Friday, December 16, 2016

LR Project. Data interpretation rough draft


Patrick A Rogers

DEC 16 2016

(Please note that this is a part of my Living Root Bridge Project, and is a rough draft. For more information on said project, go to the Living Root Bridge Project. A complete version of this document will appear on the Living Root Project's official page in 2017. The page will include a special thank you section for everyone who helped make this possible, both in Meghalaya and through my GoFundMe page. The later document will also have pictures. A listing of each living root structure will come shortly. Please excuse editing and formatting errors. )


The following is my interpretation of the information I collected on 88 living root structures in the state of Meghalaya in 2016. For standing living root bridges, I attempted to measure the length, width, and height of each structure, and to determine its GPS position. Using the GPS coordinates, I later ascertained the approximate altitude of each structure using Google Earth. I also sought to gather as much historical information about each structure as possible and to gauge the level of threat posed to each root bridge by natural and manmade factors. The designations employed in this survey refer to the village that any given structure was (probably) made by, followed by the order in which the structure was visited as part of the project. They do not reflect local names.

The total number of standing living root bridges included in this survey is 53. The northernmost, designated Kongthong 2, is located at N25.34485, E91.82443. The southernmost, designated Darrang 1, is located at N25.20516, E92.01889. The westernmost, designated Nongsteng/Nongbah 1, is located at N25.27790, E91.62988. The easternmost, designated Kudeng Rim 5, is located at N25.22664, E92.03979. The existence of other standing living root structures beyond these points in any direction is highly likely.

The number of failed living root bridges included in this survey is 24, and they fall into two general categories. Where the span has fallen but the tree that is was formed from still exists, there are often very definite physical remnants of the bridge to be found. The GPS coordinates and altitude of these structures can easily be determined. In other cases, both the tree and the bridge have disappeared entirely, and the only indication of their having existed comes from the memories of local villagers. There are only a few cases where there was enough information to ascertain the exact location of these entirely disappeared structures.

I have been as conservative as possible in creating listings for destroyed living root bridges. Given the lack of historical records, information on these disappeared structures depends on personal recollections and is therefore often conflicting and imprecise. For example, in the village of Suktia, one source claimed that there used to be four living root bridges on the village’s land, another claimed there were once six, and yet another claimed there were once ten. No remnants could be found while I was there, nor could the exact position of any of these former living root bridges be pin-pointed. Therefore, while my information does point to the past existence of a great number of living root bridges in the area, as they cannot be exactly located no listings have been created.

 Additionally, I came across many locations where there were old, clearly planted, fig trees growing on the opposite sides of river banks directly across from one another. While these often appeared as though they were once the locations of living root bridges, without direct confirm from several locals (ideally from different villages), I did not include these locations in the study, even if, judging solely from the visual evidence, it seems very likely that living root bridges did exist there once.
It should be noted that, were I to include all the “possible” former living root bridges, the number of failed living root bridges would increase by a large margin.

This survey also includes ten miscellaneous structures made from ficus elastica roots which are not bridges. These include ladders, ramps, platforms, hybrid steel and root structures, and a point where a new living root bridge is being planned. It also includes two places where there were once living root ladders, which have been torn down and replaced with conventional structures. One living root structure, designated Kongthong 1, has most of the measurable characteristics of a living root bridge, but is more accurately classed as a ramp than as a bridge, as it does not directly cross a stream. The data from that structure is grouped with the data on living root bridges.

When it comes to measurements, it is very difficult to be exact for the simple reason that, rather than being conventional structures that are assembled from pre-fabricated components, root bridges are the result of organic processes. To add to this is the fact that many of the root bridges included in this study were visited under difficult physical circumstances, often in inclement weather, with limited time and a bare minimum of equipment. Later attempts at measuring the same structures where the individuals involved have more time, resources, and possibly improved methodologies, might come up with slightly different results.

I take full responsibility in advance for any mistakes that can be found in the information listed below.

For the purposes of this study, the length of a living root bridge is defined as the distance over which a person crossing the bridge will be suspended above the ground solely by the structure itself. I have tried to ascertain this distance by first locating the point at which the structure leaves the ground on one side of a river bank, then finding the place at which it reconnects on the opposite side, and determining the distance between these two points. The exact points are not always entirely clear, and might differ slightly from the right and left sides of the bridge. Additionally, it is worth noting that there are often planned, planted, components which are structurally integral to a given root bridge which are not part of the actual span of the bridge. These have not been measured.

