The Living Root Bridges

When I sat down to blog our experiences at Meghalaya, I was about to find that I underestimated the job! The travel had happened in 2016 and I had to brush my memories by reading the basic facts available on the internet. We had visited only a few places around Shillong and knew that we had to go back for the second or third time to really claim to have seen the whole of Meghalaya.

The wise named this place Meghalaya, which means “The Abode of Clouds” in Sanskrit.  The north-eastern state of India was formed in the year 1972 when the districts of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills came together. Since then English has been the official language of this region almost paying due respect to the British who called this place the Scotland of the East. The other principal languages spoken include KhasiGaroPnarBiate Hajong and a bit of Bengali. It is also interesting to know that unlike many Indian states, Meghalaya follows a matrilineal system in the society.  The lineage and inheritance are traced through women; we could sense the sort of confidence and empowerment to match this information on the faces of every woman we came across. Men and women chew beetle leaves and arecanut flakes with a dash of lime to keep their bodies warm all the time. It is tough to break habits, I wonder if this is still relevant in the current scenario where the Climate is evidently changing and the Mountains are no longer cold as they used to be.

      I flew to Guwahati from Bangalore, a very boring fight it was. Mr. Dream had some work at Agartala [capital of the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, Tripura] and he joined me at Guwahati. We reached Guwahati around 4pm. The tiny airport of Guwahati was passenger friendly. we also found that it was quite clean too. Cab drivers did not seem to be in a hurry to latch on to their customers, we had our person waiting for us with a name card. The guest house we had booked, had arranged for this person. In no time, he explained so many things that we understood why there was no “hunt’’ for customers at the taxi stand- cabs were the only convenient solution for a traveller in Guwahati! We had a 6hrs long drive ahead of us that evening to reach Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya.

                Surinder, the young cab driver had thoughtfully turned on the radio to entertain us. We were visiting in the December and were soon the fans of the Christmas carols that were being aired. “Madam, you will now feel as if you are cut off from the rest of the world, we are entering the heart of the Mountains of India”, Surinder told me as if he noticed my excitement as I watched the signs of urbanisation started giving way for villages and uninhabited lands eventually. “You like pineapple? It is delicious and I could stop on the way if you want to buy some”, he started educating me. “Not much, but tell me more about Meghalaya, and do you think you can take us to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner?, I was more worried about finding pure vegetarian food and was game for pineapples if I were to find none. Mr. Dream was already explaining how particular my food habits were and also how eager he was to try out some new Meghalayan food for himself. Surinder was smart, he promised that he would take us to a Punjabi Daba, strictly vegetarian! We found plenty of women selling pineapples. Kerosene lamps were lit beside the yellow fruits, though there were electric bulbs lit above them. It was growing cold; Mr. Dream was chewing his paan for the third time by then. He said it was so effective that I must try one portion and experience how it made the body warm up. I found tiny plastic packets lying everywhere, these paans were sold in them and buyers carelessly threw them everywhere. As an environment-friendly [self-declared] traveller, I was reluctant to buy the paan packets, but I was sure that we were not going to dispose the plastic at the wrong place! We placed the plastic in the trash bag that we carry while we travel. It was so nice to notice that Surinder too had a trash bag in his car, and appreciated him for doing so. “We have started doing this since we became aware of the set-backs of not being responsible in dealing waste. We do not want our place to be polluted”, he made us feel proud of what we were doing too. 

 

 LADY AT HER FRUIT SHOP

We devoured a good Punjabi meal. They had replaced the conventional “lemon” with local variant in the green salad. Such subtle adaptations contribute a lot in giving a better experience for the visitor. On the broader level, it stops farmers in the region from changing their traditional crop to match the demands of the visitors. Change in crop invites a series of changes in the farming practises; application of new fertilisers is just one of them. Some of the cash crops have replaced people and even animals from the traditional ways. As an individual, I support traditions. They are to be respected for their wisdom. A silent introspection about the nature around will educate us on how change happens, it is never “overnight”. Traditions are cluster of changes, and we must respect those who practise them.

