What is living and what is dying in the Living Root Bridges?

Avner Pariat of Raiot Collective talks to Patrick Rogers, a traveller. Patrick graduated from the University of Delaware, U.S.A, in 2009, with a B.A. in History, and he’s been coming to India every year since then. He does some travel writing.

Avner Pariat : When did you visit Meghalaya first? How did you come to hear about the living-root bridges?
Patrick Rogers: I had first heard about the living-root bridges as far back as 2008. It was not until 2010 that I first visited the state. I only actually reached a living root bridge in 2011, when I stayed at the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort in the monsoon season of that year. At that time, I went and visited the Nongriat Double Decker as a day hike. That drew me to explore more of the state. In 2013, I took my first solo hike in the region, walking from Nongriat to the village of Tynrong and then on to the villages of Umblai and Mawphu. This hike took me about five days (I got lost in the jungle for a while), and introduced me to the parts of the Khasi Hills that were beyond the tourist areas.

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Avner Pariat : Please tell us a bit about the crowd-funding initiative that you are proposing?
Patrick Rogers: The basic idea behind “The Living Root Bridge Project” is very simple: To create an easy to use database listing information about as many Living Root Bridges (and other assorted examples of Living Root Architecture) as possible. The data that needs to be collected is as follows: The length of each bridge, its height above its stream, photographs, GPS coordinates, and as much historical information as possible. Using the GPS coordinates, my hope is to create a map of the phenomenon as a whole. Note that the project will not serve as a tourist guide to the region, but rather it will document bridges and other living root structures that would otherwise go unnoticed, or might be destroyed before anyone outside of their immediate localities knew they were there.

Gathering this data will mean traversing much of Southern Meghalaya by foot, walking from village to village. This is something that I have experience in already, having walked from Shnongpdeng (near Dawki) to Sohra earlier this year, stopping for lengthy periods of time in each village I passed through to get information on the living architecture in region.

Avner Pariat : Why have you become so interested in the bridges? What is so fascinating about them anyway?
Patrick Rogers: I will answer the second part first: To put it very quickly into words, what makes the bridges (and other forms of living architecture found in Meghalaya) so extraordinary is that they are the only kind of functional architecture, which is truly alive. No other bridge if left to its own devices will be stronger after 500 years than after five. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What makes the bridges and other forms of living architecture found in Meghalaya so extraordinary is that they are the only kind of functional architecture, which is truly alive[/pullquote]

For me personally, the first thing that strikes me about them is simply the way they look: They are incredibly beautiful, like something out of the Lord of The Rings. To see a bridge made of living roots that crosses a deep jungle stream is truly a magical (there is no other word for it) experience.

But beyond that, one of the things that strikes me about them is the degree to which they combine beauty and practicality. While the bridges are incredible to look at, they also solve the very real and down-to-earth problem of how to cross the flooded mountain streams during the world’s most intense monsoon season. While historically other materials, primarily bamboo, would have been available to address this problem, no variety of conventional bridge would have presented such a long-term solution to the issue as the living-root bridges do.

Even today, when much faster, easier, steel suspension bridges can be used, these still take large amounts of money and outside expertise to construct, and even then, from personal experience, I know that an old steel wire suspension bridge is far more dangerous than an old living-root bridge.

With living architecture, a village, family, or even an individual, has only to invest a single commodity: Time. The jungle itself provides the only material that needs to be used.

Now, there is a romantic, but I’m afraid largely mistaken, notion that the person who plants a bridge will probably never walk on it (by this point I’ve met a good number of people who have actually planted living root bridges and walked on them). Yet, there is an equally romantic notion that is true: A bridge planted five hundred years ago may still stand now, having grown to a monumental size, though its creators are long forgotten. A single man might have stretched a few roots over a stream, and now, half a millennium later, his initial act will have resulted in a vast and singularly beautiful structure, more functional now than ever before. In this respect, you might say that the Living Architecture of Meghalaya is more truly sustainable than any other form of man-made structure.

This sustainability raises another question, which fascinates me: Does Living Architecture have wider applications beyond Meghalaya? Can the bio-engineering achievements of the Khasis and Jaintias be transplanted to other areas of the globe? Might the idea of living structures be as useful in the jungles of Brazil as in those of Southern Meghalaya?

Yet another facet of the subject that interests me is how very little is truly known about it: Certainly, looking online, one is given the distinct impression that there are only, maybe, two or three dozen living root bridges in the world. The assumption one might make is that the phenomenon is confined only to the area around Sohra, with a few more bridges around Mawlynnong. But the truth of the matter is that there seem to be large numbers of these wonderful bridges all over the hill country of Meghalaya. Certainly, that has been my own experience walking across the state on foot.

Avner Pariat : What do you think the project will contribute to the local communities in the long run?
Patrick Rogers: As I said before, the phenomenon of living root architecture as a whole is not well understood. It is not known how many living root bridge there are in the world, in fact, there is not even enough data to make a solid guess: There may be hundreds or even thousands. Furthermore, it’s impossible to say what exactly the geographic extent of the phenomenon is: I have been told in no uncertain terms that the bridges do not extend into the West Jaintia hills, but that is entirely false (just look at the village of Kudeng Rim, near Nongtalang). Also, it is not known where the practise began, or where it may be found in the highest concentration. To add to that, it’s hard to say even how many different kinds of structures were made from living roots.

