One day while searching for a living root bridge hidden deep in the canyon system of the Umrew river, I found myself in the capable hands of the thoroughly soused ex-headman of Mawshuit Nongba village. Unlike so many of the rugged but almost embarrassingly generous people who had guided me through the hills, the ex-headman had successfully negotiated a significant payment well in advance. For several hundred rupees he had agreed to lead me to a root bridge, and then on to the village of Rymmai. A friend from Kongthong village assured me that the price was exorbitant, but if I wanted to proceed beyond Mawshuit and have any idea where I was going, getting ripped off appeared to be my only option.
What I had been told about the bridge made it sound like something I would be remiss not to photograph and document. The people of Mawshuit had explained to me that it was far above the river it crossed, a major stream called the Muor. They also said that the structure spanned a steep walled canyon and was the longest surviving living root bridge in the area. I wasn’t about to skip that, so I agreed to the ex-headman’s high price. I could spare a few hundred rupees.
I’m sure he was a regular fount of knowledge when it came to what was hidden amongst the slopes and valleys of Mawshuit’s land. The problem was that, not only was the ex-headman already a bit tipsy (at 7 a.m.), but, even sober, he was one of the very few people I’ve met during my time in the hills with whom I truly had to work hard to communicate. I soon recognized that he didn’t know even a smattering of English, nor did he understand any of the standard fragments of Bazaar Hindi. Yet, by this point I (proudly) thought I had acquired enough eclectic scraps of the Khasi language to get along in such a situation.
As it turned out, the man almost exclusively spoke the unwritten dialect that is found in the central Umrew Basin and used by remote villages such as Mawshuit (and its various sub-villages), Kongthong, Khrang, and a handful of other remote deep-jungle settlements.
I attempted to ask the ex-headman how far away the root bridge was, but even after exhausting virtually my whole Khasi vocabulary I just left him scratching his head. Finally, I was reduced to ridiculous pantomimes, which left him scratching his head even harder. For his part, he tried to talk to me in the local language, which, struggle as I might, left me scratching my own head, as did his wobbly, tipsy, pantomimes (which often seemed to go off topic and degenerate into comedic dance moves). Finally, the two of us scratching our heads at each other, we agreed in our first successful bit of non-verbal communication to give up talking and just get on with it.
He led the way in silence. The trail took us at an angle downhill and upstream from Mawshuit, along the right side of the Muor river valley. At a surprisingly gentle slope for the Khasi Hills, the path, or rather, the network of faint interconnected tracks, ran through a landscape of tall broom grass and sad expanses of ash and blackened tree-trunks where the jungle had recently been cleared in shifting cultivation fires. With the majority of the forest gone we were afforded a straight line of sight down to the river, which was at this point several hundred feet below. Further upstream we could see that the sides of the valley constricted briefly into a sheer, rock-walled, canyon. It was towards the stony gorge that the ex-headman seemed to be leading me, though I had no verbal means of confirming this.
My guide was in no hurry. After only a short time, we came to a small homestead out in the broom grass fields where some of the ex-headman’s relatives lived. He then instructed me through hand gestures to sit on a log outside while he disappeared within. I waited for what seemed like twenty or thirty minutes, receiving the usual looks of shocked curiosity from nearby kids, when the ex-headman wandered back out, a big smile on his face, his mood significantly improved, his coordination significantly impaired.
We continued on through the grass and burnt jungle, picking our way across narrow, recent, trails that only a local would know his or her way around. Now that we were closer to the canyon, within hearing distance of the waters of the Muor, the ex-headman called another rest, at another homestead. Inside there were five or six crusty looking old and middle-aged guys sitting around a fire having tea and rice wine, probably about to begin their days’ work. The ex-headman joined them, and they all discussed me at great length, gesticulating in my direction and laughing, though the particulars were lost on me except for the occasional “Phareng” and “Jingkieng Jri” rising up out of the unfamiliar syllables of the local language. I was given the distinct impression that they found me ridiculous (as they drunkenly appraised me over their little biscuits and tiny teacups).
The ex-headman, after having downed a couple of drinks, was at this point thoroughly high and grinning. I now saw that he was refilling a clear glass bottle with the strong rice wine for the road. This wasn’t a good sign. Entering difficult new territory without a clear idea of how far one has yet to go or how dangerous the circumstances will be is challenging even with the benefit of a sober professional guide whose language you can speak. Doing the same with a drunk who you can’t talk to and who seems to be getting more distracted and inebriated at every step is, to put it mildly, worrisome.
One of the people inside the homestead offered me a glass of the rice wine. The expedition seeming more doubtful with each passing minute, I took the glass, and swigged it.
Worries temporarily drowned, I followed the headman as he bid farewell to his friends at the homestead and then plodded on towards the Muor. He was tipsy and proceeded slowly, frequently holding onto bits of foliage to keep his balance. Still, he was entirely functional, even as our path took us ever more steeply downhill; doubtless this skill was the result of a lifetime’s worth of both hard drinking and agricultural labor, often done simultaneously.
