Have you ever crossed a bridge that is alive?

“Khublei”, we greeted a Khasi villager, enquiring about directions to a living bridge hidden deep within the hills of Meghalaya, a small state whose name means “Abode of the Clouds” in north east India bordering Bangladesh. We were navigating a network of trails through thick subtropical rainforests, trying to reach one of the ingenious creations of the local tribe that helped them deal with perennial rains: a suspension bridge hand made by training the aerial roots of a living rubber fig tree (Ficus Elastica).

The Living Root Bridges of the Khasi Hills

The Khasi of Sohra (Cherrapunji) are no strangers to rain. This area holds the record for being the wettest place on earth ever since the complex meteorological measurements of modern science became available in the 1860’s. South-eastern Meghalaya is a lush and wet place with constant rainfall and a steep hilly terrain where small jungle filled valleys and finger-like ridges filled with gushing muddy waters and turbulent rapids abound.  In such an environment, the importance of sustainable bridges cannot be understated. Faced with the challenge and equipped with deep understanding of the nature around them, the ingenious people of this area took matters into their own hands. Literally.

Come join us as we explore this region and check out some marvelous handmade suspension bridges.

Rainforests of Meghalaya

↑ Walking down the road to the start of the trek.

Getting there:
Key: India → Guwahati (Assam) → Shillong (Meghalaya) → Sohra → Trek!

The living root bridges are spread around the town of Cherrapunjee, or Sohra as it’s more commonly known. This town can be reached from Shillong, capital of the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, by shared taxis in approximately two hours. Shillong, accessible by air from Kolkata, is a three hour bus ride away from Guwahati, the capital of Assam and a regional transportation hub. Coming from Mumbai, we flew to Guwahati and used the services of the Meghalaya government-run mini buses to reach Shillong directly from Guwahati airport. Once in Sohra, one can arrange a private taxi to reach Lumsohphie (Rs. 400 one way in 2014), the last village accessible by road 15km away.

↑ The rice paddies of Bangladesh start right where the mountains end.

Now if you are looking for a more fun way to travel, do what we did: take a shared taxi from Sohra to Mawmluh (a village just after the cement factory) 3.5km away, and walk rest of the way down the mountain trail. Scenic roads wind down gently while steeper trails cut through them faster, sometimes offering better views of frothy waterfalls and mountains shrouded by an occasional speck of cloud. In a couple of hours you’ll reach the little village of Tyrna (and your last chance to stock up on basic supplies) where we couldn’t find anybody speaking English or Hindi, but everyone knew why we were there and happily pointed us to the trail.

↑ Meghalaya is full of roaring waterfalls.

We booked a taxi to take us back to Sohra in the evening since it would take an entire day of gruelling hiking to get to the living bridges and back.

Journey to the centre of the valley

Once you hit the trail, cement stairs, that seem to go on for eternity (about ~3,500 of these), will guide your way down into the valley and to the village of Nongthymmai. This is a compact settlement with a small village square, a church, and houses with lovely yards filled with flowers, potatoes, banana plants, etc.

↑ Steps that descend for ever and ever. This concrete staircase was constructed not too long ago, and brought a huge relief to villagers – imagine commuting to the top on slippery trails, climbing ladders and negotiating precarious cliffs.

The trail itself is sweltering – it was hot and humid in the month of May, but that’s the weather more or less all year around – with occasional swarms of mosquitoes and other bugs catching a ride with us. Descending down stairs were taxing on my knees since I am not accustomed to that repetitive movement.  (Unless you are climbing Toronto’s CN tower on a regular basis.)

A little farther down the trail from this village we saw our first living root bridge. It looked exactly as seen in the pictures – amazing!

↑ First bridge we encountered right after the village of Nongthymmai.

How to train your tree roots

↑ Building suspension bridges by shaping tree roots is a painstakingly slow process and can take up to two decades to finish.

Ficus elastica, also called the rubber fig, rubber bush, rubber tree, rubber plant, or Indian rubber bush is a species of plant in the fig genus native to this region of the world.  It has long aerial roots that span out like tentacles, looking for spots to anchor. There is a large number of these trees, particularly on the edges of slopes next to streams. Large trunks of the betel tree, also native to this region, are laid down horizontally to fill the gap across to the other side of the stream. Tiny, hairy roots of the rubber tree are intertwined with boughs and twigs until they crawl over from each side of the river bank and take root across the stream.

↑ Knotty roots. hmm…

These root bridges, due to the flexibility of their design, are less susceptible to getting washed away by strong currents of water. In addition, the bridges only get stronger with time, as the self-strengthening and self-renewing roots only grow thicker with time. (Yeah wood!) It is estimated that the bridges can last for hundreds of years.

↑ Complex tapestry weaved by training roots.

These incredible pieces of bioengineering were brought to the world’s attention not too long ago. Denis P. Rayen, owner of the nearby Cheerapunji Holiday Resort, was instrumental in rediscovering these bridges and putting the region on the tourist radar. The resort has a resourceful website with a collection of articles and stories about the living root bridges.

Alice in wonderland

Trekking in a hilly humid subtropical rainforest was more pleasantly distracting to my senses than I had imagined. (Warning, take a breath before reading the next sentence.) Hours of trekking, crossing rickety rope pathways and slippery trails, between refreshing rain showers that seemed to switch on and off at will, around large boulders and frothy, muddy rapids, through foliage with all shapes and sizes of leaves and vines I had never seen before, with an occasional glimpse of large yellow and orange butterflies, green and brown caterpillars, the familiar annoying buzz of mosquitoes, webs weaved by large spiders, crawling ladybugs and centipedes, large droopy petals of red hibiscus flowers, and other such lovely sights kept us thoroughly engaged with nature.

↑ Crossing over ferocious rivers

The Umshiang double decker root bridge

After crossing a couple of smaller root bridges, our journey ended at the Nongriet village, home to the Jingkieng Nongriat, otherwise known as the Umshiang double decker bridge. The beauty of the bridges here made all our trek efforts totally worthwhile! Both of the levels are fully functional and fun to traverse.

↑ I’ll finish this post with one last image of the double decked living root bridge

There are a couple of basic backpacker accommodations in the village around this bridge.  But if you plan to stay here, bring mosquito repellant!

↑ Great place to hang out and highly recommend staying here overnight.

I hope you check out the lovely state of Meghalaya in your next travel sojourn and find a way to trek to of-of-its-kind living root bridges.