It’s undeniable that the Khasi world is undergoing cataclysmic change, yet even as the 21st century filters ever deeper into the hills, there is one survivor from Meghalaya’s animistic past which continues to flourish in villager’s nightmares, around campfires late at night, and at the dark edges of the forests. This is the Thlen, an evil, some would say satanic, magical serpent with a thirst for human blood. There are as many variations of the creature’s story as there are people to tell them. Attempting to locate an “official” or “definitive” version of the tale is a fool’s errand. Folks from different regions, backgrounds, and generations, tend to impose their own spins on the myth. But there are a few important details on which most accounts agree.
The Thlen is always described as a giant man-eating snake that once lived in a cave from which it would strike at passing travelers, capturing them as they walked by and then returning to the subterranean darkness to digest them. After many years of ambushes, the people who lived in the vicinity of the cave began to grow desperate. Then a bright young man (or, alternatively, a minor deity named U-Suidnoh…or sometimes both working together…it’s not always easy to tell), hatched a clever strategy to defeat the Thlen. The young man struck up a friendship with the snake by coming around to its cave every day and gifting it pieces of meat which he would toss to the expectant serpent from a safe distance.
Over time, and never missing a day of meat chucking, the man came to fully win the Thlen’s trust. The serpent became so comfortable with its generous friend that whenever the man came around it would emerge from the cave with its jaws wide open in the expectation of being fed. Then the young man sprung his trap. Rather than throwing a chunk of meat to the serpent, he warmed up a piece of metal over a fire until it was red hot and then threw that into the Thlen’s hungry, waiting, mouth instead, killing it then and there.
(Aside: In some variations of the story the Thlen doesn’t kill the young man because the magical snake, though formidable and dangerous, is lazy, and prefers being fed to going out and hunting. One man I talked to in Sohra took the theme of the Thlen’s sloth and made it the focus of his variant of the myth, the moral of his rendering being that laziness is a serious sin that can lead one to an early grave.)
Now that the Thlen was dead, the corpse of the evil snake had to be disposed of. To accomplish this, the young man commanded that a great feast should be held, and that every piece of the Thlen should be eaten. In this way, the power of the serpent would be forever expunged. Everyone who came to the feast was made to eat a single piece of the snake. But one woman took a chunk of Thlen meat home and saved it for her son, who had been unable to attend.
She put the piece of the Thlen in a container and waited for her son to come back. But he was delayed for a long time, and the woman, unforgivably, forgot to give him the snack she had saved. After some time, the woman, to her horror, suddenly remembered the bit of Thlen in her container. She opened it up and looked inside, only to find that a little snake, the Thlen reborn, had grown out of the piece of leftover meat.
From this newly regenerated snake came a whole new race of Thlens that to this very day haunts and terrorizes the world through its possessed Khasi minions, the Nongshohnoh, or blood hunters, and the Menshohnoh, secret black magicians who worship the evil serpents and feed them blood in return for magical powers and prosperity.
(Aside: a different variant of the story, told to me by a village teacher, focused on the woman’s forgetfulness, and portrayed her mental lapse as a kind of original sin. The moral of the teacher’s take was that forgetfulness is a major character flaw, one that might seem insubstantial, but if you’re not careful can lead to the cursing of the entire world.)
If you travel to the Khasi Hills and find someone willing to talk to you about the Thlen, you’ll probably encounter a few of the details I’ve set out above, mixed with plenty of other spins, embellishments, interpretations, and whole story threads that I’ve personally never bumped into. But everyone you meet will have heard of the Thlen, and even if they think the whole story is bogus, they’ll probably still have a few words of caution regarding the sorcerers who serve the evil snake.
The story of the Thlen may very well be a myth from start to finish. Still, it’s worth pointing out that it is well within the realm of possibility that, long ago, somewhere in the jungle west of Sohra, there could have been a cave with a python in it big enough to eat small children and livestock. Given the natural terror Khasis tend to have for snakes, it’s not totally fanciful to speculate that at one time an unusually large python might have been encountered, killed, and eaten in a great, memorable, feast. Likewise, reports of murders being committed even as recently as the last few decades to obtain the magical snake’s blessing have some credence. Whether one believes in it or not, the Thlen casts a long shadow across the Khasi Hills.
