‘Local Traveller and Backpacker’ is how Morningstar Khongthaw describes himself on his visiting card. But his travels are no vacations. As he hikes across Meghalaya, the 23-year-old is on a mission to preserve a unique skill: the art of building root bridges.
Over the past decade, the gnarly, mystical living root bridges — created by weaving and manipulating roots of the rubber tree — have become symbolic of Meghalaya, and bring to the Northeastern state tourists from world over.
But Khongthaw insists that these bridges, first conceived by his Khasi ancestors centuries ago, should not be reduced to mere tourist attractions.
“My ancestors made these bridges for a practical need: to cross streams and rivers ,” he explains. In the wettest place in the world, summers see even little streams turn into gushing torrents of water. “These bridges were crucial for us to connect to the outside world, and to each other. Today each one represents a history of knowledge and skill, passed from one generation to the next.”
Since 2016, Khongthaw has been actively working to “preserve” these bridges: not just fixing ones that have fallen into disrepair, but gathering villagers — both young and old — to teach and learn how to build new ones.
Finding His Roots
Khongthaw’s foray into the world of ‘living root bridge activism’ in 2015 was after an epiphanous trip to the famous Nohwet bridge near Mawlynnong village. “It was very evident that tourist footfall was affecting the giant bridge. The area around the trees had concrete additions,” says Khongthaw.
While the sight was jarring to look at, the problem was deeper. “Such structures reduce water access for the tree roots,” says Khongthaw, who grew up among the root bridges that dotted the region of Pyrnusla, where his village Rangthylliang is located.
His father, a farmer, had always been involved in the maintenance of these community-owned bridges along with a few other relatives.
The following year, Khongthaw dropped out of school and began gathering youths to maintain and repair bridges that had been damaged. In these meetings, the village elders would dispense basic instructions, and the younger entourage would follow.
In 2018, the group organized themselves into a proper society: The Living Root Foundation, with Khongthaw as the chairman. The aim of the Foundation — which has 10 members — is to preserve, protect, and multiply the living architecture of Meghalaya.
In his early expeditions, Khongthaw met many environmentalists, striking up conversations which later turned into friendships, to learn how the world perceived the root bridges. “It was then I realised how special our bridges were.”
While an American traveller and writer, Patrick Rogers, helped Khongthaw with funds for his initial treks, some others from Germany, gifted him a camera — now an indispensable accessory on his travels.
With the assistance of local volunteers — mostly young boys recruited from the nearby villages — the Foundation has created the framework for four new root bridges in the forests around Pynursla town alone, and are helping in maintaining dozens more across Meghalaya, many which had been ignored for generations.
To date, there has not been any concerted governmental efforts to preserve the bridges and the skills involved in making them, apart from tourism initiatives revolving around a few popular sites. While the Tourism department might have something in the pipeline, there isn’t any concrete confirmation yet.
Often bridges get abandoned when settlements migrate upwards from the valley towards the main roads on the high plateau. “A bridge will only last if people are using it. While they still need it, they will check on it and maintain the roots and the health of the trees. Otherwise they will just be stories — the bridges that once were,” he says.
Local is Paramount
So how does one build a living root bridge? Khongthaw gives the gist: “It can take up to thirty years for a root bridge to develop. In the beginning, we have to identify the places where a crossing is needed. We then identify the tree (usually the fig tree or Ficus elastica). We make a sturdy framework bridge over the crossing with bamboo or areca wood. Periodically we go and manipulate the roots of the tree so it entwines around the original framework. In the meantime, the framework needs to be changed every two years. It is not a simple process and requires constant monitoring.”
In all this, the emphasis of the local is paramount.
“Instead of concrete bridges and pathways, we can use traditional methods to create root bridges and natural paths. There is no need for transporting and introducing foreign materials. They thrive in natural conditions rather than get weathered like basic cement structures,” says Khongthaw.
The same method is used to make other “structures” in the forest: platforms for rest stops, ladders and swings. “That is why rather than focus on the term ‘living root bridge’, I prefer understanding the discipline as ‘living architecture’. This form of architecture is not just restricted to bridges,” says Khongthaw, who is aware that the stark contrast between the traditional practices of the Khasis and the definition of development that exists in urban societies is a quite a chasm to fill.
But with his initiative, the roots of Meghalaya’s giant rubber trees might just provide a much-needed bridge not just literally but metaphorically too: between the past and a sustainable future.
The author is a Shillong-based writer.