The lower reaches of the southern slopes of Khasi and Jaintia hills are humid and warm and are streaked by many swift flowing rivers and mountain streams. A species of Indian Rubber tree – botanical name: Ficus elastica – thrives and flourishes alongside these streams and rivers. This tree can comfortably perch itself on huge boulders along side the riverbanks or in the middle of rivers and send its roots down to the riverbed. Thus, they have adapted themselves very well to high soil erosion caused by these fast flowing rivers and streams that come down about 3000 feet along precipitous slopes. These trees shoot out many secondary roots from their trunks.
Our ancestors, the early war-Khasis, had noticed these qualities of this tree and had adapted it to serve their need for bridges to cross rivers and streams. In order to direct the roots in the desired direction, betel nut tree trunks, sliced half in the middle for their entire length, are hollowed out and are positioned according to the requirement of the bridge. The thin and long tender roots are then passed through these hollowed out betel nut tree trunks. The roots start growing towards the directed end. When they reach the other end of the stream or river, they are allowed to take root in the soil. These bridges usually have base spans numbering more than two. There are also two protective railing spans. Stones are used to fill any gaps in the base spans and over time they get embedded in the floor of the root bridge. Some of these bridges have roots brought down from the tree branches joining the middle of the bridge as support spans. Some of these root bridges are made by entwining the roots of two trees planted on opposite banks or in the middle of the river on huge boulders.
These root bridges are so strong that some of them can carry 50 or more people at a time. We have some of them in the vicinity of our Resort that are 53 feet, 56 feet, 70 feet and even over 100 feet long. One has two bridges stacked one over the other. We have fondly named it the ‘Double Decker Root Bridge’. Now the villagers of Nongriat where the said bridge is located at the bottom of the valley are so thrilled to see so many international tourists dropping to see the bridge, have been kind enough to accept the name and have added to it the name of the stream over which the bridge has been built and are calling it ‘Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge’. This Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge is so unique, it is the only one of its kind in the entire world.
The roots used in one of these bridges are about 18 inches broad and about 6 inches thick. These bridges are being used daily even today by people living in these villages around Cherrapunjee. These bridges take 10 to 15 years to become fully functional. They keep growing in strength by the day. Perhaps their life span is 500 to 600 years after they are well formed. These bioengineering wonders are eloquent testimonies of man living in harmony with nature.
Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort has brought the focus on these Living Root Bridges, which are exclusive only to Meghalaya and are not found anywhere else in the world.
A Japanese T.V. Crew headed by Mr.Osamu Monden and assisted by Fujii Koji, Kenji Taniguchi, Shigeki Iizuka and Kyoko Miyazawa had made a detailed documentary over a period of two weeks (22nd June to 6th July, 2004) that was aired in Japan on 17th October 2004 by Ashahi TV.
BBC Wales and BBC London have made documentaries on the Living Root Bridges. BBC London’s documentary was telecast on BBC2 under the series “How the Earth Made Us” on 26th January 2010, the Republic Day of India. Our thanks to Director Ms.Annabel Gillings for her good direction of the documentary and to the Cameraman and Sound Recordist for making a great documentary on the Living Root Bridges and very specially to Professor Iain Stewart, Plymouth University for superbly presenting it. BBC Wales has already telecast its documentary produced by Mr.Mark Flowers, Producer/Director and Ms. Renee Godfrey, Associate Director in “The Human Planet” series. They have been kind enough to send a copy of the documentaries. Please ask us to play the same for you to watch when you are here. The documentaries have been done very well. In August 2011, Associate Director Ms.Allison Bean and Cameraman Mr.Richard Kirby stayed with us for a few days to cover the Living Root Bridges again for their new productions.