The biology of bridge-building

When you think of bridges you don’t usually think of biotechnology or gardening. But that is exactly what the Khasis traditionally did. First you have a gorge to be bridged, then you find two rubber trees facing each other across the gorge. Next you coax the roots towards each other, perhaps along poles or planks. Then, when the roots meet each other, you begin pleating them together and, by a process called pleaching, encourage them to fuse. That’s how the bridge that you see in the featured photo was built.

Once the platform is ready, layers of mud are laid down over it to make a easily traversed road. I suppose the weight that the roots can carry is a concern. On the day that we were there a couple of people were standing at each end of the bridge to do some traffic control, mainly to make sure that the platform was not overloaded.

If the general shape of the bridge looks familiar, it is because it is structurally a cable-stayed bridge. The framework of joined roots forms a platform which could sway in a monsoon storm. As you can see in the photo above, branches are brought
down to stay the platform. As an engineering design, Mumbai’s sea link is no different from this. Interestingly, it seems that the whole community which uses the bridge is trained to carry out repairs on it, so that a villager passing by can braid the roots a little and put up a truss to guide a branch.

This particular living root bridge was close to Mawlynnong village. There are many of these bridges scattered across the Khasi and Jaintia hills. I guess it takes time for the tree to grow, but it can’t be many years. I’ve seen other Ficus trees grows roots which touch ground within months. So I guess it might take no more than a decade to make a bridge. Ficus elastica, the rubber plant, is said to live for about 200 years in the wild. So, during its lifetime the bridge would get stronger. If the community plans well, then they can even begin to replace an old tree before it dies. It is said that one of the root bridges near Sohra (Cherrapunji) has lasted 500 years. This could be hearsay, since the earliest documentation of these structures was published in 1844 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. However, it is not unthinkable that this could happen, given that the technology is widely shared between tribes.

The banks of the river here were not very high. In winter the water reduces to a trickle. So I climbed down to the river bed to take a look at the interesting flat stones along the bed. Much of the clan had already gathered here. The pools and stones were nice and cool after the climb down to the river from the road. I was impatient to get back up. People were selling cut pineapples dipped in red chili powder on the track, and I needed some of that.

The village of scattered stones

On our first trip to Meghalaya, five years ago, we did not come down towards Mawlynnong (maw=stone, lynnong=scattered, in Khasi) and Dawki on the Bangladesh border. When you start planning a trip to this state, you cannot miss mention of Mawlynnong, supposedly the cleanest village in Asia. This time round The Family and I considered staying in a home-stay in this village and exploring nearby Dawki and the Umngot river as well as Pynursia and its spectacular living root bridges from this base. That did not happen, but we came here with the clan for lunch.

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Walking through the village is a pleasure. I wouldn’t know how to judge a cleanest village contest, but this is undoubtedly clean. There are dustbins made of woven cane (featured photo) every so often, and there is no plastic visible at the edges of paths. The place looks and smells clean. The large number of tourists included mothers scolding their children for dirtying the place, and telling them to pick up things and put them in dustbins. I hope these are lessons which are carried back to the rest of India. Even Shillong, only about 80 Kms away, would gain from it. I suppose tourism has its problems, but the number of home-stays in this village is so large, that I think they can’t do without it.

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The church did not look like it played a major social role in the life of the village. Perhaps that is because it is less than a year old. The snowy tree was made from cotton wool, and also the cotton wool “snowman” next to it. I wonder how it is that a religion which started in West Asia and grew for a few hundred years in south-east Europe is now so firmly north European that even when it is exported to a tropical rain forest it brings symbols of snow along with its major festival. In any case, it is being localized again, as you can see by the fact that this cottonman’s eyes are made of mosquito coils.

Some of the clan saw this tree house or watch tower and decided to climb it. Everything is a little slow because of queues of tourists, but when The Family eventually came down again she had a marvelous photo looking southwards. In the photo you can faintly see the plains of Bangladesh over the line of trees, with the glint of rivers seen through the blue haze. We were perhaps 10 kilometers from the border.