The good people of Mawpdai Village have pinned much of their hopes for the future on a single tree; a tree so striking and unusual they expect it will draw in visitors from all over the world. While it remains to be seen whether this is a sound development strategy, what is certain is that the tree in question is most definitely unique.
But it’s hard to explain what’s so interesting about the tree without being right next to it. Even as I walked into the village and began asking questions, it remained unclear to me whether Mawpdai’s special tree was an example of living architecture, or simply an exceptional natural feature. Photos, at least the one’s I’ve seen, are almost useless in this regard. From a distance, Mawpdai’s exceptional tree looks, at most, slightly abnormal. From up close, all a picture shows is an odd hollow of curving roots. Not exactly the stuff of a tourist’s dreams.
A new, smooth, and rather expensive-looking concrete path had been built from Mawpdai up to a small hill that overlooked the village. I had been told that this would lead me right to the Mystery Tree. Given that the way was so obvious, it seemed like I should have been able to take a leisurely stroll to the exceptional tree without a guide and at my own pace. But upon making this thought known to one of the village teachers, a certain Bah Wonderful, I was provided with a total of eight guides. They were all kids from the village, including a couple of teenagers named Frankie and Tennyson.
And so, at the center of a great noisy parade through the jungle, with the kids stopping occasionally to shoot at birds with their slingshots or politely explain which trees were jackfruit trees and what grass was broom grass, I was led towards whatever it was that the people of Mawpdai hoped would put the village on the map. Ahead, I could see that the path was leading to a patch of thick jungle up the hill, but which tree in the thicket was the Mawpdai Mystery Tree remained to be seen.
“So, where is the tree?” I asked Frankie.
He pointed into the jungle, where there was a multitude of trees.
“There,” said he.
“Ah…but which one?”
“It’s the one that looks like…a tree.”
“Isn’t that all of them?”
“It’s there. Don’t worry. You will see soon.”
We walked a little further up the path, and then I began to see what Frankie was talking about.
There was a tree up the hill that rose above all the others: a great ficus, or rubber fig,with a long straight trunk that was topped by a wide canopy of leafy branches. It was undeniably an impressive tree, though I wasn’t sure why people would be tempted to come from far away to see it. But as we came nearer, something which I couldn’t quite place looked odd about it.
Then I realized all at once why this was, truly, an exceptional tree. Rubber Figs almost never have long straight trunks. They tend to grow in an unruly fashion, with roots and branches shooting out in different directions. Often, they are significantly wider than they are tall, taking much of their shape from clinging to and wrapping around other things. It’s the very fact that they do not grow with long straight trunks, but rather in a malleable, twisting, opportunistic way, which makes them useful in the creation of living architecture.
But here in Mawpdai was a Rubber Fig that had somehow molded itself into the shape of a completely different species.
Walking up the path, we were soon under the wide, high, canopy of ficus branches. Immediately the kids all ran over to go climb the tree while I stopped to take photos. Some of them disappeared behind the Rubber Fig, while others fearlessly pulled themselves right up the sides of the trunk, all the while making monkey noises and challenging me to join them. Soon many of the kids were ten or fifteen meters above the ground.
Approaching it, I could see that the trunk of the weird ficus was composed of dozens upon dozens of roots, a few of the wider ones shooting straight from the top of the tree down to the ground, but most whipping around in a series of rings. Between the roots were small open spaces that looked like little windows in the side of a medieval fortress tower.
And then, unexpectedly, Frankie’s little Khasi face peeped out of one of the windows high above. Another face followed, further up, and then another. The tree seemed to be growing heads.
“See!” Frankie called down, “I am in this tree!”
Then one of the grinning Khasi heads withdrew from a window and then reappeared in an opening further up. The great trunk was hollow, and the kids were climbing up the inside of it. Here was something that I had truly never seen before.
The vast majority of ficus plants one sees growing in Meghalaya have been put there by people, developing not from seeds, but from cuttings taken from mature plants. This includes most of the ficus trees that have been trained into living architecture, which generally need to be situated in places where the plants wouldn’t take root of their own accord.
Even if one stumbles into a ficus deep in the jungle, far from a village or any obvious agricultural activity, chances are it did not arrive there naturally. One sees many along the rocks of riverbanks throughout the Khasi Hills, but what I’ve been told is that most of these are, again, grown from cuttings, and that many are fallen root bridges, root bridges that never took hold, or just places where the locals wanted a bit more shade. Fig trees are useful in this task, given that they can adapt to rocky, nutrient-poor locations where other trees wouldn’t survive. It’s this same quality which makes the species such a successful, low-maintenance, indoor plant the world over.
Due to the severely limited historical documentation of the area before the 19th century, trying to ascertain exactly how far back the practice of utilizing Rubber Figs in the Khasi Hills goes is difficult. But given the sheer size of many of the ficus plants one sees in Khasi settlements, along with the fact that they are mentioned, prominently, in some of the earliest written accounts of the region, it seems a safe bet that the tradition goes back many centuries.
Still, the process by which the trees propagated into the region is not well understood. In one of nature’s strangest examples of co-evolution, every separate species of fig tree is dependent on a unique species of wasp for pollination. The figs (which are technically the flowers of the plant, not the fruit) have evolved to allow female wasps of just the right sort to crawl into them to lay their eggs, depositing pollen on the way. The wasp eggs are then protected by the fig, and when they hatch, the newly born insects breed inside of the fig and then claw their way out of it. Then they fly to another tree of the same species, taking some pollen along with them. Thus, the plant and the insect are totally dependent upon one another.
