This work is about my travels in a little corner of the Northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. If you haven’t spent much of your life thinking about this part of the world, or if you’ve never even heard of it, don’t beat yourself up too much: you’re in the same boat as 99.99 percent of the human race. It’s a part of India in a political sense, but only due to historical happenstance. As far as I can tell, large tracts of Meghalaya are about as foreign to people from Delhi or Mumbai as they are to tourists from London or New York.
The natives of Meghalaya, the Khasis, their close cousins the Jaintias and Pnars, along with the completely unrelated Garos, have lived in the region’s rugged hills at least as far back as written history goes. The Khasis and Jaintias, the people about whom this book is concerned, were never in any meaningful sense a part of Indian civilization. They spoke a language that was more closely related to Khmer than it was to any Indian tongue, they were mostly animists rather than Hindus, and they administered their own self-governing, and then, under British colonial rule, semi-independent, chieftainships.
For centuries, the (debatably) Indian Ahom dynasty of the Brahmaputra River valley to the north dealt with the hill people, but as with so many of the disparate groups on their empire’s rugged borders, they never ruled them directly. Later, the British came to impose a vague, uneasy, sort of control over the Khasi Hills after they displaced the Ahoms in the early 19th century, formally administering the area up until Indian Independence, at times violently clashing with the local Khasi chiefs while at others giving them a degree of nominal autonomy.
It was missionaries (isn’t it always) who accelerated the opening up of the region in the first half of the nineteenth century. At the time the Khasis and the Jaintias had no written language, so, in their endeavors to convert the hill people, the missionaries attempted to devise one for them so that they could read the Bible. At first, the missionaries tried the Bengali script, but it was found that the Roman alphabet worked best with the language spoken around the town of Cherrapunji, where the missionaries were already established. This particular local variant of the complex of languages and dialects spoken in the Khasi Hills became the literary form of the Khasi tongue and the version taught in schools, in turn making it the lingua-franca of the entire region. Unlike in so many other parts of India, the missionaries were successful in Meghalaya, and now the state is majority Christian.
Starting in 1912, the British governed the Khasi and Garo hills and the Brahmaputra and Barak River valleys (along with what are now the states of Nagaland and Mizoram), as one large province simply called “Assam”. The Indian government retained this administrative entity after 1947, and Meghalaya broke off from the rest of Assam only in 1972, in the process becoming one of India’s smallest states.
Meghalaya is so tiny that it’s hard not to marvel at how much it contains. Yet it may get smaller still. Garo nationalist organizations in the western part of Meghalaya continue to call for their own, even more diminutive, state. And one can see the logic, if not the practicality, of such a proposal; Garos speak a language that is as dissimilar from Khasi as it is from Portuguese. If Nagas and Mizos have gotten their own states, then shouldn’t Garos? Nothing’s ever simple in Northeast India.
I came to Meghalaya first simply as a trekker fascinated by the natural and cultural marvels of a place unlike anywhere else, and then as an amateur researcher attempting to collect information about the state’s largely undocumented, though also sadly disappearing, living root bridges. These structures, which are trained into existence from the still growing roots of the ficus elastica tree, are exceptional because they are among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive. A root bridge can be both a useable, centuries-old piece of local infrastructure, and part of a growing, developing, organism. Visually, they seem like something out of a work of fantasy: a universal idea, and a mundane part of everyday life the world over, rendered here in a unique botanical medium. That they are so commonplace in certain parts of Meghalaya (though far less so now than they used to be), that the locals barely think of them as being worthy of note only somehow makes the practice of creating them all the more exceptional. I think that it is not mere hyperbole to predict that, someday soon, the botanical constructions of Meghalaya will be viewed as having a place among the world’s great architectural wonders.
But this book is more about the people who made the bridges, and the place they made them in, than it is about the bridges themselves. Yes, I have plenty to say on the subject of living architecture, and I’m certainly, as you must have noticed, interested in it (I’ve even been called, sometimes derisively, ‘obsessed’ by it…. I suppose there are worse things to be obsessed over). However, it seems to me that the time for a work completely devoted to living root architecture hasn’t come yet. At present, the few scraps of information available on the subject are pitiably small and, often, incorrect. Nobody knows how many living root bridges there are, what their geographic range is, who started making them, or how they got the idea to begin with. A full-length book by me about living root bridges would be a long description of the gaps in the world’s understanding of the subject, with the addition of a few new info-scraps that I’ve painstakingly gathered, which would be interesting, but wouldn’t patch up the holes. In fact, I think my added scraps would just make the holes appear bigger, that is, when they weren’t creating entirely new ones or just hanging puzzlingly off to one side. This would be a tedious read (though the pictures would be nice).
Hence, the following, which is about what I’ve experienced travelling, mostly on foot, from village to village in southern Meghalaya, trying to retrieve new info-scraps to add to the very small pile that already exists so that someday somebody else (or, preferably, several somebodies, with dozens of Ph.D.’s between them) can come along and sew all the useful scraps together to create the beginnings of a complete picture. This is then a work about reconnaissance and initial forays. As things rarely go well the first time around, it’s as much about mistakes, failures, and distractions, as it is about successes.
One could characterize the book as being about heartbreaking beauty arrived at unexpectedly through weird tangents. As such, reading it might feel like heading up a cultural creek without a paddle. I know the feeling. You may well get a little disoriented. I could make it easier on you, and portray the world into which I stumbled as simpler, and easier to mentally digest, than I know it to be, but in the end, I think the rugged, cluttered, truth of things is just more interesting.
Finally, this is not intended as a work of reference on the hill country of southern Meghalaya. It you do happen to employ it so, you might find yourself in some trouble, for I’m certain to get a few details wrong. I don’t presume to be any sort of expert. All I can really claim to be is a sort of semi-professional wandering eccentric. Still, I have done the best job I could have factually speaking, but even when one is writing about what seems like the most straightforward topic out there, there’s always someone to take issue with your interpretation. I’ve taken it upon myself to write about a place which strikes me as both endlessly complex and easily misunderstood. That means I’m headed for trouble.