Trail Of The Unexpected: The root masters of India

The extraordinary bridges over the Khasi river valleys are living works of art

I was in the wettest place on earth: Cherrapunjee, a region in the verdant, little-visited north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. Now, though, the skies were a clear, brilliant blue. I'd come to trek to Cherrapunjee's mysterious living-root bridges. These structures are as much works of art as examples of environmentally friendly bio-engineering.

"They're Meghalaya's Taj Mahal," said Denis Rayen, the owner of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, as we sipped cold drinks on the front lawn and watched a band of local musicians perform a medley of folk tunes and Bollywood favourites for the guests.

The six bridges are the creation of the tribe who live in the area's isolated valleys: the Khasi. They, or rather their forefathers, dreamt up the idea of coaxing the roots of the Ficus elastica tree (otherwise known as the Indian rubber tree) along hollowed-out trunks of betel palm and bamboo in order to cross rivers. The bridges take 25 years or so to become functional, but they can bear the weight of up to 50 people at a time, and last for five centuries or more.

They're also well hidden. Rayen, a former banker from Chennai who married a woman of Khasi descent, discovered the bridges for himself nine years ago, while building the resort.

"I was exploring trekking routes and headed off with some villagers. I crossed a mountain stream on one and did a double-take," he said. Recognising their potential appeal to tourists, he has since painstakingly mapped out hikes to the bridges. The most popular hike takes visitors to the Umshiang double-decker root bridge.

Getting to it takes dedication. The resort is the only place to stay for miles. It is 11 miles from Cherrapunjee town, high above the Khasi Hills which rise from the Bangladeshi plains to the south. The last leg of the journey is via a winding road overlooking magnificent ridges and gorges from which tumble frothy waterfalls. It is a picturesque reward for the six-hour drive from the airport over the border in the Assamese capital of Guwahati.

The next morning, I doubled back on the road to the small village of Tyrna, where the six-mile trail starts. From there it was a dizzyingly steep descent into the heart of a forested valley.

We passed through lush tropical vegetation and cliff-and-waterfall scenery; from time to time giant yellow butterflies danced around me and birds flitted about the treetops. All the while I was assailed by the heavenly scent of orchids and hibiscus flowers.

Nongthymai, a small farming village, started where the steps ended. A noticeboard outlined the village rules, which Peter translated for me: "No loitering after dark, no swearing, no alcohol, no litter, no graffiti, no washing under the public tap." Indeed, the village was scrupulously tidy, the small plots of land around the homes neatly filled with potatoes, pumpkin and cauliflower.

The Khasi are predominantly Christian, as a result of the arrival of Welsh missionaries in the 19th century. As we trekked through the village, I didn't spot a single Hindu shrine, deity, plume of incense, or tikka-foreheaded child. Rather than saris, the women wore the Jansiem, a toga-like swathe of cotton. It was slightly disconcerting: a snapshot of an India without the familiar visual clues.

Beyond the village, we walked through more forest along slippery, moss-covered boulders. Then it all got a bit Alice in Wonderland: more giant butterflies in rainbow colours; weird mushrooms jutting from the trees; a long, green caterpillar inching sedately across my path. Peter pointed out a black-and-yellow spider the size of a small plate.

We crossed fast-flowing streams on swaying steel suspension bridges and parallel to one of these I spotted three unfinished root bridges, connected by tiny islands.

But it was the 200-year-old double-decker root bridge I had come to see. After two hours, as we approached the village of Nongkriet, there it was. The roots of a single tree crossed the river on two levels, like a mad piece of macramé crossed with a tangled beard, bits of seaweed and a hairy den of tarantulas. It's a bridge for hobbits, not humans.

I walked gingerly across the top level, which spanned 70 feet, then the slighter shorter bottom one, careful not to get my foot stuck in a stray root. It didn't collapse.

Why would the villagers build a bridge on two levels, I wondered. "Because they fancied it," said Denis when I met him later. "There's even a triple-decker bridge in the works."

The Umshiang bridge overlooks a small waterfall and rock pool. After a swim, and a lunch of jadoh, a sort of pork biriani, I tried to imagine the bridge in the swirling mist and rain.

Suddenly, I saw a figure crossing it. Not a hobbit, just a mop-haired teen making his way to the next village. Cherrapunjee's living root bridges might rival the rain for romance, but for the Khasi they'll always be a practical, environmentally friendly means to get from A to B.

Travel essentials: Cherrapunjee

Getting there

The gateway to the region is Delhi, which is served daily from Heathrow by Air India, British Airways, Jet Airways and Virgin Atlantic. From here, connecting flights to Guwahati are operated by GoAir, JetLite and Kingfisher.

Getting around

Travel the Unknown (0845 053 0352; traveltheunknown.com) operates a range of North East India tours, including a six-day tour to the living root bridges for £500.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent