A sultry Saturday afternoon.
Shafts of sunlight break out from between the gaps in the clouds. The cloud cover
is a constant feature here – as constant as the greenery that envelopes the region.
This, after all, is Meghalaya, the ''Abode of the Clouds''.
A little Khasi boy walks briskly, his hands dug deep into his pockets, whistling
an ancient tune. He takes the bridge that lies suspended over a narrow but fast-moving
stream – a stream engorged by the recent bouts of rains.
If you examine closely, you will find that his little feet are not falling on steel
or concrete or even wood, for that matter. Typically, the sort of material you would
associate with bridges.
No, the bridge that the boy is walking on is an almost magical extension of the Ficus
Elastica trees on either side of the stream – made up almost entirely of their roots
An Architectural Legacy
These bridges are near-perfect examples of ‘bioengineering’.
It’s astonishing when you think that they were pioneered hundreds of years ago,
by the forefathers of the present-day Khasi tribes who inhabit the region. Those
ancients must have noted the strength and the flexibility of the roots of the Ficus
Elastica, and then—through a play of imagination and by applying loads of common
sense—arrived at a technique to build these marvellous structures.
Amongst the Khasis, the art and science of building these bridges has become a legacy
of sorts – the knowledge handed down from one generation to the next.
The Structural Complexities
At first glance, these bridges may appear rudimentary – a massive entanglement of
roots and vines. How difficult could that be, you may ask. It’s only about taking
these different elements and twining them together.
Well, in reality, these bridges aren’t built; they’re grown. So, unlike conventional
steel or concrete bridges, you cannot really assign a timeline for their completion.
The longer they are, the more time they take to become fully functional – the time
frame often extending to ten, even fifteen years.
The Construction Material
It’s the Ficus Elastica tree whose secondary roots are manipulated to create these
one-of-their-kind bridges. The roots are strategically arranged over boulders alongside
streams and riverbanks, from where they extend out and combine into fully functional
They are exceptionally strong bridges, easily holding the weight of up to 50 people
at a time. What’s more, because the roots continue to grow and extend, the bridges
only become stronger with time – their life span easily surpassing the life span
of traditional bridges. A case in point would be the celebrated Umshiang Double
Decker root bridge that lies south of Cherrapunjee. Locals peg its age at about
The Khasi tribes take on the onus of both building and maintaining these bridges.
Initially, it’s all about coaxing the roots of the Ficus to grow in the desired
direction - using betel nut trunks, almost as root guiding systems. Later on, stones
are inserted into the gaps to create the impression of cobbled walkways. Handrails
and steps are also added to lend an extra dimension to these bridges.
The little Khasi lad just makes it across the bridge when the skies decide to open
up. Incessant rains, that’s the norm here. For long now, the region has been considered
the wettest place on earth – receiving the highest recorded rainfall. With every
rainy spell, the roots of the Ficus Elastica spread out just a little more. And
the bridges that have been shaped out of them grow just a little bit firmer, a little
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