As we came nearer to the river and the sound of the moving waters grew louder, the broom grass gave way to a patch of intact jungle. The temperature dropped noticeably as we passed under the canopy of leaves. The trees here were tall, indicating rich soils, though the land was not under any sort of cultivation. It was a beautiful place, but also a sad one; a remnant and endangered memory of the great green blanket that once totally covered the Khasi Hills. For all I know, at the time of writing that particular stand of trees may have already been consigned to the flames.
I could tell that we were coming to the river when the trail became a near vertical staircase of ancient carved steps. The effects of the rice wine had by this point ceased for me, and seemingly also for the ex-headman, who was rectifying this by taking another pull at his bottle. Ahead, I could see through the trees to the slope on the opposite side of the valley. We were near our objective.
Then, abruptly, we came to the edge of the canyon we had seen from afar. The gorge here plunged straight down over rocky cliffs perhaps a hundred feet to a boulder strewn streambed, while the distance between the walls was a mere fifty or sixty feet. Spanning this gap, suspended precariously over the Muor, was a root bridge.
The Muor bridge is one of the very few living structures in the central Umrew basin region that has seen outside visitors, though only a handful. A tour outfit reached it several years ago and has even posted a few photos online. According to them, the bridge was part of a footpath from Mawshuit to the weekly market in the large village of Khrang. However, in 1996 a road was built offering an alternative route. After that, the bridge fell into disuse, and has hung largely forgotten above the Muor ever since.
Arriving at the eastern edge of the span, my first impression of the bridge was of a forty-foot-long jumbled mass of rotten bamboo and rusty metal cables just barely suspended above the river by a netting of ficus elastica tree roots. From that angle it was not pretty.
The growing of the structure appeared to be a fairly recent development. The bridge was composed of dozens of worryingly thin roots, the widest of which were rarely more than two inches across. Much of the span had been covered in strips of bamboo to hide the gaps between the roots and to make it easier to walk across. There were many places, particularly near the ends of the span, where gaping holes in the floor of the structure afforded giddy views down to the rocky course of the Muor a hundred feet below.
Directly next to the root bridge was a narrow, rusted, derelict steel-wire suspension bridge. The walkway in the center of the metal bridge was hanging uselessly on its side, having partially fallen away from one of its support cables. This was only a few feet over from and above the living structure, and it hung so close that someone walking on the root bridge could reach up and hold it for balance.
Which came first, the steel bridge or the root bridge, I couldn’t say. Neither would surprise me. Though the Muor root bridge was clearly fairly new, the stones of the path down to it appeared well worn. The route may very well have been in use for centuries. The current span might therefore have been a recent replacement for a much older living structure. That root bridges can last so long is one of the things about them that captures peoples’ imaginations, but it doesn’t follow that they all must be ancient.
Despite the bridge being rather less visually satisfying than some I had previously stumbled upon, it was nonetheless extraordinary, chiefly for its great height above the water. Also, it looked like the center of the span would provide tremendous views upstream, through the center of the gorge. Given that so few visitors had been here before, and there was therefore, to my knowledge, virtually no record of the bridge’s existence (I hadn’t looked it up online yet), getting a few photos seemed almost a matter of duty. Clearly there was a certain degree of risk involved in just setting foot on it, but from where I was, it looked solid enough.
I did all I could to communicate through hand gestures my intention to walk out onto the bridge to the ex-headman, who, as far as I could tell, saw no objection…then again, the moment we came to the edge of the cliff he immediately sat down on a rock and started in on his bottle of rice wine, so perhaps he really wasn’t in much of a state to object to anything.
From the eastern end, it looked as though the start of the bridge would be the iffiest. Here the roots were more widely spaced, and there was no bamboo over them. This meant that reaching the center of the bridge, where the roots were closer together, would mean picking the thickest, sturdiest strand and then proceeding along this tightrope style, with a fatal drop down to the river on either side. There was no room for error. Fortunately, the derelict wire bridge was there to hold onto for additional balance.
I started out onto the span. The root I picked wobbled a bit, as did the derelict bridge when I grabbed it. Preventing myself from looking down was not an option. I had to pay close attention to where I was placing my feet. To trip was to die, but the view down was not a comforting one. Yet, despite all dangerous appearances, the root felt strong enough, as did the derelict bridge; while I wouldn’t have walked on the steel-wire structure, it wasn’t going to fail with the amount of stress I was placing on it to keep my balance. I inched along, thinking that the closer to the center of the bridge I reached the less my danger would be.
But I had miscalculated. The derelict bridge, built out of a series of cables, led across the chasm in essentially a straight line, but the more complex living span narrowed as it approached the western side of the gorge. The middle of the root bridge looked more stable than the eastern end of it since the roots were closer together; but this also meant that holding onto the derelict bridge required leaning out, totally exposed, over the Muor. That would make balancing almost impossible. I now opted to reach down to one of the thicker side roots of the living bridge, lowering my center of gravity and trusting all of my weight to the narrow strands as I inched forward.
