The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya (India)

with 4 Comments

Slowly chewing the bark of a cinnamon branch we walk down the main road of lower Sohra. Its sweet and warming taste feels like a sugar pill reflecting the pleasant sunshine and helping us suppress the anger brought about by the abrupt end of our recent ‘home away from home’ experiment. The weight of the backpacks reminds us that our house is in fact mobile. It was our choice to set on a long travel and part of its charm has always been that at anytime, wherever we are, we can easily pack and go. Each curve of the road invariably promises something new and, now, although reluctant to the movement of the journey, we know that we simply need to reach the next turn. But, as a matter of fact, at this moment we can hardly make it any further than a few miles. The kilos on our shoulders scream that “the key of travelling lies in lightness!” and we can barely articulate any sort of beautiful philosophical observations on life. Burma meows occasionally in confirmation of, or disagreement with, our thoughts, but we can never know for sure because she tends to be very vague on theoretical issues. With a plastic carpet tied to the backpacks, a cloth bag jingling with cutlery and plates bouncing inside a metal pot and a cat in a box we look more like a pitiable Eastern European couple from the 90’s that has just been kicked out of home for not paying the rent than the jolly backpacking couple that our friends, Kinga and Alberto, have come to meet. At least Smelly, a peculiarly ‘perfumed’ puppy that we had found just a few days back in the market of Sohra in dare need of medical care, leaves our caravan for a better life, and is adopted by a couple of kids conveniently living next to the local vet.

Living Root Kinga Burma
Kinga plays tiger with a cat
Alberto focusses on chess while the rain pours outside

Just like for Smelly, the dice of luck rolls for us as well. In the right company and in a suitable environment one can easily swallow little misfortunes and we are happy to be heading to the jungle with friends. Chatting, we leave behind “the wettest place on Earth” and head downwards towards an even moistener place. The theatre of colourful lightnings, the thunder roar, the monotonous drumming of the drizzling rain and the rare glimpses of the floodplains of Bangladesh when the mist veil dared releasing its grasp, all stays back on the East Khasi plateau, probably nick-named by ‘the Scotland of India’ a nostalgic British colonial settler that, just like us, might have been missing home. Less than a hundred metres down from the foggy pastures, a thick lush forest animated by the intense sounds of busy life reclaims the reign of the tropics. We descend carefully through the sort of path that makes you want the way to last forever, and down an endless staircase of tiny steps and stones that also makes our knees wonder when the last of them will come. Immersed in a picture from Kipling’s story, we hike joyfully towards Nongriat, a tiny village famous for a rare man-designed natural phenomenon – living roots bridges, connecting steep river banks. ‘Built’ a few hundred years back, the bridges are the joint roots of banyan fig tree (ficus elastica for the erudite ones) whose growth was directed through trunks of betel nut palms, in desirable directions, across rivers and creeks, by the local indigenous ‘engineers’. Set in an Eden-like surrounding they dwarf the imagination of the greatest fantasy writers. Zigzagging away from the nearest road, the path brought us through ever-green vegetation, hillside villages, scattered betel nut plantations and on to a rapid rocky river that takes rest in hidden turquoise pools and invites for a dip. A while later, we reach Nongriat happy and hungry. The call of our bellies impedes us from wondering whether tomatoes grow around, and if for those that have to walk all the way up to bring non-jungle food to their homes, the forest path keeps its charm.

