A very special place on earth where humans and Nature co-exist in harmony, respecting and making way for each other. Deep in the dense tropical forests of Meghalaya, the abode of clouds blessed by the abundance of rains, exists some astonishing man-made natural wonders. The living root bridges of Meghalaya are classic examples of gently manoeuvring Nature to overcome challenges posed by Nature herself without harming Her delicate ecosystem. These bridges are made from the aerial roots of Banyan fig trees (Ficus Elastica) and are in use now for 100s of years. They are ever growing, self-renewing, and self-strengthening. A clever invention of the indigenous Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, the living root bridges provide a stable alternative to bridges made from wooden logs that could decay and get destroyed during the year-long rainfall which the region is famous for. For hundreds of years, the Khasi tribe have “manoeuvred” and “routed” the aerial roots to create bridges that are strong enough to carry about 50 people or more and last not less than 500 years. It takes around 15 years for a new root bridge to become strong enough to bear the weight of people crossing it. However, it continues to evolve and strengthen more over time. The young pliable tree roots are gently guided through betel tree trunks which are placed across the streams until the tree roots attach themselves to the other side. Sticks, stones, small steel wires and other objects are used to stabilize the growing bridge. The whole process can take up to 15 years to complete. But the result is a structure of astonishing natural beauty, strength, and endurance.
Meghalaya, home to the Khasi tribe, has many such living root bridges. There is no documentation about when the Khasi tribe devised this unique bio-engineering marvel to survive in this beautiful but challenging terrain. The earliest mention about these bridges is found in the 1844 Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Of course the bridges are stunning marvels, but the journey to the bridge is also rewarding yet challenging. You are surrounded by almost 360-degree panoramic views of green blue mountains and sounds of gushing waterfalls.
To reach here, you can drive from Guwahati to Meghalaya, passing through the Meghalaya capital, Shillong. The Shillong-Cherrapunjee road is classified as one of the most scenic routes in India. For a considerable stretch, on your left side is a mountain valley. The road condition is pretty good too.The last motorable road is until Tyrna village. After this, starts the descent of roughly some 3000-5000 steps, about 80% of which is concrete steps, most of them at a 70-degree inclination and having only a tiny foothold. At times you cannot see where you are headed. The steps seem as if they plunge deep into the forest. But the scenery around you is marvelous that you may want to stop every once in a while to admire the view. No matter how fit and active you are, after a while of the steep unending flight of steps, your knees can get wobbly due to the strain of repetitive motion and cause joint pain. The weather is not a great support either. When it is not raining, it gets humid and sweaty making your climb more difficult. This up and down trek is a daily affair for the locals to reach their school, college, or work place. Arecanuts and bay leaves are grown by the locals and you will come across locals carrying gunny sacks full of arecanuts or bay leafs on their back and taking it up to the market.
En route you cross two wire suspension bridges built by the Indian army. This can be an overwhelming experience as these bridges are shaky and below your feet is a raging river and huge elephant-sized rock boulders. Crossing these steel wire bridges can just blow away your mind, much more than the experience of witnessing the raw beauty of the living root bridges.Some tips:
Start the trek as early as you can. In Cherrapunjee, it dawns by 5 am. Start your walk at least by 7 am so that you can reach the double decker bridge before peak sun.
Pack as light as possible, as carrying your own weight itself is tough enough. You don’t want to be struggling with your luggage during the hike.
Carry a poncho/raincoat so that your hands are free to hold on to the railing wherever it is available.
Carry a walking stick. Bamboo walking sticks are available at the village for Rs. 10 per piece.
Wear comfortable shoes/sandals. Stilettos are absolute no-no. Choose comfortable shoes that have good grip. Sandals are fine too if they are of good quality. A shoe with good cushion helps minimize your discomfort caused by repetitive climbing motion.
Wear light, loose, airy comfortable clothing preferably in layers so that you can add on more when there is a drastic weather change. Due to the strenuous nature of the trek, you will feel hot very quickly. Your clothes will become saturated with sweat.
Carry waterproof covers to keep your belongings and camera safely.
Pack snacks/food/energy bars wisely. We carried Oral Rehydration Sachets (ORS) packets and mixed it to our water and had it from time to time because it can get really hot, humid, and sweaty during the hike. ORS is a good way to ensure your body is not dehydrated and gets enough salt that it is lost through sweat.
There are a few small shops on the way that sell mostly sugary/carbonated drinks but they also serve you tea and bananas. There are clean water sources (at the waterfall and also water taps in the villages that you would be passing through). Hence you may carry a minimum amount of water for immediate needs only.
Carry an extra set of clothes and a towel because you would be tempted to take a dip at the pool/waterfall at the double decker root bridge. (The water is really cold!) There is a changing room by the fall. You can also rent shorts and t-shirts for Rs.20/piece from the shop near the double decker root bridge.
Plan to spend the night at the home stay near the double decker bridge in Nongriat village that offer accommodations to tourists. If you have the time and can cope with minimal facilities (water, electricity, restroom, bed, and food) it is worth staying overnight at the vicinity of the double decker root bridge. Be prepared to share your room with spiders and other insects. Absolutely harmless :) Co-existence is the key here. You can also trek to nearby waterfalls, natural swimming pools, and other root bridges from here. The more adventurous types can spend the night in a sleeping bag at the bridge itself.
