Beautiful bridges that take decades to make - but can last for hundreds of years
07 Dec 2018
16 Jun 2020
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Living tree roots bridges originated in the East Khasi Hills district, a mountainous, forested region of India’s North eastern state of Meghalaya. They were created by a tribe native to the area, the Khasi tribe. The area is one of the wettest on earth with the monsoon season starting in April and lasting until October, with the wettest months being June and July. The bridges were built to enable the tribe to be able to cross the rivers and streams, that are always raging torrents during the rains, in safety.
The bridges were initially made out of bamboo, but when this building material proved itself to be prone to decaying and breaking in heavy storms, the Khasi tribe had the idea of using trees that were growing naturally to build bridges.
The bridges are built by training the roots of native rubber trees to grow over the river or stream. This feat is achieved in a number of ways: by pulling and twisting the roots and encouraging the separate roots to intertwine and grow in the right direction by hand, or by using a scaffold made out of wood or bamboo as a base and training the roots to grow around it, taking the scaffolding materials out when they start to rot. Another strategy for training tree roots is by using the hollowed out trunk of a betel nut tree to act as a guide. The roots are placed inside the trunk, which in turn prevents them from fanning out and causes them to grow in the desired direction.
Once they have grown enough to reach the other side, the roots are lodged into the soil, supported by sticks and stones packed tightly around them.It is 15-20 years before the bridge has the strength necessary to support heavy weight, and continues to grow stronger as time goes by, with a life expectancy of five hundred years. Nowadays, cables are sometimes used as a base to provide extra stability. The Khasi tribe then fashion handrails our of more roots to provide support and something to hold on to for the people crossing the river or stream.
The bridges can be over 250 feet in length and can support over 35 people at any one time. No one knows exactly how old the oldest living tree root bridges are, but there are records written about them from as early as 1844. These bridges are still being made today, with several in various stages of completion across the region. They can take such a long time to create that the people who originally started them will not get to see the end result. All of the hard work that is put into forming these structures is done purely so that the next generations can benefit from it. The craft of bridge building is past down from father to son to ensure that the method is not forgotten.
As beautiful as they are useful, these unique bridges are definitely worth going to see. Two bridges that we recommend are Umshiang, a double decker bridge in Nongriat village, soon to become a triple decker (by soon, we mean forty years). Another bridge is the one at Wahthyllong, just outside the village of Mawlynnong. Both places are in remote places that require quite a bit of travelling to get to. However, there are several other tourist attractions in Meghalaya, so you will be able to spend a few days here. A lot of hiking is involved in order to reach these bridges, especially the Umshiang bridge, whose journey involves climbing up more than 2,000 steps so a level of fitness is required.
The best time to visit these bridges is during the dry months, from November to March, although the trip can also be made in the rainy season. If you do visit in the monsoon season, it may seem like a good idea to where rainproof clothing. However, you may get very hot and uncomfortable in this attire, especially if you are hiking to one of the bridges, as raincoats and waterproof trousers are not made of a very breathable fabric. Therefore, wearing normal clothes may be a better option and simply carrying an umbrella if you want to keep the rain off you.