The most extraordinary places in Meghalaya are all hidden. The darker vales of Riwar abound in secret waterfalls and deep unvisited pools and rarely trodden paths. This means that when venturing into the more remote parts of the state, few travelers will have gone before you and reported on their experiences, so there’s no use setting expectations.
Until I began walking the obscure ravines, I had a tendency to believe the tourist literature and oft-repeated online wisdom about the Khasi and Jaintia hills, the subconscious inclination being to assume that if a claim is made over and over again it must be true. But an accidental visit to a village I’d never heard of rid me of that mode of thinking. The world seemed more interesting to me after I visited a place called Rangthylliang.
Regarding living architecture, I had been told, repeatedly, that Nongriat was the capitol of the phenomenon. Yes, there were said to be a few root bridges that existed in other Khasi villages, but according to the vast majority of sources, Nongriat had both a higher concentration and greater variety of living architecture than anywhere else in the world. There were maybe two dozen root bridges in existence, with more than half in Nongriat. The longest measured in at about a hundred and twenty feet. The famous ‘Double Decker’ was unique in being the only twin-span living root bridge in existence. The method of growing living root bridges practiced in Nongriat was the only way such structures could be formed. I had been told all of this, with complete confidence, by people of many walks of life, from villagers to government officials to professional travel bloggers to tour guides. My thought was that, given the lately recognized cultural importance of living root bridges, there must have been a reasonably accurate and accessible body of knowledge pertaining to them.
There wasn’t. Most of the information was wrong, and the statements I’ve quoted above are all false.
While the root bridges in Nongriat may be more well-known, a much more accessible example can be found near what is famously, and constantly, referred to as ‘The Cleanest Village in Asia:’ Mawlynnong. Whole families can get there without hours of hiking, with such ease that I hear the crowds have gotten rather large and off-putting of late (though, for certain visitors, the mere fact that someone else might be enjoying the same thing that they are, at the same time that they are, is off-putting, so one has to take these reports with a grain of salt.) The area now has dozens of restaurants and homestays, and the bridge has become something of an icon, with its likeness turning up on government brochures and Northeast India tourism commercials. Film crews can fly into Guwahati from Delhi, drive to Mawlynnong, ‘The Cleanest Village in Asia,’ reach the bridge, set up, get their shots, and then fall back to Guwahati, all in a day. This ease of access, combined with promotion and convenient local facilities, guarantees a steady stream of visitors, all rushing to see a living root bridge which, while undeniably beautiful, isn’t nearly so unique as it’s made out to be.
All these legions of tourists, driving down from Shillong on their way to Mawlynnong, ’The Cleanest Village in Asia,’ must pass through the mid-sized town of Pynursla. And, invariably, pass through is all they do. The road approaches from the north, over grassy, infertile, limestone tableland. On a clear day one can see the complex folds of the Umrew river valley stretching out to the west, and the great gorge of the numerous streams that will eventually combine to form the Umngot to the east. But as the town nears, the once lonely tableland gets more and more built up, until finally along either side of the narrow road there is an unbroken wall of vehicles, small shops, banks, parking garages, and restaurants. After the wide-open spaces of the top of the mesa, the bustling bazaar seems almost shockingly claustrophobic.
But it doesn’t last long. Even with traffic, it takes all of ten minutes to get through the center of the town. It’s maybe the least memorable part of the drive between Shillong and Mawlynnong, ’The Cleanest Village in Asia’. Visitors must breathe a sigh of relief as the road clears the southern edge of town, the traffic unsnarls, and the scenery gets pleasant again. It stays pleasant until Mawlynnong ‘The Cleanest Village in Asia’. (I’m truly mystified as to how Mawlynnong earned this appellation. I admit the village is strikingly and laudably tidy, but did U.N. investigators go to every village in Asia and calculate their Filth and Clutter Index (F.C.I.)? Did they go to North Korea, and if so, did they rely on government statistics? And in this context, how does one define ‘clean’, or for that matter, ‘Asia’,’… or ‘village’. I digress.)
Thousands of tourists travel to Mawlynnong to see a single living root bridge without knowing that they are passing within a few miles of dozens more hidden behind the unexceptional barrier of drab concrete that makes up Pynursla’s main bazaar.