Nongriat_stony river 2

Nongriat_stony river_blue

A couple of living root bridges, firm and solid like their concrete industrial cousins, show off silently like a fancy natural ornament. Some more steps up the path and around a corner, a two storey “double decker” bridge hanging royally over the river underlines our impression of being inside the BBC ‘Human Planet’ documentary series. But we are not the only ones; we are not alone in the film set. We join a group of Israeli fresh off the army, a pair of Australians racing through the country on a rickshaw, a Dutch guy on his gap-year journey, a French couple, some Germans and the customary party of young middle-class Indians on a weekend holiday, as well as the villagers around, all contributing to the sounds of the jungle. Nongriat, unsurprisingly, taking into account its stunning beauty, is one of those places that travellers tend to turn over time into iconic backpackers “Meccas”. And it’s probably just because of recurrent instability in the region and slight logistic complications, that the home of the living root bridges is still relatively early in the process of tourism development. There are only two guest houses around, which account for roughly ten percent of the number of dwellings in the mini-village, hosting the diverse bunch of travellers. The accommodation options are limited to a home-stay owned by an entrepreneurial local family and a cute little lodge ran communally by the villagers. The spirit of the time and the example from other parts of India suggests that the influx of tourists to the village will, sooner than later, turn each house into a home-stay, all competing for a place higher up in the Lonely planet accommodation list. Although we are unaware of any Nongriat politics, by mere chance, the four of us end up sharing one room in the community lodge, a place that turns out to suit better our social understandings.

Nongriat_Living root bridge_Meghalaya_India copy
Double-decker living root bridge. Nongriat (Meghalaya)

Nongriat_bridge and hut

The jungle takes over us the moment we open the door and a myriad fruits and plants crowd our sight, revealing the bounty of the still unspoiled tropical forest. In between games of chess, walks and chats we have a rare opportunity to learn a little more about foraging in a habitat totally alien to us. Wild pineapples popping up like mushrooms on spiky short bushes, giant jack-fruits hanging from the trees, betel nuts rolling on the floor, pan leaves hiding in the green and dozens of weird fruits and berries we had never seen before catch our surprised attention. As the sun sets, and the sights give place to sounds, we wonder how does it feel is it to grow up in a place teaming with life. The kids that draw on our notebooks, tell us without words that nature is as charming as threatening in paradise, the hand-drawn paths to their hand-drawn schools are patrolled by creeping snakes, which all of them draw. Munching a tasty curry of un-ripe jack fruit, we faintly perceive how nature, as wise as wild, creates gardens on her own.

Nongriat_woman and child 2

Nongriat_pinneaple foraging


For a couple of days we walk the surroundings, like kids on a playground, crossing bridges back and forth. We look around with as much curiosity as ignorance, getting surprised by anything that crosses our way, even the everyday activity of  local men bringing across the hanging structures wooden planks, bamboo, rice or vegetables, who remind us that living in a remote place is not just a game. On the way up back to Sohra we take a longer route, refreshed by the forest and carrying a jar of honey that we hope will help the abundance of jungle linger longer in our minds, while the timeless serenity of Nongriat cozily cuddles behind. We walk up a a steep and quiet path, dotted with flowers and leaves of all shades. Impressive waterfalls, fed by the eternal rains of Churapunjee, jump high from the surrounding cliffs, cutting through the forest slopes. We hike up, with Burma running by our side and exploring the habitat of her bigger striped cousins, following the invisible currents of evaporating water rushing upwards, in violent clouds, towards the grey skies of the wettest place on Earth. Meghalaya is just about to turn into a photo-album we will occasionally look at and wish to come back to once again, at least for a little while.

Nongriat_jungle path

Nongriat_hanging bridge_Alberto

Nongriat_Burma in the jungle

To Magic Places 9 real, surreal and imaginary travel stories

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Boris, Marta and Burma roam the world at a speed of a snail. Two humans and one cat that found their way to India overland.

4 Responses

  1. Abhishek sharma
    | Reply

    rovingsnail to which i can’t stop reading and learning the incredible experience provided by you . Happy journey and be safe .i would also request you to visit “Kurukshetra ” the place where Mahabharath took place .

  2. siying
    | Reply

    Wow this jungle looks so magical! Bet it’s going to give you loads of inspiration for more magical and surreal stories 😉

  3. ribi
    | Reply

    what a place, awesome bridge, lovely place … never get tired …….best wishes

  4. Katie Featherstone
    | Reply

    Your writing and photos remind me so much of our time living in the woods in Bolivia that I am feeling very sad to not be there now. It’s so beautiful to be surrounded by trees.

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