Reviews, Travel

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

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 maneuvering 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 “maneuvered” 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 scenic valley en route Cherrapunjee.

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.

Can you see the white specks in the middle of the mountain? That is Nongriat village, our destination.

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.

A little girl on the way to school.

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.

Scene below the steel wire suspension bridge
The river below the steel wire suspension bridge. Pristine blue waters.

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.

You need to purchase a Rs. 10/- ticket entry fee from this house.

A bridge in the making right next to the longest living root bridge.
The deck of the bridge is strengthened with arecanut wooden logs over which the aerial roots of the ficus tree intertwines to strengthen the bridge.
Metal wires used to strengthen the 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.

Double decker root bridge panoramic view.

Mawsaw Root Bridge is located at a 20-30 mins walking distance beyond the Double Decker Root Bridge. From the double decker root bridge, it is mostly flat terrain and not much climbing required to reach this bridge. There is a steel wire bridge just before you reach this living root bridge and it has a spectacular view. There are natural swimming pools near this root bridge.

Football ground at Nongriat village.

 

Wire suspension bridge near Mawsaw living root bridge.

Mawsaw living root bridge.
Mawsaw wire bridge

The thick ficus tree roots that form the deck of the Mawsaw root bridge.

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.

The scene after crossing the last wire bridge. Another tough steep climb starts here.

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.

A Nongriat home

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.

Aerial Roots of the double decker bridge.

 

Dawn at Nongriat village (4.50 AM to be precise)

Does the thought of hiking to double root bridge scare you? You can still see living root bridges even without this grueling 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.

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.

Reviews, Travel

Thiruvannamalai & Chidambaram – Panchabhootha Stalams of Shiva

It was a long-time dream come true; a trip to Arunachala and Chidambaram. These two temples are among the Pancha Bhootha Sthalangal of Lord Shiva representing the five elements – earth, water, air, sky, and fire. Chidambaram (as the name suggests) represents the sky and Arunachala at Thiruvannamalai represents fire.

I had heard and read a lot about the Nataraja of Chidambaram but I got to know about Thiruvannamalai fairly recently. Arunachala or Annamalai (the inaccessible mountain) is the holy mountain that is a manifestation of Lord Shiva and it represents the lingam or fire. I heard about Ramana Maharshi who came to Thiruvannamalai when he was 16 and lived and meditated here. I was fascinated to hear about his predictions regarding Thiruvannamalai, how it is the spiritual axis of Earth and that there should be something that is equally spiritually uplifted on the other side of the Earth. His premonition was not proved right during his lifetime but later it was found that Machu Pichu in Peru is the other end of Arunachala. This was calculated by determining the coordinates of both Arunachala and Machu Pichu and after discounting the fact that the Earth is not completely round but slightly flat at the poles. Interestingly, Pachamama, who is worshipped in Machu Pichu represents Mother Earth. The name Pachamama sounds very similar to pachai amman who is worshiped in Tamil Nadu. After hearing all this I just couldnt wait to visit this place. I planned a trip along with my parents.

We got down at Katpadi railway station near Vellore in Tamil Nadu. Since it was already 7:30 in the evening and travel from Vellore to Thiruvannamalai takes at least 2 hours by bus, we decided to have dinner at Vellore. Found an Aryas near the Vellore bus stand. The best part of being in Tamil Nadu is nothing but the food. Tamilians LOVE to eat out and they do not tolerate poor quality food. MOST restaurants in Tamil Nadu serve decent food if not excellent! I speak from experience.

Aryas is a reputed restaurant chain in the state and they will never disappoint you. They serve mostly tiffin and not meals. We had good dinner and were ready for the 2-hour bus ride. We reached Thiruvannamalai late that Monday night and found a small lodge to spend the night. Can you believe having a decent single room all for yourself at 200 bucks? You will find that at Thiruvannamalai.

Tuesday morning we set out to Arunachala temple.

Beautiful garlands
Lovely garlands just outside the temple, a landmark of streets in Tamil Nadu

All women in Tamil Nadu invariably wear flowers on their hair. They also apply turmeric on their body while bathing. You can see the yellow tint on the flower seller’s face.

The temple was built over years during the Vijayanagara dynasty and is spread around 24 acres, has 9 gopurams (towers), four of them really tall, the tallest being 217 feet. This is the Rajagopuram which is a standing testimony of the architectural brilliance of Vijayanagara dynasty.

