Trekking to this entangled mass of root is every man’s dream and no child’s play
Meghalaya is quite a serene state – the only welcoming sounds are the bubbling streams that overflow the narrow banks as the rain fills them with gushing water. And I am not romanticizing to the point of exaggeration. The state can boast of a lot of things, among them, having one of the wettest places in the world as a tourist destination – Cherrapunji. The monsoons are the best time to visit our Eastern counterpart. The southern Khasi and Jaintia hills are humid and generally moss covered, the dense woods resonating with chirping birds that fly across swelling streams and crisscrossing rivers. The trees are a different green, carpeted across as far as the eye can see. I remember driving into the quaint, quiet town, panning my head left to right lest I missed something. The beautiful interiors, with tiny wooden huts strewn on the sides of curvy roads lead your imagination to distant places in some far off imaginary land. It literally rains almost all the time, the pitter-patter of the rain makes for your lullaby and the morning wake up call. Cherrapunji is about 3-4 hours’ drive from Shillong, the famous city that often overshadows the little rainy town.
Nestled deep in the forests, at the slope of these hills, lie the quaint root bridges that are a treasure trove of wondrous sights. Those who come to Shilling and drive up to Cherrapunji, cherish their decision for perpetuity. The Ficus elastica, a species of Indian rubber tree with an incredibly strong root system thrives and flourishes in this area. The tree produces secondary roots from higher up its trunk; roots which can comfortably perch themselves atop boulders across riverbanks. The Khasi tribe – which has been long credited for recognising the ingenuous trait of the tree, and utilising it as an opportunity to cross the area’s many rivers – use sliced and hollowed betel nut trunks to assemble a guiding system for the roots. As the roots cling to the betel trunks, they reach the other side and are allowed to take root in the soil, leading to the final magnificent structure: a sturdy, living root bridge. There is something eerie about them, and they wouldn’t really look out of place in a fantastical world.
One special root bridge, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, is actually two bridges which are set naturally one overarching above the other and is called the ‘Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.’ The trek to this bridge starts from a narrow path which descents as one travels further. Some 3500 steps guide you down to crystal clear streams which form a small pool at the base of the trees, the roots of which hang above it like an earthly chandelier.
With each subsequent step, the noise of the world is left behind and the chaos dies a peaceful death. The steps are moss covered and all you have are sturdy bamboo sticks to help you balance out. You have to be careful, or you might break a couple of bones. A good pair of shoes may be your lifesaver in the treacherous trek. The trip is exhausting, but nevertheless it’s the last thing that will cross your mind after you reach the destination.
Going down the stairs is not an issue- gravity lends a generous hand too. It is the walk back that is the daunting task. The steps are extremely intimidating – I am a regular trekker so I don’t say it lightly. But the on-foot exploration of the place is to be waited for, with bated breaths. The slope works against you and you might feel your feet buckle occasionally from all the strain, but when you see local children trot down the slippery slopes in oversized broken chappals sans sticks, it rejuvenates you and you begin to take strides with renewed vigour. The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional. They’re extraordinarily strong. Because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time and most of the ancient root bridges in Cherrapunji may be well over 500 years old. The trail helps you unearth many beautiful aspects of the place.
How can such an unnerving trek feel like walking headfirst into the lap of nature and being one with the surroundings?
Seeing the bridge at first makes your heart skip a beat. The place which appeared to be inaccessible suddenly looms in front of you, larger than life in its dimensions and looks like the work of some gifted craftsman who weaves magic with his hands. The sight is etched deep and clear in my head. The stream, which flows silently underneath the huge structure, reflects the beauty as the sun sparkles off its surface, making the place almost ethereal. I remember people being extremely quiet after the arduous trek, and I still believe they were all trying to drink in the magic and beauty of the place, capture its essence for eternity.
While the sun is still high, it does well for one to lounge around, sit with the locals who often pass by the place. You might stumble upon some legends of the place that make for great stories around the fire. These root bridges are an integral part of the culture of the Khasi tribes, who have, through their efforts over the generations, taken the onus of saving and celebrating all that nature has to offer. What makes this union of man and nature more special is that it is a specimen of a man using his constructiveness to project a microcosm of nature’s abundance.
While modernisation coupled with fast paced industrialisation threatens to trample tribal culture in a major part of eastern states, to see some still live at peace in an antiquated hamlet brings peace to me in my mundane metropolitan existence. While life is hectic all year round, visits like these make for the perfect escape and it doesn’t take much to realize that it is imperative for us to protect these natural wonders for the sake of the future which is inextricably linked to our present.