natural canopy over the pool. It continues to grow everyday. As we walked the narrow bridge, we marvelled at this perfect bond between man and nature, a tourist attraction for us but a lifeline for the people who have inhabited these valleys for generations and whose lives, like the roots of the rubber tree, are inextricably intertwined with the land around.

Know Before You Go

The best place to base yourself for the trek down to the double decker root bridge is in Cherrapunji, a 5 hour drive from Guwahati, the closest airport. The trek down to the bridges starts in Tyrna village, where guides are available. You can choose to trek down and up again in the same day, though that can be quite strenuous and it may be a better idea to spend a night at the bridges at Serene Homestay in Nongriat (Ph No: +961 5252 655 / +943 6739 655 / Email: byronnongbri@gmail.com).

The homestay is very basic but the setting is absolutely gorgeous. If you choose to return back up to the Cherrapunji you can stay at the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort, a Cherrapunji institution, run by a Tamil – Khasi couple who brought the double decker root bridges into public attention. They also offer a number of other adventure activities in and around Cherrapunji including trekking and caving, as well as delicious Khasi cuisine.

Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. He is currently working on a long term project focused on capturing the history and culture of India, through its people, festivals, and monuments


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