Raja Gopuram (east tower)
Raja Gopuram (east tower)
Carving
A carving on the gopuram
Golden chariot - Thanga ratham
Golden chariot – Thanga ratham
Gomatha chariot
Gomatha chariot
Temple elephant Rukku
Rukku blesses all who feed her

Each gopuram has a story to tell. One of the gopurams is called Parrot gopuram. There is a 1000 pillar hall next to which there is Patala Lingam where Ramana Maharshi meditated.

The main deity of this shrine is of course Annamalaiyar in the form of Shiva linga. His muse Unnamulai Amman does not reside in the same shrine but is in a separate structure. When you get out of the Annamalaiyar shrine, you can see a row of 63 dhoti-clad saints (Nayanars). There is so much to see in and around the temple complex. We could not cover all of it in one visit. One could spend a whole day inside the temple complex yet miss quite a lot. It is not just about the sheer size or grandeur of this place but when you are in this temple complex, there is something that calms you down at the same time overwhelms you. I am finding it very difficult to explain how good I felt.

Here is a 360 degree view of the temple. You can choose your position using the layout on top left and look around the place. The web site is beautifully done.

Since we had an auto rickshaw driver cum guide with us, we could get some information about each place and its legends. He took us around the holy mountain, Arunachala. This is called Giri Valam (going around the mountain). One has to be barefoot and walk around the mountain, which is 14 kms. Since none of us were keen on such a long walk, we opted for a shortcut, which is getting around in a rickshaw.

There are plenty of small temples around the mountain, most of them Shiva lingas with tanks adjacent to the temple. The most important among these are the Adi Annamalaiyar temple (where Annamalaiyar first originated) and the Balaji temple.

Gomatha
Gomatha at Balaji temple. She has the body of a holy cow and secrets milk over a Shiva linga.
Kala Bhairav
Kala Bhairav at the Balaji temple
Vishnu at Balaji temple
Maha Vishnu at Balaji temple
Mango flowers at Balaji temple
Mango flowers and tiny mangoes at Balaji temple

During the giri valam, we stopped at Sri Ramana Asram.

Sri Ramana Asram
Ramana Asram entrance

We were awestruck by the calmness and austerity. It is a serene place that has too many foreigners and peacocks!

Peacock at asram
Peacocks roaming about at the asram
Beautiful feathers
What a beauty!
White peahen
Could not trace her mate. Wonder how grand he would have looked!
white peahen
The same one
Peacock
lovely colors

The asram has its own  temple, bhajana hall, book store, veda patasala, kitchen, dining hall, goshala, a separate structure for each.

Asram templ
Temple at the asram. There is hall next to it where bhajana is held every evening, a soul-stirring experience.
Peacocks perched atop asram temple
Peacocks perched on asram temple roof. There are 3 of them.
One on the roof
Another one on the roof
asram kitchen
asram kitchen that serves satvik food
Veda patasala
Veda patasala

The place where Sri Ramana Maharshi spent his last days stands opposite the temple. Before the trip, we had written to the asram requesting for accommodation. That was arranged and we shifted to the asram by noon after the giri valam. If you want to stay at Ramana Ashram during your stay to T.malai, you just need to drop them a letter or an email at least 2 months in advance informing them of the desired dates. Three days is the maximum you can stay during a visit.

Asram serves lunch by 11:30 and so we had to eat outside. We went to Hotel Ashok opposite the T.malai bus stand. The board claims it to be a ‘high-class vegetarian’ restaurant. The food was indeed top class. There was rice, raddish sambar, dry cabbage subzi with plenty of coconut, a dal curry with spinach, curd, buttermilk, appalam (papad), and spicy rasam with lots of hing and garlic. I could not click a picture of this meal that left us truly satiated. The only thing missing was a sweet dish. But that would have made us more lazy and sleepy!

Scooters and bicycles are available on rent outside small shops near the asram. I took a bicycle on rent with giri valam in mind. I wasnt too sure if I would be able to complete the 14-km stretch but thought of trying it. Believe me, it turned out to be a truly unforgettable experience. The giri valam path is not too close to the mountain, just the right distance to get a lovely view of the mountain while staying close to it. It is more or less flat terrain with very little to no traffic on the road except for the last 3-4 km stretch where you have to cross the busy town. But the other 10 km more than compensates for the busy stretch. I had a relaxed cycle ride enjoying the beauty of the place.

Giri valam
Giri valam or going around the mountain. Its a tarred road. Heard that Rajnikanth donated lights for the sidewalk.
Onion fields
Onion fields en route giri valam
paddy fields
Paddy and marigold fields set against Arunachala

I could smell something really nice! I stopped the cycle and my eyes literally popped out at that lovely sight and smell! Just imagine such clean air, lovely scenery, combined with good food. What a combo!

