Thursday 26 March 2015

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

Living Root Bridges - to me the name itself is awe inspiring. Needless to say, it landed in my bucket list the first time I heard about it. It was quite amusing though that I came to know about these 'man-made natural wonders' from a remote corner of India through a documentary on BBC. It tells about the lack of publicity and awareness in our own country - which in a way isn't completely undesirable.

Meghalaya - the 'Abode of Clouds' sits in the north east corner of India along with its six other sister states - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland - the seven sister states as they are collectively known as. This part of India is endowed with a treasure of unspoilt natural beauty and being largely unexplored by the industrialisation and development, they remain pristine. As the name suggests, Meghalaya has its fair share of rainfall. Mawsynram, near Cherrapunji actually is the wettest place in the world receiving an average annual rainfall of about 1200 cms through the monsoon months. When it rains here, it pours incessantly for days. This brings to life the countless streams crisscrossing the region. The until-now dormant waterfalls start plummeting from the cliffs of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills, thus adding magic to the exquisite scenery. It is a treasure trove for nature lovers.
However, with the rains and the ferocious streams gushing through the hills, life can reach a standstill for the inhabitants. Through the centuries, the indigenous Khasi tribes of the region have found an innovative way of working around the problem, and that too only by using the power of nature in their favour. They weave natural bridges across the streams. Using the roots of the local rubber fig trees, they intertwine them with wood and rocks and the strong roots of the trees hold on to them building a robust structure. The bridges are normally built with four trees, two on each side of the stream. The older the trees grow, the stronger the bridge gets.  Every member of the tribe is involved in this test of patience. It can take up to 15 years to weave a bridge, complete with its side rails, but is worth the effort as some of them are said to last for over 500 years. This we were told by the local Khasi people as we visited Meghalaya on a short trip in December 2012. Since then a lot may have changed. I am sharing our experience from almost two and half years back.

Being winter, the streams were running low and the waterfalls were mostly dry. Even the famed Nohkalikai (pictured above) was a mere shadow of itself. However, the dense forests covering the hills were still green, and the dry weather ensured we could walk down to the 'double-decker bridges' as they are popularly known as. But first we had a less adventurous glimpse of this fascinating work of man and nature as we were entering Mawlynnong.

Mawlynnong is reputed to be Asia's cleanest village. With it's appeal of tree houses and sky view bridges, it is a popular tourist destination - on the itinerary of every tour operator in the area. There are a few living root bridges in the area as well which are easy to visit. Though they still require some amount of walking and hence require a basic level of fitness. The first glimpse itself was fascinating, especially with the sunbeams working their magic through the leaves. It wasn't difficult to imagine how inviting the calm water in the natural pools would be in the summer months. We walked around the bridge and even under it to catch the details.
We were staying at the Sai Mika in Cherrapunji, a resort just in the outskirts of the main town centre, Sohra. With its stone cottages and fireplace, it has a rustic charm to it. After a day of sight-seeing, we were to leave the day after. I still wanted to visit the 'double-decker root bridges' on the river Umshiang but was not confident whether I would be able to make the 6 kms trip back through the 3500 steps and close to a kilometre of uphills and downhills. We were told that it would take about 5 hours and we did not have the time either. Moreover I was looking for company as I could not give in to my father's enthusiasm considering his age. Matters were worsened by an evening visit to the Ramkrishna Mission. In every frightening detail we were told stories about how the indigenous tribes had captured tourists for human sacrifices. I was advised to stay in the safety of my home and forget about visiting the bridge, especially being a girl. This was enough to trigger all alarm bells with my mother and no discussion on the topic was entertained. It wasn't a pleasant evening back at the resort. When the resort owner heard about the story he was furious and said that the only tragedy that ever happened was to a girl who went swimming in the natural pools and had an accident. The tribal people are friendly and helpful. He said that if I wanted to go I could join in a group scheduled to leave early next morning. Eventually, our driver for the trip, Hemen, who had also become a good friend through the days, offered to accompany me if I still wanted to go. Though he had not visited the bridge before, his knowledge of the local area and language would definitely be helpful.

Next morning we left for the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort as my father wanted to visit the place or that is what he said. About 15 kms from Sohra, this is the base for many trekking routes for the adventure loving travelers along with the option of other adventure sports and activities. He also told me that the group supposed to be leaving in the morning had not left yet. En-route we stopped at Tyrna, the village from where the stairs lead to Nongriat and the Umshiang double decker bridges. My father suggested taking a look at the stairs. As we reached, he asked us to see how far we could go, actually suggesting I should go along to the bridge. It was already 10am and we had to leave Cherrapunji latest by 4pm. So Hemen and myself trotted down the stairs as my parents waited by the car. My mother looked concerned but she had started to appreciate it wasn't as unsafe as we were told.