 

RIWAI

 I was sleepless and was ready before time for our journey to walk across the Living-Root-Bridges at RIWAI. It took us two hours to each this tiny spot on earth that gained global attention as a Tourist Destination for its heritage that is “rooted” in love for nature. The ancestors of the current generation of the Khasi Tribe had no other choice but to adapt to the nature’s ways. They had to fight violent, flash floods that wiped away anything they used to  their river banks. Some genius among them invented this method of manipulating the roots of The Indian Rubber Tree, passing them through bamboo to build living bridges across rivers.  The oldest document about the root-architecture was written in 1840s by the British. Aerial roots of the Indian Rubber Tree [Ficus Elastica] are used to not just make bridges, but also ladders and platforms. It takes a generation or two to build a structure in this manner. Bridges can be 1.5 metres wide and up to 50 metres in long. This design can stay up to 500 years and can bear a load of up to 500 people! Raw materials, all from nature and the binding agent would the love for nature, I suppose. When such marvels attract tourists, we must understand that there is potential for such sustainable practises to generate revenue! Thanks to those who discovered and popularised this. Living root bridges are used in Nagaland [India] and Indonesia too.

There are several, “perfect-pictures” of this single-decker bridge, floating in the internet. I am sharing a picture that cautions the new-generation users before they walk across the bridge.

  1. Do not inflict any injury to the tree be it by cutting or plucking its roots and stems.
  2. Do not litter this spot and its surroundings.
  3. Do not consume any toxic drinks here.
  4. Do not make this spot a place for profits.

          I could not finish my visit without paying my respects to those wise ancestors. There were several rocks and I chose mine for a short prayer. All the surrounding noises stopped reaching my ears. There were local women who silently climbed the slopes with huge piles of firewood on their back their slowly vanished from my sight. Even the mild music of the stream [which would roar in the monsoon], faded. I felt as if I was suddenly surrounded by the aura of nature. The intensity of that feeling lasted for a few minutes and I was ready to walk back. It was then that I began to notice some other aspects of the place. All the hand-rails that were provided along the way were made of bamboo.

There were hand-woven conical bamboo baskets installed in metal holders to collect waste. Even then I found visitors ‘taking pride’ in littering!  On the positive side, it was such a pleasurable sight. The colour of the dry bamboo rods blended so well with the premises, I was forced to compare them with several other sites where public funds are deployed for someone’s sake and not for the aesthetic or environment-friendly value.

 

SHOPS THAT SELL LOCAL PRODUCE

We found small shops along the way and women managed the whole show. The stores had raised [wooden or bamboo] platform with roof made of palm leaves. Super cool and biodegradable. Women were so enterprising; they sold very few items that were packed in plastic, absolutely very no or very little of the new-generation snacks. Instead, they kept Pomelo [large orange-like fruits common in South & South-east Asia] which was served with salt and chilli powder. Raw dates and groundnuts were also sold. They also dressed in their traditional handloom clothing. I loved this and even thought that this should be the practise everywhere to really claim that travellers and hosts are being Responsible.  Men were almost absent in the entire area. Women carrying loads of firewood, selling their produce, running restaurants, chatting, guiding tourists, it was evidently a matrilineal society that we were in.  The stone footpath, bamboo architecture, the very natural flora and fauna around, all made our walk a very special “experience” close to nature rather than an inevitable climb to see the Root Bridge.

We live in time where sustainability is probably one of those fashionable words used in almost every industry. Rules for sustainability are often too heavy that it turns people off easily. Especially when it comes to travel when people want to relax and feel happy and comfortable, these rules are not so attractive! Travellers certainly don’t want to be bossed about sustainable tourism conducts. So, how to crack this? How about the hosts conduct sustainability first? That would automatically invite the responsible travellers because half the work is already done. Riwai is one of such places where half job is done and all that visitors need to do is to cooperate and enjoy the benefits. Visitors easily get the feeling that they are also Planet-friendly when they go to Riwai. What can authorities do about this? Well there is a plethora of solutions! Reduce the cost for travelling to destinations where sustainable practises are there, could be the first step!

    I am certainly not attempting to evaluate the present scenario in tourism. Instead of that, appreciating these small initiatives gives me immense pleasure. There is so much of beauty hidden in small things. Collective efforts can still make this world an even better place. We said goodbye to the “Roots, the sparkle in the eyes of women and children, the bushes that basked in the sunlight, the ancestors who would have been watching each one of us, the strangers and the beaten paths that would welcome more visitors to share my feelings of this place”

 

 

Aparna Vinod

Home maker, social entrepreneur from India who believes that Sustainable tourism can equip People to achieve their personal goals, generate revenue for their sustenance and help the economy grow without harming the Planet. My focus is to help more people, especially women to pursue their vocation in Sustainable Tourism.

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