THE ROOT BRIDGES OF NONGRIAT OVER THE YEARS

It was over a decade ago, during the monsoon season of 2011, that I first ventured to the spectacular Khasi village of Nongriat. This was on a short sojourn to the Khasi Hills I took with my brother just after he graduated high school. We’d been travelling all over India for the past few weeks and had nearly run ourselves ragged. With the rain pouring down, we nearly didn’t complete the brutal thousand-upon-thousands of steps trek down from the village of Tyrna to Nongriat. As I recall, we somehow made a wrong turn and found ourselves lost in the jungle for well over an hour…not that we didn’t see plenty of amazing sites on our detour. In the monsoon, every little streambed comes to life with powerful watery deluges, and the steep slopes of the Khasi Hills become covered in curtains of waterfalls. It was beautiful, intense, and utterly exhausting. (Don’t worry if you’re planning on going yourself. I assure you the signage along the trail to Nongriat has improved since then…it wouldn’t do for the local villages to have their jungles haunted by bands of lost and confused day-trippers. Though it might give them something to hunt now that most of the large game in the region has been extirpated. But I digress.)

Nongriat in the mist

By 2011, Nongriat had certainly been discovered as a tourist site, and its Double Decker Root Bridge had already attracted quite a bit of attention. Still, the village had only just begun hosting tourists. Since then, tourism has, for better or for worse (or both), become a huge part of Nongriat’s, and by extension all of Meghalaya’s, economy.  

In a way, the Double Decker Root Bridge of Nongriat has become the ambassador of Khasi living architecture to the rest of the world. Even now, when one simply enters the term “living root bridge” into an image search, the Nongriat Double Decker is the first picture to come up and a large proportion of the results that follow. There are well over a hundred living root bridges in Meghalaya, (nobody knows the full number) and some are longer, higher, huger, etc. But the Double Decker remains the most iconic. Other Khasi living bridges may deserve more attention than they get, particularly from a conservation/scientific standpoint. But make no mistake, the Double Decker is still, in my view, one of the most perfect living bridges…may it stand another 500 years…and it may…

Given that the root bridges of Nongriat are so well visited, there are plenty of resources for them online. So here I’m just going to briefly share some of the images I’ve collected of them over the years. These are mostly from quite some time ago. I wish I had something a bit more recent. For one thing, I’ve heard that modern Nongriat is a very different place from what it was like back in the early to mid-2010s. I had planned on heading through Nongriat in the winter of 2019, during the long walk across the Khasi Hills that I took for my book Through the Canyons of Living Bridges. I had wanted to write on just how much the village had changed, the pros and cons of the tourism industry, changes in the culture, etc.…but, sadly, I lost a bunch of time due to a stomach illness, and had to bypass Nongriat to focus on more challenging areas to trek through further east.

“But I’ll return to Nongriat. Someday,” Patrick muttered wistfully as he sat pecking at his keyboard in Newark, Delaware.  

A small bridge over Wah Mawsaw, on the trail into Nongriat (Wah=river in Khasi)

The small structure pictured above is almost within sight of Nongriat’s Double Decker Root Bridge. That, I’m afraid, means this poor piece of living architecture has been entirely overshadowed by its much more photogenic neighbor.

The trail into Nongriat leads over this bridge, so everybody rushes over it on their way to the much more famous sites in the village. I’ve always wondered what impact thousands of people using root bridges has, since that’s far more traffic than the original planters had in mind. How is the growth of the organism affected? This bridge might be a good place to study the question, as the bridge takes literally the full weight of Nongriat’s (and so a heavy chunk of Meghalaya’s) tourism economy, but people don’t linger here like they do around the Double Decker.  

It’s funny, though it’s the most famous root bridge, over the years I’ve taken surprisingly few pictures of the Double Decker, and fewer still of those have turned out. Plenty has been written on this bridge, and I’m sure I have relatively little new info to offer on it. But, with regards to its dimensions, the upper span is about 25 meters long, the lower span is around 18.5, and the body of water it crosses is Wah Mawsaw. There you go.

Now here’s a living root bridge that needs no introduction, photographed way back in 2012

It’s sometimes claimed that the bridge is 500 years old. I’m a bit incredulous of this figure because the ancestors of Nongriat are said to have only arrived at their current location sometime in the late 18th/early 19th century. The word “Nongriat” means something like “cliff village,” but the cliff in question is actually a few kilometers to the west, in the truly vast canyon of the Umiam River. The clans that came to settle the modern site of Nongriat once lived closer to a village called Thieddieng, but a war which is still remembered in both villages broke out between the two settlements sometime before the advent of British rule in the Hills (the exact date of the conflict has not been recorded). At the latest, the settlers could only have moved to the modern site of Nongriat in the first decades of the 19th century.

All of that being said, given that there are no written records to prove when it was brought into being and the age of the ficus plant hasn’t been tested scientifically, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Double Decker could have existed in some form before the settlers from Nongriat moved in…it’s just not, at least judging from what I’ve been told on the ground, especially likely.

But, regardless of exactly how old the Double Decker is, it’s certainly been around and providing useful infrastructure for many a generation and through many a harsh monsoon. I wonder what the original planters long ago would have thought if you told them that one day their handiwork would become world famous and make their village a must-see tourist destination. Maybe they’d just think you were making fun of them. Or perhaps they’d wonder why anybody would want to cross the world just to see a bridge. I personally encountered the latter attitude in other parts of the Khasi Hills with living architecture as late as 2016.  

In some ways, the most interesting living bridge in Nongriat is one of its least visually striking. This is a structure made of steel and ficus roots to the north of the village, in the direction of Nohkalikai falls. It’s a bridge which I intend to write more on in a separate post, but in brief, what makes the hybrid of Nongriat so exceptional is that it combines quickly corroding, but convenient, steel cables with long lasting ficus roots. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of living architecture is that it can take years for the roots that make up the structures to grow strong enough to become functional.  But if you take living roots and then train them out over an easily built conventional steel or wood bridge, you circumvent this issue. As the conventional bridge decays in the harsh climate of the Khasi Hills, the roots become stronger, until they can absorb all the stresses the conventional bridge once took.

The steel and concrete hybrid of Nongriat

Just after crossing the hybrid, there is one more small, roughly 8-meter-long root bridge that spans a rivulet called the Weitung. This services a trail, the most difficult in the Nongriat area, that ascends around 1000 meters to an overlook above Nohkalikai Falls. If you don’t feel like walking back through Nongriat and then going up and getting a taxi in Tyrna to return to Cherrapunji, you can use this trail as an alternate route into town. Just be warned: It’s brutal. Though it’s also a hell of a workout.

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

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A view from one of my very first trips to Nongriat, across the steel and ficus hybrid, towards the flooded Weitung stream

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