The entwined roots of Indian rubber trees form bridges that—unlike steel structures—grow more durable with time.
The emerald hills of Meghalaya state—a steep, sodden, rumpled, and stream-slashed portion of India’s remote and picturesque northeastern panhandle—can be excruciatingly difficult to walk.
The mist-sheeted corrugated slopes are packed with jungle foliage and smeared with muck. During the monsoon rains, foot pathways connecting settlements tumble repeatedly into gorges rife with waterfalls and swift, impassable rivers. In a climate where 40 feet of precipitation falls from the sky every year, navigating these natural hurdles needs deft toes, iron lungs, and the ability to observe for long periods of time. It necessitates thousands of years of focus. Years of experimentation. Problem-solving generations.
The Cherrapunji region’s living tree-root bridges are the result of the inventiveness of the Khasi and Jaintia people who have walked these trails since they were babies.
Ficus elastica, a regionally abundant Indian rubber tree, generates strong, rope-like aerial roots that, when hooked onto a scaffold of hollowed-out betel nut trunks or connected to bamboo stalks, can be patiently trained to grow horizontally across steep ravines and riverbanks over decades. Eventually, the roots are coaxed to entwine, to form the struts and supports for living footbridges that can hold up to 50 people at a time, with aching slowness, yet tirelessly, steadily.
Modern wood or steel bridges rot quickly in the lush hills of Meghalaya, a global hotspot of botanical diversity (over 3,000 flowering plant species) and a cultural crossroads. Tree-root bridges, on the other hand, can last 500 or 600 years and grow stronger over time.
Stepping through such organic structures—a rare, harmonious partnership between the human imagination and nature’s expanding muscle—is a visceral sensation.
Cherrapunji’s root bridges give slowly, almost imperceptibly underfoot. They cradle the weight of the body in a manner that lifeless concrete and metal cannot. Underhand, through the living tissue railings, you can feel the immense power of the joined trees. You travel through time.
Some of Cherrapunji’s living bridges grew when the feudal kingdom of Ahom, invaders from what is now Myanmar, ruled over the Meghalaya hills.
They were carrying walkers when, according to A.J.M. Mills’ “Report on the Khasi and Jaintia Hills – 1853” (with an introduction by Dr. J.B. Battacharjee), the corrupt British colonial trader Harry Inglis terrorized the people of the frontier region in the 1830s and 1840s through torture and assassination. “After his death, his widow Sophie placed her husband’s body in a glass coffin on the verandah, telling the Khasis ‘that he would rise from the dead and avenge himself on anyone who wronged her,'” wrote one East Khasi Hills historian. “Sophie’s logic played on the Khasis’ fear of Harry’s power, even after he died.”
They bore my walking companion, Priyanka Borpujari, and me onward into the future, through the trails of northeastern India.
We inched eastward, toward Myanmar, on breathing bridges for a few steps on our long journey. On memory-based architecture. Of rain and sunshine.