Trekking in Meghalaya to see the world's only living root bridges
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal
I hurtle down the steps that are rocks stacked carelessly, I duck to avoid the wanton shrubs, I jump over fallen logs and hear the steams murmur and the bees drone. My path was surely not strewn with roses, but what the heck! There were bay leaves all over. I have not seen so many bay leaves in my life, certainly not scattered on my way. I smile at the thought. In the bends I miss Rebuild; he is wearing dark glasses and running down the hills as if he were on an Otis elevator. I holler and ask how much more. Another kilometer, his voice resonates. Gawd! After all the slips and the bruises, I had just managed one km.
"This is the road to nowhere. You are lost.” The crotchety man warned me. I was looking for the living root bridges and the man sloshed to the last sinew knew not the road. My ribs were falling off after a bumpy ride from Shillong and there I stood in the middle of nowhere. All I had for company were the monoliths that looked ascetic in their simplicity, rocks placed vertically in honour of ancestors – bare without even an epitaph or a name. That moment I wished the dead could come alive. At least they would know the road to the living root bridges, the only ones in the world.
U-turn. That was only solace. I take one and among the hills find more monoliths. And thankfully, some human faces. I had driven past the road that led to Laitkymsew village from where I could reach the nearest living root bridge. I saw beef strips drying on clothesline and maize hung from the beams that hoisted asbestos sheets. At Halari Restaurant I peep from under the half-upped shutter and after a little hollering found someone who knew Laitkymsew village. He looked unkempt, but messiah I would call him.
So, Laitkymsew was 17 kms away and my ribs were holding to the tenuous threads. The elevation: probably up the heavens. Or so I thought as I looked down the road with hairpin bends and switchbacks and hills that seem to close in on you. You look down and you might die of vertigo, the valley seems so sunk and far away. But there are distractions – cheeky idioms painted on boulders (Hands in the cloud, feet firmly on ground. I will walk with you in the rain. Share your children’s fleeting childhood.) At several hundred metres above sea level, perhaps wisdom is not what I was seeking. The 17 kms seemed to stretch to eternity.
Not really. At the Cherra Resort, Denis P Rayen welcomed with a warm smile. A quick papaya parantha, lemon tea and I was ready for the history lesson. Rayen tells me how the Khasi ancestors trained the living roots of the Indian rubber plant over streams to turn them into bridges that are so strong that can carry up to 50 people at one go. All this when there was no cement or steel. These bridges are the only ones of their kind in the world and the one I was to trek down to was more than 200 years old and spanned 53 ft.
Enthused I hurry with the details. It was barely 2 kms, I pepped myself. But Rayen warned – it would take three hours. I looked incredulously at him. Yes, three hours if you are used to trekking. Trekking? I do not even walk. I look at my mojris, roll my jeans up, tie my hair in a tight bun, hold the bamboo stick and take a deep breath!
I take a few steps down the hills and believe Rayen. A Khasi woman grins as I slip down the moss-laden rock. The guide called Rebuild Wahlang looks at me in exasperation, the butterflies gather around and the bees hum. I have a little bruise and I still have 2485 more steps to go down. I could go back to the resort, but I do not give up so easily. Never.
I hurtle down the steps that are rocks stacked carelessly, I duck to avoid the wanton shrubs, I jump over fallen logs and hear the steams murmur and the bees drone. My path was surely not strewn with roses, but what the heck! There were bay leaves all over. I have not seen so many bay leaves in my life, certainly not scattered on my way. I smile at the thought. In the bends I miss Rebuild; he is wearing dark glasses and running down the hills as if he were on an Otis elevator. I holler and ask how much more. Another kilometer, his voice resonates. Gawd! After all the slips and the bruises, I had just managed one km. Poof! Never has two km seemed so unending. After every slip I would ask Rebuild, “how far?” and he would say, “not too far”. Amidst areca nut trees and bamboo shoots, I looked for the bridge or even a hint of it. But there was none. The clock has ticked 49 minutes when Rebuild stopped. I was not the only one jaded, I thought. Then he pointed at something. There it was, the bridge – the living root bridge for which I had flown more than a thousand mile and hurtled down a hill with wobbly knees.
I look at the original rubber tree that so graciously lent its roots over the Ummunoi stream in village Siej. Hundreds of years ago the elders of the village decided to build a bridge which takes about 10-15 years to become fully functional and can last for an incredible 600 years. So beautifully built is the bridge that there is not even a hint of a gap, you can walk without the heels of your stilettos getting caught in the holes. At some places the roots are 18 inches broad and 6 inches thick. I stand in the middle of the bridge and wonder as this ingenious paradigm of bioengineering.
I dip my feet in the placid stream and take another deep breath. I know I would not find such bridges anywhere else in the world; I go back in time and salute the Khasi elders. I wish I could stay longer, but the sun was walking down the palm fronds and I still had to walk up the 2500 steps.
It took me two hours to puff up the hill. At the end of it, the sole of my mojris were completely scraped, I had tiny bruises on my arms and my knees howled for rest. At Rayen’s Resort I sip another cup of lemon tea and walk into the neighbouring 110-year old church that boasted of the first printing press in Meghalaya. I.had to thank the Lord for the day. And the living root bridges.
in Jetwings, December 2007