Double Decker Root-bridge, Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

never ending stairs

My legs trembled. I leaned heavily on a bamboo stick. Climbing every step required an effort now. And there were still more than one thousand five hundred steps to go. I looked up and asked Beith, our guide for the day, to keep younger one going by tricking him into playing. But playing had to be accomplished along with climbing up. If there was a puddle or pool, he would keep going but…we were on a narrow and steep climb, surrounded on all sides, all here meant up and down only and no left or right, by humongous mass of trees. A tree (Baccaurea ramiflora) called Soh-ram-deing in Khasi language, that grows abundantly on hills, was laden heavily with bunches of green fruits( Burmese Grapes) the size of lemon. It caught the attention of ‘mother’s mind’. I asked Beith to get a few bunches and give it to my son to throw. I devised a new game for him and it did work!

Things became easier as he kept going up and throwing ‘fruit balls’ down.

“Do not throw any on me.” I spoke with dry, tired voice.

He kept throwing the balls and we climbed a hundred and more stairs. We were at the most difficult stretch of the climb. When I looked down, my head felt dizzying. I closed eyes, took a firm hold on the bamboo stick and strengthened myself.

Tnnnn… A fruit ball landed on my head and I felt anger flaring up inside me. A loud laughter and the fast run up on the stairs by little feet subdued it. I smiled and patted myself for an innovative aspect of ethno-biology to accomplish this strenuous trek to double-decker root bridge – a marvel of ethno-engineering.

The fruit balls

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Khasis have been building root bridges since long to remain connected from one hill to another. There are more streams in these hills than the hills. Even during the non-rainy seasons, these streams do not dry up and are difficult to cross. http://www.cherrapunjee.com/living-root-bridges/

A tree usually needs soil to root itself in, but Ficus elastica, which grows here, there and everywhere in Khasi Hills, roots itself conveniently on massive boulders, alongside and in the rivers and streams. It sends its roots, clutching the boulders from all sides, down to the river bed, and thus escapes the soil erosion caused by the hasty, impetuous flow of streams and rivers.

Another tree that grows abundantly here is betel nut. Its shoot does shoot up to get noticed among the prodigious mass of greens, and in the process looses the fat on the trunk. These trunks are split in two along the length and its inner mass is scooped out. These hollowed trunks are then used to direct the roots of Ficus elastica in the desired directions.

It could be one Ficus tree on a side of a river, its roots directed to the other side where these are allowed to take root in soil. It could also be the entwining of roots of two trees on either side of the river. Not just that, these root bridges, besides having more than two base spans, also have railing spans and additional support spans. It takes ten to fifteen years to ‘grow’ a fully functional root bridge.

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We set off on this trek from Village Tyrna (Cherrapunji) in morning. Beith, our guide, handed us the Bamboo sticks. Stick was too long for my younger son. Beith sped away and brought a smaller stick. It set the tone between the two that let us accomplish this difficult trek.

Beith, our guide, with kids

The trek comprises of going down 2500 ft and then coming up. It is not a rough natural rocky path. But before we frown at the spoiling of naturalness because of concrete steps, children climbing up to attend their schools reminded us of the harsh realities of living in these luxurious surroundings. For the people living in the villages of Nongriat, Nongthymmai and Mynteng, this arduous trek is their only connection to the outside world. Rain or sunshine, school children, pregnant women, ailing elders, everyone has to climb these strenuous steps to get the education and medical facilities.

If we divide the entire trek in four quarters, first quarter is easier in the sense of gradient. It traverses its steps through thickly foliated jungle of Bay leaf, Jack-fruit, expensive white mountain Pepper, giant Ficuses, Betelnut trees, Bamboo groves and all the other strata of the society of plants, like herbs, shrubs, ferns, moss and many more. The earthy smell of moist soil and fallen leaves scented our breath. The whistling song of Scarlet Minivet, hammering of woodpeckers, Koot-too-rooks of Barbets excited our eardrums. We tried to spot the bird but failed.

What could have been a birding heaven because of the good canopy views and variety of vegetation, was in fact a difficult place for birding in this part of Meghalaya. Khasis are not so reserved in their eating habits which one can easily understand, given the difficult terrain and very late introduction to efficient farming. Even now, these villages have not much agriculture around them. Further, hunting is a sport as well here. I saw many school going children carrying catapult in their hands. Some village huts even had Black Crested Yellow Bulbul in cage hung outside their houses. The birds were therefore abnormally fidgety and skittish.

However, butterflies have no such threat to its life and this trek can very well be termed as ‘Butterfly trek’. I saw the Chocolate Tiger flirting around idling villager’ stretched legs like the houseflies, without it being netted or killed or chased away. The rapidly descending altitude, sun and shade, warmth and humidity, green foliage to blue streams, mosses and ferns; all collude together to give a richness of habitat to the butterflies. Aptly, one finds butterflies ranging from the tiny Fluffy Tit( wingspan 28-32mm) to the Great Nawabs(100-120mm). You will have to struggle hard to not chase these charming creatures lest you not reach the destination. But there is a way out. You can stay at the rest-house near the Double Root Bridge. We could not do that with kids. That way one can very well indulge in the beauty of the path itself, chasing and cherishing all the treasures of wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds and many more.

dizzying steps

So I was at the first quarter of the trek. Steps became steep, almost vertical in the gradient in the second section. If one is not accustomed to regular walking, he will find himself staggering and perhaps vertiginous too. This steep descent in altitude took us to hot and humid climate. It made us sweat and pushed little one to resort to threatening. The threat was conquered by a generous dose of raisins and chocolates and juice and by a promise from our guide that very soon there would be a stream and he could throw as many pebbles and even boulders if he is strong enough, as he wants. As for us, we could not pay sweating the desired attention as different kind of butterflies grabbed it( the attention, not the sweat).