It takes roughly 2 hours (3 hours if you are really slow) to hike back up. There are sign posts on the way but it is useful to avail the service of a local guide to know more about the region and to hear local stories.
When you trek back, aim to be back at Tyrna by 5 PM. If you are staying overnight, you can leave early morning (we left from the double decker root bridge at 5:30 am, enjoyed the early morning scenery en route and slowly hiked back up).
Root bridges in this area:
Ritymmen Root Bridge is at the Nongthymmai village, which is on the way to the double decker root bridge. It took us an hour’s hike from Tyrna village to reach this bridge. This bridge is 30 meters/100 feet and is the longest living root bridge.The most famous root bridge is the Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at the Nongriat village. This is located 3 km from the Tyrna village. It took us 2 hours to reach here. The total descent is roughly 2,400 feet. There is a tiny root bridge just before you enter the Nongriat village. When standing on this root bridge, you can see the double decker root bridge on your right. Rainbow waterfalls – At about 40 mins to 1-hr hiking distance from the Mawsaw Root Bridge are the Rainbow Falls. If you still have the stamina for a 2-hr hike (up and down), you could explore this one. We did not go here as we were too fatigued from the morning hike. If you are spending a day or two at the double decker root bridge, you can rest some and then hike up to this place. This is highly recommended, we heard, but we just couldn’t muster the strength for that extra 2-hr walk.
Coming back to the trek to the double decker root bridge, the steepest and most challenging part is the first part, down the hill to Nongthymmai village where the longest root bridge is located. This takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The second part involves mostly flat terrain through villages and then crossing the narrow steel wire suspension bridges over raging rivers. After this, the final lap, which again involves steep climbs. Those who have a fear of heights or with weak knees must avoid this trek.There are two home stays near the double decker root bridge. Serene Homestay and the guest house. Serene Homestay serves only vegetarian food. There are couple of small shops in Nongriat village of which one shop serves lunch and dinner, in case you decide to eat out while at the homestay.
We spoke to Byron who runs the Serene Homestay. The indigenous Khasis traditionally followed the Khasi religion, which is based on Animism; a belief that all things, including animals, plants, rivers, mountains, stars, the moon, and the sun have a spirit or soul. Each being is considered a spirit that can help or harm humans. They also believe in and worship fairies and dwarfs. In the 1830s, Christian missionaries came to Meghalaya and converted most Khasis to Christianity. Although the Khasis follow Christianity, for all practical purposes, they still follow most of the rituals in their Khasi faith. For instance, near the second large steel wire suspension bridge is a sacred grove. This grove is protected and Khasis believe that not a leaf or stone of the sacred grove must be disturbed/moved from its place; a clever way of preserving the forest and its ecosystem. The Khasis know that the only way to preserve themselves is to preserve their environment. Such sacred groves are present all over Meghalaya. We heard an interesting story. A family who had visited the grove returned back to their vehicle and the car refused to start. After a while of troubleshooting etc., the family realized that their little boy had lifted a few stones from the sacred grove. The family returned to the sacred grove and made the boy place the stones back where it belonged. They returned to their vehicle and could proceed their journey. I am not sure about the authenticity of this story but it sure is fascinating.The Khasis are matrilineal. After marriage, husbands move into their wife’s home. Byron also moved into Nongriat after his marriage. Byron mentioned with pride about how strong the women in the village are. Some women give birth to their babies at home, in the village. But some walk all the way up (3 km of steep climbing) to the Tyrna village just a few days before their impending delivery. Post delivery, they return the 3-km climb down, baby et al. This is something unthinkable for us city dwellers!
Another incident narrated by Byron had us all gaping! Five years back, Byron’s father-in-law, who is now 80 (who must have been 75 then) single-handedly brought a refrigerator on his back all the way from Tyrna to Nongriat. The steel wire suspension bridge had to be widened so that he could bring the refrigerator smoothly across the bridge. In spite of being fairly active and in our 30s, sans refrigerator on the back, all of us were huffing and puffing and barely made it to the Nongriat village in 2 hours! At this age, it takes only 45 mins for the father-in-law to make a trip to the Tyrna village. The Khasis are short-statured people and for generations their body type has been one that is suited to live in terrains such as this. They are used to climbing all through their life.
Cherrapunjee is known as the wettest place on Earth. The rainy season starts in April and continues until October with heavy rains during June and July and intermittent rains during the rest of the monsoon months. In October when we visited, although the average temperature increases to a maximum of 22-25 degrees Celsius, it drops to an average of 18 degrees Celsius. The root bridges are in a canyon and the temperature although just 18 degrees Celsius, is fairly hot and sweaty because of lack of winds. We experienced some wind and pleasant air movement only near the steel wire bridges. The other parts are like a canyon and hence primarily hot and sweaty.Does the thought of hiking to double root bridge scare you? You can still see living root bridges even without this gruelling hike. There are places in Meghalaya where you can just walk down 15 mins and reach a living root bridge. If trekking is not an option for you, you may consider these options. I will be writing about these soon.
Long after you have come away from the root bridges and the villagers, you can’t help but be in awe of this marvel, the waterfalls, natural swimming pools with pristine blue waters, the beautiful villagers, and the sounds of the forest. You feel overwhelmed by the ancient wisdom and clarity of thought and their actions and efforts to preserve Nature while trying to survive the challenges posed by It.