In the instances of double root bridges with two independent spans, each span has been measured separately.

Figures are in meters and are rounded to the nearest decimal place.

LONGEST SPAN: 52.7 m (Rangthylliang 12)
SHORTEST SPAN: 4.8 m (Rangthylliang 3)

Note that 41 of 54, or slightly over 75%, of root bridges included in this study are 20 m or less, with frequencies above 20 m falling off sharply. This is in line with anecdotal information I’ve received from villagers stating that the longer a living root bridge is, the more difficult it is to maintain, and the more susceptible it will be to environmental hazards.

Interestingly, the graph above shows that there are close to five times as many bridges that are between 15 and 20 meters in length as are between 20 and 25. If this pronounced drop is still visible with the addition of significantly more entries, it may indicate a particular length at which growing living root bridges becomes decidedly more difficult.

For the purposes of this study, the width of a living root bridge is defined as the distance between the furthest left and furthest right element of the bridge at its span’s central point (CP). The central point is defined as the location on the span that marks one half of the length measurement. The width is not solely a measurement of the walkway of the bridge, and where applicable includes railings, and sometimes other roots, found at the CP that do not take significant stresses.

In the instances of double root bridges with two independent spans, each span has been measured separately.

Figures are in meters and are rounded to the nearest decimal place.

WIDEST SPAN: 2.4 m (Rangthylliang 3)
NARROWEST SPAN: 0.7 (3 bridges are tied for narrowest: Rymmai 1, Diengsiar 1, and Kudeng Rim 1).

The date above includes all of the widths that could be measured in this survey, including those which have non-root functional elements, or that have sustained severe damage. All three bridges that are measured at .7 m are bridges that are fragments of larger structures or that have had their spans badly damaged.


The following is an interpretation of the width data adjusted to exclude measurements of root bridges with significant non-root elements and those that have had their widths narrowed by damage.

WIDEST SPAN: 2.4 m (Rangthylliang 3)
NARROWEST SPAN: 0.8 m (3 bridges are tied: Nongpriang 3, Mawlam 3 (lower span), Tyrngei 1, Rangthylliang/Mawkyrnot 1)

If corrected for damage and non-root elements, the average width increases somewhat, and the relatively high frequency of bridges in the range of 0.6 and 0.8 m in width is significantly lessened. This indicates that, under ideal conditions, root bridges tend to fall between 1 and 1.8 m in width.
Note that the widths of two unusually wide root bridges (Nongbah/Mawshuit 1 and Kudeng Rim 5) could not be measured due to hazardous conditions.

For the purposes of this survey, the height of a living root bridge is defined as the distance from the lowest part of the central point (CP) of the bridge’s span, to the ground, stream bed, or water surface, below. The central point is defined as the location on the span that marks one half of the length measurement.

It should be noted that height measurements taken from different points on a given living root bridge could vary widely. This is because A: Living root bridges are often sloping in layout and B: the water bodies root bridges cross, being mountain streams, also frequently slope and are usually rocky, rarely presenting even surfaces.

In the instances of double root bridges with two independent spans, each span has been measured separately.

Figures are in meters and are rounded to the nearest decimal place.

HIGHEST SPAN: 23.5 m (Rangthylliang 4)
LOWEST SPAN: 2.5 m (Nongriat 4)

The graph above shows that 38 out of 54, or about 70% of bridges included in this study, are between 2 and 6 m in height, with the remaining 30% widely dispersed between 6 and 24 m. Additionally, exactly half of the entries are in the narrow range of 2 to 4 meters in height. In general, it can be said root bridges with heights of over 10 meters are rare.

Interestingly, the data show frequencies of bridges falling off to zero between 2 and 12 m, remaining at zero from 12 to 18 m, and then having a slight rebound between 18 and 24 m. There is one living root bridge, designated Maushuit/Nongbah 1, which, while exact measurements could not be taken due to hazardous conditions, is estimated to be within the range 20-25 m in height. If this trend is still present with the addition of significantly more entries, it may indicate that the survivability of root bridges increases slightly after a certain height, perhaps because at that point stream flooding conditions are no longer a factor.


Altitudes have been calculated by pin-pointing each entry’s GPS position on Google Earth and using that to estimate the position’s altitude. The figures should be taken as estimates. Figures are in meters.

