Bridges made of roots? Bridges made of natural materials that last hundreds of years? Yes, they exist, and only in one place on earth: India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, and more specifically around the village of Cherrapunjee – which also happens to be the wettest place on earth.
Not surprisingly, climate and flora are connected here. The Indian rubber tree (Ficus Elastica) thrives in a humid and warm climate, and flourishes along the zillion waterways that wind through this region. To get a better grip on the highly erodible soil, the tree evolved into a species with secondary roots sprouting from their trunks, giving them more possibilities to hold onto whatever soil, or other vegetation, available.
Building a Living Root Bridge from the Ficus Elastica
In order to build a living root bridge, these secondary roots are guided through hollowed-out betel nut trees to the other side of a river where on arrival the rubber tree takes root in the soil. Other roots are led in a similar way to create support railings. Then it’s a question of waiting and coaxing: 10,15, 25 years. Roots grow and intertwine into the sturdiest, most eco-friendly bridges imaginable.
There are bridges up to 100 feet long, and it is estimated that the oldest bridge is some 500 years old. There’s even a double bridge, which has been aptly called the Double Decker Root Bridge.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Walking on living root bridges? What’s there not to like about that?
- You’d like to say you’ve been to the wettest place on earth.
- Good for lovers of nature and hikers in reasonable condition (some bridges are hours walking from civilization).
The Wettest Place on Earth
My partner Coen and I are staying at the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort. The owner Denis has been a great promoter of these living root bridges. “When I learned about their existence I knew they were unique. The tradition of building them has been around for ages and the Khasi people, who inhabit this part of Meghalaya, pass on the knowledge from father to son.”
Denis stopped locals from replacing them by concrete bridges (“we need modernization”) and instead has attracted visitors to a region that until some ten years ago, nobody had heard of.
We wait for some good weather to go hiking: Arriving in the wettest place on earth during the monsoon (July has an average of 3100 mm – Paris gets about 630 mm per year) is not the brightest idea in this respect. On the other hand, views of canyons and forest-clad hills interspersed with an outrageous number of waterfalls do offer an extraordinary setting that you don’t easily tire of.
Traversing a Living Root Bridge
When one morning the sun breaks through the clouds we quickly put on our hiking shoes, take our walking sticks and walk down the road until we come to a track that leads into the forest. The walking sticks are a necessity; stones and tree roots are all covered in moss, making the trail incredibly slippery, and it is a very slow, deliberate walk downhill through dense forest.
Dozens of butterflies and incredible, stunning insects surround us. Bulbous-eyed snails, longhaired caterpillars, red centipedes, trunks covered in a plethora of mushrooms all accompany us along the arduous descent. Nowhere have we seen such an extraordinary combination of quantity and diversity of flora and fauna along any trail. Meghalaya is unique in many ways.
The tree-rooted path merges into the bridge so naturally and I am watching my step so carefully, that initially I don’t even realize I am setting foot on the bridge. The sudden railing and then the drop down to the river makes me look up – “Hey, we’re there!”
- Public transportation in Meghalaya is not a matter of course – be patient. Shillong, the capital, has flight connections with Kolkata. From Shillong cabs and local buses go to different destinations, but not on schedule.
- Least time consuming is to book an accommodation (I recommend Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort) and arrange with them for a car to pick you up from the airport.
- What to bring: hiking shoes/sandals, walking stick, rain gear, swimming gear.