And one thing that most (though, again, not all) accounts agree upon is this: That the Thlen’s cave existed somewhere in the eastern Umaim Gorge. One well-respected source, Gurdon’s The Khasis, even claims that the woman who allowed the evil of the demon to survive came from Mawphu village, my destination for the night.
After an exhausting slog, first up from Kongkhen towards Umblai and then across the steep valley of a tributary of the Umiam, I wound up approaching Mawphu from the side, stumbling out of the jungle into a villager’s back yard. Acquiring one of the settlement’s main paths, I wondered if I would be able to find my way back to the headman’s home, where I had spent a night in 2013.
Probably not. That evening, Mawphu seemed like a totally new village to me. There were vastly more concrete houses than there had been six years before. The settlement had recently acquired a road, and this seemed to have occasioned a localized construction boom. The paths in the village were mostly straight, concrete, and much easier on the knees than traditional stone trails, while the houses seemed twice as big as I remembered, many of them painted in cheerful shades of green and purple.
And yet, despite the development, the place still gave off a deeply isolated vibe. The first person I bumped into just stared down at the ground and walked by at a slightly heightened pace when I said “hello” to them. In distant houses, curious children started to notice me. Crowds of them stood by at a safe distance. But my attempts to communicate with them only sent them running. It was only after a long stretch of confused, exhausted, wandering that I was finally pointed in the direction of the village’s secretary, one Morningstar Nongbri.
After a long, slow, much commented upon walk right through the center of Mawphu, I found myself in the front room of the village secretary’s house, having tea and kwai with the man himself. Morningstar, who had only been at his post in the village council for a few years, was a tough but agreeable, weather-worn looking fellow. It so happened that he had met me very briefly back in 2013, though I had no memory of this. When I started to press him on the history of Mawphu, and on the area’s living root bridges, he immediately suggested that I should meet a man named Knewell.
“I don’t know much about these things,” said Morningstar. “I married a girl from this village, so I am not from here originally. You should talk to Knewell. He is an old man. Very very old.” Being old, it is important to note, is an automatic indicator of knowledge and trustworthiness in the Khasi Hills. “Knewell is like our local historian,” continued Morningstar. “He is very old. Very. He knows more than anybody else here.”
“And what is your religion?” asked Morningstar as the two of us walked down the steep steps to Knewell’s house. The question might seem a bit delicate, but in the Khasi Hills folks tend to be quite direct about such things.
“I’m Catholic. And you?”
“You can say that I am not having any religion.”
“You mean, you don’t believe in God?”
Genuine atheists among Khasis are rare, and ones that would admit it even rarer.
“No. I am just, we can say, in transition.”
“Are you switching to a different congregation?”
This would be less unusual. A single village will often have many different Christian sects well represented within it, even though in Meghalaya Presbyterians are a majority.
“Yes, we can say this.”
“Maybe Presbyterian. Maybe Church of God. I might change to Catholic, though there are not many Catholic houses in the village.”
“What congregation did you used to belong to?”
“I followed the traditional Khasi Religion. God in the stone. God in the plant. We can say that nature worship was my religion. But the problem is, now there are not many Khasi Religion houses left in Mawphu. But to worship in the Khasi Religion properly, you must know all about the traditional rituals. You must know what to do to prevent disease and have good luck and all. Which spirits to make happy. Like that. Really, there are many many rules about how to live in the Khasi religion! Even though we can say that I belong to it, I don’t know most of these rules. And if I want to get a priest to perform some ceremony, I have to go to Sohra or Shillong. So, I think Christian is much better. At least, it is easier for me and my family.”
“Once you’ve converted, will there be any Khasi Religion families left in Mawphu?”
“Maybe only three or four households. And I don’t know how much they believe.”
Knewell lived a good 200 meters downhill from Morningstar in a small two-room house. The man was, as promised, very very old. Though he was retired, not long ago he had served as a close advisor to the king of Sohra, who, though in modern times a mostly ceremonial ruler, still exerts significant influence over Khasi society through his direct land holdings and his position in traditional institutions. Knewell had also spent much of his life doing mission work for the Presbyterian church, and his grandfather was the first Christian convert in Mawphu, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century.