HIGHEST ALTITUDE BRIDGE: 1211 m (Rangthylliang 1)

The graph above shows that Living Root Bridges below an altitude of 300 and above an altitude of 1100 are rare within the sample taken. It should be noted that every entry measured at 1000 m or above occurred in the Rangthylliang area, where there is a very high density of surviving living architecture. If other villages in the vicinity have a similar concentration of living root bridges, structures above 1000 m might be more common than this study suggests. However, roughly 75% of the entries fall between 300 and 900 m, and these examples are much more evenly distributed across the area surveyed, suggesting that the majority of living root bridges probably fall within this range of altitudes. 

With the addition of 17 more altitudes derived from the positions of living root bridges which have failed but can still be mapped with GPS, the average altitude decreases by about 50 m. Most of the failed bridges occurred in the same range of altitudes as the majority of living root bridges which are still standing. There is however some evidence to suggest that there was once a significant number of living root bridges in the Rangthylliang area which failed around 30 years ago, however it was impossible to determine their exact locations and altitudes.


The Survival Rating (SR), is an estimation of the likelihood that any given standing living root bridge will fail within the next 15 years if the present discernible trends continue. Each structure is given a rating of 1-10, with 1 being a structure where failure during the time period is overwhelmingly likely and 10 being a structure where it is highly improbable. It is an unavoidably subjective way of interpreting the available information, and should only be viewed as a general indicator of the status of a given structure. Others with more time and more resources might be able to devise a more precise way of gauging the health of living root structures and their findings might differ somewhat from mine. That being said, I am confident that the overall trends revealed by the SR metric are accurate.

Note that the SR is not an aesthetic judgement of the root bridge being rated. Some of the most scenic root bridges receive a relatively low SR due to the presence of demonstrable threats.  

The SR takes three groups of factors into account:

1: How well established and healthy are the roots that make up the bridge in question?

Living root bridges famously self-strengthen as their component roots grow. This means that, assuming the tree the bridge is made from is healthy and the structure is being taken care of, an older root bridge is stronger, and therefore more resilient to possible environmental dangers, than a younger one. This manifests itself in the “wobbliness” of a given root bridge. In crossing an old, healthy, well-established root bridge, there will be no motion in the component roots. For this reason, if comparing a young root bridge with thin roots to an older one with well-established roots, assuming all other survival factors are equal, the older bridge would receive the higher SR.
The SR must also take into account whether or not the organism as a whole appears healthy. In some cases, older root bridges, due to age, poor growth, or manmade or natural environmental factors, will manifest clear signs of decay which will negatively affect the SR.

2: How much physical damage is evident on the bridge in question and on the organism as a whole, and what is the likelihood that the organism will either continue to be damaged or be damaged in the future?

For the purposes of this survey, I’ve grouped sources of physical damage into two categories: 1: Direct manmade threats and 2: Indirect environmental threats.

Direct manmade damage is frequently observed on living root bridges outside of tourist zones. The most common variety of manmade damage, which is present on a majority of living root bridges, is cuts being taken out of the ficus elastica organism in order to harvest the white latex which occurs inside the plant. The latex is said to have a number of local uses, including as an adhesive in animal traps. It is also harvested and sold. While in some cases the cutting is limited to a few shallow gashes on the outside of the organism, in others the cutting is so extreme that it has adversely impacted the strength of the component roots and the health of the organism as a whole. Heavy latex extraction cutting makes any given living root bridge more susceptible to a variety of environmental threats. The presence of numerous latex extraction cuts lowers the bridge’s SR.

Overuse by tourists is another possible direct threat to living root bridges, particularly in the case of younger, less well established bridges, which could conceivably fail if too many tourists stood on it at the same time. Fire damage due to cigarettes or cooking fires that got out of hand might also be caused by tourists.

Environmental damage can be the result of either natural or manmade processes. The most common reason for a root bridge to fall is because of damage sustained during floods and landslides, which are common in the steep terrain of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Landslides are said to be more common where the slopes in question have become deforested. Road building can also cause landslides by destabilizing hillsides. Flood conditions on a particular stream can change over time, and streams that were at one time conducive to growing living root architecture can become unsuitable.  Shifting cultivation fires can also pose a threat to living architecture, both directly due to fires getting out hand and burning living root bridges, and because of the negative impact of shifting cultivation fires on the stability of hill slopes.