In short, next to nothing is known about the practise of creating living root architecture as a whole. Now, it would be overambitious of me to claim that my project was going to answer all of these questions. However, my hope is that it will at least constitute a solid start towards that goal.
My hope is that the project might be useful to later waves of individuals interested in studying the bridges from a scientific perspective. For example, one question, which I am not equipped to answer, is what the actual ages of living-root bridges are. That would take a specialist, and I would hope that such a person would be able to use “The Living Root Bridge Project” as a resource.

The people who have the most to gain from preserving the art of living root architecture are of course the Khasis, Jaintias, and whoever else may happen to actually make them. But on my long hike earlier this year, one thing that saddened me was the sheer number of places where living root architecture had been destroyed recently, mostly due to flooding, but also due to fire and neglect.

The truth is, and this is something very hard for outsiders to wrap their heads around, for the villagers who grew them, the living root bridges are entirely practical. Locals don’t tend to see them as anything special. As strange as it may sound, when I went to more remote villages, I was actually asked if they had “Jingkieng Jri” or “Laa Ooh Tchra” in my “Village.”  Of course, this is not a failing on the part of the villagers: They’ve been around living architecture all their lives, so my impression is that they see them in roughly the same light that anyone in a “developed” area sees a particular piece of infrastructure. They might appreciate them for their usefulness, but they don’t generally seem to regard them as especially beautiful, and they tend not to know that what they have is unique.

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In my travels, I have found people in remote villages to be genuinely surprised that I would come so far, and go through so much trouble, just to visit their living root bridges. Often, I think the villagers find it downright strange. Yet, when they see that someone has come all the way from the opposite side of the world just to see their living root architecture, I think that that makes them think that what they have is truly something special and worth preserving.
It is true, of course, that in a few areas, such as Nongriat and around Mawlynnong, the bridges are already being preserved, and new ones are being created (though mostly for the sake of tourism). But, from my experiences in the Khasi and Jaintia hills, these are only a few small islands where the practise is relatively healthy. Elsewhere, for example, in the Khatar Shnong region, new bridges are not being planted, and the older ones are being allowed to get washed away. I hope that my project may serve, in a small way, to begin to reverse this trend. Also, while some bridges will almost certainly be lost in the coming years, I hope to at least collect a few photographs of these doomed bridges, so that the world may at least know that they once were there.

The most obvious and immediate benefit that promoting the living-root bridges might give to local communities is tourism income, though that has its problems along with its advantages. My perspective is that, while tourism does have its downsides (ill-planned development, environmental cost, etc.) it is also a basic human right that people should be able to try and a improve their situation as they see fit, and with the resources available to them.

To give an example, there is a village called Rangthylliang near Pynursla, which has something in the vicinity of 30 Living Root Bridges (I have yet to encounter a greater density). I know full well that this constitutes a vast resource in terms of tourism. But it is important that the villagers who might seek to gain from this do so wisely, and are not outmanoeuvred by outside tourism operators, who might bring tourists to visit the bridges but do nothing to help the people who made them. It’s my position that the amount of tourism a village should allow itself to receive must ultimately be dictated by that village’s council. Yet, if villages are simply unaware that what they have is valuable, it’s unlikely that their local governing bodies will know how to put themselves in a position to benefit from them. Therefore, I hope that through my activities related to “The Living Root Bridge Project”  I’ll at least have the chance to make villages in remoter areas aware of this fact.

All of that being said, I think that longer-term advantages of preserving and actively celebrating living root architecture throughout Meghalaya are more important than the shorter-term goals of simply increasing tourism revenue. For example, from a practical level, while steel wire suspension bridges may be easier, the living root bridges are far safer over time. As the bridges essentially grow themselves, vastly less resources are, in the long term, expended either by the villages or by outside entities, be they the government, private firms, or NGOs. While living bridges do need a certain amount of maintenance, it’s not nearly so much as a bamboo or steel structure, both of which will ultimately fail in relatively short order anyway.  Living Root Bridges are a piece of infrastructure that a village can create and maintain free of costs. In the final analysis, the living-root bridges seem to simply be a better solution to the problem of safely getting across rivers in the monsoon season than the available conventional approaches.

Pongtung Living Root Ladder
Pongtung Living Root Ladder

From a conservation perspective, while new Living Root Bridges might be grown, I would view a 400 year old living root bridge in the same way I would view the Taj Mahal: Rather than being a mere tourist curiosity, an ancient living root bridge is an incredible piece of history, and a truly monumental cultural achievement. The people of Meghalaya should feel tremendous pride for having brought such awesome things into existence. For local communities in Meghalaya to allow their historical treasures to fall into disrepair or be destroyed would be an immense loss not only for Khasis and Jaintias, but for the cultural heritage of the human race as a whole.

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Avner Pariat : Anything else you might like to share…
Patrick Rogers: Finally,  I just wanted to say that for me the best thing about going to new villages in Meghalaya and searching for new examples of Living Root Architecture is simply the chance it gives me to meet new people in this extraordinary part of the world.  As I trekked from Chnongpdeng to Sohra, every day was a learning experience. There’s no better way to find out things about a different culture than to walk through it, and that is what I look forward to most when I return to Meghalaya to begin “The Living Root Project.”

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