After a long day of tea and rice in Pynursla, I unexpectedly found myself at John Cena’s house. It’s in a village called Rangthylliang, a suburb of the town (though the people of Rangthylliang assert, adamantly, that their village existed long before Pynursla came into being). Rangthylliang’s land includes much of the great valley of the Pynursla River, the stream flowing down practically from the center of the town and rapidly gouging out a steep sided vale as it rushes to join with the Umrew, four thousand feet lower in elevation but only a few miles to the west. Rangthylliang is stretched out along the southern rim of this short, sudden, gorge, the village’s houses overlooking steep drop-offs into the jungle below, the canyon quickly becoming both wider and deeper the further west the settlement extends.
If you didn’t know it was a separate entity, you would think Rangthylliang was just Pynursla tapering off. The village technically begins right in the middle of the more built-up part of the town, but the population density slowly lessens the further west one goes. Middle-class missionary schools, auto-repair shops, Presbyterian churches, and lots of steel reinforced concrete gradually gives way to semi-traditional bamboo and cane houses way out in the middle of rolling agricultural land. The headman of Rangthylliang has some kind of authority over all of this, though he must feel like he’s trying to govern two versions of the same village, one part of the 21st century and another stuck a few hundred years in the past.
John Cena, who also goes by Stevenson, Jungle Man, Jungle Gentleman, and, sometimes, ‘Pun’, lives out on the western fringes of this amorphous geographic entity. I wound up at his house through a long chain of strange events, many of which I didn’t, and still don’t, quite understand.
The day before, I had walked to Pynursla from a small village to the south called Burma (no relation to Myanmar). A teenage friend from that village by the name of Advancement Suting had insisted on going with me. He studied in Pynursla, and so lived in the town for much of the year and knew it well. He had thought that there would be a rest house in Pynursla that I could stay the night in, though this turned out not to be the case, and I wound up sleeping on the floor of a dorm which was shared by himself and five of his teenage Khasi student friends.
The following morning, I was taken to the house of Advancement’s math teacher for tea. There, I expressed an interest in living root bridges, and so the teacher mentioned to me that in Rangthylliang there were at least five, and that I should probably contact the village’s headman (who coincidentally was the teacher’s father) if I wanted to reach them. Excited by the prospect of new living architecture, I resolved to do just that, but at this point the topic of conversation shifted unexpectedly to the teacher apologizing profusely for the fact that his whole house smelled like fish gone bad. I had been perfectly content to pretend that I didn’t notice the offending odor, but the man persisted.
It turned out that the teacher was a notable maker of Tungtap, a traditional Khasi fermented fish preparation. Advancement, his teenage friends, and I, were then given a lengthy tour of the man’s pungent Tungtap operation, which consisted of about twenty large earthen pots in his basement, each filled to the brim with small dead fish surrounded in a stinky, viscous, indeterminate substance. The teacher apparently didn’t pick up on my lack of enthusiasm for these proceedings, for he insisted on delving deep into the niceties of Khasi fish fermentation, at one point even opening up one of the pots, grabbing a large gelatinous handful of Tungtap, and holding it in my face for my edification.
When we were finally able to tear ourselves away from the teacher’s Tungtap den, I was relieved to be rid of the odor of small fish fermenting. But not for long. As we were leaving the house, the teacher came running after us with a present for me: a small plastic bag full of decomposing fish that I would have to carry around with me for much of the rest of the day. It was truly a kind gesture, though I wound up donating the Tungtap to my new teenage friends. They could appreciate it more than I could.
At this point you might be thinking that the author has gone off on an odd and lengthy tangent. But that day was nothing but a succession of odd and lengthy tangents, and frankly, I’m surprised I managed to escape Pynursla at all. Advancement had a problem on his hands. Though Pharengs pass through Pynursla all the time, they rarely linger, and so were then still something of a rare sight. All of Advancement’s friends wanted to meet the giant Phareng, and then all of their friends wanted to meet the giant Phareng, and then all of their friends wanted to meet the giant Phareng.
