Ford Every Stream

A tussle over Meghalaya’s heritage root bridges

Meghalaya’s indigenous people realised that by binding the roots of local rubber trees together with bamboo or betel-nut tree trunks, they could construct sturdy bridges that would get stronger as the roots grew. controversubhendu sarkar / lightrocket / getty images
01 September, 2016

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.

Patrick Rogers, a 29-year-old travel writer from the United States, first encountered the bridges on a week-long hiking trip in 2011. He returned to India for a month in 2015, intent on learning more about them. Later that year, in October, he launched an ongoing crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the Living Root Bridge Project, an initiative to record information about the structures, and to make that information publicly available. This would include mapping and sharing the exact location of each bridge. When I emailed him, Rogers told me that one reason he started the project was because, “to my knowledge, there is no available reliable literature on the living-root architecture.”

Rogers believes that Meghalaya’s root bridges are in danger of being ruined, and that fostering tourist interest, which encourages maintenance of the sites, is necessary to protect them. He said, “Villagers in remote areas simply assume that living-root bridges are common elsewhere in India and across the world,” and so “do not view the loss of a single bridge, particularly one that is damaged or not in common use, as a major loss.” In January, Rogers told the Deccan Chronicle that “any outsider interest would help save” the bridges.

Some locals disagree. While hiking in Meghalaya, when I visited the state this March, I met a social activist and writer named Morning Star Sumer—a lean 52-year-old with a wide smile. As we walked across a root bridge, the forest hummed with the sounds of swarming bees and a singing magpie. “The immediate impact of the influx of tourists,” he told me, “is the impending destruction of the bridges owing to the heavy footfalls on the bridges every day.” Rogers’s efforts to increase tourism, Sumer said, would only lead to more damage.

In an April opinion piece in the Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim, the newspaper’s editor, also expressed concern about tourism. She noted that many of the people who visit Meghalaya’s most famous root bridge—a double-decker one that can bear the weight of 50 people—“have no sense of respect for a destination.” Domestic tourists especially, she wrote, “come in hordes, make loud noises and are there as if they are on a ‘Khatron Ki Khilari’ kind of trip where posing for pictures is more important than the journey to the destination.” What’s more, “Except for little shops selling bottled juices and the ubiquitous Uncle Chips,” the locals “don’t really earn much.”

Still, Rogers believes that the core goal of his project—documenting information about the bridges—is crucial. “Any conservation effort must necessarily begin with a clear idea of what exactly it is that needs to be conserved,” he told me. “The threats that living-root architecture faces can only be addressed by actually going to those places where the structures are in danger, and reporting what’s happening to them.”

Sumer does, more or less, agree. The government, he lamented, has failed to adequately document, inspect and preserve the bridges. But, he added, “to suggest that GPS may do the trick seems far-fetched. On the contrary, it may surely close one means or channel for helping local citizens to use nature for bettering their economic condition.”

The only way to determine what needs to be done for the bridges, Sumer said, is to ask the locals. To this end, he works with James Perry, a 50-year-old of Canadian origin who was born and raised in Shillong. The two often meet with village headmen to help them understand both the beneficial and detrimental effects of tourism.

Perry and Rogers have publicly confronted one another about the root bridges. On 3 February, Perry wrote a Facebook post that, without naming Rogers, heavily criticised the latter’s project. “This person is going around, raising money from gofund site to document these bridges, with little input or information given to the local people of the possible effects,” he wrote.

Perry added that he had recently spoken with many local village headmen, and found that not one was aware of the details of the proposed project.

The next day, Rogers responded with his own Facebook post. The fact that local headmen did not know about the Living Root Bridge Project was “entirely to be expected,” he wrote, because it hadn’t even begun. “I am accused of exploitation, but what I gain is unclear,” he said. “The person attacking me is a tourism operator, who makes his living bringing tourists to Meghalaya to, among other things, see living-root bridges. It would seem, given his reasoning and source of income, that he is a far bigger exploiter than I.”

Perry does, indeed, work in tourism. He coordinates homestay accommodations, encouraging travellers to learn about local communities by interacting with their hosts. The cottages have a light ecological footprint; the energy to power them comes from solar panels and windmills, and the food served there is made from local ingredients.

The root bridges are also an important part of Perry’s work. On 7 July, he posted on Facebook about a trip he was organising, offering guests the opportunity to “be with the village of Kudeng Rim as they set up and train the roots” of a bridge. On the same day, he also organised a programme on “the implications of mass tourism over quality tourism.”

It seems unlikely that Rogers’s project will happen in the near future. His crowdfunding campaign, which has a target amount of $7,500, has not yet raised $2,000. Meanwhile, the fate of the root bridges hangs in the balance.