That groggy, steep descent of second quarter gave way to easy, stony pathway and we felt relaxed that the most difficult part was over. But it was yet only half of the entire trek. Soon the trek reached to a stream which had to be crossed by walking on a rickety steel wire rope bridge. Even the most careful and calculated step on the bridge swayed it dangerously. Its side span felt saw-toothed under the worried grip. The size of the boulders in the stream and full spat of water in the rainy season made it a perilous undertaking ( for the chicken-hearted people like me) but the bridge somehow did not betray.

The swaying wire-rope bridge

The swaying wire-rope bridge

A look around and insane greenness sent the senses out of sense. Sky was not allowed even a role of canvas there, forced to stay put here and there between the entwined branches’ fence and canopies dense. The moist air smelt of all consuming greenness.

Root bridge in growing stage.

Root bridge in growing stage.

Moss laden flight of stairs waited for the bewildered eyes and jittery mind, with bemusement. The thick arteries in my circulatory system felt overloaded and lungs huffed and puffed like the coal engine. Another scarier wire rope bridge appeared on the way. It swayed even more, was perched higher and the river below it had larger boulders and its current more furious. Worse, its side spans consisted of wire ropes placed sufficiently apart for the ease of people, thin or fat, to slip out and fall down. And if one gripped the side railing tightly, it left its marks on the urban, mouse friendly hands.

Moss covered stairs.

Moss covered stairs.

More stairs waited for wobbly knees and woozy heads. We conquered these one by one and claimed victory over the third quarter also. We wanted some rest and had to climb up and down a few more times to find steps that were not infested with bigger red ants. I loaded off the heavy backpack and felt another weight loaded on my mind. A vicious smile appears on my face. Hmm. What goes down has to go up again. I asked all to eat and drink, not just out of my motherly instinct though. I wanted the back pack to loss some weight. Are you wondering why neither my husband nor the guide carried the load. Well, guide was entrusted the most difficult task of keeping the younger one busy, that is, by playfully talking and walking. Manish as ever was busy filling the eight GB card of the camera.

First root bridge

Kids came running and jumping down the steps, to tell that they reached the first root bridge.
“Mamma! come fast”. Perks of traveling with kids! Their squeals of joy, enthusiasm, and their desire to share with us their delights and treasures, it all makes you forget the backpack and perils of traveling with them and their father. A curious happy family now sauntered together and reached the first root bridge.

There it was, the root bridge and it did not sway!

Single root bridge

It was a single bridge. Its two ‘rooted’ railing spans felt crinkled but live under the firm grip, the base felt strong and disciplined beneath a family’s feet. Ferns and mosses embellished the railings and base span. kids wondered if they could jump on it. Beith nodded and the bridge scored full marks in the quality check. Many secondary roots, directed to weave the base, crisscrossed to knit intricate, solid floor on base and gaps were fixed with weather-beaten stones. The tree, Ficus elastic, stood tall and steadfast; its many secondary roots alive and anchored on large boulders; the flow of water bothered neither the tree nor us. No wonder, with years it will become stronger as more and more secondary roots grow and older roots become thicker by day.

Indeed an ethno-engineering marvel!

more stairs to climb

Spirit illuminated, we ascended more stairs and stopped at a tea shop that was the only place to get some refreshments. And it was almost at the end of the trek. That is why I was carrying all those energy boosters and thirst quenchers in my backpack. Now that the destination was upon us, we walked with abated breath and behold! We were there!

Double decker root bridge

It was a double-decker root bridge growing out of one tree. Double decker because it had two decks, just like the elevated road network. The tree had an elaborate pillar structure of supporting roots for itself and for the bridge as well. Leaves of all shapes and sizes, from large heart shaped leaves to the needlepoint fern leaves, crocheted a facade for the side spans. Leaves also dangled from below base span and the bridge looked like a long hanging deck. I wondered if our Khasi ancestors ever thought when they grew it that the world would come there one day and marvel at their engineering acumen. Or that a family would come, where kids would dream of bicycling on the bridge, their mother would like to sit and contemplate and meditate there and father would like to read a book. How many hurried and leisurely feet might have crossed the bridge? Did lovers ever looked at the beauty surrounding them when they crossed it or they just could not get over with each other?

Falls at the lovely brook

As if the bridge itself was not sensuous enough, it had an envious setting of being across the span of a lovely brook. The brook was three stepped, gentling the fierce fall of water, into a romantic water body. The brook was safe for a swim. A fellow trekker, whom we met at the vertical descend, was already swimming there. He urged us to swim to the waterfall which only Manish dared to do. But we all did took a plunge in the brook. It felt chilled initially, then crisp and finally cool enough to enjoy pleasurably. It was so soft, I felt untouched when I came out.

Everyone was absolutely ravenous after the swim. All the food was gobbled up and all the juices were slurped. Well, not all actually. I had munchies and crunches for the retreat, packed safely in my backpack.

closeup of double root bridge

Reluctantly, we started our retreat with a steady plod back up the hill. The number and gradient of steps made it a daunting task with younger boy. That is when ethno-biology provided a solution in the form of those bunches of berries which became balls in his small hands. He threw these happily on whatever caught his fancy and forgot that he was tired, that there were too many stairs to climb.

Thanks to those ethno-bio balls and thanks to you Beith, for it was you who kept little one going!

A slightly altered version of this story was published in Mint.

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