If direct environmental damage is present, or there is solid evidence to indicate that a root bridge is likely to be damaged in the future, the SR is lowered. 

3: What is the degree to which local communities are invested in the upkeep of a given root bridge?

Living root bridges that are being actively maintained and protected by their local communities tend to be in much better condition than those which are abandoned or see only limited use.

Often, root bridges that have not been subjected to latex extraction cutting have only been spared because local village councils have specifically outlawed the practice in order to protect the bridge.
While the roots of a living root bridge will continue to grow without maintenance, it is only by the deliberate strengthening of the structure though the strategic placement of pliable younger roots that a given structure will reach its maximum strength and usefulness.

When there is a high degree of community investment in the upkeep of a given root bridge, the bridge has a greater chance of survival because its structural components are being actively strengthened, adding to its resilience to environmental threats, and it’s also being protected from direct manmade damage.

If there is evidence of significant community investment in a particular root bridge, which can be in the form of anecdotal evidence, the existence of heritage or tourism societies, or physical signs of recent upkeep, that positively effects a root bridge’s SR rating. If two root bridges have otherwise identical survival factors, but one is being actively maintained and another is abandoned, the abandoned bridge will have the lower SR rating.


The following is a rough guide to what specific SR numbers mean.

SR 10-7: Failure appears unlikely. 10 means that, with the available evidence, no argument can be constructed that the bridge might fail in the next 15 years, other than through random incidents such as large earthquakes, or other severe changes in the current trends. A 7 indicates that failure is still highly unlikely, but a case can be made that moderate threats are present.

SR 6-4: Failure or survival is likely. At a 6 the body of evidence still points to the survival of the structure in question in 15 years, but significant threats to its survival can be identified. At a 5, the evidence suggests that there is a roughly equal chance that the root bridge in question will survive or be destroyed. At 4, a strong argument can be made that the bridge could survive if current trends continue, but the evidence indicates that there is a more than 50% chance that it will fail.

SR 3-1: Failure is significantly more likely than survival. An SR of 3 indicates that, while the body of evidence points to failure, an argument can still be made that the bridge could survive. At 1, the root bridge appears nearly certain to fail.


Note that of 53 root bridges included in this survey, significant survival issues can be found with 36, or approximately 70% of the total. About 30% of the bridges included in the study fall within the range SR 1-3, and can be considered very likely to fail within the next 15 years. The same number, 30%, fall within the range SR 7-10, and can considered relatively safe. A plurality fall within the “go either way” category, however an SR of 4 is around twice as likely as a 5 or 6.

During the survey, I did not find any root bridge that could be classed as a 10, or entirely threat free (other than from unpredictable contingencies). That does not mean that root bridges with a 10 rating cannot exist, but they do seem to be very rare. It is, however, much easier to predict that a root bridge will definitely fail than that it will definitely survive.


Perhaps the strongest single indicator of the decline of the practice of creating living root architecture in Meghalaya is the lack of living root bridges that have been recently planted. Entire living root bridges that have only lately been conceived, which are not yet fully functional and where the actual methods of creating new living architecture are currently being employed, are very rare. This is especially true if one discounts examples of newly created living root bridges that are being made specifically for the purposes of tourism or heritage value rather than for practical reasons.
Over the course of this survey, I have found only a single example of a living root bridge outside of a tourist zone that was (probably!) first conceived less than five years ago, and only recently became functional.

This survey includes three examples of entirely newly generated bridges that have yet to become functional. Of these, two are very close to each other, in the village of Nongthymmai. They are part of the Nongriat tourism zone, and are being maintained for tourism purposes. The other, located in Rangthyllaing Village, appears to have been created less than five years ago, making it the newest known living root bridge outside of a tourism zone. However, information concerning the bridge is not entirely consistent: One source from Ranghtylliang claims the bridge has been there for many decades, and only looks new because of poor soil quality causing it to grow very slowly.

The survey also includes three double living root bridges where a new span is being generated. Two of these are in the Nongriat tourist zone, where the Nongriat double decker is being made into a triple decker, and another adjacent bridge is being made into a new double decker. These have both been created for tourism purposes. A new span is just beginning to be generated on the bridge designated Kudeng Rim 2. The information is not clear as to whether this has been made for functional or tourism purposes.