Neither of us could bear to be impolite, so as a result of this process of meeting and taking tea and betel nut with increasingly wider circles of Advancement’s friends and relations, I was introduced to what felt like half the Khasi ethnicity while not making a lick of progress towards my destination of Rangthylliang. Over the course of the next few hours, I wound up visiting a two-room corrugated metal hut on the eastern fringes of town occupied by twelve of Advancement’s friends, three of whom were sick, I bumped randomly into Advancement’s dad, whereupon we all got side tracked trying to commission a Khasi style machete at a knife store (nothing came of it), and I stumbled into a local documentary film crew doing a feature on traditional Khasi instruments. The film crew insisted on interviewing me, and I’m pretty sure I looked like a raggedy-ass and sounded like an idiot. My brain was good and fried by ten that morning, it was three in the afternoon, and whatever drivel I came out with, I’m sure it wasn’t golden. Advancement and I also spent hours looking for Duracell batteries. We never found any.
As I wandered in these strange circles, I kept trying to pick up any information I could on Rangthylliang and its root bridges. I collected plenty, the problem was none of it made any sense. Most people I asked didn’t even know that there were root bridges in Rangthylliang. One person said there were thirty. Another said all of Rangthylliang’s living root bridges had disappeared twenty years ago. Another said I should go to Mawlynnong, ‘The Cleanest Village in Asia.’ Then I got invited to tea again.
It wasn’t until evening that Advancement, his friends, and I finally managed to start in the vague direction of Rangthylliang’s headman. I walked slowly along, my teenage bodyguards in tow, getting all manner of looks ranging from confusion to amusement to mild disapproval from the locals. Gradually, as we headed west, concrete began to give way to thatch and bamboo, and jungle started to close in on either side of the road. I’m not sure who made the arrangements, or how, but the headman agreed to meet us at a small community hall. He didn’t know any English or Hindi, and so one of my bodyguards had to do the talking.
The Rangbahshnong of Rangthylliang was a short, round, fellow, with a fat face and red, betel nut-stained teeth. The moment he saw me, he started laughing uncontrollably. I’m still not sure if he was nervous, making fun of me, or just thought I was an inherently risible white man, but no matter what I did, he thought it was funny. I’d tie my shoe, and he’d laugh. I’d have a sip of water, and he’d laugh. I’d test my headlamp, and he’d laugh. I’d just stand there, and that was funniest of all. The man was easily amused. I pondered on what a strange thing my life had become.
Between bouts of Rangbahshnong laughter, my teenage bodyguards managed to establish that if I wanted to reach Rangthylliang’s living root bridges, I should make contact with a certain Mr. Morningglory, who was the head of a local eco-tourism society. We bade farewell to the disconcertingly giggly headman, and headed to the far fringes of the village, finally stopping at one of the last houses before the settlement faded out entirely into the jungle.
For reasons I did not quite understand at the time, to facilitate my meeting with Morningglory, I was plunked down in front of a man who inexplicably introduced himself as John Cena and was forced to make the most of the situation. Everyone in my teenage Khasi retinue, Advancement most of all, looked more than a little worried about my fate. But they had to get back to Pynursla, and my business was in the jungle.
At this point, I had my doubts as to whether Mr. Morningglory was going to materialize. This was a problem for both of us, as John Cena didn’t speak any English and my Khasi was extremely basic. He seemed just as perplexed by this turn of events as I was. I couldn’t quite tell if he even knew who Mr. Morningglory was. We did however both speak equally poor, too-much-Bollywood, Hindi, allowing us to occasionally get thoughts across. He managed to explain to me that I could also refer to him as ‘Stevenson.’ Why he adopted this particular English name I fear the world shall never know.
Both of us having no clue what the next move was, we settled for politely sitting in front of a fire, sharing betel nut, and trying to teach each other vocab in our respective languages. The most important word I learned was ‘Babaang,’ an informal term meaning, roughly, ‘Very tasty.’
