India: Rooted to the spot

By Amos Chapple

In an Indian jungle, in the wettest place on Earth, is a bridge that will stop you in your tracks, writes Amos Chapple.

A villager crosses the 'Double Decker' tree root bridge in the village of Nongriat. Photo / Copyright Amos Chapple: Rex Features
A villager crosses the 'Double Decker' tree root bridge in the village of Nongriat. Photo / Copyright Amos Chapple: Rex Features

The woman drifts alongside us as we walk, "Mister, you should go home."

She points her chin at the sky. "The rains are coming."

That night we're woken to rainfall so heavy the lightning illuminates fear on the faces in our dormitory. By morning however the sun has steamed the ground dry, and for the next three days the weather of Cherrapunji, what is claimed to be one of the wettest places on the planet, gives us a benign window, allowing us access to one of the most extraordinary pieces of civil engineering in the world.

At breakfast we talk with Denis Rayen, a Tamil who retired from big-city banking to run the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort with his wife Carmela.

The air is clear and we look out over the Bangladesh frontier as Denis recalls the night he chanced on one of the hidden masterpieces of the jungle.

"It was getting dark and I was following my Khasi companions. We crossed a bridge and I couldn't see clearly, but I remember looking back after we crossed it and thinking 'there's something very strange about that structure ...'"

After a one-hour hike from the resort we arrive at a staircase which drops through layers of steamy air as we descend the 2106 steps (we counted) to the valley floor.

We arrive in a different world from the India we know.

The Khasi tribes are Christian; vivid saris are nowhere to be seen, instead the women wear delicately coloured shawls; Hindu icons are absent, in their place moss-coated crosses jut above the treeline.

With butterflies flicking past us and pockets of air rich with the smell of papaya and jackfruit it could be somewhere in the South Pacific.

We bounce across two rusted suspension bridges, over rivers filled with a tumble of boulders, then arrive in the village of Nongriat where we have our first look at what Denis saw all those years ago; a living tree root bridge.

It's like something dragged up from the deep, trailing its vines and mosses, looking out of place in the hard light of day. We cross, stooping to hold on to the struts which serve as handrails. The bridge gives a hard little bounce as we test it, like the branch of a tree. Underfoot it's a solid latticework of ancient roots, the gaps filled by rocks which have crystallised into the structure as the vines expand.

Next to the bridge we drop our things in the beautiful little guesthouse run by Mary Synrem. An English speaker, Synrem has a taste for humour which has her face slowly tighten during the build-up of a good story, then crack into laughter at the climax.

After a lunch of un-nameable jungle vegetables we walk back into the village where we meet the shopkeeper.

Andreas buys biscuits and cigarettes from the nearest town and sells them on with a mark-up of two rupees - about six cents - per item. He's slightly hazed by drink when we visit.

"When the rains come, we cannot do anything" Andreas sweeps a lanky arm out over the valley.

"We cannot go to the jungle to find food, all we can do is rest."

He takes a deep draw from his cigarette.

"We sleep like the pig, and we eat like the dog."

The rains Andreas speaks of are the likely reason for the invention of the unique bridges in this valley.

Cherrapunjee is dumped with around 15 metres of rain each year (Auckland gets 1.2 metres), with half of this arriving in a near constant deluge during June and July; wooden bridges would rot fast in the damp air.

The native rubber tree, ficus elastica, grows on the banks of rivers in the valley and supports its upward growth by sending vines creeping out from its base, gripping on to rocks, other trees and soil.

At some point, probably around 500 years ago, this growth began to be harnessed by Khasi tribespeople.

Ancestors of today's villagers began guiding the roots over the rivers using hollowed bamboo. The roots were made to grow until they reached the opposite bank, eventually sinking into the soil and taking hold.

From this initial thread, the handrails and support vines were then threaded by the villagers. The root bridges continue to sustain the tree while also providing a crucial link for the villagers.

Instead of wearing down like a conventional bridge, these structures gain strength over time.

The night after we leave the village and hump our way up the staircase to the shelter and rich food of the resort, the rain arrives once more. The roof roars above us as we stay up late and talk about what life must be like in the village when the monsoons hit, of old Andreas stuck inside his hut, and great boulders booming their way downstream.

The village of Nongriat has a tough relationship with nature but, like all long-standing partnerships, somehow they manage to make it work.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: We flew from Auckland to Bangkok and on to Calcutta with Air Asia.

Kingfisher airlines and Jet Airways have regular flights from Calcutta to Guwahati which is the gateway city to the Meghalaya region and a major transport hub.

From Guwahati it's best to hire a taxi for the 120km road journey to Cherrapunji (around $45). Alternatively travellers can book a seat on one of the world's cheapest helicopter flights ($32) from Guwahati Airport to Shillong and hire a taxi for the remainder of the journey to Cherrapunji. Information on the helicopter service and general transport information can be found at megtourism.gov.in.

Where to stay: Nongriat Rest House, alongside the Double Decker root bridge, and above a swimming hole has rooms for two for $11. Ring Mary on +91 985 689 1520.

Cherrapunji Holiday Resort is luxurious with superb food but a 2-3 hour walk from the bridges and the South-Indian owner has the habit of "correcting" the behaviour of locals. Rooms start at $50.

What to do: Firstly, relax. India's North East is far less hectic than the rest of the country. You won't be overcharged or scammed by the locals; we occasionally had to insist on paying for services provided by the villagers.

Some of the paths around Nongriat village are high and treacherous. Ask the locals about track conditions before you set out, and bring sturdy shoes.

Pack swimwear. There's no shower in Nongriat village but there are several swimming holes nearby.

Expect rain. The most rainfall ever recorded anywhere on the planet in one year is 25.4m in Cherrapunji.

When to go: Any time from October to April. Monsoon season runs from May until September.

Amos Chapple paid his own way.

- NZ Herald

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