While the primary root of the bridge Rangthylliang/Mawkyrnot 1 appears to be old and well established, significant new structures are being added to the bridge using bamboo, areca palm trunks, and steel wires. This has been done for tourism/heritage purposes. Another bridge, Pdei/Kongtim 1, again consists of a single old and well established root that has new additions.
A new bridge is being planned by the village of Sohkmi, though, at the time of writing, I am not aware of any work having been done.

There are additionally several bridges where new roots are being trained onto them as part of limited maintenance measures. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016


The star attraction at Kaziranaga National Park: The Indian one horned rhino. The park is said to contain about two thirds of the world's population of the rare beast, so many that it's virtually impossible to visit Kaziranga and not see dozens of them

One of the very first places I ever went to in India, all the way back in January 2009, was Kaziranga National Park. By now, as part of University of Delaware study abroad groups, while leading my own trips, or while travelling with members of my family, I've visited the park somewhere in the vicinity of six times. That may sound like overkill, but, believe me, it's not. I've found that my enthusiasm for the place has only grown over time. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 4: Living Root Ladders and other uses for living root architecture

Heavy metal living root ladder near the mid-sized Khasi village of Pongtung

First off, for more information on living root architecture, go to The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 1: Bridges of the Umngot River Basin for living root bridges in the Jaintia Hills, The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 2: Bridges near Pynursla for information on the area with the highest concentration of living root architecture, and The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 3: Bridges of the 12 villages for some of the most remote known living root bridges.

Also, for information on a trip that I'll be leading to some of these incredible structures, go to Northeast India Explorer Itinerary 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 3: Bridges of the 12 Villages

My friend Roy on a spectacular, never before visited living root bridge near the village of Kongthong, in the heart of a region called the Katarshnong, or 12 villages

First off, for more information on obscure living root bridges, go to: The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 1, covering the living root bridges of the Dawki region, and The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 2, which covers the area with the highest (known) density of living root architecture, the hills and valleys surrounding the small town of Pynursla.

Also, for information on a trip I'll be leading to the area shown below, go to: Northeast India Explorer Itinerary

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 2: Bridges Near Pynursla

Jungle Man John Cena and friend cling to roots with the longest known living root bridge in the background

First, for more info on obscure living root bridges, go to: The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 1: Bridges of the Umngot River basin

Also, for info on a trip I'll be leading to the amazing place in the picture above (along with tons of other incredible places!), go to: Northeast India Explorer Itinerary

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 1: Bridges of The Umngot River Basin

The Great Bridge of Kudeng don't do it justice. 

This is the first of four posts on the living root architecture of Meghalaya. The other three are coming soon!

I'm currently working to organize a small trip to many of these locations. Click here for more information on that! 

In February of 2015, I set off alone into some of the most remote parts of the state of Meghalaya. My aim was to locate previously undiscovered, or little known, examples of living root architecture. In this, I was vastly more successful than I ever could have hoped. As I figure it, over the course of a one month long hike from the village of Shnongpdeng to the town of Sohra, I reached over fifty examples of living root structures. While by far the most numerous of these were living root bridges, I also managed to locate a number of other varieties of living architecture, including living root ladders, observation platforms, retaining walls, and also a number of structures which served several of these purposes at once.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 More things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

A corridor in Khirki Masjid, one of the most atmospheric historical places in Delhi, and also one of the city's most under appreciated major monuments

For the first half of my write up on what Lonely Planet missed in Delhi, go to: 

Starting right in the middle of South Delhi, here are ten more interesting places to visit in that sprawling metropolis which are not included in the most recent editions of Lonely Planet.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hyderabad (V2)

The spectacular chandeliers of the Kilawat Mubarak, the durbar hall of the Chowmahalla palace, along with the royal seat of the Nizams of Hyderabad.

And now for something completely different. In October of last year, I spent a little over two weeks exploring the fantastic state of Karnataka (and a little bit of Andhra Pradesh), in southern India. Despite the fact that Northeast India is perhaps the most inaccessible part of the county, by an odd set of circumstances it's the part that I now know best. But I had never been south of Agra (with the exception of the Andaman Islands which are something else entirely). This was my first foray into the south, and hopefully there will be many more to come. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Exuberant Rickshaws of Bangladesh

A common sight in Dhaka

In May, 2015, I traveled across Bangladesh, crossing the border from West Bengal and reentering Indian via Dawki in Meghalaya. The country left many impressions, but one of the strongest was made by its cycle rickshaws, which were decorated as brightly, colorfully, and crazily as possible. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

10 Things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

The largely forgotten tomb of Roshanara, world's away from the better known parts of Delhi.

