Emerging through a small gap in the broom grass, I was confronted with one of the most dramatic landscapes in all the Khasi Hills. The concrete trail plummeted down a slope about 120 meters to Nongnah. Viewed from the top of the incline, it was clear that the village was not the single large settlement that I had envisaged. Rather, it consisted of a number of small villages separated by wide patches of empty space strung out along a narrow limestone shelf that protruded from the side of the great massif I had spent the afternoon climbing.

In stark contrast to the hills and valleys surrounding it, the shelf was flatter than Bangladesh. It was also never more than a few minutes’ walk across, and all along its northern edge was a jungle-clad incline as sheer as any in Meghalaya, which descended about 600 meters to the tiny Lyngon river over the ridiculously short course of only a single kilometer. To the east, the shelf stretched on in a nearly level plain even as it struck off from the rest of the massif, becoming a thin peninsula in the sky which tapered to a rocky point flanked by deep valleys. Wide bays ate into this limestone headland from either side, and at one point the peninsula contracted to only about 80 meters across. One wonders if in a few thousand years, or perhaps after a catastrophic earthquake, the end of the peninsula will be cut off from the massif entirely.

Gazing east, where the limestone peninsula was skirted by tall stony cliffs and overlooked a vast rugged swathe of Meghalaya, I was reminded of the astounding palace-citadels of Rajasthan. Were this singularly defensible position located in mainland India, it would have been heavily fortified in centuries past. Turrets, towers, walls, gates, and palaces would have been carved into and out of the black stone.

And indeed, though no defensive architecture remains, Nongnah was once a fortress. The limestone plateau was the scene of a bloody, though now almost entirely forgotten, coda to the Anglo Khasi War of 1829-1834. That conflict came about when U-Tirot Sing, the famed king of the traditional Khasi state of Nongkhlaw, had a falling-out with the British East India Company over the construction of a road through the hills from Assam to Sylhet, a project which the native ruler rightly surmised would lead to the erosion of his autonomy, not to mention that of all the other Khasi States.

After attacking a British construction crew, Tirot Sing set about forming a wide-ranging anti-East India Company alliance. He soon had gathered most of the traditional Khasi states to the banner of revolt, (with a few important exceptions, such as the king of Sohra, who remained friendly to the Company.) Among Tirot Sing’s allies was the king of Maharam, who ruled the region around Ranikor, parts of what is now northern Bangladesh, and also Nongnah and its environs. 

 The British, for their part, responded to Tirot Sing’s provocations by reinforcing their position in Sohra, bringing in several companies of Gurkha troops, and laying siege to the rebel leader’s headquarters in Nongkhlaw. By all accounts, even those of their British adversaries, the Khasis were exceedingly brave, energetic, fighters. But the rebels were also outgunned and lacking in formal military training. They resisted stubbornly at Nongkhlaw, but the odds were against them. 

After the fall of Nongkhlaw, the rebels abandoned open warfare, and commenced several years’ worth of brutal guerilla operations. But, one by one, Tirot Sing’s allies were killed, conquered, or bribed by the Company, until the leader of the rebellion was effectively isolated. By 1834 Tirot Sing had no choice but to surrender to the British authorities, and was thereafter sent to prison in Dacca, never to return.

1834 is thus generally regarded as the end of the Anglo Khasi War. However, one Khasi state did not capitulate: Maharam. Even though he was alone in his resistance, the ruler of the kingdom, U-Sngap, refused to cease hostilities with the Company and accept the taxation that the British now wished to impose on his lands as war indemnities. And while he was both outgunned and outmanned, he had one massive advantage: the area around Nongnah was perhaps the most formidable natural citadel in all the Khasi Hills. The rest of Maharam was soon pacified, but Nongnah held out until 1839, a final bright ember of Khasi resistance to British hegemony in the region.