Stevenson’s house was a surreal mix of elements. It consisted of four small, cramped, rooms, which John Cena shared with all his many sisters and their even more numerous children. It was cluttered with betel leaves and other bits of plant matter gathered from the jungle, along with agricultural implements and at least fifteen people’s personal effects. Chickens wandered lazily in and out. John Cena picked one of these up and pretended that it was talking, though I couldn’t tell what it was saying since I don’t understand the Rangthylliang dialect. Three of the rooms, including a bedroom, workroom/living room, and a kitchen, were made of cheap-looking concrete and corrugated metal. But the last room, the largest in the house, which also served as another kitchen and bedroom, was constructed along traditional lines, with bamboo walls and a thatch roof. There was a fireplace right in the middle of the floor with a bamboo rack suspended above it. I was told later that the traditional part of the house, despite being made from such perishable elements, came long before the concrete part. It certainly looked it. There was no opening in the roof for smoke to escape, and so the ceiling was black with a half-inch thick layer of soot, the accretion of residue from thousands of fires. A couple of knives, an old rifle, and some arrows had been stored up in the thatch of the roof but looked like they hadn’t been moved for years; the soot coating had built up so much that the objects were only discernable as black outlines. Also stuck in the roof, similarly covered in thousand-fire residue, was a whole chicken, feathers and all. I wondered if this was some sort of traditional Khasi chicken smoking method, or if Stevenson and family had just forgotten the bird up there.
I pointed to it, and asked, in atrocious fragments of several Indian languages:
‘Yeh Kya hai?’ (What’s this? In Bazaar Hindi.)
‘Woh….Doh Syiar…woh kya hai?’ (That [Hindi] … Chicken Meat [Sohra Khasi]… what is that [Hindi] )?
‘Woh….’ Pointing forcefully to the unfortunate soot encased chicken, speaking haltingly, just like someone whose Hindi is not very good, ‘In the roof … woh…. murti murgee… kya kar rahi hai tumhari chatti mein?’ (in broken Bazaar Hindi: ‘What’s that dead black chicken doing in your roof?’)
John Cena looked at the chicken.
‘Woh … chiriya hai!’ (That’s … a bird!)
‘Haoid,’ (‘Yes,’ Sohra Khasi.) ‘Lekin … kya kar rahi hai? (Bazaar Hindi: But … what’s it doing?’)
John Cena thought about this for a moment.
‘BABAANG!’ (Pan-Khasi slang: Very tasty!)
‘Bilkul sach hai!’ (Hindi: Totally true!).
Then we had more betel nut.
Morningglory didn’t appear until later in the evening. When he did, he wasn’t what I had expected. The head of Rangthylliang’s eco-tourism society was a cherubic seventeen-year-old Protestant. A member of the ‘New Testament Charismatic Church,’ a tiny denomination which apparently only has a handful of members in the whole greater-Pynursla area, Morningglory seemed immediately to belong to the steel-reinforced concrete side of Rangthylliang. He was attending the best school in the area, and led several youth organizations, on top of being the driving force in Rangthylliang’s nascent tourism scene. He was glad to see me; after a long while trying to ignite some kind of interest in the area, I was his first customer.
The three of us now went back to Morningglory’s house. There, I met the teenager’s family. His mom was a teacher, who grew up Christian, and spoke functional English. His dad, however, had spent much of his life working in the jungle, spoke no English, and had only converted from traditional Khasi beliefs recently. The contrast between my new surroundings and where I had just come from were striking. Morningglory’s house was tidy, with brightly colored, chintzy-but-cheerful vinyl flooring and walls covered in New Testament Charismatic Church calendars and plastic flowers. There were no chickens in sight.
We all had dinner together, and Morningglory insisted on saying a very long, detailed grace in both Khasi and English. John Cena participated, though I think he was just being polite. He remains very much a proud pagan.
Afterwards, Morningglory, John Cena, and I talked for a few hours. I was now able to get more information about the area, and also ask John Cena complex questions. He told me that there were somewhere between twenty and thirty living root bridges on Rangthylliang’s land, and then many more near the surrounding villages. At the time, I was incredulous. But then Morningglory instructed his friend to show me some of the pictures he had on his cell phone. Sure enough, these provided reasonably solid proof that there were at least a dozen different bridges nearby, many of which, even in low-resolution cellphone snaps, appeared to be higher and longer than any in the Nongriat area. Morningglory made sure to inform me that there were also plenty of others way out in the jungle that John Cena didn’t have pictures of.
I realized then that the last sixteen hours of random wandering and meeting and greeting and cultural comedy had, after all, led me to something unexpected, spectacular, and important: possibly the world’s densest concentration of living architecture. The moral of this story is: never bitch when people invite you for tea.