The stairs indeed were unending. For most parts, they were well made concrete steps but sometimes were made up by stepping stones which could be tricky to negotiate during the monsoons. The stairs connected the villages and was a regular route for the locals. We started off racing downhill which though is less demanding, but soon our legs started to tremble by the repetitive exertion. And with that came the concerning thought of tracing back this same path on the way up. It was going to be hard work. The path branched off, the one on the left said Nongriat and the other pointed to the longest living root bridge. We made ourselves a couple of walking sticks from those lying around and followed the path to Nongriat.
We had started off from Tyrna going down the hill to the river. Once we crossed the river, we had to climb up the next hill and down it again to a second river. Crossing this, the final uphill would take us to Nongriat. In the picture below, taken from Tyrna hill, Nongriat is the village vaguely visible in the distance in the centre of the picture just below the wedge in the hill.
As we started to move away from Tyrna, the scenery started to change. The forests got denser and the scenery wilder. The rivers had the bluest of waters flowing through the rocks in graceful waterfalls. We had to cross them on wire footbridges, which for me was a terrifying experience as every step made the bridge wobble. Watched in awe as a local boy balanced his load on his head and walked unperturbed on the seemingly fragile bridge.
We had lost mobile connection and I was having second thoughts on whether we should turn back fearing my parents would be worrying by now. But Hemen pushed me on.
It wasn't a bad decision after all since only a a few more minutes and we were climbing up the final steps to the village. We had ran most of the way and had made it to Nongriat in an hour. The first thing I did was to make a call to my parents using the phone of a local. Only a BSNL connection apparently worked in the area. They sounded relieved. Feeling much better I then walked up to the bridges.
They indeed were an extraordinary sight. It wasn't just the intertwined hanging roots that held my attention. It was the whole surrounding. The calm and green forest with the light filtering through, sparkling on the clear water of the emerald natural pools. The birds were chirping all around us. It was mesmerising.
According to the locals, this bridge over the Umshiang river used to be a normal single bridge as well. However, it turned out to be too low and used to be submerged during the monsoons. Hence the need of a higher second bridge and it's ascent to uniqueness. I dipped my feet in the cold water of the natural pools and walked up and down the bridges in never ending circles. It was a rest well earned and we needed the energy to walk back. A girl came about and collected Rs 10 from us as a ticket price. The bridges were in use by the locals and we were tourists. We saw a couple of westerners washing their clothes in the natural pools. They were staying in the village. It was a good alternative that we could think of on a next visit. We lingered on for about half an hour before we started back on our route.
The stairs indeed were daunting on the way back and we had 3 kms of it. Very unlike me Hemen was a mountain goat. He offered to carry my camera, but no one carried my load. I decided to stick to a rhythm - after every 50 steps I earn a half minute rest. And it actually worked. We soon reached the point where the direction showed us the way to the longest living root bridge. Walked up and found a bridge built in two stages.I wasn't sure if this was the one the sign directed to, but we did not have time to investigate.
Starting from Nongriat it had taken us an hour and a half to get back to Tyrna. Considering we were told it would take us 5 hours for the trip, this wasn't a mean achievement. We had done it in 3 hours including the break. We came up to the village church and I said a small prayer of thanks. I could see my parents in the distance, waiting patiently for us. They had given up three hours in waiting because I was so intent on seeing something. I couldn't have done this without their support. The local children came running down as they saw me with a camera and asked for a photograph.
We walked back to the car, a huge grin on our faces and a very relieved look on my parents.

Trivia: as of December 2012
A good level of fitness is required to visit the Umshiang Double Decker bridge and the 4-5 hours is a standard guideline. I had just about started on regular hill walking and hence could manage to make it quicker even though struggling every step of it. Moreover we were in a hurry and that egged us on.

Taking a guide is a must. Once on the stairs it is quite easy to reach Nongriat. However, my father said that another group who arrived after us never found the stairs and went on a completely different path down to the river and came back disappointed. Also, in case anyone gets into difficulty, local knowledge is helpful along with bridging the language barrier.

Carry enough water as packaged water is not available. It is a demanding route.
Maggi and tea is available in Nongriat.

Only BSNL mobile network works in the region.

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