On the occasion of the International Day for Monuments and Sites, also known as World Heritage Day, here's an attempt to bring to light the cultural heritage of Meghalaya, aka the Living Root Bridges.
"The thing I liked the most about this root bridge was its rusting charm. It was creative and attractive. The hanging roots, the entwined tree trunks and the wide gaps to see the watercourse flowing below the bridge, almost stole my heart away," said the Guwahati resident, Pawan Dudhoria about the Mawlynnong Living Root Bridge in Meghalaya, one of the most popular living root bridges in the state that takes pride being called "abode of the clouds."
As a matter of fact, very recently, Jingkieng Jri, as it is called in the local language Khasi or Living Root Bridge, got more recent attention after it was included in the tentative list of World Heritage Sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), as was informed by the state's Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma through his social media accounts.
With no less than 100 such natural root bridges in Meghalaya that appear as the epitome of the linkage between humans and nature, the credit for these creations goes to the well-deserved Khasi and Jaintia tribal communities that are expected to have been involved in the making of these bridges for more than 600 years.
Even though the travellers, who we spoke to for this piece, did not mention their "direct communication" with the tribes about its making process, the old documents highlight that the bridges are made with rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica). The two reasons for this are that the trees are elastic and put out aerial roots. The beginning, however, includes searching for a location on the river to plan the bridge, after which the tribes find themselves in the forests hunting for the saplings of Ficus elastica.
Villagers replant the saplings on either side of the river and further wait for a period of 10-15 years. After the completion of the long years and when the trees become old enough to throw aerial roots, the tribal people coax the roots across the river, taking help from bamboo scaffolding. The scaffolding is done to pave the way for pedestrians to cross while the construction of the bridge is underway.
In the next few years, the tribals work hard weaving the roots to help meet them with the tree on the other side of the river. Especially, as trees attain a certain maturity level and add more roots, these tribals weave them into the bridge. The process of fusion, also called anastomosis, is about tying and merging the roots. The villagers, on the other hand, might not be even aware of such botanical terms that come in handy to them every time they create bridges, but when was Science ever restricted to languages!
When Pawan Dudhoria visited Mawlynnong Living Root Bridge or Single Decker Root Bridge in 2018, he had already been to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge or Jingkieng Nongriat one year back and was aware of the trekking that is a must to see the majestic masterpieces. On reaching Tyrna, the nearest village, to see the double-decker creation, he vaguely remembers climbing down approximately 3500 steps, which seemed never-ending but made way for a "gigantic adventure".
"The roots seemed to be conventional and sturdy and the trees seemed healthy," Dudhoria said. He emphasized that it was worth 2.5 hours of walking from the nearest parking space to the bridge as he was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people he met on the way down, especially locals. The greenery which surrounded him was surely an add-on. However, what he can never forget is his visit to the Myor Living Root Bridge in 2020.
En route to the bridge, he made sure to stop by and enjoy the scenic beauty on the roads of Nongpoh — a small town around 51 km from Shillong to the North of the East Khasi Hills. Reaching Mylliem, another small town, he could not stop himself from his momos craving, so he had some freshly steamed momos and the popular rice cake, which is also called Putharo — a traditional Khasi food. A ride of five hours, along with trekking for an hour and a half, helped Dudhoria reach the bridge, which in his words, is a "censoriously endangered root bridge".
This bridge stands at a good height, beneath which a clean lake is located, where people are often found diving. When Dudhoria visited the place, the wind was blowing, and the weather seemed pleasant that, later, also changed into mild rain, making him fully drenched. Despite this, he could not help but notice the beautiful plants around. "I remember having come across a plant named 'Harlequin Glorybower' and its glory did blow me over," he said, adding that the localities, who were hospitable, introduced it to him as 'Peanut Butter Bush'. In the end, Pawan Dhudhoria says, he witnessed a beautiful sunset on his way back.
Talking about the trek to the Single Decker Living Root Bridge in detail, Yathesht Sharma, who visited Meghalaya in March last year, said, "As you reach the bridge, you feel like having accomplished a great feat because the view of the unspoilt environment after a backbreaking trek is unparalleled." Sharma started the trek at around 9 a.m. from the car parking area to make the trek through the middle of the jungle, about which he said, "There was some sort of calmness in the wild with greenery, fresh air and sounds of the jungle."