 I was told over the course of my brief stay in Nongnah that during the siege of the tableland 180 years before, the mostly Gurkha troops of the Company’s Sylhet Light Infantry Regiment were often pushed back by the rebels rolling stones from the cliffs. The only additions that the defenders needed to make to the natural fortifications of the plateau to render their position impregnable were stockades composed of sharpened bamboo poles. Nongnah proved to be such a hard nut to crack that the British were never able to take the fortress by storm and were bloodily repulsed on the several occasions when they tried. Instead, they resorted to bribing a traitor from a neighboring village to lead them into the citadel via a back way; an act of treachery which brought an end to a decade of war in the Khasi Hills. 

Of course, the tales of the siege still told in Nongnah are colored with heroic mythmaking. My sources in the village enthusiastically informed me that U-Sngap’s two strongest lieutenants, Tep Shaik and U Moit Kliaw, would pray to the local spirits before discharging their bows, and the spirits would answer by directing the arrows with pinpoint accuracy as far as the village of Rangjadong, ten kilometers to the north. The spirits also gave the two famed warriors superhuman strength, which allowed them to engage in hand-to-hand combat with hundreds of Company troops at a time.

While one must always take these sorts of anecdotes with a heaping spoonful of salt, it is a historical fact that a relatively small number of Khasis held the Nongnah plateau for at least several months from a better equipped force of Company troops until 1839. Such is the rough, sheer, stony shape of the land that it seems perfectly likely to me that at certain points the battle for Nongnah could have hinged on individual warriors intelligently exploiting features of the terrain. Given that Khasi archery was well respected among the British, a single bowman, occupying high ground, with his flanks protected by cliffs, could easily have impeded the advance of hundreds of Company troops.  

In short, the Nongnah tableland was the perfect sort of landscape in which to conduct a glorious last act of resistance.    

Now I walked down to the village.

From the bottom of the concrete stairs, Nongnah looked like a dusty and rather hardscrabble place. The shelf had been almost entirely denuded of trees, and in the winter the hardy grasses and weeds that covered the rocky ground appeared desiccated and on the edge of giving up entirely. Most of the houses in the village were made of reinforced concrete and rusty corrugated metal. There were not many people around, and the few I could see stared at me suspiciously from afar. Nongnah might have been closer to the beaten path than Mawlongbah, but folks here definitely weren’t expecting someone like me to show up.

Facilities for slightly lost American tourists being lacking, the only thing to do was to walk up to a random local and start talking to them. I found one working at driving metal posts into the rocky soil with a big hammer. Out of sheer bewilderment, the man let several of the posts clang to the ground when I said hello to him.

Hoping not to consume too much of Hammer Man’s time, I quickly asked him if he knew the whereabouts of the Rangbahshnong, Secretaryshnong, or Nonghikai. But my inquiries only revealed that all of these folks were away from the village at the time. 

With the issue of finding a place to stay for the night being in doubt, I decided to ask Hammer Man about the thing I had travelled to Nongnah to see: a living ladder made from a ficus elastica plant, which I had learned about by chance on YouTube. When I had seen that there was such a thing in Nongnah, it had surprised me deeply. People I had met on earlier trips to Meghalaya had told me in no uncertain terms that the westernmost extent of the practice of creating living architecture was around the town of Mawsynram. I had found this to be plausible after a long, hard, trek through the Umiam and Umngi river valleys in 2016. At the time, there hadn’t appeared to be any sort of living architecture in the western Khasi Hills at all.

But then I stumbled upon the YouTube video, which completely obliterated that notion. 

“Do you know,” I asked Hammer Man, “if there’s a ‘jingkieng jri’ in Nongnah?” (Note: Jingkieng jri can mean either a living root bridge or a living ladder in Sohra Khasi.)

“Jingkieng jri? You mean, living bridge?” the man replied.

“Yeah. Or, actually, more like a ladder…”

“No no no…go to Sohra. That is where you can find this.”

“Yes, I know, but I saw online that there was a living ladder in Nongnah village.”

“In Nongnah?”


“You found this on the internet?”


Hammer Man thought hard.

“No,” said he, “There is not. Just go to Sohra for this.”

