Each week, residents of the village of Kudeng Thymmai, in Meghalaya, hike for about an hour to get to a bazaar in a neighbouring village. On the way, they come upon a bridge that seems to have emerged from the earth itself—with moss-covered beams made not of steel or timber, but of sturdy, growing tree roots.
The bridge is one of many “living-root” bridges in Meghalaya. The northeastern state receives heavy rainfall, which forms many streams and rivers that surge along its forest floors. Long ago, when Meghalaya’s indigenous people tried building bamboo bridges to cross these waters, the structures simply washed away. Then, they realised that by binding the aerial roots of local rubber trees together with bamboo or betel-nut tree trunks, they could construct better bridges—ones that would get stronger as the roots grew. The exact age of this construction practice is unknown, but the earliest known record of it dates back to 1844, when it was mentioned in a Kolkata-based journal.
Over the years, the root bridges have become major tourist attractions. According to government statistics, more than 750,000 domestic travellers and 8,000 foreign ones visited Meghalaya in 2015. Conflict has recently arisen over the effects of this tourism, which some locals claim damages the root bridges. At the heart of this controversy is one tourist’s plan to, in multiple senses, put Meghalaya’s root bridges on the map.