Bridge-building brings to mind heavy equipment; tonnes of steel and concrete; engineers and overseers by the dozens. And lakhs of rupees.
Well, what if there were bridges which involve some rubber trees; centuries of traditional knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to another; and a lot of cooperation? And very little money.
And indeed there are such bridges by the dozens in Meghalaya. Built by the Khasi and Jaintia communities, the Living Root Bridges, locally known as Jingkieng Jri, play a key role in rural connectivity in the dense forest areas of the state, which are also among the wettest areas of the world (think Cherrapunji).
The process begins with the planting of two rubber trees– Ficus elastica—one on either side of the river. These trees take about 10 years to grow and give rise to secondary aerial roots. A bamboo scaffolding is created across the river, and these roots are woven together and trained onto to this to start creating the structure. The aerial roots thus grow across the river, and when they reach there, they are planted again on the opposite side. The roots along the scaffolding grow thicker and intertwine. The roots need to be guided to grow in the right direction for the next few decades, after which they can stand on their own.
The planning and engineering skills required to build these bridges is enormous– they often rise 50 to 100 feet in the air and may be as much as 175 feet in length. Many are ‘single-storey’ bridges, but there are ‘double-storey’ ones as well. They have always been built and cared for by the local communities, and the tradition continues.
The bridges need loving care—for instance, every two years, the bamboo scaffolding has to be changed since the moisture and humidity might damage it. Properly cared for, these can last for a hundred years and more.
These bridges have been around for centuries and are even today, about 100 are in use, connecting over 75 villages. While local communities use them for their normal day-to-day movement, these bridges are also now major tourist attractions. They also act as corridors for animals to safely cross the rivers—barking dear and clouded leopards have been recorded to use these bridges. The bridges support the growth of moss and provide a habitat for squirrels and other small animals, and nesting sites for birds.
The technique is used not just for making bridges but also other structures that are needed locally, for instance, ladders and steps to provide a reliable mode of movement especially during the monsoon season; platforms and towers which serve as lookout points; erosion and landslide prevention structures to protect slopes and help in soil stabilization.
A true testimony to the patience, skill and cooperative spirit of the communities who build, use and care for them. And also to the effective methods of transmission of traditional knowledge, so that generation after generation is able to do this work effectively.
This sustainable and eco-friendly tradition has been recognized internationally. In fact, as of last year, the Living Roots Bridges or the Jingkieng Jris has been included in the UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage Site status.
I was lucky enough to see such a bridge and walk across it. It was an amazing experience. The one I visited was very accessible to tourists. But some other intrepid members of our group went to see a double-storey one, which involved six hours of trekking. And came back exhausted and with aches and pains in every joint. But they said that every pain, ache and stiff joint was worth it, and given half a chance, they would do it again!
So take the soft route or the hard, but if you can possibly see a Living Root Bridge, it will be a memorable experience.