“Cross over, come back to us you ask/but I have grown roots while you weren’t watching.”
When I first visited the living root bridge in Riwai village in East Khasi Hills six years ago, I was fascinated by the entwined roots forming a pathway. “Nature’s marvellous artwork,” I had mused. Two years later, the double-decker root bridge at Nongriat was another revelation. Little did I know then that the marvels of nature were bio-engineered and there were nifty craftsmen who manoeuvred the roots of the ficus trees to create the breathing bridges for generations to benefit.
Ficus Khasiana: Finding the Living Root Bridges, written by Ian Lyngdoh, came as a trove of information on these magnificent structures and the human-nature symbiotic existence that gave birth to these.
The Ficus Elastica with its gigantic canopy towers over the root bridges at Nongriat and the stream that flows underneath. On my first visit to the village, I had asked a young man, in my broken Khasi, the local name of the living bridges. “U Blei,” the man replied and pranced across the upper deck of the bridge and vanished. God, he said.
That a bridge could be considered divine was beyond my understanding, probably because I had limited knowledge of the Khasi culture and tradition. As I learned more about the tribe and their traditional ways of living, I tried to find a meaning in the esoteric subject but with little success.
Lyngdoh’s book — which gives an insight into the local myths and legends and the significance of the ficus tree in the socio-cultural and economic evolution of those living close to nature — finally helped in bringing clarity on the subject. These breathing pathways are more than bridges to those who are dependent on these for their survival. The ficus is more than a tree, it is their culture.
As the legend goes, God planted a divine tree on a sacred mount called Lum Sohpetbneng that served as the Golden Ladder (jingkiengjri ksiar) between the Kingdom of God and the World of Man. But as humans turned rebellious, the Almighty severed ties with the world by closing the Golden Ladder.
“There is an intrinsic connection between the Jingkiengjri Ksiar (Golden Bridge) and the Ficus Elastica or Dieng Jri. The Golden Bridge is a mythical ladder bridge having an identical structure in these hills and valleys, but it resembles the Ficus Khasiana in its spiritual connotations,” writes Lyngdoh.
Lyngdoh has travelled extensively in the Ri War region for over a decade to document these ficus structures, their current status and their geographical significance. “My paternal relatives were involved in the making and upkeep of the root bridge near Mawlynnong,” the author told Sunday Monitor.
In fact, the nomenclature Ficus Khasiana has been coined by the author to express the integral relationship of the Khasi culture and tradition with these root bridges.
Every trek to a root bridge was arduous and took courage to walk on mossy stones and steep, sometimes 60-70 degrees, slopes. But all journeys ended in the ecstasy of discovery and knowing the local populace closely.
The root bridges remained hidden in obscure locations in the wilderness of Khasi and Jaintia Hills till 1844 when Lt Henry Yule documented the first bio-engineered bridge near Mawsmai village in Cherrapunjee. “The bridge by which we cross is worthy of description, as I believe no account of anything similar has yet been published,” yule wrote in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the same year.
The bridges are a major lifeline for those living in the remotest hamlets along the steep and treacherous slopes. Many decades, or probably centuries, ago, settlers in this wilderness decided to manipulate the young overground roots of the ficus trees and weave them together to create the bridges. It was not achieved in one lifetime, and often, an expert craftsman of the structure would not live to see the bridge grow.
The root bridges are riparian structures which are found near rivers or torrential streams. These structures have helped villagers connect with the world outside their settlements and also carry on with their economic exchanges. These, in fact, have helped, for centuries, in reshaping civilisation in the wilderness.
Even today, these living bridges are the only mode of connectivity in several villages. More than 70 root bridges are still found in the Ri War region and many of these can be reached by travelling through a difficult terrain. The longest of these is the one at Mawkyrnot that is about 50 m, “spanning across a deep gorge and over the stream known as Wah Mawlong”. Pyrnai village has the maximum number of these bridges at 24. Most of these pathways have been named after the river or stream which they straddle.
In places where the bridges are still in regular use, the ficus structures remain well-maintained. But villages which have already experienced modernity have neglected these primitive structures, which Lyngdoh compares with the gargantuan trees in the 2009 Hollywood movie Avatar.
As Lyngdoh travelled deep into the forested hills in search of root bridges, he came across several structures which were unique in their own ways. For instance, the Jingkieng Umjyrna on the northeastern slope of Thieddieng village in Khasi Hills. “There was no soil or slabs of stone on its deck and the uniqueness of this root bridge was that it did not have a ficus tree on the other side but the roots were embedded into the ground forming an anchorage that was supported by a huge boulder,” he writes.
There were surprises on the treks and the joy of discovering undocumented structures. Jingkiengjri Wah Amsyrim was one such bridge that had “escaped the eyes of our local guides”. The small bridge of about 15-ft length was hitherto unknown as it remained hidden under a stone slab structure.
Many root bridges have been supported by bamboos for railings and stone slabs to help in balancing and stepping. In some places, like the Riwai root bridge that is a popular tourist destination now, much repair work has to be done owing to the degeneration of the structures.
During his travels, Lyngdoh also came across ancient practices of the Khasis and remnants of a forgotten tradition. The ossuaries, or Mawthepshyieng, are the stones of the forefathers which contained in them the bones of the departed. This practice of interning bones in ossuaries was common among the Khasis who were followers of Niam Khasi, the indigenous religion. But with the advent of Christianity, the practice was abandoned and so were the structures and the divine land. Several chapters in the book have mention of the practice. It seems while the root bridges helped the local settlers connect with the outer world, it also brought along with it the influence of the western world in the form of religious transformation.
On the relationship between the indigenous religion and the ficus tree, Lyngdoh says “it is deep rooted”.
“In Nongblai village the religious rites of the indigenous people are held besides the tree,” the book says. Nongblai has 16 root bridges within 1 sqkm (approximately) radius and is considered the cradle of the ficus culture.
Lyngdoh’s book commingles the style of travelogue and documentation of a lost world, the ‘Pandora’ in Meghalaya. His descriptions of the routes, the scenic beauty on the way and around the bridges, the local practices and the remote way of living are enthralling and rouses one’s adventurous instinct. However, the author never forgets to leave a word of caution about the tough terrain and points out that to experience these fascinating structures created in collaboration of man and nature, one has to be prepared to brave the adversities of nature.
Ficus Khasiana is the first documentation of the living root bridges in the state. Though similar structures are found in Nagaland and some southeast Asian countries, the cultural significance and the sheer number of these bridges in Meghalaya are overwhelming. The list of the root bridges in the end is a concise source of information.
When I first met the author, he did not come across someone who would trek through the wild to discover the superorganisms which helped a culture survive for centuries. But as the conversation started, the passion in his words and the adventure in his eyes were unmistakable. Besides describing a few of his treks and the significance of the bridges, he pointed out that the traditional way of life is gradually giving way to modernity.
When asked about the growing footfall in many villages with root bridges, Lyngdoh said, “Mass tourism is spoiling the balance of life. This is because there is no policy (for controlled tourism).”
The author, who is also a member of the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation, asserted that a Rural Master Plan is the need of the hour if the bio-engineered heritage structures are to be saved and the balance restored.
“We submitted a draft Master Plan to restrict unplanned concrete structures before the pandemic started. The government is yet to get back on that. The district council should also be proactive in saving these primitive bridges,” he added.
The living root bridges of Meghalaya have been included in the temporary list of UNESCO heritage structures. However, a prolonged neglect and reluctance to control unabated tourism may finally lead to the demise of a civilisation that has its roots in the natural abundance of the state.
Also read: Need to bridge economic gap at Nongriat