This arrangement apparently began to develop well before the extinction of the dinosaurs and has only been growing more intensely specific over time. Since there are now around 900 species of fig tree in the world, there is a nearly equal number of varieties of wasp that have evolved to pollinate them. Apparently, there is a minor amount of overlap, and the occasional wasp that works with more than one kind of tree, but for the most part it’s one wasp species to one fig species.
The overwhelming majority of fig trees one blunders into in Meghalaya are of the ficus elastica species. But, oddly, even though the species may be found over a vast portion of the Asian landmass, it had never been observed to reproduce in the wild until very recently. The seeds of the plant, the final result of the strange alliance between wasps and figs, had never been found. It was so rare to encounter a naturally growing example that the species was considered extinct in the wild until the early 2000s, when a few ficus trees started popping up without human intervention in Singapore, having been pollinated by the P. clavigera variety of wasp (Harrison, R.D., Chong, K.Y., Pham, N.M. et al. Pollination of Ficus elastica: India rubber re-establishes sexual reproduction in Singapore. Sci Rep 7, 11616 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-09873-z)
Does this mean that all root bridges in Meghalaya come from a common ancestral tree? Were ficus elastica trees ever native to the region, or were they all brought in by people? What was the process by which a naturally extinct plant species spread to, and became quite common in, the deepest, darkest, most inaccessible canyons of the Khasi Hills?
I suspect there’s a fascinating story here, but nobody knows it yet.
All of that said, I have on rare occasions observed naturally growing fig trees in the jungles of Meghalaya, though I don’t have the training to say whether they were of the elastica species of the ficus genus. If one does see a fig tree in the region that was not put there by human beings, most likely it will be growing high among the branches of another tree, sending roots whipping down around its host’s trunk until they embed themselves in the soil of the forest floor.
The ficus trees of Meghalaya are naturally epiphytic, that is, they develop on the exterior of another plant, using the host organism as a kind of scaffold on which they collect sunlight, grow roots, and siphon off water and nutrients. Once the fig tree has taken hold in the higher branches of the already established plant, it rapidly grows at its host’s expense. In the jungle, where the taller trees block out the sun, this is an effective, if brutal, survival strategy. The host gradually dies even as the rubber tree develops into a kind of exo-skeleton around it. Hence the name sometimes applied to the plants: Strangler Figs.
The Mystery Tree of Mawpdai was thus a very striking example of a Strangler Fig. Here, the epiphyte had grown completely around its host, but had then gone a step further, molding itself into the shape of the plant it had gradually murdered. The original tree had long-since rotted away, but the ficus had developed enough that it was now free standing, though hollow.
Walking to the base of the tree, which was still covered in the little self-proclaimed Khasi monkeys, it was clear that this was an entirely natural occurrence and not an example of living architecture. But I wasn’t disappointed.
Several large rubber roots plunged into the red dirt where the base of the tubular ficus trunk met the ground. It was possible for me to fit between these and then look up the hollow interior of the tree. A circular shaft rose over thirty meters to a little ring of light high in the forest canopy. This was ribbed with hundreds of roots which had, decades ago, whipped around and around the outside of the now long dead host tree.
The kids all climbed back into the shaft, squeezing through openings in the side. My view of the circle of light at the top was now obscured by little Khasis staring down at me.
“Climb up!” demanded Frankie.
It looked like a lot of work, but then again, this was not something one got the chance to do every day.
With my back pressed against one side of the shaft and my legs and arms pushing against the other, I lifted myself up through the middle of the tree. The experience was like navigating a vertical cave passage that was also way up in the sky.
Climbing higher and higher, I looked out through the spaces between the roots every few feet. At first, all I could see through these were the tops of trees, but after a little while it was possible to look out over Mawpdai village, and then out across a huge expanse of green hill country, framed by the roots of the strangler fig…that is, when a kid’s head didn’t shockingly materialize in the window I happened to be looking through. The Khasis seemed just as comfortable going up the outside of the tree as climbing up through the shaft. Apparently, they always did this when a tourist showed up.
As I ascended the shaft, it contracted, and the windows between the roots became less frequent. After over thirty meters of climbing, I looked down between my feet at a dizzying fall through the center of the great strangler fig and experienced an unusual combination of claustrophobia and vertigo.
Sweaty and nervous, I made the final push to the top of the shaft and rose up into daylight. Emerging from the trunk of the tree, I was presented with lethal drops to every side. The air was fresh, and the view over the jungle canopy and much of southern Meghalaya was magnificent, but there wasn’t anywhere for me to go from there.
But not so for the children. They had all climbed back into the tree and were now making their way up through the center of the trunk. Then they came squirming up out of the top of the shaft. I clung tightly to whatever I could find, thinking that the children were simply going to exit the shaft and then hang around the narrow, already crowded, space between the opening and the open air. But I had underestimated them. Frankie and company burst forth and then immediately went even higher, making more monkey noises and beckoning me to follow them as they climbed far up into the thin, flexible branches of the strangler fig, hanging by nothing but their legs and fingers tens of meters above the ground.
But they, of course, were small and nimble and energetic.
I had gone far enough.
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