Cherrapunjee — there is no stop to what one can experience here, be it clouds, rains, streams, rivers, waterfalls. You name it and it’s here. I had always been enchanted by the majestic waterfalls, raging rivers and mesmerizing weather. Meghalaya has a very special place in my heart. I have visited the place whenever I needed a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of daily life. But this time around I had a special motive to go there. I was planning to do something that was long overdued — trekking to the ‘Living Root Bridge’.
I, my husband Abhijit, our friends Monalisa and Rudra Deka went to Cherrapunjee in July. We stayed in the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resorts in Laitkynsew village, 20 km from Cherrapunjee, owned by Denis P Rayen and his wife Carmela Shati. It’s a warm and homely place with great food, friendly ambience and prompt service. It is one of the best examples of Khasi hospitality.
Living Root Bridges had very little popularity until few years back. But one man who has been promoting these bridges is Denis. He has been arranging day-long treks to these bridges from his resort. There are many Living Root Bridges and all of them involve steep descents through dense forest. One that lies relatively close to Laithynsew village is the bridge at Ummonoi, which is also considered to be one of the oldest serving bridges.
Living Root Bridge is unique to Meghalaya. The Khasi ancestors long ago developed a means of crossing the fast flowing streams with the help of the growth habit of the native rubber tree (botanically known as Ficus elastica). These are indigenous to the region and usually grow among rocks next to water. This kind of trees have adapted well to the heavy rainfall and high erosion of the region. The trees are epiphytic (growing on other plants) and its secondary roots always grow towards the light. The Khasis exploited this characteristic of the tree and trained the roots of the tree to form a bridge. Hollowed out trunks of betel nut trees are attached to the roots of the rubber tree in order to direct it over the stream. Once the roots are trained across the stream, they anchor in the soil of the opposite bank, providing the foundation for a living root bridge. Several roots are threaded together for strength. Flat stones are then used to fill gaps in the bridge floor. A root bridge takes around 20 years to be fully functional and these are known to last for several hundred years. Unlike its non-living counterparts, it actually grows stronger with time. One of the biggest advantages of such living bridges is that it is free from rusting, which is inevitable in case of iron bridges.
Our trek to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge began from the resort with a local guide from the nearby village early in the morning. The trek took nine hours involving a walk downhill 2,500 ft and up. Total distance of 25 km (approx) of which 10 km is by a beautiful mountain skirting road commanding a beautiful view of the valley and through three colourful Khasi villages — Nongraite, Nongthymmai and Mynteng. The trek down small stone steps is steep. The steps were slippery due to the monsoon and we had to negotiate them with care to avoid slipping. Just then a small boy from the village came and passed us in a fraction of a second. I was stunned for a second and then realized that it is like his backyard. He has grown up climbing up and down those steps. There is no other road to reach the villages other than these steps. All necessities of life had to be carried by people through those steps; young boys and girls use them to reach their school everyday.
After negotiating 1,873 steps (approx) downhill we reached the first village. All of us took a breather there. The people are friendly and though we didn’t understand the language, their smiles gave us the much needed boost to go on. Crossing the village we came across two steel rope bridges. We contemplated the raw force of nature standing on these bridges. The valley scenery was impressive and we were awestruck by its vastness.
Finally we reached Nongriate village where the Double Decker Bridge is located. This bridge has two levels and the villagers claim that the 20-metre root bridge is capable of taking up to 50 people at a time. The magnificence of the bridge makes the trek worth taking. All of us were spellbound by its sight. Beyond the bridge we walked for another 2 km to reach Mawsaw Steel Rope Bridge and from here one can access the famous natural swimming pools. The larger pool is deep and since none of us was expert swimmer we had to be content with the smaller one. These pools are very rough during the monsoon seasons and one is not allowed to swim. But as the monsoon was late this year we were able to assess the pool. The clear and cold water was very inviting and it instantly relieved us of our tiredness. After a refreshing swim, it was time for lunch. Before we could completely soak in the marvellous environment, it was time to set on our return journey so that we reached the resort before dark.
Not being regular trekkers I thought that I would be exhausted and tired to death, but on the contrary, I was rejuvenated and felt refreshed. Maybe this is what is said to be the power of nature. Before we returned we promised ourselves that we would come back in winter for yet another adventure of CAVING!!
Lopa Bhuyan Kalita
Courtesy: Assam Tribune, 2nd January 2010