THE SMALLEST ROOT BRIDGE

Or, perhaps a better title might be: “The smallest root bridge I’ve ever clapped eyes on, though there could be even dinkier examples elsewhere, so go ahead, prove me wrong.”

Over the years there’s been some debate as to what constitutes the lengthiest living root bridge. For a while, an impressive 30 meter example near the village of Nongthymmai was widely reported to be the longest in existence. But then structures around the town of Pynursla came to light which were in excesses of 50 meters. As to which root bridge is truly longest, it’s hard to say, both because the longest example may very well be still undiscovered, and because it’s often not entirely clear where the actual bridge in a living root bridge should begin or end. Is the whole tree a part of the bridge, or just the part that’s most obviously architectural in nature?

But in some ways the question of which root bridge is smallest is even more difficult. If one stumbles upon a ficus elastica deep in the jungles of the Khasi Hills and then notices that the plant has a single root that has been tied to a rock which a local could theoretically walk across, should this root be seen as an amazing piece of natural engineering? Probably not, but it does underscore a facet of Khasi living architecture which is often overlooked: For every huge, wild, amazing, generation-spanning living root bridge, there are many more places where Khasis have simply made minor, practical, adjustments to ficus plants. Some root bridges are more useful then they are impressive. And many just don’t need to be more than a few meters long.

The smallest root bridge I’ve ever seen. Otherwise known (by me personally) as the Bonsai Double Decker

As for which root bridge is truly smallest, I can’t say for sure. But I can say that after spending months trekking through the jungle to investigate living architecture, the smallest structure that I ever came across which was unquestionably a root bridge was around the remote village of Tynair, which is on the eastern side of the Sohra River valley, not far from the town of the same name. At the time, I was walking all the way from Sohra to the village of Ksaid, which was a moderately strenuous hike. I didn’t have much time in the area, so unfortunately I didn’t get an opportunity to learn who planted the bridge or how long it had been around (it certainly didn’t look more than a few years old). Still, I managed to get a handful of photos. They’re not super impressive, obviously, because the bridge is, well…very small.

As I write in my new book Through the Canyons of Living Bridges, the structure “was like a Bonsai version of the famous Double Decker in Nongriat Village. Even the tree it was formed from was tiny. The thickest part of the trunk was only a few inches across, thinner than the narrowest strands of many a well-established root bridge. As for the architectural element of the organism, this consisted of two spans made from several very thin and clearly very young roots wrapped around each other. One span was above and off to the side of the other, as though the lower span was for walking and the upper was for balancing. The bottom of the bridge was held about a meter above the rocks of the stream, while the structure in its entirety was only about four meters long, making it one of the shortest living bridges on record.”

Here you can see a small conventional bridge to the left, and the root bridge, which is extending from the little ficus tree, to the right. The conventional bridge is made of what looks like areca palm trunks. These photos were taken in the dry season, so the stream here is barely a trickle. However, in the monsoon it may well be a deluge which will likely wash away the conventional bridge. The root bridge might be being grown to provide a more permanent, durable, piece of infrastructure.

Go here for more on living architecture.

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