It was pure luck, and my extreme good fortune, to have wound up in John Cena and Morningglory’s company. The pair are just as different as the two sides of Rangthylliang, yet that’s precisely what makes them such an exceptional eco/heritage/adventure tourism team. Morningglory’s gaze is fixed firmly outwards, towards the future and the wider world. More than anything else, he’s firmly convinced of the need in Rangthylliang for higher quality education, and therefore some degree of economic development. Thus, he sees slow-paced, local, eco-tourism as one route through which this can be achieved. He also has tremendous pride in his village, its culture, its beauty, and its achievements, all of which he’s determined to conserve.
John Cena, on the other hand, is like a piece of the landscape. Just as Morningglory is fixated on where Rangthylliang’s going, John Cena represents what it once was. One suspects that in his head is a repository of in-depth yet intensely local information that can’t be found anywhere else. This is the old, fading, spirit of pre-Christian Rangthylliang. Yet John Cena has a similar pride in the beauty of the village, and like Morningglory, understands the need to preserve it. Without Morningglory being so passionate about conserving his village’s heritage, the contents of John Cena’s head would pass forever into oblivion. Without John Cena, Morningglory would have no heritage to preserve.
In short, when tourists show up, Morningglory can do the talking while John Cena shows them where stuff is.
John Cena grew up in the jungle. He lived in a small homestead over a thousand feet below Rangthylliang, where his family worked growing and collecting a variety of crops. Though the town of Pynursla was, as the crow flies, only a few miles away, reaching it, along with the whole rest of the world, meant walking up out of the jungle for several hours over a brutal incline. This was attempted only on those occasions when produce needed to be sold at the local market in Pynursla. Otherwise, for the first half of his life, John Cena was a child of Rangthylliang’s steep-walled forest, and on the subject of that little corner of the world there is nobody more knowledgeable.
As a kid, he spoke the local Rangthylliang dialect, and only started learning the Sohra lingua franca later in life, after he moved with his family out of the jungle and to a house closer to the rest of the village. Still, even after his move to the 21st century, if what one was looking for were the Rangthylliang-dialect names for almost anything in the jungle, John Cena would be your man. His knowledge of the local birdlife is simply astounding. The man has mastered a library of calls, all of which he can trot out whenever the need arises, or, for that matter, whenever he feels like randomly making bird noises (a surprisingly common occurrence). Sadly, his repertoire even includes the calls of a number of species that have gone extinct in the area since his childhood.
The man seems to have a topographical model of the nearby valleys in his head which is so precise that on the times I’ve accompanied him on treks into his lifelong stomping grounds, he would often dispense with the use of trails entirely and go crashing merrily through the steep jungle he knows so well, blazing his own eccentric, death-defying trails between points of interest. Far outpacing both myself and his village-born Khasi friends, navigating up and down dangerous almost-vertical forest slopes, through impenetrable bamboo thickets, and along the edges of sheer precipices with only inches between himself and oblivion, John Cena seems to be able to reach anywhere within Rangthylliang’s territory by the straightest, shortest, if likely most dangerous and labor-intensive route possible.
John Cena’s impressive time saving maneuvers might make sense if you’re a near-invincible forest spawn, but for a Phareng, or, for that matter, a more typical modern Khasi, the extreme danger to life and limb these shortcuts entail is probably not worth the few extra minutes one might gain from them. I’m a firm believer in the principle that the avoidance of death is worth a slightly longer hike. This is one (minor) area where the pair of Morningglory and John Cena are going to have to make some concessions if they want to have a larger tourism operation in Rangthylliang.
On one of our first sorties into the jungle, John Cena, Morningglory, and I were making our way down the bed of the Pynursla river to visit some of the many living root bridges which have been grown across that stream. Over its whole length, the river is narrow and rocky, enclosed by steeply sloping banks when it’s not being squeezed through short sections of vertical walled canyons. At several points the ground suddenly falls out from under the river entirely and descends in great cascades. Climbing down this watery staircase is challenging, though it also presents the straightest and (theoretically) quickest route through the valley. Taking the river meant that we were cutting miles off the trail we would otherwise have to follow.
