If one google searches or binges the three words ‘Living-Root Bridge’, one will be amazed at the amount of information that is available on the internet on the subject.
There are more than 20 pages of information which link to blogs, websites, news reports and even video documentaries about the bridges that were built without using any nails or any building material but of living roots of two trees attached to one another.
Most of the links are write-ups, travelogue and the likes, are about the living-root bridge of Nohriat village in the Sohra area. It is the most sought after destination for travellers and trekkers alike, but there many more living root bridges in West Jaintia hills of Meghalaya.
There are two living-root bridges in Kudeng rim, one of the two bridges is over the river Amlamar and another is on the river Amkshar.
There is one living-root bridge in Darang village over the river Amsohmi. And in Khonglah village there is one bridge over the Amsohkhi rivulet and another over the Amlunong stream.
In Nongbareh village there is one living-root bridge over the stream Amlaye and this particular bridge is a double-decker bridge like the one in Nohriat village.
There is one bridge over the river Amrngiang on the way from Nongtalang to Amlympiang, another is on the river Amladiar on the Amtyrngui River and there are two more root bridges one over Amdap Sohpiang and another over the Amdoh stream.
In Padu village, there are three living-root bridges and Padu is less than 10 kilometers away from Amalrem. All the three living-root bridges in the village are on the Amdep stream and the bridges help the farmer crosses the rivulet to their farm land.
All the living-root bridges in Meghalaya are located on the southern slopes of the State on the Indo-Bangla border, the area where the ‘War’ community of Khasi and Jaintia hills districts lives.
In many cases, two trees Ficus elastica or Ficus Indicus tree (dieng jri in local parlance) were planted on each side of the river, and once the tree start growing human manipulated the roots of the trees to connect each other across the span of the river.
Once the main roots connected each other across the river, then people start to direct more roots to make the bridge’s rails so on and so forth.
It was a community effort because it took years to complete the bridge and the work of building the bridges was done voluntarily.
Amongst the War Jaintia; it is a tradition that the farmers themselves jointly made the path to their respective orchards or beetle nut and beetle leaves plantation and they are also responsible for keeping it.
The bridges are part of the trail towards the terrain where they farm and making the root bridges and keeping the same is by tradition the community’s responsibility.
The contribution of an individual farmer in the making of the bridges could simply be by way of helping tie the roots while walking down to his plantation; if one found the tendril wander away from the planed handrail.
It could also be by using a sliced bamboo to tie the roots together and put it on the right direction.
Hence the farmers who use the bridge in the course of many years contributed in whatever way they can in making the bridge.
Since it is also a living bridge, it still needs care and protection hence farmers are not only the makers; they are also the keepers of the living bridges.
The living-root bridges were made voluntarily by the community without any one to supervise the work.
Neither was there any blueprint prepared or community planning done before they start building the bridge.
It was made out of human’s own natural instinct with one clear objective to make a bridge out of the root of the trees across the span of the river.
The goal is to make it convenient for the farmers to cross the river even during monsoon when rain causes the river to overflow.
The process or rather the tradition of making (or should we say growing a bridge) is bio-engineering at its best and a living testimony to the genius of our ancestors particularly the ‘Wars’ of Jaintia and Khasi hills.
Some say living-root bridges looks spiky; like snake big and small entwined each another or like Anaconda in the mating rituals.
The sheer sight of the bridges is awesome and it has attracted many visitors who are enchanted by the marvel of this bio-engineering. People in other places can boast of majestic bridges of ten or twenty kilometre long made of brick and mortar, and of steel, but the living roots bridge of the War people of Meghalaya are wonder of nature helped and created with human intervention without causing any harm to the tree.
The art of making a bridge out of living root of trees is unique to the people of Meghalaya and particularly the Wars of Khasi hills and Jaintia hills only.
The dictionary meaning of the word benevolence is ‘desire to do good to others, kindness and generosity’, it also means ‘doing good rather than making profit’.
The desire to make the bridge for the common-good rather than individual profit is the spirit that goes in the making of the living-root bridge among the Wars of the Khasi and Jaintia hills.
It puts common good (ka bha-lang/ ka bha ka imlang sahlang) before selfish interest.
It is sad but true that the southern slopes of the State bordering Bangladesh is rich in lime stone deposits and people have now started mining in the area which will definitely have huge impact on the fragile eco-system of the area.
Mining threatens the very existence of the living root bridges because once the forest is cleared and water level recedes, the bridges will also be affected.
The Khasi Pnar community needs to do an immediate retrospection, the question is do they want progress at the cost of the environment and our tribal value system?
Ironically the living-root bridges are the only remaining link that connects the past with the presence, it is for the people to decide if they want to cut that which connect them to the past.
HH Mohrmen is a freelance writer and environment activist based in Jowai, Meghalaya. He can be reached at:email@example.com