Living Root Bridges
It’s rare that you come across anything on this earth that hasn’t also been thought of by someone else in a totally different region. However, the living root bridges of Meghalaya are a uniquely special entity found nowhere else. As a tree-lover, I just had to go and see this for myself. It’s a long way to go to see a bridge though — would it be worth it?
“How long does it take to grow a bridge? About 15 to 20 years!”
If you’re anything like me you’ve probably never heard of Meghalaya. Last year was the first time I became aware of it, and I’ve worked in international tourism for over 30 years. This small state in north east India was born in 1972, one of the so-called Seven Sisters States along with nearby Nagaland, Arunchal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur. Sikkim has since been given separate statehood too. All these north-eastern states were previously part of Assam.
Meghalaya means ‘the abode of clouds’. Sitting just to the north of Bangladesh, it is largely covered by the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills and is known for its green, forested landscapes. The Khasi are the main tribe here, though there are also smaller numbers of Garo and Jaintia tribes. It isn’t a densely-populated region (just under 3 million people), and the inhabitants mainly live off the land, be that small-scale farming or quarrying for limestone and granite in their many hills.
The state experiences unusually high levels of rainfall, with one town, Cherrapunjee, taking the prize for being the rainiest place in the world! The average rainfall here over almost the last fifty years is 12 metres per year. You can imagine the fierceness of the rivers in the rainy season (April to October – with June to July and sometimes August taking the brunt of the downpour), and it is this natural phenomenon that led to the creation of the bridges that drew me here.
A few hundred years ago, some bright spark decided to harness nature — Indian rubber trees (ficus elastica), to be precise — to help the community cross the swollen rivers. A length of aerial root was taken from one of these long-lived, fast-growing trees and trained across the river with the aid of bamboo or betel tree scaffolding. Over time, more and more roots were encouraged from bank to bank and interwoven to create strength and stability. This was no quick task. A bit like planting trees, this was a work-in-progress that future generations would reap the rewards of. How long does it take to grow a bridge? About 15 to 20 years!
You might think that with modern methods of construction such a natural and traditional solution to a problem would no longer be used or valued; it is sadly so often the case. However, you’d be wrong in this instance. In this harsh terrain, a bridge built of modern materials lasts perhaps 30 years with luck. The rivers smash into concrete and steel with unforgiving force. They hammer unrelentingly on the bullish pride of twentieth century workmanship and, before long, the waters begin to undermine and erode. Living root bridges, on the other hand, have the capacity to bend and give. Inflexibility in the face of nature’s power is not for them; they go with the flow and accept the attentions of the rivers with a strength married with tolerance. They endure, and they grow stronger with age. It is believed that root bridges can live for 500 years.
Meghalaya has 80 living root bridges in its hilly forests, 11 of these in the Cherrapunjee area which is where I came. The longest is about 50 metres. The oldest is thought to be about 250 years old, and the most unusual is the ‘double decker’ at Nongriat (presumably built because the villagers were still getting their feet wet on the lower level in the rainiest months!).
Being part of the forest, this botanical architecture blends in seamlessly with the surroundings. The bridges have no sharp edges, and no incongruous colours nor expanses of flatness to flag their presence. They look like something that Tolkien would have dreamed up; I didn’t see any hobbits crossing them but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if I had. I was almost on top of my first bridge before I saw it — its organic gnarliness seemed to appear magically in front of me. Tentatively setting foot on it, I half-wondered if the knobbly walkway of roots might recognise the footsteps of a stranger and twist its shape to block my entry: ‘You shall not pass!’
I stayed with my bridge for at least an hour. Only one farmer crossed in that time, and there were no other visitors. The forest breathed peacefully, butterflies and birds busied themselves around me, and I just looked. I had travelled many miles and for many hours to get here … to see a bridge! Am I crazy? Perhaps, but by the time I left I felt like I was leaving an old friend, and I’m sure you’ll agree that old friends are worth the effort.
INTERESTED IN SEEING THIS FOR YOURSELF?
Currently, the two easiest areas to see such living root bridges in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee. Some bridges get more visitors than others – there were perhaps 30 people at the bridge near Mawlynnong when I was there. At Cherrapunjee I was lucky to get so long without other visitors when visiting the bridge described above.
While Indian visitors come to the hills of Meghalaya throughout the year, including in the monsoon season, most international travellers tend to visit in the dry months from about October to March when there is often little or no water in the rivers.
You need to be fit enough to deal with a reasonable amount of walking up and down steep steps. There is one fairly accessible bridge (about a 15-minute walk from the car drop-off point) but others such as the Double Decker require a roughly 4-5 hour round trip hike down and up 3500 steps with a descent of about 750 metres.
Accommodation near the bridges is limited; most of it is very simple and some (which we don’t offer) is extremely basic. Please talk to Tribes Travel’s Indian specialists for our best advice on where to stay.
It’s easy to make a wonderful trip in this region. Have a look at our ‘Remote North East India’ trip suggestion or talk to us for other recommendations of what else to combine with the living root bridges. I combined it with a trip to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Read about that trip here.
Remote North East India trip
If you would like to explore the forests and unique living root of bridges of Meghalaya followed by safaris in Kaziranga National Park, home to two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos, click here to view this unique trip.