As we made our way downstream, we clambered up, down, over, and between great boulders brought down from above. In places where the incline of the river was not too extreme, this was tricky, but amusing. The water level was low, and we could jump from boulder to boulder without getting our feet wet. But then we began to hear rapids. As we continued, the river narrowed, the banks pinching in and getting steeper. The jungle slopes gave way to rock walls on either side while the sound of rushing water got louder and louder. Ahead, I could only see the riverbed up to a few large boulders. Beyond, straight through the thin gap between the canyon walls, I saw the distant slopes of Katarshnong far out in the misty distance.
What these clues added up to was that, somewhere in the vicinity of the large boulders, the river dropped off. There was probably a waterfall ahead, and that, combined with the sheer canyon walls, led me to assume that John Cena would steer Morningglory and me off on some not yet spotted trail to the side, rather than sending us directly through the gorge. Indeed, after a time I did see a faint path heading steeply up to the left.
John Cena walked right by it. He was far up ahead now, vastly more at ease in these surroundings than I was, seeming almost to bounce from huge rock to huge rock, carelessly executing one intricate feat of bouldering after another. He came to the drop-off and then nimbly disappeared over the edge. Morningglory was in front of me also. He too disappeared over the edge.
With nobody in sight, I slowly made my way across the rocks of the riverbed. These got larger as I neared the drop-off, until the entire river noisily disappeared into the crevasses and chambers between them. Then, up ahead, John Cena emerged. By means I couldn’t so much as guess at from my current vantage point, he had climbed onto the side of the left-hand canyon wall, and was making his way laterally along it, using both the stone and a few thin ficus elastica roots as holds.
I came to the edge of the drop-off, and it was as expected: a waterfall plunging straight down into a hundred-foot-deep cataract with wet slippery rocks and rapids at the bottom. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. There would be no way to climb down without equipment. But John Cena’s alternative didn’t look too promising either. From the drop-off, it involved climbing down some distance over large boulders, and then trusting oneself to the cliff face. Wire-thin, jungle-born John Cena knew he could cling to the scanty holds and narrow roots and that they would hold him. I couldn’t be so confident. But there was no other way: Morningglory was already well ahead, following John Cena across the cliff face, so there was no turning around or searching for another route without losing my guides. John Cena effortlessly gained the safety of a large, solid, outcropping. Morningglory followed slightly slower, with John Cena pointing out holds to him. But he too was across the cliff soon enough. They made it look so easy.
I remember hearing in my head Danny Glover’s voice from the Lethal Weapon films, reciting action cinema’s lamest one-liner: ‘I’m getting too old for this shit.’
I climbed down some of the larger boulders, but soon came to where they terminated at a straight, 100-foot drop. I was now parallel with the cascade, which was to my right, and could also look far down the canyon. There was a deep, dark water plunge-pool at the base of the falls. The walls of the cataract were overhung on either side with ficus elastica trees that sent their roots far down the rock faces. Gazing out between the shadowy, cold, walls of the canyon, I could see the canopy of distant jungle, several hundred feet below me, the tops of the trees bathed in warm sunlight. I wished I could enjoy the view.
Aiming for the point where Morningglory had begun his lateral climb across the stone, I made my way towards the canyon side. Gaining the wall, I placed my foot on a sturdy looking root, and started out along the precipice. I reckoned that for a person with feet about half as large as mine, the available footholds would be quite comfortable and trustworthy. But as it was, my feet were hanging halfway out over the abyss. The climb would probably have been easier barefoot, but I was already well out on the side of the stone, beyond the point I could have done anything about it, when I realized this. Fortunately, there were plenty of roots, along with just enough dirt to anchor a few little bushes and trees. Unfortunately, many of these roots and small plants couldn’t withstand so much as a firm pull. The ficus elastica roots seemed like the best bet. Then I pulled on a rotten one, and it broke and fell to the bottom of the gorge. I was seriously examining my life choices at this point.
Ahead, I heard Morningglory shouting to me, though I couldn’t tell what he was saying over the rushing water. Carefully, praying, I climbed on. Whatever Morningglory was trying to get across, I still couldn’t hear it, though I also couldn’t use hand gestures to explain this to him without risking the big plunge. His drowned-out yelling kept coming. Finally, a little closer to the outcrop and safety, I began to make out what he was saying.