In short, Knewell knew a thing or two.
“You want to know about the plantation of rubber trees, and how we make these into bridges, I think,” Knewell asked after Morningstar had introduced me and given him a short rundown in Khasi on what I was doing in the village.
“Yes, I wanted to ask if you knew how many living root bridges there used to be around Mawphu?”
Knewell thought for a moment and then answered slowly, putting a great deal of thought into every word, though also not quite understanding my question:
“You see, since times of memorials, the primitive peoples of Mawphu Village used to plant rubber trees on both sides of the rivers or streams, with intents to connect the roots from one side to another side. By the roots of these…bridges…are made…” Knewell trailed off. There was an awkward silence as he searched for something else to say on the matter.
“May I ask what is your religion please?” Knewell said, finally.
“Yes. So, do you know how many living bridges there used to be in Mawphu? Were there just a few, or many?”
“I know of three. But only one is left.”
“Do you know what happened to the other two?”
“They disappeared. Because why? you ask. Because the village children, they used to cut the bark of the tree with knives, just to collect the wax.”
By wax, Knewell meant the sticky white latex that gives ficus elastica plants their flexibility. When one makes an incision in the flesh of the tree, the latex will slowly leak out until it congeals over the wound, rather like the way blood hardens over a cut to form a scab. This is the natural means by which the tree protects itself from infection.
Knewell continued: “Once collected, this wax is used for catching birds. From this wax, the children make a trap. They fry the wax on a pan, so it becomes harder, and can be used in a trap because the birds get stuck in it.”
“Does that kill the trees?”
“Not always. But if you cut from here, here, here,” Knewell made a series of chopping gestures all over his arms with the edges of his hands. “If you cut them many times, then they will die. Because of this, three of our living bridges have been destroyed.”
“All three were destroyed? I thought one was left?”
“Three have disappeared.”
“So there once were four in Mawphu?”
“Yes. Only one is left.”
“Do you remember how big, or how long, the ones that disappeared were?”
“I think it is more than twenty years ago they disappeared,” Knewell responded, misunderstanding my question but still furnishing a useful bit of information. “But now there is nothing left of them.”
That was the extent of what Knewell could tell me about the village’s living architecture. While it was disappointing, at least it allowed me to understand the situation in the hills and valleys around Mawphu. While there was only one root bridge still standing on the village’s land, several had existed within living memory, meaning that in the not too distant past the practice of creating living architecture in the area had been widespread. Yet, judging by what Knewell had to say on the matter, it sounded like Mawphu’s root bridges had been in decline for much of his lifetime.
Now I steered the conversation towards Mawphu’s history, a subject I suspected Knewell would have more to say about.
“This village is very very old. We say, from times of memorials, that people inhabited Mawphu. Whole clans, like Umdor, Tariang, Doling, originated from this village, but are here no more, and have migrated to Sohra, and Shillong, and other places in Meghalaya.”
“Then, is Mawphu older than Thieddieng, or Umblai, or the other villages in this valley?” I asked.
“That is a thing which we cannot know. Our village is from long before the time of the coming of the British, this much I can say.”
It was hard to get much of a sense of the village’s early unwritten history from Knewell. But as we moved closer to the present, more details started to come into focus.
I learned from Knewell that even though Mawphu has, “since times of memorials,” fallen under the jurisdiction of the kings of Sohra, the relationship between the village and the kingdom has not always been harmonious. According to Knewell, in 1937, ten years before the end of British rule, a war broke out between Mawphu and the ruler of Sohra; a conflagration which would eventually draw in the colonial administration of what was then Assam Province and would require the personal intervention of the province’s Deputy Commissioner, a civil servant and entomologist by the name of Sir Keith Cantlie.
The conflict stemmed from an inter-village alliance. To the west of Sohra is a small settlement called Suktia. For reasons that Knewell never made clear, the king of Sohra had the headman of Suktia arrested and put in jail. The people of Suktia wanted to get their headman back, but since their village was quite small, they called upon their old ally, Mawphu, to help break him out.
