How Morningstar Khongthaw is working to preserve living root bridges of Meghalaya!

Through walks, sessions, and meeting locals and tourists alike, Morningstar Khongthaw has been aiming to save the heritage of Meghalaya - living root bridges.

Local Samosa
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Nature has endowed us with various gifts that have become picturesque scenes for us or a hot spot to explore. However, preserving such gifts requires determination and rigorous efforts and Morningstar Khongthaw, the founder of the Living Bridge Foundation has been working towards the same. His motive is simple — to preserve and protect the living root bridges of Meghalaya. 

Jingkieng Jri, as it is called in the local language Khasi or Living Root Bridge, was in the limelight two years back. It was included in the tentative list of World Heritage Sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). However, living root bridges are much more than just a tag.

The living root bridges


With no fewer than 100 natural root bridges in Meghalaya that epitomize the linkage between humans and nature, the credit for these creations goes to the well-deserved Khasi and Jaintia tribal communities, who are believed to have been involved in making these bridges for more than 600 years. Records highlight that the bridges are made from rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica) due to their elasticity and ability to put out aerial roots. The process begins with searching for a suitable location on the river to plan the bridge, after which the tribes venture into the forests to find saplings of Ficus elastica.

Villagers replant the saplings on either side of the river and then wait for a period of 10-15 years. After this long wait, when the trees become old enough to produce aerial roots, the tribal people coax the roots across the river, using bamboo scaffolding to facilitate the process. This scaffolding allows pedestrians to cross while the bridge is under construction.

In the following years, the tribes work diligently to weave the roots, guiding them to meet the tree on the other side of the river. As the trees mature and produce more roots, the tribes continue to weave these into the bridge. The process of fusion, known as anastomosis, involves tying and merging the roots. Interestingly, the villagers might not even be aware of such botanical terms that are so integral to their work. But when has science ever been restricted by language?

Efforts to uphold the natural culture of Meghalaya


Morningstar Khongthaw, the founder of the Living Bridge Foundation has been emphasising the potential longevity of these structures, which have the potential to last for centuries with proper maintenance. Keeping in mind the studies that claim a lifespan of 500 to 600 years, Khongthaw has been putting efforts to enhance its durability through innovative techniques as they remain a testament to indigenous ingenuity and the harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

A native of Rangthylliang village in the Pynursla tehsil of the East Khasi Hills district, Khongthaw's deep connection with these root bridges is evident through his dedication to their preservation. He had seen his father and other relatives actively involved in maintaining these community-owned bridges.


Image Courtesy: Meghalaya Tourism

Khongthaw dropped out of high school in 2016 to focus all his energy on conservation work. He started his foundation on his own and found some relief in his work after getting a smartphone in 2017. This also helped him access social media to spread awareness and organise his efforts, including creating a Facebook page.

Describing himself as a “living bridge activist,” he has spent the past five years revitalising deteriorating bridges and constructing new ones. During these years, he has travelled from village to village to educate local communities on the significance of this ancient practice and impart knowledge on how to care for their remarkable heritage. He also works towards sensitising villagers about ancient skills and how to preserve their unique heritage.

"Our primary focus is on repairing and maintaining existing root bridges. This involves gathering local villagers—both young and old—to work together. Elders, with their invaluable knowledge, teach the younger generation the art of weaving and manipulating the roots of the rubber tree (Ficus elastica). This intergenerational exchange ensures that the traditional skills are passed down and preserved," Khongthaw says.


Image Courtesy: Morningstar Khongthaw

Currently, he also works as a tourist guide, helping travellers experience the best of nature in his homeland. Additionally, he provides homestay accommodations for visitors to the rural settlements in Shillong.

Apart from that, he and his team are also dedicated to constructing new root bridges. "This process starts with building a sturdy framework using bamboo or areca wood over rivers and streams. We then guide the roots to grow around this framework, a meticulous process that can take 20-30 years," the founder says adding that his foundation has created the framework for several new bridges in the forests around Pynursla town and is helping to maintain many more across Meghalaya.

Challenges are endless

Activism does not come so easily for Khongthaw. As much as he is determined to guide the tourists, he says that the impact of tourism is a challenge. "While tourism brings necessary attention and funds, it also leads to environmental degradation. Tourist footfall can damage the delicate roots and surrounding vegetation," he says. Sharinf references, he says, "Concrete additions around some bridges to accommodate tourists have reduced water access for the tree roots, threatening the bridges' health."


Image Courtesy: Go India

Another major challenge, as observed by him is the lack of governmental support. "Despite the ecological and cultural importance of these bridges, there has been little official effort to preserve them. While the tourism department shows interest, there are no concrete policies or dedicated funding for maintenance and protection. This lack of support forces us to rely heavily on local volunteers and international donations," he says.

The cultural shifts and modernisation that have become evident with time also poses significant hurdles, as per the young activist. "As communities migrate towards urban areas, there is a growing disconnect from traditional practices. Younger generations often do not see the immediate economic benefits of preserving these ancient techniques, leading to the neglect of some bridges. This shift towards modern infrastructure can result in the abandonment of these bridges," he says.

Morningstar Khongthaw also believes that resource constraints are a constant struggle. He says, "Finding a consistent supply of materials like bamboo for the framework is challenging, especially as environmental conditions change. Training individuals in the necessary skills for bridge construction and maintenance is also time-intensive and requires significant effort."

Despite these challenges, however, Khongthaw has been consistent in raising awareness and educating communities. "By blending traditional knowledge with modern advocacy, we hope to create a bridge between our past and a sustainable future," he says.

Morningstar Khongthaw’s efforts were recognized at the 11th Balipara Foundation Awards, where he was celebrated for his unwavering commitment to preserving Meghalaya’s living root bridges and promoting sustainable practices within Indigenous communities. His dedication serves as an inspiration to others, highlighting the importance of preserving cultural and ecological heritage for future generations.

Currently,  Khongthaw  has been associated with Balipara Foundation, founded by Ranjit Barthakur, a social entrepreneur, who has pioneered the concepts of Naturenomics and Rural Futures to work towards saving the environment.

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