The traditional Khasi male dress, called a "Jymphong", is a long sleeveless coat with no collar that is fastened with thongs and worn with a sarong. An ornamental waistband and a turban complete the outfit, now only worn for special occasions.
Meghalaya – Long Read

India’s bridges made from living trees

Photo by Timothy Allen

Meghalaya – Long Read India’s bridges made from living trees

Hello Meghalaya, the northeast corner of India that is one of the wettest places on earth and where the climate has been responsible for a unique sight. Bridges made from living trees take up to 50 years to grow but will not rot in the constant rainfall. Constructed using skills handed down through generations, some have lasted for hundreds of years.

Timothy Allen
Timothy Allen Travel Photographer

“Do not carry explosives in train...  Help us to make your journey the most comfortable happy journey.”

I do a double take at the rather unusual message lighting up the arrivals board at Guwahati train station. Having spent quite a bit of time in India, I am familiar with these kinds of Indian-isms. In this case, the statement is referring to the fireworks that are now an essential feature of any Indian festival.

But my startled response is justified. During the 32-hour journey from Delhi,  reading the Times of India had confirmed my suspicions about this volatile corner of the country. A whole page is devoted to a car bomb that narrowly avoided ripping through Guwahati's main police station in Pan Bazaar just five days earlier.

Sandwiched between China and Myanmar, the so-called frontier states in northeastern India  have seen much internal turmoil as their indigenous tribes have tried to wrest some sort of autonomy from bureaucrats in Delhi. Of the seven sister states making up the region, only two are currently considered safe and Assam,  the one in which I have just arrived, is not one of them.

I quickly spy the taxi stand in front of the station where a young man is yelling “Shillong!” repeatedly at the top of his voice. That is my destination, so I wedge myself into the back seat of his bright yellow vehicle, bidding a fond farewell to the turmoil of the train station as we begin ascending the windy roads on our way to what is known as the “abode of the gods”.

My co-travelers refuse to let me pay for my meal

My first experience of Meghalaya – one of India’s smallest states – is heartening. During our halfway stop at a roadside cafe, my co-travelers refuse to let me pay for my meal. While chatting, I discover that most of them are from the Khasi  tribe, the largest indigenous group in the state, numbering more than 1million. They share their tribal name with my ultimate destination on this trip, the East Khasi Hills – but before I get there, I must first spend a couple of days in Shillong,  Meghalaya’s capital.

When early European settlers first arrived here they nicknamed the town “the Scotland of the East” because of its evocative rolling hills. Coincidentally, today Shillong’s bustling market is awash with tartan in the form of the traditional handloom shawls being worn to keep off the autumn chill. Meghalaya’s climate is somewhat of a phenomenon. Close by, the village of Cherrapunji once measured an astonishing 26.5m of rain in one year – a fact still acknowledged by Guinness as a world record. Cherrapunji is also listed as being the second wettest place on Earth. Thankfully, the rainy season is over for the time being.

I am here to investigate a Khasi tradition 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.

Getting a ride to the East Khasi Hills is my first assignment. Bara Bazaar, Shillong’s sprawling central market, is a rabbit warren of crisscrossing alleyways. Around the outside sit the buses and taxis that connect it with the outlying villages. Two days of investigative journalism had resulted in a name – “Mawlynnong” – and it is this I am randomly yelling at people as I walk around the bazaar. Sporting a tartan turban, a man selling homemade wooden furniture calls me over and offers me a chair. “No thanks,” I respond but follow it up with a “Mawlynnong?”

Gruesome teeth stained dark red

The man laughs, revealing a rack of gruesome teeth stained dark red. He offers me the seat again... and it clicks that he is not trying to sell me anything. “Sit! Sit! Yes, Mawlynnong... 1pm.”

The yellow Tata Sumo is to Meghalaya what black cabs are to London and yellow ones to New York. Officially they have ten seats. In these parts, that number can rise drastically. By the time we are due to leave, we are already 14 plus the driver. I have been offered the front left passenger seat, a spot traditionally reserved for the oldest lady. In my case, as a visitor I am treated with quite an unbelievable degree of respect. Behind me two rows of beaming smiles conceal the cramped conditions. I am offered food and drink.

Then a plastic bag is passed around the cab and my initiation begins into one particular aspect of Khasi culture. A leaf is opened, revealing a small piece of betel nut, to which a dab of lime paste is added. Following the others, I bundle the parcel into the corner of my mouth and gesture my thanks. Eyes front, we head off into the hills.

By the time we have reached the halfway tea stop at Pynursla, my mouth is numb. The woman sitting next to me invites me into a small tea stall. Her name is Hosanna. As we sit sipping tea, I am in two minds as to whether chewing betel nut is something I like or not. It seems to taste only of the lime powder, and the numbing effect strikes me as quite useless. Nevertheless, I carry on, proud of the fact that I too can now eject small jets of spittle from the corner of my mouth with some degree of precision. I catch an old man’s eye and he gives me an approving nod.

There is no trash on the ground anywhere

Another two bumpy hours along an as-yet unfinished road and we finally arrive at the end of the line. Set within a lush forest landscape, Mawlynnong takes me by surprise at first. The 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.

Hosanna beckons me to follow her into the village. We walk up a small concrete path winding though landscaped rock gardens, flanked by houses with neat flowerbeds and bamboo trash cans at every turn. Orchids hang from porches, brightly colored parakeets perch on windowsills. Our destination is Mawlynnong’s brand new community guesthouse, recently built with the help of a grant from the local government. It turns out Hosanna is the housekeeper and she leads me onto a veranda at the back, motioning me to sit.

