Meghalaya – Been There
My first time seeing a "living bridge"
I’ve come to Meghalaya – one of India’s smallest states – to investigate a tradition of the Khasi people that I first heard about from a fellow traveler in Darjeeling.
The “living bridges” – as he described them – had no mention in any guidebooks, a pointer that has been a guiding force on many of my previous journeys. In fact, the main reason I was first attracted to India's northeastern states was the complete lack of coverage of the area and, indeed, the advice against travel there as a whole.
Set within a lush forest landscape, the village of Mawlynnong takes me by surprise at first. Our car comes to a stop at a turning circle dotted with brightly colored flowers, some in plant pots, others dangling from hanging baskets. It takes me a few moments to realize that these things are not for sale, such is the uncanny resemblance to a garden center back home. Then something else strikes me. There is no trash on the ground anywhere, one feature of India that I have almost become desensitized to over the months.
The next morning I am met by Henry, a local youth who has promised to take me to see a living root bridge. We are accompanied by a group of his friends as we embark on the 20-minute walk down the road to neighboring Wahthyllong. As we cut into the forest at Riwai we pick up one of the many ancient stone pathways that crisscross these hills. Known locally as the “King’s Way,” they used to be a vital route for the trade of betel nut back to Shillong.
Unlike many jungle dwelling cultures I have visited, the pathways are laid in stone – a response to the extreme climate in this area, so that they don’t wash away with the rains. A similar need has led to the evolution of the Khasi’s spectacular living bridges.
My first sight of the bridge at Wahthyllong sends a shiver down my spine. We are approaching it from above, winding down a set of steep stone steps. As the vista opens up, my initial impression is that I am looking at a film set. The stone pathway drops down beneath us and continues seamlessly across the network of interlaced tree roots to the other side of the river.
It takes my mind a little time to understand what I am seeing. The living structure is supporting an earth and flagstone causeway, its roots and branches engulfing the foreign particles, giving it a beautifully ergonomic structure. Beneath it, a small group of women are washing clothes in the crystal clear water, their soft chattering voices gently wafting upward.
Standing on the bridge, Henry explains a length of bamboo is first secured across the river and a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) is planted on each bank. Over the months and years, the roots and branches of the rapidly growing banyan are trained along the bamboo until they meet in the middle and no longer need its support. At later stages in the evolution of the bridge, stones are placed into the gaps and are eventually engulfed by the plant’s growth.
Later still, the bridges are improved on with the addition of handrails and steps. The boys pitch in with estimations of the bridge’s age, all varying wildly. My best guess is between 70 and 100 years old. Certainly, no one in the community remembers a time when the bridge did not exist. “We have lots of wood here but if we cut it and used that to make a bridge, it would rot, because of all the rain,” says Henry. "Using a living tree means it just gets stronger and stronger every year.”