According to Knewell, a combined force of men from the two villages armed with bows and slingshots marched on the prison where the headman of Suktia was being kept. They demanded that he be released, but the guards of the jail refused, and so were attacked. The headman was freed, though only after one of the guards was killed and another wounded.
The wounded guard managed to escape and then report to the King of Sohra what had happened, though he died shortly after delivering the message. Upon receiving the news, the king sent his own force to intercept the jailbreakers and recapture the headman of Suktia. The pursuers soon caught up to the men from the two allied villages, resulting in what Knewell described as a “small, but very terrible,” battle.
The outcome of the clash was inconclusive. The headman was not recaptured, and the criminals from the two villages continued on their way unpunished. Therefore, the king of Sohra sent word to the British police station in Shillong to come and help him out. Though the traditional rulers in the area still had some degree of autonomy at that time, in matters of homicide and warfare the British administration theoretically had complete authority.
Back then there was no motorized traffic between Sohra and Shillong, only a bridle path. Police from the colonial government would only arrive, at the very soonest, after a day had passed.
Taking advantage of this delay, all the people of Mawphu and Suktia retreated to their villages, wisely fearing the punitive measures of the king of Sohra and the British. But the people of Mawphu also knew that for any outside force to come and punish them on their home turf would be a costly prospect. Rooting the wrongdoers out of the jungles or attacking self-sufficient ridgetop villages flanked by cliffs and valleys would mean many more casualties for the authorities. And yet, for the power of both the king of Sohra and the British to be maintained in the Khasi Hills, the miscreants needed to be punished.
The man sent by the colonial government to accomplish this difficult task was noted amateur butterfly expert Sir Keith Cantlie. As yet another example of that breed of British colonial fighting naturalist, Cantlie is a figure who pops up unexpectedly in various esoteric corners of Northeast Indian lore.
First entering the Indian Civil Service in 1909, he was shortly thereafter posted to Assam. With the outbreak of the first world war, he served in a battalion of Maratha troops, and was later sent to Mesopotamia. Following the war, he returned to the farthest flung corners of the British empire in India, being assigned to the government of Manipur, where he developed his interest in entomology while exploring the hills of that region. The study of butterflies appears to have been among the chief passions of his life, a field in which he made several important contributions, including classifying two subspecies, Celastrina hersilia vipia, from the Naga Hills on the Indo-Burmese border, and Udara placidula howarthi found in Assam.
However, where the man seems to have left the deepest impression was in the Khasi Hills, where he spent a great deal of time amongst the Khasis themselves; enough to have written an obscure, though, in its very particular niche, crucially important tract on indigenous legal institutions called Notes on Khasi Law. The document serves to this day as a vital resource for lawyers attempting to arbitrate cases that fall entirely within the purview of Khasi traditional law (in particular, thorny disputes over land rights). This is a fact which is lamented in some circles, with several recent Khasi writers observing that it is a less-than-ideal state of affairs when the primary source material on Khasi law was set down by a foreigner.
The problem is that, as imperfect as it may well be, the text was the only written source on the subject until comparatively recently. As Khasi traditional law was folded into the legal system of the Indian State, it was Notes on Khasi Law that lawyers went to when they had to explain what, exactly, the Khasi legal tradition consisted of.
In Knewell’s telling, when Cantlie arrived in Sohra to deal with the insurrection, he first tried to call the people of the two rebel villages back to the town to negotiate a compromise. But the rebels didn’t budge, so the colonial administrator hatched a plan to lure them out. He travelled to Thieddieng, a village which, though it had close contact with Mawphu, hadn’t yet been caught up in the war and so was neutral ground as far as the people of Mawphu were concerned. Cantlie then sent word to the headman of Mawphu, offering him safe passage to come to Thieddieng and discuss finding some way to resolve the conflict.
The headman and many of his subordinates went to Thieddieng to meet with Cantlie, trusting him more than they did the king of Sohra, but it was a trap. The colonial administrator immediately had the people from Mawphu arrested, and then separated and sent to various prisons in the British provinces of Bengal and Assam. Because of Cantlie’s harsh actions, the insurrection was stomped out in one fell swoop, and to this day there are people with ancestors from Mawphu scattered across Northeast India and Bangladesh.
