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 and vines.

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 bridges.

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 200 years.

Community-powered engineering

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 bit stronger.

If you have any interesting articles, stories or tips you’d like to share with us, then do mail us on ultratech.social@adityabirla.com

    Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of UltraTech Cement.

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