“Ow!” I cry, as a steel nail pricks my palm. Hurriedly withdrawing my hand from the railing, I put another foot forward on the suspension bridge, which sways from side to side. The river below me tumbles over the rocks and disappears into the Himalayan valley. The thick rainforest seems silently amused, as I gingerly make my way across.
My partner and I are an hour into the 5-km trek to the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee in northeast India. These unusual structures, found in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya, are thought to exist nowhere else in the world. The most striking of them all, the ‘double-decker’ at Nongriat, is accessed by a steep, downhill path comprising about 3500 steps.
We were warned that there would be no toilets during the trek which, of course, meant that I wanted to use one as soon as we left Tyrna, our starting point.
“Khublei,” I say to a villager, practising my newly-learnt Khasi greeting. “Is there a toilet here?”
“Just go in the forest, madam!” he replies. “Nobody can see!”
“Just go in the forest, madam!”
The path goes through the village of Nongthymmai, fertile with bamboo, palm, banana and pineapple trees. One can see that Meghalaya is primarily an agricultural state. The houses are built on stilts, to protect against flooding during heavy rains (Cherrapunjee is the second wettest place on earth, after the nearby Mawsynram). Curious children wave to us, not unused to visitors. Some of them carry their siblings in cloth slings on their backs. Hens, puppies and cats seem to exist alongside each other here in perfect harmony.
Crossing the suspended rope bridge
We cross the wire bridge with our bones and belongings intact. The seemingly-endless steps promise an aftermath of wobbly knees. A second rope bridge greets us, which I take on with confidence. The river below is of translucent lapis lazuli – I can even see the rocks on the riverbed. Nongriat is an unassuming village, with happy kids running about. We follow the cemented path, when suddenly my partner announces, “We’re here.”
I find myself looking up at two large tiers of tangled brown ropes that stretch across the Umshiang river. The thick, python-like roots of the Ficus elastica (Indian rubber) tree, which might have once tempted Tarzan to swing across, now form a latticed platform, connecting hill to hill. The tree itself towers above, forming a natural canopy. I venture onto on the moss-covered network of vines, which is surprisingly sturdy.
The double-decker living root bridge
These bridges are an ingenious invention by the Khasi people – they help them get across rivers that would otherwise be impassable during the merciless monsoons. Hollowed-out betel trunks are placed across the river, inside which the fig tree’s aerial roots are coaxed to grow horizontally. The roots strike the soil on the other side and grow deep inside it, strengthening the hold. It takes about 15 years for the bridge to be ready for use. With the strength to hold up to 50 people at a time, it grows stronger with age, renewing itself naturally. The bridges connect the locals to neighbouring villages, farmers to towns and children to schools. They exemplify the word ‘jugaad‘, a Hindi term that refers to finding a clever fix or solution.
An hour’s walk from Nongriat takes us to the Mawsaw root bridge, the first part of which has been replaced with steel ropes. I’m pleased at the transition underfoot as we walk across – from swaying wire to steady root. I look behind me to see a classic landscape – jade mountains surround the white river valley like sentinels. We walk on a desolate path, which (thankfully) leads to the natural swimming pools. I plunge into the cold, sparkling waters of the ‘Rainbow waterfall’, that cascades over a gigantic rock. “I’m staying here,” I declare to my partner. “You can go back.”
Getting comfortable in the icy cold waters of Rainbow waterfall
On our return, we stop at Nongthymmai for oranges, which we eat beside a temperamental rooster. The village is strikingly clean, like many others in Meghalaya. I ask the shop owner if she knows how old the living root bridges are. “I don’t think anyone knows,” she laughs.
As I sink into a rock to rest, a man carrying a sack of betel leaves on his back walks past us. We look at him in unabashed admiration and then plod on. A girl carrying a satchel skips past us, grinning at our huffing and puffing. She is barefoot.
Wobbly, painful knees
How does he do it?
It is 5 pm now, and the valley is growing dark. Each of the last 500 steps feel like I’m lifting bricks tied to my feet. At the top, I gush about our experience to the taxi driver, who’s never done the trek. He looks at my flushed, excited face and says, “Maybe I will go there next time.”