For the second half of this list, please go to: 10 more things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

First off, let me say that I am in no way trying to disparage Lonely Planet. I would be a massive hypocrite if I did. I have found their titles incredibly useful over my years travelling in India. I think I've all but memorized large sections of text from several of their guidebooks (particularly their 2011 edition of Rajasthan, Delhi, and Agra). In short, having a Lonely Planet can really make travelling easier.

That being said, no guidebook, no matter how well-researched, is truly comprehensive. For example, the two most recent editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks dealing with Delhi, the one mentioned above and their 2013 pan-Indian title, both devote nearly 50 pages to the city, and yet vast swathes of Delhi's history, landscape, and cultural heritage are left out. 

This isn't the staff at Lonely Planet being derelict in their duty (except in those few instances where their information is incorrect, which I'll get to in my next post). Rather, it's a symptom of Delhi's long and exceedingly complex history. The city's unique position as the capitol of (as I figure it) eight different kingdoms and empires over the course of the last 1500 years has left Delhi with an almost mind-boggling assortment of historical sites. Including all of these in a single volume would require a book at least as large as the entire Lonely Planet India title. Every single tomb, mosque, and obscure complex of ruins can't have an entry...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Looking out through the entrance of the Guda Mandap, or Sanctum Sanctorum, of the Modhera Sun Temple.

The Sun Temple of Modhera is, like Rani ki Vav, one of the few remaining architectural splendors left behind by the 10th to 13th century Solanki Dynasty of Gujarat. I made a brief visit here while in transit between Patan and Ahmadabad, spending only around two and half hours in the area (and much of that time was consumed having tea at the Modhera bus stand with a shady though not entirely disagreeable member of the town council trying and not succeeding to hustle me out of  my Swiss army knife...he seemed to be hoping that plying me with free Chai would have the same effect as free alcohol. Anyway.) The stop-off made for a long day of travelling, but it was more than worth it. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Rani ki Vav

Rani ki vav, arguably the world's most impressive stepwell. 

Simply put, Rani ki vav, or "The Queen's Stepwell," in the little northern Gujarati town of Patan, is one of the foremost man made wonders of India. The stepwell is generally thought to have been built by Queen Udayamati of the Solanki dynasty as a memorial for her deceased husband, Bhimadeva I, in the late 11th century. At the time, the Solankis ruled over much of what we now refer to as the state of Gujarat, and their reign is often viewed as a golden age in the history of the region. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Agra 7: Itimad-ud-Daulah's Tomb and Chini ka Rauza

The top of the fantastic tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, in the very first direct sunlight of the day.

Along the east bank of the Yamuna, across from the Taj, Agra Fort, and the Old City, are the remnants of a long series of Mughal gardens and tomb enclosures. I had hoped, on my last morning in Agra, to take a long walk along the entire riverfront and see most of these, though I wound up pressed for time and was forced to only visit a couple of the highlights: The spectacular tomb of Itimad-Ud-Daulah, and the interesting and unique Chini ka Rauza, or China Tomb.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Agra 6: The Old City

A late 19th or early 20th century courtyard, somewhere deep in Agra's fascinating old city.

As odd as it may sound, there is a vast and deeply historical part of Agra, India's most heavily touristed city, which is almost entirely ignored by outsiders. This is The Old City, the bustling, incredibly intense, impenetrable seeming region of Agra north of the Red Fort and west of the Yamuna. Here, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, were the great mansions of the Mughal elite and the business communities which profited from the Mughal court's ridiculous expenditures (which apparently largely drove the economy of the entire empire.) 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Agra 5: Not Getting to Firoz Khan's Tomb

Hot action and glamour. Bizarre poster for some American Z grade western that was being shown dubbed into Hindi at local cinema halls in Agra. Don't ask me how the distributors got their hands on this undoubtedly classic film.

