The Land of the Living Bridges and Sacred Forests - Meghalaya
It was something on my bucket list – The Living Bridges. The name evoked visions of thick rain forests dripping droplets of water off verdant canopies, swathes of moss and ferns lining pathways, and the twisted roots of Ficus trees creating magical bridges across gushing rivers.
Living Bridges, Choral Music, Limestone caves, India's cleanest village, India's most literate village, the place with the most rainfall on Earth - Meghalaya seems to have it ALL! When I was offered the chance to go with 6 other women to Meghalaya I jumped at it. The trip was planned for September, a time when the rains have created myriads of waterfalls at every turn of the Cherrapunji hills. Cherrapunji is known as one the wettest places on earth. It rains and rains, and all the rain rushes off the rocky hills on to the soggy flooded plains of Bangladesh below.
The Living Bridges. Natural wonders of the world – these incredible structures take years to grow. Aerial roots of the Ficus elastica are stretched for upto a 100 feet across a river to create a natural suspension bridge by members of the Khasi tribe. The most famous of these bridges is located at Sohra near Cherrapunji. With an average of nearly 12000mm of rainfall a year, the rivers often become rain-fed torrents- impossible to cross by foot. The members of the Khasi tribe have learnt over generations, to create bridges with the living roots of tree, to ford these rivers. The living root bridges take between 15-20 years to create and have a lifespan of upto 500 years. The most spectacular of the bridges is at Umshiang - a double decker bridge which is estimated to be over 180 years old.
The adventure began when we flew into Guwahati, Assam where our guide met us. We were quickly whisked away from the airport headed towards Shillong where our hotel nestled in the pine forests on the banks of Lake Bara Pani or ‘Large Waters’. The Hotel is called Ry Kinjai or ‘Serenity by the Lake’. Ry Kinjai is architecturally unique and has derived inspiration from the local Khasi Thatch Huts. It lies a few kilometers away from the bustling town of Shillong, a place that packs culture and heritage into every inch. The area has much to offer for every visitor, trekking to the legendary peaks ‘Lumsohpetbheng’ and ‘Lumdiengiei’, archery competitions called ‘Teer’, the Don Bosco museum and shopping at the enchanting local market of Bara Bazaar in Shillong, Gardens and one of the largest golf courses in the country as well as plenty of excellent live music.
From Shillong, we headed to Cherrapunji. It is a beautiful drives along winding roads lined with waterfalls and gorges. We saw the gorgeous Seven Sisters falls and visited the Mawsmai cave & Thangkharang Park. The caves are dark and deep and in the monsoons have a little river running through them. Please be sure to carry headlamps or torches with you and waterproof shoes. There is nothing worse than a holiday in wet shoes that you have to squelch in all day as they never have the chance to dry out.
The one thing that no body prepared me for was the rain. It rains and rains and rains. It is incessant, all pervasive, and gets through everything, including all the rain proof gear I was wearing. I would say it is often best to just wear dryfit t-shirts and shorts and enjoy the warm wet rain. Do carry a light jacket though as in some places like Shillong the night air can have a nip in it. I would also HIGHLY recommend that you invest in a waterproof camera. Your mobiles and standard cameras just cannot cope with the rain.
After breakfast, we left for the Nongriat village to the two-tier (or Double Decker) Living Root Bridge. The trek to this double decker is tough and will take approximately three to five hours down very steep village paths through forested areas on the way passing four other smaller living root bridges of various shapes and sizes and a traverse across an iron cable suspension bridge hovering 45 ft above a chasm of roaring water. Below, the deep pool is the colour of pure jade. The trek is hard, descending 2500 ft, certainly not for the faint hearted but the exhilarating experience is well worth it. The path is rough, with steps made in concrete and stone. What makes it tough, even for the fittest people, is that the steps are uneven and of different heights. My pedometer showed that I took 14000 steps from the car to the double-decker bridge and back. Most of this is going up and down stairs. After going down the first 2000 steps, my hamstrings and knees were shaking. Remember to take breaks to enjoy the lush green forests, watch out for beautiful birds like sunbirds, barbets and woodpeckers that fly past you and call from the mist. As you stop to catch your breath along the way, villagers and locals walk leisurely past you making it all look like such a breeze. Along the path you will hear a loud whining scream of insects that sounds like a machine going crazy, and the roar of the water below.