Muniyamma making Paniyaram
Muniyamma making Paniyaram

Thats Muniyamma making Paniyarams by the road. I gobbled 4 of them along with chutney. She sells it for a humble Rs. 2 per piece! Kuzhi Paniyaram is a snack made out of dosa batter. Add onions, green chilies, curry leaves, and hing to dosa batter and then cook them in very little oil in the special paniyaram skillet. Check the recipe here.

Paniyaram
Paniyaram in the making

I chatted up with Muniyamma for a while and promised her I will return. Back on track after pit stop, refreshed and energized.

Even after the long cycle ride, I did not feel hungry enough for an early dinner. So I missed the asram dinner, which is served at 7:30 PM. I regretted it the next day after dining at the asram.

Next day morning after praying at the asram temple, we proceeded to climb Arunachala mountain to see the 2 asrams on the mountain where Ramana Mahirshi spent several years meditating; the Skanda asram and Virupaksha cave. It is not a very difficult climb. If you start climbing from Ramana Asram at the foothill, Skanda Asram is around 4-5 km.

Wild shoeflowers in the mountain
Tiny wild shoe flowers in the mountain
camouflaged
Camouflaged.. i almost stepped on this one!
slithering away
slithering away

The view of the temple from top of the mountain is incredible! I could not manage to get clear pictures. We were against sun light.

Temple view from the mountain
Temple view from the mountain
temple
Another view of temple

There are sculptors who were making and selling small figures of elephants, nandi, Shiva lingam, and such.

sculptors at work
sculptors at work
Arunachala eleph
This eleph from Arunachala stands among my eleph collection

Both Skanda Asram and Virupaksha cave are caves around which a structure has been made. I am not sure if this existed during Ramana Maharshi’s time. A lot of people who visit the asram sit there and meditate. Virupaksha cave is more closer towards the temple when you descend from Skanda asram. After this we climbed down and went to the temple. Covered some of the things that we had missed on the previous day.

We missed the asram lunch that day also and headed straight to Hotel Ashok and once again had a sumptuous meal.

Asram has a bhajan between 6:30 and 7 every evening. That is something that you just should not miss. Men and women sing slokas (hymns) praising Arunachaleshwar from the Ramana mala book. Half of a verse is sung by men followed by the rest half by the women and some portions are sung by both. This creates a wonderful effect and makes you go to a trance like state even though you may not follow exactly what is being chanted. Its a beautiful experience.

Back to reality again, its dinner time in the ashram at 7:30. Everybody stands in a queue until the dinner hall is opened. There are a few tables and chairs for the elders. But 90% of the people have to occupy the seat on a mat in the floor. The serving plate is made of stitched leaves. Delicious broken wheat upma, sambar, chutney, and banana was served first followed by some curd rice. Thats what I call a Satvik meal. It was not high on salt, spice, or oil yet it was really tasty. Again, unfortunately I could not click pictures of these either.

When you check out from the asram you could give any amount you please as donation, which is completely voluntary.

Both Arunachala temple and Ramana Asram are must visits at least once in a lifetime.

Thiruvannamalai thru a bus window
Arunachala, Thiruvannamalai temple, and town thru a bus window. Notice that the tallest structures in town are the temple gopurams. I hope they remain so in future.

The bus ride from Thiruvannamalai to Chidambaram, though long (4.5 hours) and bumpy was very scenic. The bus passes through small picturesque villages with plenty of paddy, sugarcane, marigold fields. Most places have lovely names too. Non-tamilians might find the names tongue-twisting.

Even though the Chidambaram temple and surroundings are not as huge as Thiruvannamalai, it still leaves you equally awestruck. I was a little disappointed with the temple management as the priests would demand money to get a closer darshan or make you pay for special poojas which you have no inclination of doing. One moment you are overwhelmed by the austere atmosphere at the temple but such open display of greed puts you off totally.

I am not posting a travelogue on Chidambaram but here are some pictures.

East gopuram
East gopuram, probably half as tall as the Thiruvannamalai Raja gopuram
Anbe shivam
Anbe Shivam written on the East gopuram, roughly translates to Love is God
Intricate work on south gopuram
A wedding scene on the south gopuram
Palazhi madhanam on south gopuram
Palazhi madhanam (churning of the milk ocean) on south gopuram
West gopuram
West gopuram
mandapam
mandapam
North gopuram and temple tank
North gopuram and temple tank