THE LIVING LADDER OF NONGNAH

The term ‘‘jingkieng jri” (sometimes “jingkieng dieng jri”) in the Khasi literary language is generally rendered into English as “root bridge.” But while this serves well enough from a practical standpoint—if you go to a deep jungle Khasi village and politely enquire if there are “jingkieng jris” around, the locals are likely to direct you to a root bridge—it’s surprisingly far from a literal translation. For one thing, the “jri” in “jingkieng jri” is not “root,” the Khasi term for a root being “thied.” Rather, “jri” is something more like “rubber,” though what it specifically refers to is the viscus latex substance that one finds inside ficus plants. Hence, a ficus elastica, the tree from which most Khasi living architecture is grown, is known as a “dieng jri,” or rubber tree.

But even more interesting is the phrase “jingkieng,” which overlaps with, but doesn’t quite correspond to, the English phrase “bridge.” Notably, the term “jingkieng jri” can also be applied to structures which climb vertically over rock faces and would be best described in English as living ladders.

While the Khasis have become well known for their root bridges, they’ve also harnessed the ficus elastica’s natural propensity to climb down stone walls in order to fashion living ladders. One particularly interesting example of this exists in a village called Nongnah, which is in the far western part of the Khasi’s territory. This area is culturally distinct from the more heavily visited parts of the Khasi Hills around Shillong and Sohra, to the extent that the local dialect is usually considered its own language.

From what I was told while visiting the region—and my sources were not rock solid, so there’s a chance this is incorrect—in the far western Khasi Hills living root bridges were never grown. However, the ficus elastica plant was still used here for creating infrastructure. Ficus roots were trained to grow down the sides of steep slopes and rock faces to help people climb them. These natural ladders were known in the local dialect as ‘Pyrnondijroi.’

It seems like the majority of these Pyrnondijroi are not truly architectural. They were characterized to me as mostly being naturally growing roots with very little in the way of design or intervention. One simply plants a ficus elastica tree at the edge of a rock face and allows the roots to grow down the side. This is more than sufficient to make a wall climbable.

That said, there do seem to be at least some Pyrnondijroi that fit into the category of architecture. The living ladder of Nongnah is one such example. It’s about 40 feet tall, and growing it involved not only draping roots over the edge of a cliff face, but also consolidating these into a much thicker structure than they would have otherwise formed. In addition, the ladder required significant footholds, which were made by creating deep gouges in the sides of the larger roots which expanded in width as the plant grew. New roots are still being attached to the ladder and are being extended onto the rocks on either side of it to improve stability.

And so, while the dividing line between a slightly cultivated ficus tree and a piece of true living architecture is not always clear, the Pyrnondijroi of Nongnah is, in my opinion, closer to the later.

Certainly, I climbed it just as its planters intended, so I can at least attest to it being a quite serviceable ladder.  

Go here for more on living architecture.

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The view from the living ladder out across the Southwest Khasi Hills…and seedpod…

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