“Oh.” This was discouraging. One tends to trust the locals when it comes to their own neighborhoods. Still, I was fairly confident of my information. “Are you sure?” I pressed. “I’ve definitely seen a video of a living ladder in this village.”

“Can you show me this video?”

I pulled out my phone and brought up YouTube…but there was no cell signal.

“Is this the only Nongnah village in Meghalaya?” I asked.

“Just come with me,” said Hammer Man. “I will show you to someone you can talk to.”

A brief walk brought us to the humble home of one Professor. Despite his prestigious name, he was only eighteen years old, and most certainly not (yet) a professor. Even for a Khasi, he was worryingly skinny. He wore blue shorts, a torn black leather jacket, and a baseball cap with a faded black and white picture of Tupac Shakur on it.

When Professor walked out of the house to shake my hand, I noticed that he had a limp. A homemade knee brace had been wrapped around his leg, out of the top of which protruded a clump of rather fragrant green leafy matter. Subsequently, I would learn that the leaves stuffed between the brace and his knee were a local remedy. Unfortunately, they also irritated his skin. For all the brief time I knew him, Professor was constantly scratching at his crippled leg.

But he never once complained.

From what I gathered, his family had been designated the task of looking after the foreigners and assorted outsiders who dropped in on Nongnah from time to time and wished to stay a night or two. Professor’s mother was a history teacher in the town of Mawkyrwat, so her knowledge about the area was extensive. As for Professor, he had spent several years outside of Nongnah studying hotel management in Bangalore, where he had rubbed shoulders with people from all over India and the world.

But big city life and cosmopolitan attitudes hadn’t sunk in too deeply. He understood what life was like beyond the hills, but as I would learn over the course of the next few days, his way of looking at the world was thoroughly rooted in tradition. If there was ever a man that personified all the contradictions of the modern Khasi Hills, it was Professor.

“But where did you come from today?” he asked me.


“You walked from there?”

“Yes sir, and I was hoping to spend the night somewhere in Nongnah. Really, I can sleep anywhere, even in the jungle. It looked like there were plenty of good camping spots on the mountain I walked over…”

“No! Don’t sleep there! That’s very dangerous!”

“Oh? Why?”

“There are many things in the jungle, sometimes bad things, scary things, even we are afraid! There is a powerful goddess up there. You might accidentally make her angry. Hehe.” He offered no further explanation. “You can stay at my mom’s extra house. Nobody is there now.”

“Sounds perfect.”

And so Professor, limping, led me to an entire spare house that his mother rents out. These were pretty sweet lodgings. I’d have the whole place to myself while I was in Nongnah. But there wasn’t much time to settle in. Not knowing how long I’d be staying in the village, I decided to get right to business.

“So,” I asked Professor as we had tea in the small house, “I saw on a YouTube video that there was a jingkieng jri in Nongnah village. Do you know if that’s true?”

“Jingkieng…jingkieng jri…have you been to Sohra?”


“They have these there also.”

“Yes, but, are there living root bridges, or ladders, here? In Nongnah?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Well, that was disappointing. Maybe the living ladder in the video had been in a different Nongnah village after all. Still, I pressed on.

“Do you have any rubber trees here?”

“Oh, so many. But it’s not like in Sohra here. We don’t have bridges. But we have, like, similar, like…only to go up and down,” Professor made a gesture like someone climbing an invisible rope, “Many like this.”

 “Yeah, I saw on YouTube that there was a living ladder…”

“Yes, we have this. We have many.”

“So you do have a ladder made from a rubber tree?”

“Yes…it’s very easy to make, very simple,” he said as though a living ladder was the most pedestrian thing in the world.

“Wow!” said I. “How far away is it?”

“Not far. Come, let’s go see it!”

Now Professor and I walked south at a relaxed pace, past several of the distinct little hamlets that together made up Nongnah.

