India’s Incredible Living Root Bridges
Shannon travels to India. This is part 4 in a series of articles.
India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya (meaning “Abode of the Clouds” in Sanskrit), is breathtaking with its tropical forests and lush green mountains – and fluffy, white clouds. Unique to this wet and remote area are spectacular living root bridges.
(Abode of the Clouds)
Invented by the indigenous Khasi tribe, who live deep in the misty jungle, these “bioengineered” suspension bridges are made by shaping the living roots of rubber trees that are native to India’s northeast — a process that takes many years. Unlike modern concrete, metal or wooden bridges, these living root bridges are alive and continue to grow and get stronger over time. They can be as long as 100 feet and their roots are extraordinarily sturdy. Not one nail is used. It takes about two decades for the bridges to be useable and they can hold up to 50 people.
(living root bridge near Mawlynnong village…all photos on this page are the same bridge)
The bridges are necessary for the villagers because the region is filled with rivers and streams, and heavy monsoon rains tend to destroy bridges made of bamboo. The Khasis would become stranded – and so they got inventive (the area is also home to the Jaintias and Garos tribes).
Most of Meghalaya’s many living root bridges are located near Cherrapunjee (also known as Sohra), a small town located on the edge of the East Khasi Hills, about 60 kms from the capital, Shillong, and is regarded as the rainiest place on earth. It is a destination for waterfalls, cave exploring, hiking and treks to the living root bridges.
The most famous of all bridges is a 2-level “double decker,” estimated to be two centuries old. It was discovered by Denis Rayen, a former banker who, along with his wife, Carmela, founded the nearby Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, and who I had the pleasure of having a cup of tea with after touring a living root bridge. Rayen is extraordinarily passionate about the Cherrapunjee area and is credited with putting the living root bridges on the map as tourist sights, which has also been the subject of BBC and Japanese TV documentaries.
(Denis Rayen and Carmela at their Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort)
Rayen explains to me that these durable bridges can last several centuries and have been made for the benefit of the tribe’s future generations. “It’s not done for your lifetime, it’s done for future generations,” says Rayen. “Once made, they have a lifetime of about 400 to 600 years, so that’s quite a few generations that can use it.”
In fact, the locals are said to be adding a third level on the double-decker, to draw more tourists.
Many of the living root bridges require a long, challenging trek to access them. The one I had the opportunity to see, which is one of the most accessible, is near Mawlynnong village, 90 km from Cherrapunjee (and 100 km from Shillong). Mawlynnong is dubbed as the “cleanest village in Asia,” known for its paved walkways, beautiful flowerbeds, waterfalls and its beautiful trek to the living root bridge.
And what a sight to behold!
After about a 10 mins walk down cement steps and rocks leading down to the valley’s lower reaches to a stream, standing before me was a messy tangle of roots of a living bridge. It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Any hesitation was put to rest when a group of local children skipped down the steps in flip-flops without hesitation because, of course, it is second nature to them. The boys climbed the bridge’s tree trunk and then stripped down to their undies for a swim in the stream. The girls, all immaculately dressed in school uniforms, sat on rocks as they chatted and ate packed lunches. I sat on rocks from a distance, in peace and tranquility, observing the children enjoying themselves in their daily lives. As the stream glistened against the backdrop of the living root bridge and lush greenery, I had gratitude not only for a once-in-a-lifetime “National Geographic” moment, but also for the awe-inspired, human-made natural wonder before my eyes.
(local Khasi boy contemplates going for a swim, which he does)
(Khasi children sitting on rocks near bridge having their lunches after boys go for a swim)
To get there: my route once in India was Delhi-Guwahati, Assam by air (via Air India); and then by car to Shillong, Meghalaya, which we used as a base for day-trips to Cherrapunjee and Mawlynnong. Best way to see the region is by car.
Shannon Skinner is a television host, inspirational speaker and writer. You can read her travel articles at Shannon’s Travel Bag.