He cupped his hands around his mouth.
‘Huh?!’ I shouted back from my precarious hold without turning towards my companions, my eyes fixed firmly on my hands and feet.
This was meant to be helpful and encouraging. John Cena was giggling like he thought the situation was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
I advanced a few more feet.
‘I’m … that’s what I’m doing!’
A few more feet.
‘Yes! Use them!’
‘Do I have a choice?’
A few more feet.
Morningglory pointed at something.
I couldn’t tell which root, rock, or bit of dirt Morningglory meant.
I had no idea what he meant and stepped where it seemed best to do so.
A few more feet. I was close to the outcropping now and was beginning to think I just might see tomorrow.
And then a stick was thrust in my face.
‘What is this?!’
I looked up and saw that both Mornigglory and John Cena were holding out a long branch to me.
‘I … I don’t want that!’
‘It’s a stick!’
‘I don’t want it!’
‘It will help you!’
‘It’s a stick!’
‘I think it’ll be easier if I just use these roots.’
‘Take the stick! We will pull you!’
John Cena was laughing his ass off.
‘What? … Fuck…no … I’m too heavy!’
‘I’m too fat!’
I held the stick. It didn’t help.
‘This won’t work.’
And I did. It was a short, dizzying climb to the safety of the outcropping, but the worst was over. I made it, thanking god that I wasn’t dead or mangled at the bottom of the canyon.
We all had a good laugh at that point. Then I asked Morningglory how much time we had cut off taking this death-defying route.
‘Oh, we just went this way to show you the beauty of my Rangthylliang. The path is the easy way to go, but we’ll only go that way if we’re leading some old lady tourist or maybe a Phareng in bad shape.’
I’ll admit, I wanted to get mad then.
‘So we could have taken the path?’
‘Yes, but look,’ he made a dramatic sweeping gesture towards the cataract, the waterfall, and the far off-jungle slopes. ‘This is beauty!’
He had a point.
Still, from then on I’ve always tried to nudge Morningglory and John Cena in the direction of trying to find a balance between safety and adventure. After all, physical survival is a necessary condition to the appreciation of the natural world. It was fortuitous that I was their human guinea pig. Other tourists probably won’t be such good sports. And they would probably die. I think the incident was a good learning experience for all three of us.
Anyway, I was their first customer, so I cut them some slack.
Exploring Rangthylliang’s jungle was dangerous. Beyond the mortal peril, every day was characterized by hour upon hour of hardship. Small wounds appeared all over my body from falls, cuts, bee stings, ant bites, sandal burn, stubbed toes, bamboo poles being inadvertently snapped in my face, etc. Each wound that healed was replaced with three new ones. Every piece of clothing I owned, if it wasn’t ripped to shreds, became filthy and sweat encrusted, and every evening I reached a state of near-exhaustion.
All of this was a tiny price to pay for seeing what I saw in the valley of the Pynursla river. Here was a variety and density of living architecture that I did not know could exist; which, in fact, I had been explicitly told did not exist. The area is home to most of the longest, highest, and many of the most beautiful, living root bridges that anybody knows about.
In Rangthylliang’s jungle, two very different bridges are close to 200 feet in length, which is over 50 feet longer than the example commonly assumed to be the record holder. Several are close to a hundred feet above the stream they span. To cross the loftier bridges, and to be held high in the air solely by the living roots of the ficus elastica tree, knowing that these same roots, first manipulated by Rangthylliang’s distant ancestors, have crossed that very gap for over a century, is a humbling feeling.
Deep in the jungle, there is a structure that is both a living bridge and a living ladder, both pieces of botanical architecture formed from a single organism. Another nearby root bridge consists of two sections at right angles, the longer spanning the main flow of the Pynursla river and the shorter crossing the mouth of a small tributary. The bridge is situated on a narrow shelf of land, in one of the steepest stretches of the valley. On one side of the structure, a lofty waterfall thunders down into a plunge pool, which empties soon thereafter over a further precipice, the river tumbling another hundred feet or so. The longer span of the bridge crosses directly over the point where the water of the lower fall leaps from the rock, and so from its thin, wobbling roots, one can gaze straight down the raging cascade.
