Living-root bridges? Bridges made of natural materials that last hundreds of years?
Yes, they exist!
These bridges exist only in one place on earth: India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, and more specifically around the village of Cherrapunjee – which also happened to be the wettest place on earth when we were visiting the region (but it no longer is).
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 Living-root Bridges
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.
In the region you will find 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.
The Wettest Place on Earth
Coen and I were staying at the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, whose owner, Denis, had 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 the living-root bridges 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 waited 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) was 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 did offer an extraordinary setting that you don’t easily tire of.
Traversing a Living-root Bridge
When the sun broke through the clouds we quickly put on our hiking shoes, took our walking sticks and hiked down the road until we came to a track that led into the forest. The walking sticks were a necessity; stones and tree roots were all covered in moss, making the trail incredibly slippery and it was a very slow, deliberate walk downhill through dense forest.
Dozens of butterflies and remarkable insects surrounded us. Bulbous-eyed snails, longhaired caterpillars, red centipedes, trunks covered in a plethora of mushrooms accompanied us along the arduous descent. Nowhere had 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 merged into the bridge so naturally and I was watching my step so carefully, that initially I didn’t even realize I was setting foot on the bridge. The railing and then the drop down to the river made me look up – “Hey, we’re there!”
Practicalities on the Living-Root Bridges
- Public transportation in Meghalaya is not a matter of course – be patient. Shillong, the capital, has flight connections with Kolkata. From Shillong taxis and local buses go to different destinations, but not (necessarily) on schedule.
- The least time-consuming option is to book accommodation (I recommend Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort) and arrange with them for a car to pick you up from the airport. Or find availability and prices for accommodation here.
- What to bring: hiking shoes/sandals, walking stick, rain gear, swimming gear.
Originally published in 2017 / Updated in 2019
Additional Sightseeing Tips in India
- Joining a Hindu Pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave
- Searching for the White Rat in the Karni Mata Temple
- Taking the Narrow-gauge Train to Darjeeling