For someone with a wounded knee that could only be treated with itchy herbal remedies, Professor was surprisingly eager to lead me around his village. Several times I tried to make it clear that I wouldn’t want him injuring himself further on my conscience, but the man would not be dissuaded. Apparently, the overwhelming majority of outsiders who show up at Nongnah (a number which remains miniscule) are almost exclusively focused on the village’s cave. Professor was therefore extremely excited by the thought of a tourist coming to Nongnah for something other than spelunking.

It turned out that one of the reasons why it had taken so long for me to ascertain that there was living architecture in Nongnah was due to the local dialect. The words in the language spoken around Nongnah for ‘living root bridge (or ladder),’ were quite different from those in the Khasi literary tongue. In Sohra Khasi, a root bridge is referred to as a ‘jingkieng jri,’ ‘jingkieng’ being the architectural element, and ‘jri’ just meaning rubber. ‘Rubber bridge,’ is thus a more literal translation of the term.

“How do you say: ‘living root bridge,’ in your language?” I asked Professor as we slowly walked along.

“We call it ‘pyrnondijroi,’ in our speech, which we call the Maram language.”

“Which part of pyrnondijroi is ‘bridge,’ and which part is ‘rubber tree?’”

“’Di jroi’” is how we say ‘dieng jri’ in our local language.”

The two terms are related. ‘Dieng jri’ is the word for a rubber tree in Sohra Khasi. Sometimes the Khasi phrase for a living root bridge is even spelled out in full as: ‘jingkieng diengjri.’ ‘Di jroi,’ however, is the fairly extreme mutation ‘dieng jri’ undergoes when rendered into the Maram tongue. ‘Di’ is a shortened form of ‘dieng,’ while ‘jroi,’ is simply ‘jri’ adapted to the local rules of pronunciation, which take the ‘I’ sound at the end of a word in the Sohra tongue and swap it for an ‘oi’ sound. Thus, ‘Khasi’ in Sohra turns into ‘Kasoi’ in Nongnah. (To make all of this even more complicated, the Maram dialect contains a whole host of localized subdialects only spoken in a handful of villages, in which, for example, the word ‘jri’ can become anything from ‘jroi’ to ‘jray’ to ‘jrai.’ These local tongues are all unwritten, so my spellings are purely phonetic.) 

“Then,” Professor continued, “’pyrnon’ is like a ladder.”

‘Jingkieng’ and ‘pyrnon,’ do not sound even remotely related, at least to my untrained ears.

“Around here, do you only have living ladders?” I asked.

“Yeah, no bridges, only ladders. We have planted these for climbing. We are farmers, so only in difficult difficult paths where we cannot climb, there we use that Di Jroi to help us carry loads and all up a cliff or a huge huge rock. The pyrnondijroi make it easy for us to climb. Hehe.”

“And with these pyrnondijroi, do you just plant the tree and let the roots grow down by themselves, or do you guide the roots with other materials to form a ladder?”

“Yeah, we’ll guide them sometimes. Only sometimes. We use some wood, and just make it in which way we want the pyrnondijroi to go. And then, from a big root, we’ll take one or two little roots and we will guide them where we want them to go, and they will just keep growing and growing. After that, wait for many years, and it will become a ladder, hehe. It’s easy, but it will just take a little bit of time.”

Professor sounded as though he thought the idea of forming architecture from a living organism was perfectly obvious, and maybe even a little boring.

“As far as you know, is the pyrnondijroi we’re going to the only one near Nongnah?” I asked.

“You know, there are lots, but we are using them only for climbing, so mostly we just keep one or two roots so that we can climb easily, just like a rope.”

Judging by what Professor and some of the other folks around the village had to say on the matter, it sounded like in this part of the West Khasi Hills the tradition of creating living architecture was rather different than it was further east. Nobody I talked to in the area had heard of living bridges being grown in the nearby valleys, though ficus elastica trees being cultivated for the purpose of helping people get up and down cliff faces and slopes appeared to be quite common. In most of these instances, ficus elastica trees were simply planted atop steep inclines, whereupon they naturally sent down tough, rubbery, climbable, roots. To call this ‘architecture’ would be to rather stretch the use of the term. It sounded like these ‘pyrnondijroi’ were largely just ficus elastica trees behaving as they normally do.

