SUSPENSION BRIDGES OF MEGHALAYA: PART 1

There’s a good reason why Northeast India’s incredible root bridges have captured the world’s attention. While living architecture has been grown in a few other scattered spots around the globe, there is no place on earth where it became so much of an integral part of the landscape as it did in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. To put that another way, the Khasi practice of generating functional infrastructure out of living organisms at such a large scale is, as far as I know—and I may be proven wrong about this in the coming years—genuinely unprecedented. The attention living root bridges get is therefore entirely merited.

But there’s another kind of bridge in Meghalaya, one which isn’t architecturally unique or impressive by itself, but which has carried me as a trekker through some of the Khasi Hills’ deepest, wildest, gorges. These are the conventional steel and concrete suspension bridges which are often the only means of walking between the villages that cling precariously to the sides of the region’s steeper valleys.

The conventional footbridges of the Khasi Hills are often strung across gaps that are simply too wide to be spanned by a living structure, root bridges rarely being longer than 50 meters. Hence, steel and concrete suspension bridges are frequently what one encounters at the very lowest point of a Khasi Hills trek, when one has come to the end of a long descent and now must contemplate hundreds, if not thousands, of meters of hard climbing. These bridges frequently shoot across from the hard bedrock on one side of a canyon to the other, and though the concrete, steel cables, and wood that the bridges are generally made from do not make for astounding architecture, the views from the bridges, and the places they lead through, are some of the most beautiful in the Khasi Hills.

Since they exist to fulfill many of the same needs, the steel and concrete structures of Meghalaya also illustrate much about root bridges. Conventional bridges avoid the main downside of living architecture in that they can be constructed in as little as a single season, whereas root bridges will take, at a minimum, several years to become functional. But the conventional structures also corrode rapidly. It’s true that a young root bridge takes time to become safe to walk across, but just as a steel suspension bridge can be constructed in a season, so too can it be badly rusted within the space of a single intense Meghalaya monsoon. Make no mistake: many of the steel suspension bridges in the backcountry of Meghalaya, and not even just the older ones, are in terrible states of disrepair. And, finally, on almost every steel suspension bridge one sees in the Khasi Hills there is a small plaque which shows how many hundreds of thousands of rupees were donated by government sponsored Rural Employment schemes in order to fund the bridge’s construction. But Khasi living architecture is virtually free, and maintains itself, and even improves in safety over time. Root bridges are not a costly investment.

But there are locations, such as across vigorous canyon-carving rivers like the Umngi, Umiam, Umrew, and Umngot, where long foot bridges made from steel and concrete are simply the only way to proceed. Just because I like root bridges doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the places where having one wouldn’t make sense.

Below I’m going to share photos of suspension bridges I’ve crossed in the Khasi Hills over the years. This will be the first installment of a three-part series and will focus on bridges in two of the Khasi Hills great canyon systems, those of the Umngi and Umiam rivers. Bear in mind that these are photographs taken over the span of over half a decade, with several different cameras, and all during long difficult treks where I wasn’t carrying zoom lenses or tripods. Most of my expeditions were during the dry season in Meghalaya, which is best for covering ground, but not for capturing dramatic images.

For all I know, some of these bridges may have been repaired or replaced, and others may simply not exist anymore. Sadly, the canyon of the Umiam is slated to be the site of a large hydro electric project. How much that will change the locations featured below is hard to determine.

I’m also not including the suspension bridges around the world-famous village of Nongriat, not because they are any less interesting than those in the more obscure parts of the state, but because there’s already plenty of imagery of them readily available online.

This is a rather perilous suspension bridge which, back when I crossed it in 2013, was barely used. It serviced a faint trail between Mawphu and Thieddieng villages, a route which locals rarely had any reason to follow. Thus, as I found out upon setting foot on the bridge, it was in rather a lamentable state of repair. Still, it was the only way I knew to get to Mawphu, so there wasn’t any choice but to cross it

For more on Meghalaya’s conventional-yet-spectacular steel and concrete suspension bridges, check out the posts below:

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