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The Agony And Ecstasy Of Experiencing Cherrapunji's Living Root Bridges

29/07/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Sonali Prasad

The rains make me sing. When low-lying clouds pregnant with water burst open their bellies to quench the thirst of parched lands, I can't help but twirl barefoot on the road with my arms open, feeling the frigid drops of the first monsoon fall on my face. So instead of waiting for the rains to grace Delhi this summer, I decided to chase the clouds until their abode: Cherrapunji, one of the wettest terrains on the planet. But I also wanted to discover a secret that remains shrouded in the canopies of the mystical valley. I had heard of the magical living root bridges of Cherrapunji before, the most marvellous example of environmental engineering where villagers grow roots of elephantine rubber trees to form sturdy, thriving bridges over voluminous river beds.

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With Binoo John's Under A Cloud safely tucked in my backpack and my father sitting beside me in a dilapidated Innova, we set off for the heart of Meghalaya from Shillong in one of the most lush road trips I've ever traversed. As we neared the Sohra valley, I rolled down my windows, letting the swirls of cotton clouds play with my hair. I tried to zone out peacefully to soak in the sight of raging waterfalls and rolling hillocks in every shade of green possible, but the driver cleared his throat to bring me back to earth. He shifted his gaze towards my travel companion in his rear view mirror. "Are you sure you will be able to do this trek sahib?" he asked nervously, "It can get pretty tough. There are more than 3000 steps one way." I glanced at my 54- year old man anxiously, but he nipped my protests in the bud with a comforting arm squeeze.

I gulped away the guilt stuck in my throat and turned towards the scenery outside. Even after hours of convincing him of the perils the previous night, my father had stubbornly stuck by the idea of hiking along with me to the Umshiang double-decker root bridge system. There were other more accessible single root bridges in Cherrapunji, but he had flatly refused to entertain anything other than the holy grail of the living root bridges itself. If his health gave up midway, I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life. But given his enthusiasm to spend some quality time with me, I finally gave in.

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On reaching Tyrna village, we hopped off from our cab and started our descent down a steep, mossy, swirling stairway. The pounding rain slowed down our movements as we clambered down a sudden gradient of more than 2400ft, hoping we wouldn't tumble into the valley by slipping off the edge. Our nimble guide, Shambhu, was a native of Nongriat village where the bridge was located. He tinkered down the steps with great ease, smiling sadistically at the discomfort of us city dwellers. I tried to make conversation with him, forgetting that he only understood Khasi. "This trail looks pretty empty, don't a lot of people come here?" I asked him, pointing to the deserted path ahead. He just laughed like Mogambo in response. I quickly looked up behind me to check on my father who was following me slowly. Though his stamina was breaking, he managed to give me a shaky wave of his hand.

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We painfully stumbled across muddy boulders and narrow ledges for almost an hour before we chanced upon a river bed with two hanging, rickety bridges. Just a look at the water gurgling below the highly unstable suspensions made me uneasy. The bridge was broken in places and the villagers had stuffed slippery bamboo sticks to cover up the gaping holes. In an outer body experience, I saw myself rolling over a dangerous opening and plummeting straight into the gushing current underneath. I cursed to myself. So much for travel bravado. After a prolonged pause, I gathered my marbles together and carried along the precariously swaying bridges, praying fervently to all the gods of the universe to not etch a 'The End' to my life in the middle of nowhere.

The ascent after the river crossing up to Nongriat village was a pleasant one. There were tiny huts, smiling children and helpful villagers all along the way. They offered us tea and biscuits during our break, welcoming us into their tiny bamboo houses. We found an English-speaking guide in our midst and he happily enlightened us about the engineering of the of the living root bridges.

The Khasis grow these bridges from the secondary roots of a particular species of rubber plant know as Ficus elastica. They guide the direction of growth of the roots using betel nut trunks over river beds so that they can build bridges that take up to a weight of 50 people at a time. As time passes, the roots get stronger and so do the bridges. It takes up to 10-20 years to grow these bridges, but they last for around 500 years, more than the lifespan of most man-made bridges. When the roots reach the other bank of the river, they are allowed to grow back into the soil, providing additional support to the architecture. The Umshiang bridge system is the masterpiece of Cherrapunji, the only double-decker root bridge in the world.

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After ingesting an encyclopaedia of knowledge from the friendly guide, we carried on hastily to witness the marvellous bridge system for ourselves. But we didn't have to go too far. As we crossed across a bend further ahead from the village clearing, roots of trees started erupting from the soil beneath our feet, snaking, twisting and turning, weaving a dense web over a creamy waterfall. Stupefied by the ethereal magic of nature's secret edifice, my father and I sat on the banks of the rapid flowing underneath the two-tier bridge in utter silence.

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The sheer brilliance of human innovation and mother earth's tensile strength had made the herculean trek worth it. As we sat underneath our umbrellas, eating Chinese takeaway food that I had packed the previous night, my father leaned in to plant an affectionate kiss on my cheek. I looked into his moist eyes and something told me it was neither sweat nor rain water. I rubbed his knee affectionately, teasing him about the tougher half of the ascent back home. "If given a chance, would you do this trek one more time?" I poked him playfully. His wrinkled face broke into a smile: "Wait and watch, I'll beat you at it." No doubt, he was able to race to me to the finish. It's a different matter that he was wobbling and wincing like an intoxicated duck for the entire week that followed.

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