South of Agra, on the road that leads towards Gwalior, is the tomb of Firoz Khan, and I have never been there. My abortive attempt at visiting the tomb, quite unexpectedly, turned into the most genuine adventure I had during my time in Agra, and while I wound up with absolutely no nice pictures from my strange misadventure, it was still very much experience worth having. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Agra 4: Sikandra

Truly excellent carvings on the side of one of the false gateways to the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar. The carvings say a great deal about the man, as they show that he did not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, which forbids any sort of art depicting humans or animals. It's rather a shame that by Shah-Jahan's time the Mughals had shifted away from incorporating carvings of living things other than plants into their buildings. The quality of the craftsmanship here is extremely high, as it is throughout Akbar's tomb complex. It's interesting to speculate where Akbar's style of architecture would have gone had it outlived him.

Sikandra is an area about 10km West of the Taj Mahal. It's assumed that the name comes from Sikander Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate, who moved his capitol from Delhi to Agra in the 16th century. Why his name was applied to this particular patch of ground, is unclear, as his stronghold was most probably at the location of today's Agra Fort, while there are no Lodi era remains in the immediate vicinity (though the dates of some of the buildings in the area are a matter of controversy).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Agra 3: Roman Catholic Cemetery

The rather splendid late Mughal style tomb of John Hessing, the most prominent mausoleum in Agra's 460 year old Roman Catholic cemetery. The information available about Hessing is vague and often contradictory, but from what I've been able to find, it seems that he was once a soldier in the Dutch East India Company army who fought the British in Ceylon during the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. After the British victory, they took possession of the Holland's territories in India, but Hessing decided to stay in the subcontinent and  find employment as a professional soldier. He entered the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and then moved on to serve with the Marathas, fighting as an officer in their army against both other Indian armies and those of the British East India company. In 1799 he assumed command of Agra Fort and held it until his death. The tomb was commissioned by his wife Anne and their family. It is usually said that, like the Taj Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing was built out of grief at the loss of a loved one. For this reason, and also because Anne Hessing was apparently inspired by the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the Tomb of John Hessing is frequently referred to as the Red Taj. This is rather unfair, as it makes it sound as though Hessing's Tomb is little more than a cheap imitation of the Taj, when in fact it is very much its own mausoleum. The architecture is similar in certain respects, but the design of the tomb is, in the final analysis, just not that much like the Taj.  The building itself, which betrays hardly any European architectural influences, is considered one of the finest European tombs in India. In style, the mausoleum is entirely Mughal, despite the fact that Hessing was a Christian.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Agra 2: Agra Fort

Red sandstone carvings in the Jehangiri Mahal of Agra Fort. 

Because of its proximity to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort is the second most visited historical site in Agra. The fort is one of the most extensive, and also most intact, collections of Mughal architecture in India. The Delhi Red Fort is similarly spectacular, and may have at one point been just as impressive as the fortified city in Agra, but unfortunately time has not been kind to the fortress in Delhi, which, due to the British clearance of large parts of the compound after their crushing of the Sepoy uprising, is little more than a hollow shell of itself. Nearby Fatehpur Sikri, the short lived capital city of Akbar, also contains a large concentration of the greatest buildings of the Mughal period, but they were all built within a relatively short period of time and all reflect the Indo-Islamic architectural tastes of Akbar's reign. Agra Fort on the other hand contains a mixture of buildings in both the Akbari style and in the later, more austere, style of Shah Jahan. Thus it is perhaps the only place in the world where one can see the very different architectural styles of the Mughal empire's two most prominent builders literally side by side.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Agra 1: The Taj Mahal

The Taj at dawn. Now there's a picture I bet you've never seen before. Actually, this is maybe the world's single most iconic image, but since the entire tomb complex is oriented around creating this very composition, you mustn't blame me for taking a cliched snap. 

This is the first post in a series I'm going to do on a very intense week long trip I took to Agra in October of 2013. My two main purposes in re-visiting Agra were to go to the places I had not been to before (and there were many), and also to conduct reconnaissance for trips I'm planning to lead. I had been to the Taj Mahal no less than three times previously, yet this was the first time that I had the chance to see it at dawn, so that's where I'll start. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Meghalaya Monsoon Itinerary

Crossing the Nongthymmai living root root bridge, the longest of all (known) living root bridges, in the monsoon season of 2011. Believe it or not, the whole span is made of rubber tree roots that were trained across that stream over the course of a few decades by local Khasi villagers, making it one of the world's most striking examples of biological architecture. During this trip, we'll be staying in a small village about 45 minutes from here, in a little visited corner of northeast India that's simply abounding in fantastic things to see. 


