From my first visit to India, I recommended the traveller to partake in five activities. I have already talked about meeting the Khasis and hoppping on a train. But where would I find an iconic bamboo bridge to cross a body of water? Well, only in India would I find something better than a few bamboo stilts. How about a living tree root bridge. Mystified? Well, let me explain to you, dear blog reader, about a wonder found near the border of Bangladesh, nay, let me tell you a story of my wanderings in Meghalaya…
It started in Shillong. I was talking to the manageress of the hotel and she told me of the living tree root bridges that existed near Cherrapunji. I had also read about them in a pamphlet I picked up at the local tourist office. I was mystified. A bridge, made of a tree. Not some dead log, but the live roots of a tree, spanning across running bodies of water? How was this possible? Surely, the weight of a person should collapse the root? Wait, a bridge made from tree roots? I was more a doubting Thomas than a believer in such propaganda.
But I organised a trip to Shillong with a local friend. We took in the sights and the surrounding area. He showed me some of the spectacular waterfalls that dotted the landscape. After all this was the wettest place on Earth. Another record for India, but luckily for me, I had visited the edge of the Shillong Plateau on one of its dry days…
Now, if you want to know why this is the wettest place on Earth, it is a simple lesson in geography. A couple of hundred miles to the south lies the Bay of Bengal (the largest bay in the world – a lot of records here in India). Its warm waters are ripe for generating lots of storms, plus the general wind flow of the South Western Monsoon means that a lot of wild weather is pushed up towards the land. The shape of the Bay of Bengal is akin to a funnel. And just like any good funnel, the Bay of Bengal concentrates all the moisture towards one point. Now Bangladesh is only a few metres above sea level, so it gets a bit of rain. But the real storms hit the Shillong Plateau. You see the Shillong Plateau is not a gentle sweeping rise up, but has the shape of a cliff face. All this warm, moist air from the Bay of Bengal hits the Shillong Plateau is forced to rise up. It cools and so squeezes the moisture out of it like a sponge. This water becomes rain, and it absolutely buckets down on Meghalaya. Cherrapunjee, right at the southern end of the Shillong Plateau get pelted. Here’s a photo to illustrate:
Yep, that’s the edge of the Shillong Plateau. You see how the hills suddenly drop off into Bangladesh. You can see why Bangladesh is always under water, it is due to being downstream of the wettest place on Earth. All the water that falls on the Shillong Plateau has to end up somewhere. Oh, and one more thing, note those tiny bits of white in amongst the green. They are settlements and people live there in those little villages. But how do you get to those villages. No road can actually be placed on the side of those hills, the slope is just too steep. But yet, there are people living there. How do they get to and from their village?
My friend and I were riding along and we got talking about the living root bridges. Sure they existed, but I wanted to see them. To my surprise, he had never seen them, despite knowing where they were. The weather was never right, always too rainy. But today was as bright and sunny a day as we could get. I was up for it, and I stated why not. It was late in the day, coming up to 1pm, but if there was a time to start, it might as well have been now…
So we descended the hills. In the space of 5km we had dropped some 800m – and you could feel the heat rising up from the plains. We were a few km as the crow flies from the edge of the Republic, and more importantly at the end of the road. The road just stopped. A dirt track for the last kilometre, suddenly there was a small turning circle and a set of steps leading down. So this was how those villages negotiated those steep hills. Not by wheel, but by foot.
Now there is a reason why you have to watch out for the weather. This is one steep set of stairs, not always in good condition, and sometimes made out of granite rocks rather than concrete. In other words, in the rain (or fog), you will slip. Badly. And it is a long way down. Still, this was the only way to get to the valley floor and see the living root bridge. So my friend and I walked down each step, chatting, sipping on water and chewing on kwai but wary of the steps that we were walking on. We eventually came to a village, and much to our mistake, decided to turn left. On and on we went until we realised that wandering through jungle was just not going to get us nearer to that famed bridge.
We were tired. The heat was killing us both. There was a hunger in the stomach and pain in our legs. But there was also something calling to us. The unknown, a willingness to explore and the knowledge that our destination was so close. So we headed back to were the path diverged and took the right hand path. In a few minutes, we arrived at a village and we heard the water from a nearby river. Sure enough, ahead of us, stood the first of many living root bridges that dotted this part of the world:
Yeah, I was a believer. These living root bridges really did exist. And my goodness, it was scary to cross. There was a bit of shaking, and those rapids beneath were terrifying as they were loud. But they were a crossing point, and something that definitely put a few hairs on my chest. Amazing, as these bridges could live up to 200 years. Amazing, as despite all the modern technology available, these would outlast the modern steel footbridges that were placed elsewhere in the valley. Amazing as this was a piece of human ingenuity from the depths of antiquity. How long have people been tapping the roots of these vast trees to cross the river? When was this discovered? And it is interesting to see its spread along this part of India. The local interactions, the flow of knowledge across the land. An anthropological feast for the senses as well as a feat of engineering, merging a biological and ecological wonder into a humble bridge for local residents to go about their daily business.
But…ah yes, there is always a but…there was another bridge that I wanted to see. And it was in the next village. Time was running out. Climbing back up to the road would be no fun in the dark, but we had both come so far. So on we pressed, further into the forest, crossing stream after stream, some on those wonderful wooden bridges of the living trees and some on shaky modern suspension bridges of wire and concrete. But there was one bridge I had to see, unique in the world, and possibly the highlight of my trip to India. It was coming up to 5pm, the sun was fast descending behind the hills and time was limited as we virtually ran the rest of the way to Nongriat Village. Up a final set of steps, round a corner and suddenly, there it was, before my eyes, a wonder to behold!
Getting there and away:
There are plenty of root tree bridges in the Khasi and Janita Hills Districts of Meghalaya, but the ‘double deck’ living root bridge that is unique (yes, the only known double decker in the world – another record for India), is only found near Cherrapunjee. It is 13km from Cherrapunjee town, 8km by road and 5km by foot down some damn steep steps. Take good footwear, be prepared to go barefoot on the slippery granite parts and take supplies. Be prepared for wild weather and sudden changes, and to be blunt, you need to be fairly fit to do this. But the challenge is there, waiting to be discovered. And remember, there are people living here. If they can climb up and down those steps, so can you…enjoy it, respect it and love it!