What are Living Root Bridges?

The following is a short excerpt from my upcoming book Through the Canyons of Living Bridges

What are living root bridges?

“In dozens of villages along the India/Bangladesh border, the local Khasi people have generated useable, self-sustaining architecture out of the roots of the ficus elastica species of fig tree. They have built, or, rather, grown, living bridges that actively strengthen over time even when subjected to extreme humidity and the world’s most intense monsoonal precipitation.

While other ethnic groups, and even a few eccentric individuals, have created isolated examples of living architecture over the course of human history, what makes the Khasi practice so exceptional is its extent and its practicality. There are not simply a handful of root bridges scattered through Southern Meghalaya. Rather, there is an entire tradition of creating living architecture, practiced by thousands of people across dozens of villages, which has been handed down from a time well before the written word reached the Khasi Hills. The structures can be found over a huge area, and many Khasis still use root bridges in their day to day lives. Living architecture was first generated out of a spirit of hard-headed agricultural practicality: Khasis had to reach their crops during the monsoon season, when more traditional forms of infrastructure made from easily decomposing wood or bamboo were likely to fail. But the roots of living ficus elastica plants are naturally strong and weather resistant, and they can last for hundreds of years. The advantage of a root bridge is thus quite easily explained: if it’s alive, it won’t rot.

Root Bridge in Thieddieng Village, near Mawsynram, Meghalaya

A living root bridge has no one engineer. There are no blueprints.  The structures are brought into existence using the roots of the ficus elastica tree via a painstaking, often multi-generational, effort. The development and maintenance of a living bridge is a community endeavor in which the roots of the ficus plant are guided into the desired shape, sometimes over scaffoldings made of wood or bamboo, and sometimes simply by twisting and tying the individual strands together. It may take many years for a given root bridge to become operational (I’ve heard everything from three to thirty. The figure varies widely depending on local conditions), but even after the bridge is well established, it continues to grow and develop. Unlike any other form of architecture that I’m aware of, a root bridge is different each time you cross it.

A root bridge under active maintenance in Burma Village, Meghalaya

 This gives the living architecture of the Khasi Hills an otherworldly quality. A root bridge might begin as no more than a few thin strands stretched across a river, and then, centuries later, after all the original planters have died, the once wire-thin living span will have developed into a monumental structure that still serves the purpose of its long-deceased creators.

The fact that a root bridge is made by manipulating the natural growth process of a living organism means that each structure is unique. While there are certain commonalities when it comes to how the Khasi people have guided the various bridges into shape, no two living structures have developed in exactly the same way. This means that the sheer variety one encounters in root bridges is spectacular. Some can be crossed in a few strides; others extend over 50 meters from bank to bank. Some are simply a single long root that has been stretched as far as it will go; others are giant, complex, uncontrollable tangles of thousands of roots, where the growers seem to have simply given up trying to contain the organism. A new root bridge can consist of less than a dozen thin strands, each about the width of a piano-wire, which wobble at the slightest touch; an old one can have individual roots which, due to hundreds of years of growth and grafting, are over a meter thick and feel as hard as stone.

Sadly, the living architecture of the Khasi Hills is not as prevalent as it once was. In the past few decades, many root bridges have been replaced by far less distinctive and enduring steel and concrete structures, while other examples have been washed away in floods, fires, and landslides, and then not regrown. In large swathes of the Khasi Hills where living architecture was once common, the practice is now well on its way to going extinct. While the recent wave of interest in the phenomenon over the past ten years has sparked new calls for its conservation as a part of Khasi heritage, these efforts are still very much in their infancy. A few scattered root bridges, such as the twin-span “Double Decker” of Nongriat Village, are now world famous and have become icons of Meghalaya, but dozens of other examples which are just as beautiful and worth protecting are practically unknown.

There are fundamental questions about Khasi living architecture which remain unanswered. Nobody knows how far back root bridges go, or how the idea to create them first reached the hills; nobody knows how many there are, or even which village has made the most of them; nobody can say with any certainty which example is the oldest, longest, highest, etc.; and nobody has ever figured out why it was in the Khasi Hills, and seemingly nowhere else, that the practice of creating living architecture in large numbers took hold. Why aren’t there thousands of living bridges across Asia?”

Click here for a list of posts on living root bridges.

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