Long ago in North Eastern India, the War-Khasis tribe of Meghalaya were way ahead of the green movement. They realized they could grow their own bridges! Meghalaya is known as “the wettest place in the world”, and once received 25 meters of rain in one year, making the world record. The southern Khasi and Jaintia hills are intersected by numerous, rapidly flowing rivers. Nearly all the rainfall occurs during the monsoon of the summer months, and the gentle rivers can quickly become wild, raging and dangerous to cross. The people still had to cross these waterways, and discovered they could utilize their natural resources to benefit their lives in a beautiful way, while remaining harmonious with nature.
The only material needed for the creation of these bridges is a tree, known as Ficus Elastica. This is a species of rubber tree,that can grow to a size of 30-40 meters. These trees have a secondary root system, which causes the roots to grow outwards. The roots grow upwards, towards the upper part of the tree and are incredibly strong. The Ficus can comfortably and sturdily grow from the edges of huge boulders, as well as within the river beds themselves.
Although the trees grow all on their own, people must use tools and frames to guide the growth of the trees in the desired direction. The trunks of betel nut trees are slices down the middle and hollowed out, and used as a guidance frame for the roots of the Ficus. This causes the new and therefore tender and thin roots to grow straight out, across the river, instead of spreading in all different directions like they would without help. When the roots grow long enough to reach the soil of the other side of the river, they take root. Over time, the roots grow deep into the earth, and provide a sturdy structure that spans from one side of the river to the other. People also choose places a bridge is needed, and plant a tree there. Then they must wait for the tree to grow strong and tall before cultivating a bridge. In this aspect, there is significant planning involved in growing root bridges, and serious patience.
Dilligent attention must be paid to this process and it typically takes from 10-15 years for the bridge to be completed. Some of these bridges can hold the weight of 50 people and reach a length of over 100 feet. The most amazing thing about these bridges, is they actually get stronger with age. Through time, the wood of the roots obtain a strength of what is compared to steel cables. In fact, it is the “alive” aspect of these structures that allows them to be so strong. Their constant growth adds to their durability. It is estimated that some of the “ancient” root bridges used daily by the people in this region are well over 500 years old. Talk about sustainable development.
One of the most astonishing and unique root bridges is believed to be the only one like it in the world. It is two bridges, one growing about 14 feet over the other one. It is known as the “Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge”.
There is a lot of well deserved attention being paid to these wonders, because they were re-discovered by a man from the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort. Denis P Rayen wants to promote interest in the bridges. To prevent the bridges from being destroyed or replaced with steel in favor of modernizing, the local people have been alerted to their value and potential. I think they were probably already aware. Currently, a new bridge is being grown, and should be finished within this decade.
In this video, a man teaches his daughter the knowledge and skills needed to complete the bridge he has been growing for over 30 years. He knows he will not live long enough to see it finished, and he wants to ensure his daughter will take his place and see it through. To me, this wisdom and knowledge being passed down from generation to generation is a striking parallel to the “living bridges” themselves. Each generation begins a bridge to the generations to come, by teaching their children these secrets. This a moving story of people living in humble awe of the miraculous earth around them, and the power of growing instead of cutting down.