Knewell, understandably, is no great fan of Keith Cantlie. But it’s hard to tell whether his characterizations of the war and the colonial administrator are accurate. Frustratingly, I haven’t found a scrap of written material to show that the conflict in 1937 even occurred. That said, it would be an odd thing for Knewell to have made up out of whole cloth, especially since it doesn’t paint the people of Mawphu in an especially positive light.
Cantlie would go on to raise a Khasi labor battalion during World War 2, an action that eventually won him a knighthood. He stayed on in India after Independence, devoting himself wholeheartedly to his entomological pursuits. However, he was forced into an early retirement when he broke his knee on the steps of an Inspection Bungalow in Jhakama, in what is now Nagaland, leaving him permanently crippled. Thereafter, he returned to England, spending much of the rest of his life going through and labeling decades worth of old insect specimens at the British Museum of Natural History. He died in the late 1970s.
But Keith Cantlie’s memory lives on in narrow entomologist’s circles, in a surprisingly large number of recent scholarly articles on Khasi legal matters, and in the distant recollections of Khasis from Mawphu stranded in Bangladesh after Partition.
“As for the British,” said Knewell, “I don’t know whether or not we can say they are good or bad, but we can definitely say that they are very smart!”
Knewell was getting tired. I think just as much to keep himself awake as to entertain me, he asked one of his younger relatives to prepare tea.
“Here, since times of memorials, we only take red tea, with no milk,” he said once the beverage was brought out.
“That’s fine with me,” said I, taking one of the dainty ceramic teacups which had been delivered to us on a plastic tray.
Knewell took a long noisy sip and then was silent for a few moments. “Do you know the story of the Thlen?” he asked, pivoting the conversation in an unexpected but welcome direction.
“Versions of it,” I replied. “I’ve heard that the Thlen came from around here. I’ve even read a version of the story that says that the woman who forgot to give the last piece of the Thlen to her son came from Mawphu.”
“No, no, she came from around Laitduh Village.”
More evidence that few accounts of the Thlen agree.
“And we can say,” continued Knewell, “that the Thlen is like a demon, who looks like a big snake. And once, not far from here, he lived in a cave, and attacked people who came to Sohra. But only if they came in groups of one, or three, or five…”
“Only if you came in odd numbers,” Morningstar added.
“Finally,” said Knewell, “people from far and wide began to grumble because of the Thlen attacking passersby. So, they went to U-Suidnoh, who, we can say, is also like a demon.”
“A demon? Is he evil?” I asked.
“Yes, we can say this,” said Knewell.
“Suid,” added Morningstar, “is actually just short for ‘ksuid’ which means a devil in our language.”
This was a spin on the tale that I had never encountered before. Usually, U-Suidnoh is the hero of the story. In many variations he’s just an unusually clever human being, though he’s also sometimes portrayed as a sort of demigod. In the version given in Gurdon, the man who vanquishes the Thlen is “acting under the advice of a god called U Suid-noh.” I had never run into someone who viewed him as a demon. However, Morningstar’s claim that the word “Suid” can mean ‘devil’ checks out, and with some digging, there do appear to be other accounts that characterize U-Suidnoh as a malevolent, or at least mischievous, spirit. For example, Bijoya Sawain’s Khasi Myths Legends and Folktales states that U-Suidnoh was “a small demon known for his fugacity.” But perhaps Knewell’s rendering of U-Suidnoh is better understood as merely naughty rather than truly evil, after the fashion of Professor’s Cartoon Ghosts.
“U-Suidnoh is friends with the Thlen,” continued Knewell. “That is why the people went to him. And so he agreed to help them. One day, U-Suidnoh came to the entrance of the Thlen’s cave and called out ‘Hello, old friend! Is there anything you would like me to bring you from the market?’ and the Thlen replied: ‘Bring me back pork! I demand a pork!’ So U-Suidnoh went away, and he bought a pork from the market. But then he also took a big white stone, and he put this in a fire until it was burning hot to touch. Then he took some of the fat of the pork and wrapped it around the hot stone, so that the stone looked just like a big piece of cooked pork. Then he walked to the entrance of the Thlen’s cave, and said: ‘Here, friend! I have brought what you asked.’ So the Thlen came out with his mouth wide open, and U-Suidnoh threw in the hot rock. And then the Thlen accepted the pork, and when it swallowed, then and there, the Thlen was killed!”