When you finally get to the Double-Decker bridge you enter wonderland. It is incredible. The ancient giant tree with its roots stretched out in a web across the river. You touch it marveling at the texture and then slowly take your first steps on to the bridge. The feeling is indescribable. The roots are alive and palpably so. Two large roots make the railing on either side and many secondary roots inter-twine and make a mesh that forms the structure of the bridge. The giant seems to welcome you and by stepping on to the structure you become part of a two-hundred-year old history.
They call it Ethno-engineering and the Khasis learnt the technique over centuries. With a life-span of over 500 years these bridges are the greenest form of bridge building that I have ever experienced. After wandering along the banks of the river, and sipping hot sweet tea at the little tea stall some enterprising villagers have set up at the base of the bridge, I bid adieu to the bridge feeling like something had changed within me.
The next morning wobbly legs notwithstanding we drove to see one of the most famous sacred forests near Shillong. Mawphlang Sacred Forest is located 25 kilometers from Shillong and covers about 78 hectares of land. The forest has an incredible biodiversity of plants and animals and trees that are hundreds of years old. The site has ancient 500-year-old megaliths where sacred rituals are held by the Khasis. Legend has it that people with an impure heart cannot enter these forests. There is a deity called “labasa” that inhabits and protects these forests and can take the form of a leopard to protect the forest site. The Sacred Forests also hold the remains of the most powerful of the Khasi ancestors and these sites are venerated.
When we approach the forest, it was thick with lush green foliage. Large numbers of black-eared kites soared over our heads. Megaliths stood tall in green grass, surrounded by flowers where a path led into the forests. The stones in the path seemed to glow with a light all their own. We stepped in and found wonderland. Every inch of the forest was filled with life. There were ferns, orchids, fungi, huge trees with branches covered in moss, flowers growing out of nooks and crannies in dead wood, insects scurried busily doing their work, bird calls filled the air and everywhere there was a feeling of being on sacred ground. Monoliths and stone circles marked the sites of traditional ceremonies and remains of ceremonies were visible in these areas. Our guides pointed out medicinal plants and trees to us, including a tree whose bark is used to cure breast cancer.
“O sacred forest, we are so proud of you….people come from all over—East and West– to see you, praise you….you beckon us with your colors, waterfalls, fresh air… your fragrance spreads over all….all rites and rituals are for everyone, to heal all and bring peace and harmony for the whole Hima (domain) and the world—song about Mawphlang’s Sacred Forest, composed and sung at traditional rituals by Pyrshailang Lyngdoh, a native Khasi from the village.”
“In this forest, you cannot cut any trees or branches—if you do, illness and misfortune will befall you. That is our belief. Fruits, flowers, water used by people (inside the forest only) can make them healthy, there are many medicinal herbs that can cure diseases”, says Tambor Lyndoh the secretary of the Federation of 10 Himas (comprising 4250 households) that have pledged to protect their forests, Tambor Lyngdoh has been spear-heading the indigenous movement of forest conservation in the area since 2005. The Mawplang Sacred Grove and surrounding areas are the first pilot REDD project in India showing the commitment of the Khasi people to an eco-friendly life style. I was delighted to meet with Lyngdoh and spent time chatting with him about experiences in community forest management over hot tea and biscuits in his office.
That evening we returned to Shillong where we were treated to a performance of the world famous Shillong Chamber Choir at the residence of Neil Nongkynrih. Incredible music, great food, and some great company made our last evening in Shillong one that we will remember for a long long time.