Atop giant cliffs covered with waterfalls is the land of Meghalaya, or “the abode of clouds” in an ancient tongue. Here people take generations to weave tree roots into majestic living bridges. Sound like something from a J.R.R. Tolkien story? Actually, this place is real!
Meghalaya has the distinction of being the wettest place on earth. They actually have the record, 82 feet in one year! All this rain and the unpredictability of the monsoon season means that small streams can become raging rivers at a moment’s notice. Also, because of the volume of rain, hundreds of rivers crisscross the valleys. This can make travel nearly impossible without bridges. Thousands of years ago, the people of Meghalaya came up with a solution, living bridges made from tree roots.
On the slopes of the mountainous terrain, a species of Indian rubber tree with an incredibly strong root system thrives. Due to the seasonal deluge of the monsoons, ficus elastic produces a series of secondary roots higher up its trunk and can comfortably perch atop boulders along the river banks. The Khasi tribe of Meghalaya long ago noticed this tree and saw in its powerful roots an opportunity to easily cross the area’s many rivers.
In order to make a rubber tree’s roots grow in the right direction – say, over a river – the Khasis use betel nut tree trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create a conduit for the roots. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree, protected and prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks, grow to the opposite side of the river. When they reach the other side, they are allowed to take root. Repeat this process over several decades, and you get a functional bridge worthy of the Elven-realm of Lothlórien.
The root bridges, some of which are over 100 feet long, can take generations to grow. A network of dozens of root bridges connect the villages of Meghalaya. Some of the ancient bridges, still used daily, may be well over 500 years old. Today, the Khasis continue to pass on this tradition, and new bridges are still being built … umm … grown.
“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” –Greek Proverb