From this position I did manage to get a few shots of the bridge and of the canyon, and I still thought the risk I had taken was worth the effort; that is, until I placed my foot on a piece of bamboo and felt it start to give way. I looked down and saw thin bits of vegetation spinning through the air on their way down to the river. Taking several more steps, I felt the rotten plant matter shifting and cracking under me. As they were covered in the rotten bamboo, it was impossible to tell how thick the roots were or how far apart they were spaced. A wrong step could very well have been my last.
This was bad. It was one of those moments where you realize you’ve gone well out on a limb for no particularly good reason, and now have to keep as cool as possible just to get off it. I turned around to beat a hasty retreat towards solid ground, but what I saw when I did so is one of the indelible images imprinted on my memory from my time in the Khasi Hills.
The ex-headman had begun to follow me out onto the span, lit though he was. Utterly fearless, he walked with a peculiar drunken determination across the roots, almost as if he were daring the bridge to drop him into the river one hundred feet below. The whole root bridge, and me with it, shook violently up and down as he took each uncaring step forward. I couldn’t move for fear of losing my grip, and I wondered for a moment if this Khasi W.C. Fields was about to send me to meet my maker. Seeing the anxiety in my face, the man started laughing as he lurched forward.
Once the ex-headman reached the center of the span, he demonstrated a novel method of ascertaining where the footing was sure: he started stomping on the rotten bamboo and seeing where it broke and fell to the river. It certainly looked as though he simply didn’t mind if he went right through to the next world. Perhaps the man knew what he was doing; perhaps he was too drunk to care; perhaps it was all an attempt to see how much he could upset me. But no matter what his intent, I was truly and deeply impressed.
The ex-headman, still finding it hilarious that I would be so worried by being suspended above a fatal drop by nothing but wobbly, inches-thin rubber tree roots and rotten bamboo, decided to sit down on a half inch strand and relax for a while. The shaking of the bridge slowly came to an end, and I gingerly made my way back to the safety of the side of the canyon. The ex-headman followed, and from here showed me a steep and narrow path of overgrown stone steps that led to the river below, just downstream from the bridge.
The path brought us to some large boulders in the riverbed, next to a deep, glassy, pool, bounded on either side by the vertical canyon walls. The view from here was an awesome one: The bridge looked even more precarious than it had from above, the roots were like mere threads, and the whole hundred-foot distance from the span to the Muor was taken in at once, with the riverbed and a distant jungle covered slope framed in the rectangular opening created by the bridge above, the river below, and the canyon walls to either side.
Gazing at this incredible sight which so few non-Khasis had seen, I took some photos, and then was considering going for a swim in the pool, when the ex-headman started trying hard to get something across to me. He was gesticulating uphill and to the right, and coming out with long sentences, none of which I understood. Then, slowly, the idea took shape in my head that maybe he was tired of all this running around and wanted to return to Mawshuit. This, of course, would not have been acceptable, given that I was paying the man.
I did my best to argue against what I thought was his plan, though arguments are hard to communicate when the other person can’t understand the words you’re using. He responded in his own language, we both got irritated at the other person‘s lack of comprehension, and we both went about heatedly mystifying each other for a while. Finally, as if it was the only way to make his point, the man turned his back and started right up the trail.
I had to follow. In the end, since I didn’t know my way around, he had all the cards. I angrily started slogging back up the steep path, cursing as I went, my 25kg bag feeling heavier than ever.
But when we both were up at the top of the trail, the ex-headman did something unexpected: he turned left, back towards the bridge, and again climbed out onto the center of it, once more seemingly unconcerned over his safety. He now faced me, and I could tell from his expression that he wanted me to do something. For a second we had a sort of Mexican standoff.
Finally, the man grinned and made a taking-a-picture gesture. Then he pointed to me, and then to the riverbank where we had just been standing. He made this same series of gestures again, and then again, and then I got it. His whole point in laboriously bringing me back up the steps was so that he could communicate to me that he wanted me to take his picture as he stood on the bridge from down below where one got a real sense of scale.
I was touched. The headman seemed genuinely concerned that I should get a good picture of the bridge (and of him). I felt rather ashamed that I had lost my temper. Quickly, I clambered once more down the rocky staircase, walked back to the riverbed, and took the man’s photo as he stood up on the bridge. The pictures with him in them are much better than those without.
I waved to him when I had gotten enough photos, and then he walked off the bridge and climbed back down to the riverbed. I thanked him profusely with many a “Khublei Shibun,” and hoped there were no hard feelings.
The ex-headman led me on beyond the Muor bridge and all the way to the village of Rymmai, for the most part following the rocks strewn along the course of the river. He stayed pretty thoroughly plastered the whole way there, though for someone with so much alcohol in his system, he sure was nimble as he bounded from stone to stone. Having led me through many kilometers of rugged terrain, drunk though he was, the man more than earned the large fee he had negotiated.
He never took it though. The moment I tried to pay him, he wordlessly turned around and started walking back towards Mawshuit. I called after him, but he merely waved and stumbled on faster than before.
Make of that what you will.
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