The Noida resident passed through many tribal villages and shops that help travellers a chance to interact with them. Sharma mentioned that the shops sell lemon juice and local citrus fruits that are helpful during the trek. Finally, after a descent of approximately 2,000 steps, he reached the bridge in 15-20 minutes.
Even after a beautiful yet tiresome trek to Double Decker Root Bridge, Yathesht Sharma could not stop himself from exploring further as he went ahead to trek to the Rainbow waterfalls, which as per him, is the "highlight". However, he figured out that the path from the Double Decker Root Bridge to the Rainbow falls was not proper, and one could slip down if not stepped down properly, exactly like the road to the village from where the whole trek starts.
Sharma went on to say that the beauty of the Rainbow waterfalls subsides the issues one goes to witness the rainbow in the waterfall — only if reached before 11 a.m. "The water is so clear that one can see the base of the waterfall. The swim relieves you of the fatigue of the entire trek," he added.
When Tarak Bhawalkar's plans had suddenly changed and made their way to Meghalaya, he never knew that he would come across something that he would call "surreal". For a Pune resident, who was bearing the scorching heat of the sun in the summer of 2019, visiting Meghalaya emerged as a relief that he still has not forgotten. "The changing weather, air quality and the greenery were worth the trek to the bridges," he said.
Bhawalkar is a vegetarian and gathered that majority of the people there relished pork. To his relief, he said, the locals were helpful enough to also provide him with vegetarian food. As he trekked, he could see that some of these locals lived in villages and offered homestays to the tourists. Bhawalkar's guide was also from one of these villages and happened to be a college student. He said something that amazed Bhawalkar to a great extent, and it was that he could trek down the bridges at least 3-4 times a day! But what stunned him, even more, was the natural fish spa in the ponds and other water bodies around the root bridges.
There is no doubt that locals welcome tourists to their land wholeheartedly. But it is unlikely to predict the same for all the local and tribal communities who have kept their land preserved from any intervention for ages. As Abhilash Ramachandran, a part-time traveller who runs a podcast named 'My Adventure Planet' from Kerala, noticed, the tribals do not interact with everyone but the ones they feel good with. He, anyways, had the company of a local guide, who though belonged to Bihar, but lived in Meghalaya.
Routinely, like in other places, Ramachandran was ready with his itinerary and a google map to explore the root bridges, but the guide turned his plans down and made another suitable one as he was aware of the region and was going to drive the car. Due to the lack of developed public transport, tourists are bound to follow the guides and Ramachandran was happy to explore more about Meghalaya from him through his broken Hindi and English.
Apart from spotting how well the locals had preserved the root bridges and the water bodies, Abhilash Ramachandran could not resist noting how the roads throughout his journey were "risky". Another noticeable thing for him was those old rusted lorries that were parked alongside several roads, the story of which dates back to the time when rat-hot mining was not banned in Meghalaya — until 2014. The reality might be different now from what Ramachandran saw back in April 2021, as the news of a few people resuming the mining was circulated the same year but in the later months.
Ramachandran, on his trip, also found out that each tribal village owned a separate hill, and while they depended on forests for their livelihood, tourism also continued to offer its share, even if small. Amongst many observations, what intrigued him more was the absence of fauna in many of the areas, except for Cherrapunji where he could hear a few birds. "Surrounded by the beauty of nature, it was scary and surprising to not come across animals and birds in these areas," he said. Though he did not sound sure about the reasons, he certainly was certain when he said, "The Living Root Bridges are an example for the world to see the best of connection between humans and nature."
Strolling down the state also made these travellers see the cleanest village in Asia- Mawlynnong and some century-old bridges that withstand time and appear as a milestone against those newly built cement & concrete bridges that do not hesitate to fall — sometimes, right after their inauguration. Pawan Dudhoria and Tarak Bhawalkar agree that any intervention could harm the natural setting in Meghalaya.
While it is difficult to evaluate the consequences of either, the inclusion of the Living Root Bridges in the UNESCO Heritage list is likely to boost tourism in the state. But will it be really better for the natural landscapes of Meghalaya? Only time can answer.