“Tea?” she asks. It is a welcome thought but my “Yes, please!” is distracted as my eyes are wandering. I realize the platform on which I am standing continues off into the forest canopy via a suspended walkway. Later, I watch the evening light fade as I sip my tea 15 meters above the forest floor.

News of my arrival spreads quickly and it is not too long before I am squatting in a room full of people and communicating via a battered English/Khasi dictionary. People in this village are well used to visitors from afar. Welsh Baptist missionaries came here from the Bangladeshi plains below to found their first church in the 19th century, a fact about everyone appears to be both very proud and extremely knowledgeable. Their resultant hybrid culture surely owes much to the Welsh influence for their obsession with village tidiness, a trait I recognize from back home.

I ponder this poignant irony

As we talk, I decide that I don’t have the heart to tell them that church attendances in my home country of Wales have fallen so much in recent times that many churches have been sold off for conversion into luxury housing. The local pastor proudly announces that they have just signed up to a program that will see local Khasi churchgoers traveling to Wales to spread the word about Mawlynnong’s spiritual successes. When I eventually excuse myself to retire to bed, I ponder this poignant irony.

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.

Eventually engulfed by the plant’s growth

Standing on the bridge, Henry explains a length of bamboo is first secured across a 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.”

Later that day we trek to another five bridges, each one a unique adaptation to its local environment. The following day, we see another three and then the boys take me to see some living “ladders”, a series of structures that scale sheer cliff faces, allowing passage down to the better orange-growing climate of the plains below. The plants are fashioned into vertical steps and the traffic of clambering heels molds them further still. Worn by the passing of thousands of feet, they are equally impressive.

I spend two weeks in Mawlynnong, using it as a base for many expeditions out into the surrounding area. A few days before I am due to leave I take a trip to the weekly market at Pynursla and manage to find a large notebook into which I write a short message of thanks before leaving it at the guesthouse as a visitor’s book. “I am sure to come back some time and see my friends in Mawlynnong. What a lovely place!” read my words. I end it with the obligatory “Khublei!” – a versatile Khasi word which among other things means “Thank you”. I am sad to leave.

Things seem to have changed

Five years later, I am back in Shillong and, despite the passage of time, I am still shocked to find the three guesthouses I know of in the center of town are all full. Things seem to have changed. I sit down in a familiar restaurant to take stock. I am back in Meghalaya researching “Syngkhong-Rympei-Thymmai”, the state’s quirky men’s rights movement which has sprung up as a consequence of the Khasi’s matrilineal system of inheritance. Part of the reason for writing this story was to also give myself a chance of revisiting Mawlynnong.

Since my last trip, my photos of the bridges have resulted in a film crew being sent to Wahthyllong for the BBC documentary Human Planet. It has been seen by millions around the globe and, although my Khasi friends had urged me to tell as many people as possible about their village, I still feel an unnerving sense of responsibility for what may have happened here in the last few years.

As it is early in the day I decide to take the 1pm taxi straight to Mawlynnong. The Sumo taxi stand has moved but I am soon on my way with the help of a young market porter. At the Mawlynnong approach road I notice quite a bit of traffic coming the other way, something I never saw on my last visit. At the village, I see five parked taxis where there had previously only ever been one. On the path to the guesthouse, I notice a sign outside Hosanna’s house advertising it as a tea stall.

At the guesthouse a slightly flustered-look Henry greets me. He is busy. We indulge in a little small talk, acknowledging the fact that we’ve both put on quite a bit of weight since we last met. He can’t stay long to chat. I notice my guestbook – long full of names and comments –  hidden underneath another one on the table. There are no free rooms, so I accept an offer to stay at Hosanna’s house.

A result of India’s recent economic boom

There is no doubt that Mawlynnong has changed. This is the inevitable evolution of a tourist destination. At night, with serenity restored after most of the day tours have gone, I sit and talk with Hosanna. Coming back, my fears were that this place would be over-run with backpackers who had seen it on Human Planet but it turns out I was naive to think that. The truth is that the majority of Mawlynnong’s new tourist trade is actually homegrown, a result of India’s recent economic boom. Now the country’s own middle classes are enjoying a higher disposable income and exploring their own country, helping to put Mawlynnong firmly on the map.

The next day I am up at dawn to make a quick pilgrimage to the bridge near Riwai. I have a brief glimpse of the tranquility that inspired my weeks spent here, then the first visitors start arriving. There is a new sign on the bridge forbidding the sale of goods to tourists. Later that day I slip away quietly and travel back to Shillong.

The moral of the story?  Everything changes. This is the natural direction of life and nothing can resist it for long. I have yet to discover a remote or isolated community that did not want to see change. They want a road built so they can get to hospitals or markets. It is the outsiders who usually want a place to remain untouched. Every generation is sentimental about their own version of the past but, when traveling, as in life, it is important to enjoy the reality you discover, not lament the one that has gone.

A colorful procession carrying heavy logs

After Mawlynnong, I travel east to Jowai in the Jaintia Hills, 65 km from Shillong, to photograph a festival called Behdienkhlam. It is an amazing three-day, four-night event that is celebrated every July after the crops have been sowed to ask the gods for a good harvest. Women prepare food offerings for the ancestors and men march in a colorful procession carrying heavy logs.

Rain on the third day is considered a very good omen. This last day also sees a ritual where tall decorated paper obelisks called “Rots” are carried around and thrown into a pond. It climaxes with a sort of soccer game that uses a wooden ball but no goal posts. The winning side is believed to earn a better harvest that year.

Behdienkhlam – which means “festival to rid away plague (cholera)” – is as spectacular as it sounds and thousands of people attend, but during the three days I see only one other foreigner. We are both bemused as to why the event is not better known outside Meghalaya. I am reminded once more that no matter where you are in the world, there is always something new to discover.

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