Bridge over monsoon waters

Khasi villagers in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya have long used an ingenious means of crossing the turbulent streams that separate their villages and plantations during the monsoon season. Laurence Mitchell reports
The road down to Nongriat is a steep one; not, in fact, a road at all, but a vertiginous procession of small stone steps that plunge 700 metres into the valley from the neat village of Tyrna just off the main Cherrapunjee to Mawshamok road.

This region of the East Khasi Hills in northeast India’s Meghalaya state is almost exclusively Khasi territory, and the Khasis, a Mon-Khmer group originating from Southeast Asia, favour isolated valleys such as this one for their villages and betel nut plantations. The topography here is characterised by finger-like ridges that extend south of Shillong, the state capital, towards the Bangladesh frontier. Each ridge is separated from its neighbour by deep, forested valleys that necessitate long, meandering detours if travelling by road.

The region is probably best known for its exceptionally wet climate. The rainfall here is widely considered to be the highest in the world, and rivalry exists between the communities of Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram as to who enjoys the most precipitation. The regional average is around 12 metres per annum but it was double this back in 1974, when a staggering 2,455 millimetres fell in a single day. Phenomenally high rainfall such as this, combined with a steep, densely forested terrain, makes getting around especially problematic in the wet season, when the rivers and streams run at full spate.

Khasi bioengineering
The Khasis have developed a means of crossing the fast-flowing streams that separate their villages by taking advantage of the growth habits of the native rubber tree (Ficus elastica), which is indigenous to the region and usually grows among rocks next to water. The tree, which is well adapted to the local conditions of heavy rainfall and high erosion, is epiphytic (growing on other plants) in its juvenile stages, and its secondary roots always grow towards the light. It’s this characteristic that the Khasis exploit, training these roots to spread laterally along hollowed-out trunks of betel palm that have been placed across the stream.

Once the roots have been trained across the stream bed, they anchor in the soil of the opposite bank, providing the foundations for a living bridge. Usually, several roots are threaded together for strength, while others provide handrails and supports for longer spans. Flat stones from the stream bed are used to fill gaps in the bridge floor and, in time, these are engulfed by woody growth and become part of the fabric of the bridge itself.

A root bridge takes around 20 years to become fully functional. Once complete, however, it will probably last for several hundred years and, unlike its non-living counterparts, will actually increase in strength with age.

Known in the Khasi language as jingkieng deingjri (‘bridge of the rubber tree’), the bridges may be anywhere from ten to 30 metres in span. Unlike most artificial structures, they are able to withstand the high level of soil erosion brought about by monsoon rains and, being living material rather than dead wood, are resistant to the ravages of termites.

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The Umshiang ‘double-decker’
The valley-floor village of Nongriat has several root bridges in its immediate vicinity. One of the longest in the region, with a span of around 30 metres, lies close to Nongthymmai, a tiny village of beekeepers and betel palm growers located a couple of kilometres before Nongriat on the descent into the valley.

Along the track between Nongthymmai and Nongriat, a rudimentary steel-cable structure has been constructed to replace a semi-collapsed root bridge that’s no longer trustworthy. However, just beyond Nongriat, on the other side of the river, is the root bridge that most come to see. This is the locally famous Umshiang ‘double-decker’, the region’s most remarkable example of civil bioengineering, which, as its name implies, is constructed on two levels.

Villagers claim that the 20-metre root bridge is capable of taking up to 50 people at any one time, and while this is undoubtedly true, it does beg the question as to why Nongriat residents ever need to move in such large numbers that they require a two-way traffic system.

In recent years, the Umshiang double-decker has become something of an icon for the region, and a model of the bridge was exhibited at India’s 2004 Republic Day parade to represent Meghalaya state; it won second prize.

The living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region were first mentioned in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1844 by a Lieutenant H Yule. They have been largely forgotten until recently, when there has been a minor resurgence of interest.

One man who has done more than any other to promote them is Denis P Rayen, a retired Tamil banker who is married to a local Khasi woman. Together they run the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in Laitkynsew village, 20 kilometres south of Cherrapunjee.

Several root bridges can be reached on day treks from the lodge. All involve long, steep descents through dense forest. One that lies reasonably close to Laitkynsew village is the bridge at Ummonoi, which, at several hundred years old, is considered to be one of the oldest surviving examples and is distinguished by its rigidity, its well-formed ‘banister’ and its sturdy support strut, which joins halfway across.

But while the bridges’ renown as tourist attractions grows, it’s for their sheer functionality that they will continue to be valued by the inhabitants of the world’s wettest place.

March 2009

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