However, Professor’s description of the ‘pyrnondijroi’ that we were headed towards made it sound like it might be a genuine piece of living architecture rather than a mere collection of roots. But I’d have to see for myself.

Pressing beyond the fringes of Nongnah, Hammer Man steered us onto a small path that led through alternating patches of dry, scrubby, undergrowth and bare sun-darkened limestone. 

Well up ahead, I saw a small sign protruding out of the grass. Hammer Man had bent over next to it and was reaching down towards something on the ground. Then he stood upright and started walking back towards us with a small bright green object in his hand.

“It’s nature’s cup!” exclaimed Hammer Man, who then, much to my surprise, brought the bright green thing to his lips. This was followed by a brief, slightly heated exchange in Maram between Professor and Hammer Man. Looking closer at ‘Nature’s cup,’ I saw that it was in fact a several inches long pitcher plant. It would never have occurred to me to drink the insect-dissolving fluid out of the bottom of it.

“It’s bad to pluck! Hehe,” Professor said to me as we walked towards the place where Hammer Man had removed the pitcher plant. “It’s, like, endangered!”

Coming nearer to the sign, I saw that it read “Nongnah Pitcher Plant Sanctuary.” It wasn’t clear at first what actually constituted the sanctuary, there being before us little more than an expanse of weed-covered rocks. But then, looking closer, I saw several more of the small, strikingly green pitchers hanging in the weeds over the harsh dry ground. These were members of the endangered nephenses khasiana species, which are endemic to the high country of Meghalaya and a small portion of the hills of Southern Assam. The species has been largely extirpated throughout most of its natural range and is now limited to a few minuscule protected patches.

Hammer Man’s insistence that they are ‘Nature’s cups’ is unlikely to aid in their preservation. 

Nongnah was now behind us, and low trees had appeared on either side of the trail. We could see through the jungle to slopes across the valleys to the north. The edge of the Nongnah shelf was close.

Suddenly, the trail dropped down between two great boulders. Beyond these a moderate-sized ficus elastica tree stood picturesquely before a lofty, windswept gulf. 

“This is pyrnondijroi,” said professor.

At first, this looked to simply be a tree growing on the edge of a cliff. But then I walked a little closer and saw that it stood at the top of a deep notch between two stony outcroppings. The roots of the tree had been directed into this notch, pouring down through it like a living waterfall. Secondary tendrils had been guided onto the rock faces on either side or had been twisted together to encourage them to combine and form useable rungs and railings. The structure was clearly more than just roots that people climbed on. It was truly a living ladder.

In the center of the notch were the biggest, strongest, and presumably oldest, roots, some of which were several feet thick. Deep, oval-shaped gouges had been cut into these long ago to form steps that were more than large enough for a Khasi (or even a Phareng) to comfortably walk on. It was about twelve meters from the base of the structure to the top, and while the climb was steep, the ladder felt stable, and the holds were dependable.

According to Professor, there was a time when farmers returning from the jungle to the north would have to climb straight up the rock face, unaided, and with giant quantities of produce on their backs, risking a painful death at the very front door of Nongnah.

The ladder was an improvement.

Though the living ladder was large and impressive, I was told that it was also a fairly recent project. My source claimed it was only 27 years old, or younger than I am. At the time, the idea that a piece of living architecture could develop into something so large and stable in so (relatively) short a time struck me as unlikely.

That said, the folks I talked to in Nongnah did not seem untrustworthy. The problem with estimating the age of a living structure just by how it looks stems from one of the same factors that make ficus elastica trees so useful in generating architecture to begin with: the roots of the species have a natural tendency to merge with one another. This results in structures with strands that are many feet thick, not only because they are old and have been growing for a long time, but also because a great many separate strands have combined.

In short, when it comes to the age of the living ladder of Nongnah Village I tend to trust the local’s assertion that the structure is, despite all appearances, only about thirty years old. But I don’t take it as gospel.   

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