“So, after that time, people all over began to notice that the Thlen was no more. They could freely travel if they wished. Word spread far and wide, even all the way to Sylhet. Finally, everybody came and decided to find the Thlen’s body, and pull it from its cave, and have a great feast. They took the body to what we now call Dainthlen Falls, which means the place where the Thlen was cut up. They divided the Thlen into three parts, so all the people could enjoy the flesh of the snake.
“To the people of the lowlands and plains, they gave the tail. And to the people who live on the slopes, like we here in Mawphu, they gave the abdomen. But to the people of Sohra, they gave the head and the brain. And that is why the people of Sohra were the first to learn how to read and write.”
This was another detail of the myth that I had never heard before. Given that all accounts do agree that the Thlen was a wicked creature, did Knewell view reading and writing as ultimately derived from evil? It was hard to say, but since he had penned several books in the Khasi language himself, this seemed unlikely. But perhaps the idea was a holdover from a time that was more skeptical of outside learning. It was, after all, Welsh missionaries who brought the written word to the Khasi Hills. Maybe the person who first introduced the strand into the story was drawing some sort of parallel between eating the Thlen’s head to absorb a small part of its evil powers and being educated by Pharengs.
Or maybe Knewell just thought it was a fun idea and decided to throw it in.
After getting up relatively late the next morning and having a quick sip of tea in the village secretary’s house, Morningstar and I went out to visit the last vestige of living architecture on Mawphu’s land. We were joined by the village’s headman, who made it a policy to meet every traveler who came to Mawphu. As of 2019, this hadn’t been much of an imposition on his time; only a handful of visitors had shown up during his tenure.
Mawphu’s final living bridge was located a few kilometers north of the village, down a gradually sloping trail through rocky jungle. The path afforded us many views out over the soon-to-be-tamed Umiam as the river rose to the north in a succession of wide pools and stony cataracts. There was a fair deal of climbing over boulders and traversing short staircases, but after days of ups and downs, this was a comparatively easy, pleasant, walk, even though I hadn’t eaten anything more than a few biscuits in the past twelve hours. I must have been finally getting in shape, even if my exhaustion over the previous days had masked this somewhat.
After a little while, our route was intersected with other trails marked by large white Xs painted on the sides of trees. These were not ancient paths, but rather tracks surveyed by NEEPCO. In the near future, roads were to be cut through the jungle, following the Xs down to the river.
After Morningstar explained to me what the Xs meant, I delicately pressed him on what he thought of the dam, and whether he was concerned about pollution, earthquakes, the loss of land, or the slated influx of migrant workers.
“All these things worry me very much. But we need the project,” he asserted bluntly, walking ahead.
And that settled that.
Mawphu’s last root bridge crosses a tiny stream called the Umlit. At about 8 meters long, and only around 2.5 meters above the riverbed, the bridge is thought to have been the smallest one that ever existed on the village’s land. The structure is no longer in use. Over a decade ago, a concrete span was built right next to the root bridge, meaning that the trail from Mawphu bypasses the living structure completely. Since then, the root bridge has been largely abandoned except by kids gouging chunks out of the side of it to collect latex for animal traps.
The Umlit bridge is not something you would put on a postcard. It has seen better days, but it probably wasn’t spectacular even when it was in good health. Still, the tree the bridge is formed from is alive, and has been extended the protection of the Mawphu village council.
It doesn’t have to disappear.
I took some time measuring and photographing the structure, while also gathering what information I could about it from Morningstar and the headman.
“Do you guys mind if I write about this?” I asked once my work was done.
“No,” said the headman. “It’s good that you report. But I think that we will need to find ways to grow more of these Jingkieng Jris.”
“What’s to stop you?” I asked.
“You see,” said the headman. “While our ancestors built these bridges…grew these bridges, as I should say…now, we only make steel and concrete. It has come to my attention that, in the past few decades, the government has sanctioned steel and concrete suspension bridges only. Funding from the government comes to us if we build those kinds of bridges, not these Jingkieng Jris.”
