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BW Businessworld

Bridging The Gap

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Shillong , a pine- wooded British era hill town famous for its boarding schools and love for western musicals has become busier, its traffic clogging the narrow roads and the old cottages slowly giving way to concrete buildings to accommodate an ever growing population. If the face of Shillong is changing, Cherrapunjee, an hour’s drive away, is its refreshing antidote. Breathtaking waterfalls, monoliths, home to Mawlynnong, acclaimed the cleanest village in Asia and two living root bridges not found anywhere else in the world make this place quite surreal.

The living root bridges in the deep depths of Cherrapunjee are a good two-three hours trek away. They have  been described as one of the greatest engineering feats. Built by Khasi villagers, the roots of the Indian rubber tree (Ficus elastic) have been interwoven to make it grow into a bridge serving local needs. Despite its remoteness, the place has made it to the National Geographic photo contest and has even been filmed by the BBC.

We begin with the drive from Shillong passing by Upper Shillong that houses the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force. The drive takes us through the village of Smit, famous for its Nongkrem dance. It is a market day and women sit in rows selling organic vegetables and the famous red oranges of Cherrapunjee. A colourful sight that conveys the  strong identity of the Khasi men and women dressed in their traditional attires.

Once we cross this busy stretch, the landscape opens out into a plateau broken occasionally by deep gorges and waterfalls. The air is clean and the long drive forms part of the excitement of the trek.

You know you have arrived when the topography suddenly changes, roads narrowing and the descent becoming sharper leading to a flat patch of  land for parking with a sign that reads ‘Meghalaya Tourism Welcomes You to the Living Root Bridge’.  It is the vantage point. The trek looks intimidating against the backdrop of the sub-tropical forest we are about to explore. We are going to cover a 4 km walking trail down the steep slope of approximately 3000 steps with an average five hours of going down and coming up. Our group assembles for a quick last minute check for food, water, first aid etc., as there are little amenities along the route save for few eager villagers who welcome you with a smile and a curious look. 

The walk is effortless in the beginning. Steps are well laid out for tourists with railings to hold on to. Midway is when the steps get replaced by a ruggedness of uneven walkways, steeper climbs and steeper descents. We take a few rests, at the same time taking in the stunning scenery around us. There is a great melange of flora and fauna unique to this place — orchids, beetle nut trees, butterflies of various size and colours, and mushroom and moss-covered tree trunks.

It is a long, arduous  trek and after almost one-and-half  hours into it we have our awe and shock moment at having to cross our firstwire rope bridge  suspended over the rain-fed river about 25 feet below. The single wire metal bridge is narrowly constructed with rusted iron cables and held together with steel wires. It shakes as you step foot on it and there is a high possibility of slipping from the gaps. With safety standards not spelt out, it is one of the world’s scariest bridges but in such moments you trust the instincts of the locals for whom this is a regular thoroughfare.
One steeper climb and we arrive at Nomngriat village, our final destination where the legendary double decker living root bridge stands almost magical. I feel I am having my Lord of  The Rings moment, a lost in time feel buoyed by excitement as I walk up and down the bridge before we sit by the river to take in the sights.

How the living root bridge came about is through necessity. With Cherrapunjee having been the wettest place on earth, the villagers belonging to the warrior Khasi tribe needed walkways across its many rivers and hills. So they recognised the potential of the roots of the Indian rubber tree grown here and started growing the trees by intertwining the roots.
 As we begin to head back, having just experienced our brush with mankind’s most original invention, I pick up a stone from the river as a souvenier. My Khasi friend tells me that in their tradition nothing is picked up from the river and taken home. I take it as something profound. They need to preserve their nature, after all. 

The author is a consulting editor with The Indian Weekly published in Melbourne

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 08-09-2014)