Further downstream is yet another living root bridge, the longest I’ve seen. The roots of this example, some of which are nearly a foot in diameter, are strikingly massive, the organism as a whole vast. Parts of the bridge are dying, others are recently damaged, but overall it remains sturdy. As it’s located close (in a straight line, not in ease of access) to where the Pynursla river meets the Umrew, the streambed it crosses is wide, and the monsoon floods here must be tremendous. Huge boulders brought down by recent inundations are clearly visible from the bridge, yet the thickness of the individual roots, combined with the overall size of the bridge, indicate that the structure is exceptionally old. The original creators of the bridge are long forgotten. With a life spanning God knows how many centuries, the bridge has seen hundreds of the world’s most violent monsoon seasons, and so thousands upon thousands of individual, catastrophic, floods. Yet still it remains, in defiance of every deluge, an ancient living pathway, and a survivor of an era long past.
These are only a few of the living bridges near Rangthylliang. I could go on and on. Some are larger than others, some are in better condition, and some lend themselves more readily to photography. But they are all, simply by their organic nature, beautifully unique.
While through the rest of Riwar isolated living root bridges are still to be found, in most areas the decline of the practice is well along. In many villages an old, fading, memory of a time when they were common lingers, but the consensus among the locals, sadly borne out by my own investigations even when I strongly wished it wasn’t, is that most root bridges have already disappeared, the majority that still exist are damaged or threatened in some way, and the most well-tended surviving examples are largely, for better or worse, located in tourist areas, where they generate income and are a source of cultural pride but often don’t serve their original, functional, purpose. The true era of the living root bridge in Riwar, the time not so long ago when there wasn’t an easier option for creating permanent, safe, crossings over monsoon-flooded streams, is over. Steel is just quicker. Wire-suspension bridges may be more expensive, rust, need maintenance, and be less environmentally sound, but they also can be built in a matter of weeks, not the years, or even decades, it takes to develop a fully safe and functional living root bridge.
That said, there’s certainly a strong argument to be made in favor of living architecture: that it lasts far longer, costs much less, is vastly more beautiful, substantially better for the environment, and simply makes life more interesting. But in Riwar that argument needs to be made skillfully, recognizing factors on the ground as they actually are and not as environmentalists, social activists, tourists, and conservationists sometimes wish they were. It also needs to be made using hard scientific data, something of which there is pitifully little of on the subject.
Tourism has created interest in root bridges in a few select pockets, but throughout the rest of Riwar, the bridges fade away year by year, and the way things once were can only be guessed at. That is, except in Rangthylliang, which seems to preserve, in a small, easily overlooked corner of Meghalaya, a remnant of what the practice might have been like in its heyday. This makes the village a window on a lost world, and it puts the unlikely duo of protestant Morningglory and pagan John Cena in the not-entirely enviable position of being the outnumbered defenders of one of the world’s great unknown cultural wonders.
They have plenty to contend with. While the Pynursla river is clear and able to support life in its lower, wider, reaches, after having absorbed dozens of cleaner tributaries, the river originates practically in the town itself, and so is full of the tons of garbage discarded every day in the bazaar. The beauty of many of the living root bridges I described above is sadly diminished by polythene bags, Styrofoam containers, plastic and glass bottles, diapers, and every other kind of trash.
The sheer constant mass of refuse here vastly outweighs the bits of litter left in tourist zones. Down the Pynursla river there is often an infuriating, Bangladesh-bound garbage flood, which, as it travels through such remote and difficult terrain, goes almost entirely unnoticed. Another problem is land disputes between Rangthylliang and nearby settlements that have gone on for generations. These have led to a situation where some of the living root bridges are claimed by multiple villages. Also, newly created roads and recently cleared patches of jungle slope have caused increased runoff into the river, meaning that flooding has gotten worse lately, and root bridges that were grown to withstand the conditions of a hundred years ago often cannot survive in today’s monsoonal deluges. I could keep going. The sky is falling. The world’s gone to hell. The battle lost.
But despair’s an easy refuge, and those who repair to it aren’t useful to anybody. Morningglory and John Cena have a monumental task ahead of them, and yet there they are, cheerfully positioned to hold back the dismal tide. And if anybody could, it would be those two.
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