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Rooted in Cherrapunji

Sonia Nazareth discovers extraordinary living-root bridges in a tree-filled Indian town

 

Cherrapunji, in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India, is frequently credited as one of the wettest places on our planet. While monsoon chasers are known to visit for nature’s lightning-and-thunder-filled opera, there’s another reason why Cherrapunji attracts knots of exploratory souls. It’s home to some of the state’s most dramatic living root bridges — handmade from the tangled aerial roots of the rubber tree, stretched across the water — forming a living, growing path of connection to the other side.

Suitably equipped with a rudimentary map, sturdy hiking boots and a guide, we set off on a trek in pursuit of these marvels of local engineering. Beginning at the village of Tyrna through an unfurling banner of green, no matter where we look there’s an illuminating detail. Here, native orchids and magnolia. There, betel-nut trees, ferns and moss. Everywhere, subtropical, moist, broadleaf forest. Waterfalls punctuate the scene; as do snails, butterflies and dramatically-poised spiders in their webs. But one must earn one’s rewards — the terrain is undulating and steep, and there’s a precarious steel-cable rope bridge en route to cross.

Two and a half hours later, we arrive at the famous Umshiang ‘double decker’ bridge in Nongriat, our wobbly knees forgotten. Walking along the bridges, one layered over the other, is inspirational. Not just for the views that surround it — swollen clouds above, gurgling streams below, but for the ingenuity of the Khasi community — who devised a way to cross the waters, especially when they grow tumultuous at monsoon time.

Our guide’s facts, as he points to the details of bridge construction, are polished from frequent repetition. “The villagers employs lengths of bamboo as guide for the roots to follow.” “Mud and stones are used to fill the gaps between the vines and construct a natural pathway.” “Vines do well as handrails.” Patience, as essential to the process as skill, is also on display. The roots need to be tended through their production. Fifteen years from their inception, they’re usually sturdy enough for a human to make the journey across them.

Over the next few hours, we swim in natural pools so blue they look photoshopped into existence, stop at villages along the way and chat with friendly villagers. A lady with reddish-black teeth stained from chewing betel nuts is industriously making bamboo products, which she’ll sell at the local market. She tells us of new living-root bridges that are being constructed. She points to examples of where the roots and branches of trees have been used to create steps and ladders as well.

The trek back to the resort is up a flight of close to 3,500 steps, engulfed in the belly of nature. The soundtrack that accompanies the walk is the call of barbets and minivets. And I can’t help feeling that the people here, tucked away behind a curtain of green, are rich beyond measure when it comes to things that really matter — living with nature, ingenuity, connectedness.

 

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