In Shillong, in north east India, the bridge is one of nature’s greatest engineering feats
Shillong, a pine-wooded British era hill town famous for its boarding schools and love for western music in north-east India, is a busy town. Its traffic clogging the narrow roads and the old cottages slowly giving way to concrete buildings to accommodate an ever-growing population. But it is Covid-19 days and busy is replaced by a temporary quietness.
However, if the face of Shillong is changing, Cherrapunjee, an hour’s drive away, is its refreshing antidote. Breathtaking waterfalls, monoliths, home to Mawlynnong, acclaimed the cleanest village in Asia and two living root bridges unique to this place make it quite surreal. Quite the traveller’s delight.
The living root bridges in the deep depths of Cherrapunjee are a good two-three hours trek to reach it. It has been described as one of the greatest big engineering feats. Built by Khasi villagers, the roots of the Indian rubber tree (Ficus elastic) have been interwoven to make it grow into a bridge serving local needs. Despite its remoteness, the place has made it to the National Geographic photo contest and has even filmed by the BBC.
We began with a drive via Upper Shillong that houses the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force. And then a detour to Smit, famous for its Nongkrem dance. On a market day the place teems with activity as women sit in rows selling organic vegetables and the famous red oranges of Cherrapunjee. A colourful sight that conveys a certain, strong identity of the Khasi men and women dressed in their traditional attires.
After the detour and a refreshing cup of the local red tea, we drove towards Mylliem, home to one of the best smoked pork I’ve ever had. Locals come in droves here to get a bite of this heady meat. Mylliem, according to the Meghalaya Basin Development authority, has always been a food halt for travellers with its smoked meat, particularly pork, highly sought after because of the uniqueness of its flavour which comes from the specific local traditional method of smoking.
I felt I was having my Lord of The Rings moment, a lost in time feel buoyed by excitement as I walked up and down the bridge before we sat by the river to take in the sights
Our destination was Sohra or Cherrapunji. Locals stick to the name Sohra, which is its traditional name. History says that the British mispronounced it as Churra or Cherra and the ‘punji’ which means capital in Hindi, got appended. Thus came Cherrapunji, famous for once being the wettest place on earth, a title that now goes to Mawsynram about 8 km further.
It is about an hour’s drive from Mylliem to Cherrapunji. And then the landscape opens out into a plateau broken occasionally by deep gorges and waterfalls. The air is clean and the long drive forms part of the excitement of the trek.
You know you have arrived when the topography suddenly changes , roads narrowing and the descent becoming sharper leading to a flat patch of land for parking with a sign that reads ‘Meghalaya Tourism Welcomes You to the Living Root Bridge’. It is the vantage point. The trek looked intimidating against the backdrop of the sub-tropical forest we were about to explore!
We were going to cover about 4km walking trail down the steep slope of approximately 3000 steps with an average five hours of going down and coming up. Our group assembled for a quick last-minute check of food, water, first aids etc., as there were little or no amenities along the route save for few eager villagers who welcomed you with a smile and curious look.
The walk was effortless at the beginning. Steps were well laid out for tourists with railings to hold on to. Midway, the steps get replaced by a ruggedness of uneven walkways, steeper climbs and steeper descents. We took a few rests, at the same time soaking up the stunning scenery around us. There was a great melange of flora and fauna unique to this place—orchids, beetle nut trees, bay leaves, butterflies of various size and colours, and mushroom and moss-covered tree trunks.
It was a long, arduous trek and after almost one-and-half hours into it we were in our awe and shock moment at having to cross our first wire rope bridge suspended over rain-fed river about 25 feet below. Luckily, it was not the monsoon season and the river was not swollen. The single wire metal bridge was narrowly constructed with rusted iron cables and held together with steel wires, it shook as you step foot on it and a high possibility of slipping from the gaps. With safety standards not spelt out, it is one of the world’s scariest bridges but in such moments you trust the instincts of the locals for whom this is a regular thoroughfare.
One steeper climb and we arrived at Nongkriat village, our final destination where the legendary double decker living root bridge stands almost magical.
I felt I was having my Lord of The Rings moment, a lost in time feel buoyed by excitement as I walked up and down the bridge before we sat by the river to take in the sights.
How the living root bridge came about is through necessity. With Cherrapunjee having been the wettest place on earth, the villagers belonging to the War Khasi tribe needed walkways across its many rivers and hills. So, they recognised the potential of the roots of the Indian rubber tree (Ficus elastic) grown here and started growing the trees by intertwining the roots.
For generations, these villagers have been continuing with this tradition of growing the bridges wherever required. They slice and hollow out the trunks of betel nut creating their own root guidance method. With age the bridge becomes stronger and takes 10-15 years before they become extraordinarily strong. According to Meghalaya tourism, “the living root bridge dates to 1100 years back and stands as a testimony to the far-sighted vision of past generations.”
As we began to head back and having had our brush with mankind’s most original invention, I picked up a stone from the river just below the double decker living root bridge as a souvenier. But my Khasi friend told me that, in their tradition, nothing is picked up from the river and taken home.
I left with something profound. Nature is best left untouched!