It was a relatively easy day at the office. I had some spare time and was just Googling around randomly about “Himalayan wonders” when I literally 'stumbled upon' a blog post by Human Planet's Timothy Allen, about the living root bridges of Meghalaya.
The post began with a decidedly intriguing photograph. It was a massive, gigantic root of a banyan tree across a river. But it was not just a plain, natural root. A dense network of branches arched over an intricately curved network of roots and creepers that ran right across the breadth of a mountain stream.
Sure enough I was soon headed backpacking to the eastern most corner of the East Khasi Hills near the Indo-Bangladesh border.
During the trip to the living root bridges of Meghalaya I was to stay in Mawlynnong for a couple of days. A quick Googling revealed that among other things, Mawlynnong had the unique distinction of being “Asia‘s Cleanest Village.” Frankly, I could not frame much of an idea of what that would exactly mean. I was to figure out soon.
The village hangs right above the cliff of the Wahthyllong rapid. Deep inside Meghalaya, almost on the edge of the Indo-Bangladesh border, it’s an extremely beautiful place, with the most welcoming and smiling community of people I have ever met.
And also the cleanest place I have ever been.
Cleanliness in Mawlynnong is not just about keeping the place clean or collecting garbage at selected places. It’s more about a way of life. For instance, the villagers all chip in with a few rupees for a gardener whose job is to keep the place spotlessly clean. Or the fact that from a very early age children are taught to collect garbage in bamboo containers. Coming from a different culture I certainly did not understand that code completely, but it definitely left an enduring impression.
My home during this short stay was atop a tree house in Mawlynnong. Hanging right above a rapid, Mawlynnong has a unique distinction, it is known as “Asia’s Cleanest Village”. This is the only place to stay near the living root bridge. Immaculately clean and exotically beautiful, the village of Mawlynnong is also home to the most welcoming and smiling community I have ever met. I reached there at night, stayed atop a beautiful Machan right over a rambling rapid and the next morning I was on my way to the living root bridge.
A morning trek, by the “King’s Way”
About one and a half kilometer from Mawlynnong a yellowed with time-and-weather notice board read, “Riwai Village. Living Root Bridge.Jingkieng Jri: 400 M.” The trek downwards began through a flight of moss-laden, spongy, dewy-wet stairs that led the way towards the distant sound of a rapid rambling through a stone bed somewhere below. The track went through the beautiful, clean, peaceful, and unusually silent Riwai village. At one point the steps bi-furcated as another spongy, stony track went towards left, leading into the forest. This was the “King’s Way“. Used for carrying betel nut leaves, it has connected all the villages in Meghalaya with Shillong for centuries through an intricate network. The track meandered away into the green silence for a while before disappearing through the next bend. Suddenly, you would be inside a forest of enchanting green magic. A single branch of leaf may bend on to the truly royal way, a wild boar may be observing your steps silently from behind a tree, a wild black cat with shining eyes may stalk you with its quick, silent steps…
On the main track a rare mountain flower bloomed. Its vibrant colors somehow found their way inside the incredible greenness all around. Sunrays from a cloud free, early morning Himalayan sky peeped through the green cover above, creating a shadowy chiaroscuro of soft, golden white and deep, throbbing greenery.
The earlier sound of the distant rapid now became more prominent, the sound of a river leaping across the stone bed in full mirth.
An art in organic engineering
The nearly half a kilometer stretch of stairs suddenly opened up in front of the arched gateway to the living root bridge - a massive and magnificent banyan tree. The slightly triangular, pyramid-shaped trunk was one of the tallest among the surrounding forest. Its roots spread across the breadth of the rapid to meet with the roots of another banyan tree planted on the other bank. It was a fantastic sight, something that had an air of something unreal.
Created about 150 years ago, the bridge was an art in organic engineering. It was created by planting two bamboo trees on each bank of the rapid. A bamboo was initially planked across it to secure the roots from both the trees. With time the roots superseded the original bamboo plank and then over the centuries weaved themselves around it in intricate networks across. So much so that it became strong enough to lay stone pavements on it as well as to implant handrails, which are off course extensions of the roots themselves.
The bridge was created to endure the frequent and often ferocious flash-floods in the area. These floods would blow away any normal bridge, but for the root bridges it’s different as nature finds a way here. Due to its make, there are numerous pores in the bridge. During the flash-floods, the water from the rapid channels through these pores as well as other natural outlets, leaving the main structure intact.
Till date, every single day, the bridge is maintained by the community who lives in the village about half a kilometer above.
On a fairytale morning, in a fantasy world
Somewhere down the rapid, near the bridge, the centuries-old majestic banyan tree reflected off the flowing water of Wahthyllong rapid. Its root-lets kept hanging over the rapid‘s crystal clear water. Soft, early morning sunlight was streaming on to the water, weaving a fantasy world of light and shadows beneath the bridge.
There was a massive, brownish rock under the water with evenly curved holes in it. Those were the fish nests. Strange green mosses clung themselves around these nests. Green and a vermilion tinged yellow formed a strangely beautiful triangle over the rest of the sun-bathed water…
Somewhere around a reddish dead leaf had nestled itself around a green, moss laden, beautifully crafted stone-hole.
And amidst all that flowing life, there was a small, almost circular stone-hole near the rapid-bed. Rain water had filled it to the brim earlier and the miniature natural mirror now reflected the branches of the mighty tree beside in its tiny crater.