This explains why there was a concrete bridge located right next to the living bridge, a seemingly redundant arrangement that one sees with surprising frequency in the villages of Southern Meghalaya. Often healthy, perfectly useable living bridges will have expensive, newly built concrete and steel-wire bridges beside them, crossing the same streams, servicing the same trails, apparently fulfilling exactly the same purpose. And, sometimes, the newer bridges will have already fallen into disrepair even as the older living bridges soldier on.
This is because, through government sponsored rural employment programs, villagers are paid to build infrastructure, even if that infrastructure is unnecessary or ill-suited to local conditions. This does funnel a significant amount of cash into the villages, and, temporarily, provides employment, but it also results in paths, bridges, and buildings that have no purpose beyond the labor involved in their construction.
It has also led villagers away from creating living architecture in many places, providing yet another factor in the decline of the practice.
“But nowadays,” said the headman, “we are expecting that the government will plan for the preservation and growing of these Jingkieng Jris. The government must address ‘What is the importance of Jingkieng Jris?’ Because we have seen that there are so many tourists that are interested in visiting these, so I hope that the government will take an interest and give us support to grow more of them.”
One certainly hopes so. Yet I couldn’t help but think of one of the things that make living architecture so remarkable to begin with: since it is grown, rather than being built from materials sourced from elsewhere, a root bridge is perhaps the most self-sufficient piece of infrastructure in the world. Once established, it will develop, strengthen, and largely maintain itself. And it will do all of this for free. No government funding necessary. The people who grew the living bridges of previous generations didn’t need outside assistance. And that was kind of the point.
Now the headman wished me luck and then went across the concrete bridge to his land in the jungle to the north. After taking a drink from the Umlit, Morningstar turned around and began to walk slowly back up the path towards Mawphu.
Taking one last look at the decaying bridge over the Umlit, it was hard for me to envision what role, if any, root bridges will have in the Umiam gorge once the hydroelectric dam is completed and the region has been developed. The area’s living architecture was created to address the communication problems of a place far from roads, not one in which the villagers could hop in a vehicle and ride to Sohra or Mawsynram.
Hopefully, some memory of the region’s past, including not only its root bridges, but also its history and legends and untamed wilds, will survive. But as to what the future holds for the valley of the River of Tears, I honestly can’t say.
It was with a belly full of rice courtesy of Morningstar’s family that I started my final ascent out of the Valley of the River of Tears, following the ancient footpath that led from Mawphu to the large village of Laitduh, all the way up at the top of the next plateau. From that village, a newly paved road leads over a few gently rolling kilometers to Sohra.
I was accompanied at the beginning of the trek by the village secretary, who, wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat he had procured from Shillong, had work in his pepper fields off in the jungle to the east. As he explained to me:
“I would walk with you as far as Laitduh, but the way is very clear. It’s like our traditional highway. Just go straight, and up, and up, and up, and you will get to Laitduh without any problem.”
It was close to one o’clock when we started out, and down in Mawphu the morning had blossomed into a hot, humid, afternoon. But the temperature would not be a problem for long. The old path climbs 1000 meters over about two and a half kilometers. Up on the high, cold, limestone moors, the Meghalaya winter still had several weeks to go.
We had only been walking for a few minutes when Morningstar stopped and said:
“This is where I must turn to go to my work. My pepper trees are over there, beyond that hill.”
Then Morningstar bid me farewell and walked off into the hot jungle. Slowly he grew smaller amongst the bay leaf and Jackfruit trees. The last I saw of the man was his wide brimmed hat, tiny in the distance, sinking below a green ridge.
And now I was alone with a giant hill to climb.
There was no respite along the path. It led, brutally, straight up. This was an ascent I had long dreaded, the final escape from the valley of the River of Tears.
Mawphu was now far below, and the green jungle around it was receding into the hazy air that filled the valley. The village, too, began to fade, though the corrugated metal roofs of some of the houses still glinted brightly in the sun, piercing through the thick atmosphere as the rest of the settlement slowly vanished. Higher, and I could see completely over Mawphu, and just barely down to the fast-disappearing Umiam, a purplish snaking line along the bottom of the valley. But this, too, was soon lost in the haze, and below was nothing but mist.
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