Think of a dense forest with majestic trees whose roots have intertwined to form a bridge over a gushing river…

These bridges have helped indigenous Khasi and Jaintia communities cross swollen rivers during monsoons for as long as they can remember.

Think of a dense forest with majestic trees whose roots have intertwined to form a bridge over a gushing river… Have you considered magic? Nature spirits and elves who can shape trees by singing to them? Or have you thought of JRR Tolkien’s Ents – the majestic trees that could move and talk (and also destroy Saruman’s Tower!)? Perhaps you’ve thought of JK Rowling’s Whomping Willow on the Hogwarts campus – the wayward tree that could be relied upon to “wow” anyone who got too close! Chances are the one you were thinking of was imagined by its creator to represent the awesome power of nature and its ability to protect and heal.

Living root bridges made of intertwined roots are a kind of magic, but they are not imaginary.

Meet the living root bridges of Meghalaya.

These bridges have helped indigenous Khasi and Jaintia communities cross swollen rivers during monsoons for as long as they can remember. There are no written stories of how and when the first root bridges were built, but scientists believe some have stood for centuries. You will never forget your first Living Root Bridge. There is no such thing. Each structure is a small ecosystem – full of life and life. Each represents how beautiful a harmonious encounter between man and nature can be.

How are they grown?

Building these bridges is a labor of love that spans decades. First, a suitable location is identified along the bank and a sampling of the Ficus Elastic, the rubber fig tree, is planted. This tree is special because its roots are elastic enough to allow weaving. It takes about a decade for the tree to grow and form large buttress roots, then another decade for mature trees to develop secondary aerial roots that can be woven into stable structures.

In a method perfected over centuries, Khasi bridge builders weave aerial roots onto bamboo scaffolding, then gently push those roots across the river and finally plant them on the opposite bank. Every two years they change the bamboo scaffolding as the wet and damp conditions can cause the bamboo to rot. Over time, the roots thicken and intertwine with another rubber tree on the other side. They fuse together through a process called anastomosis – where branching systems like leaf vessels, tendrils and aerial roots naturally fuse together – and weave together into a dense frame-like structure. This network of roots matures over time to create these marvels of natural bioengineering: some bridges can carry up to 50 people at a time!

On average, these bridges grow between 50 and 100 feet. The longest known living root bridge, however, spans 175 feet and is located near Mawkyrnot of the East Khasi Hills district.

pass the generations

As with children, it takes a whole village to build these bridges! Each bridge requires the collective effort of an entire community to monitor, develop and maintain them. It also takes more than one generation to work on it. The young bridges maintained today will bear the descendants of the people who care for them with love. Thus, each bridge is a gift for the future of the community. The Meghalayan culture of stewardship and conservation is what you see here: each generation creates something beautiful for generations to come to use, enjoy and love.

Of course, human families aren’t the only ones who love these bridges.

Every deck is animal-approved!

Fig trees are great for biodiversity: moss grows on them, squirrels live in their branches, birds nest in their canopy, and they harbor insects that help with pollination. By turning these trees into bridges, the Khasi have managed to create several green corridors – places where animals can safely cross rivers. Bark deer and clouded leopards are known to use root bridges to move from one part of the forest to another. These bridges are not just part of the landscape, they function to support and develop the ecosystem around them.

The Future of Living Root Bridges

Unlike conventional bridges that stand out from their surroundings, root bridges blend in. In addition to producing their own building material, trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide throughout their lives. They help stabilize the soil and prevent soil erosion and landslides – a critical factor for rivers that soak up the Meghalayan monsoons! Being a regenerative form of architecture, living bridges grow stronger over time, self-healing and becoming more robust as they age. Not only do bridges provide connectivity and attract tourists, which helps local people earn income, but they also have regenerative effects on the surrounding environment. Could they be the answer to some of the problems posed by climate change?

The renewed interest in root bridges can be attributed, at least in part, to the efforts of Morningstar Khongthaw and his team who founded the Living Bridge Foundation. Morningstar and its team repair and maintain old living bridges and help build new ones. They even build classrooms to educate locals and hold workshops on how to build these bridges. Of course, these classrooms are built on the treetops! (Where else?) In addition to bridges, the team also builds ladders, swings, seating platforms and even tunnels – stunning living architecture that showcases the possibilities of growth our structures, rather than manufacturing them.

Western researchers believe that living architecture can contribute to the green cover of cities: integrating trees into buildings, bridges and parks helps bring nature to otherwise bare and arid areas. Architects and researchers seek to borrow elements from these bridges in order to adapt them to urban environments. Indeed, an experiment is underway to create canopies with the London plane tree. The roots of the tree will be molded into chairs as they grow. Exciting times! While you may wait for these experiences to take root in your city, you are unlikely to live to see it mature.

Alternative: Come see the originals in Meghalaya!

How to get there and what to keep in mind

If you’ve never been to Meghalaya, there’s never been a better time to visit. The state is celebrating 50 years of existence and it’s basically a year-long celebration with experiences to appeal to all types of travelers. Make a plan. Discover the decks of the living room, stroll through a sacred grove, eat local cuisine, attend a rock concert, swim in a crystal clear river, or explore the wonders of caves that delight scientists and adventurers alike. Make a plan. There is something here for you.

It is the age of Meghalayan, after all.

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