Here's some information on an itinerary I'm going to be running twice during this year's monsoon season in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Meghalaya receives more rainfall than any other place on the planet, and is home to centuries old living root bridges and one of India's friendliest and most interesting tribal communities: the Khasis. It's a place of stunning beauty, of four thousand foot deep, mist filled canyons, where there's literally a waterfall around every corner, and where the average day's walk involves crossing raging, monsoon-swelled torrents over suspension bridges not much wider than your foot that are strung across rocky chasms......

Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Unknown Living Root Bridge

Tyndrong Bridge 

[Note: All of the spellings of Khasi villages below are merely my idea of how they should be spelled...I don't pretend to have a system, and many of these names I've never seen in writing. I have encountered the spelling "Tynrong" for "Tyndrong" a few times, and that does seem to be the more common version. However, I think for practical purposes, "Tyndrong" is a more useful English rendering of the word, as whenever I've heard it pronounced it definitely contains a rolled "D" sound between the "N" and "R" sounds, and if you were asking directions from some random Khasi in the middle of the jungle, I think you would be more likely to be understood with "Tyndrong" than "Tynrong."]  

A few months back, I decided to go exploring in the rugged jungle canyonlands west of the Khasi village of Nongriat, in a part of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya which has seen almost nothing in the way of tourism. While on this expedition I discovered, quite accidentally, a living root bridge which I am now reasonably certain was previously unknown to the outside world. It runs across a stream just below the village of Tyndrong, which is about three hours of moderately difficult hiking from the world famous Double Decker living root bridge of Nongriat. Living root bridges are exceptional given that they are among the only forms of architecture that are grown rather than built. Given that there are less than twenty known examples in the world (which are all in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, except for one in Indonesia), finding a new one is no small thing. However, I think that what stumbling upon a new living root bridge primarily indicates is that there are probably many more out there which are unknown to the outside world. There would seem to be a great deal more exploring to be done in the canyonlands of Meghalaya. Of course, saying that the bridge was "undiscovered" would not be true. Locals use it everyday, and presumably have for the past few hundred years. But what is notable is that no word of Tyndrong Bridge had reached people just a few 
villages over. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mehrauli: Qutb Minar Complex

A highly decorated prayer niche. Part of the large mosque next to the Qutb Minar in Mehrauli. This part of the complex dates from the early 13th century, and was constructed by Iltutmish, the second ruler of the Mamluk, or Slave, dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. This panel displays a variety of different decorative motifs, including two varieties of Arabic calligraphy. The carvings on the row furthest to the right are in an early Arabic script called Kufic, which seems to have developed in the fourth century, well before the advent of Islam. The earliest surviving Korans were written in the Kufic script, and the system of writing was used by a number of groups of central Asian Muslims who were culturally similar to the Mamluks. The carvings on the next row over are fairly stylized representations of leaves and vines, while the third row consists of more Arabic carvings, in this instance in the much later Nashki script. 

My blog posts on Delhi have largely focused on the more obscure, or at least less touristy, places in that vast city. Yet, sometimes, it's good to go back and visit the classic sites. I've already done a blog post on the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, and at some point I'm going to do a post on the interesting things to see in Mehrauli Village, which I visited a few months ago. That being the case, it seemed fitting that I should do a write up on what most people come to see when they travel to Mehrauli, namely, the Qutb Minar and the complex of early Sultanate buildings around it. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hampi Pt. 2

The 15 foot tall monolithic Kadalekalu Ganesha statue, in a shrine behind Hemakuta Hill. Carved out of a single granite boulder, this is one of the largest representations of Ganesha in the region. The word Kadalekalu means "Gram" in  the local language, which the statue's belly is thought to resemble. In his hand, Ganesha is holding a rice cake, which he's eating with his trunk. I was surprised that this photo turned out as well as it did, given how little light there was in the shrine.    

The great thing about Hampi is that it offers an almost limitless amount of places to explore. While there are a number of "must see" sites like the Lotus Mahal and the Vittala Temple, there are also a huge number of ruins and natural features in the area which see relatively little traffic.  This post is going to focus on the less visited parts of the ancient capital, along with a few of the major sites that I missed on my first day exploring the ruins of Vijayanagara. As you might expect, here's much more to Hampi than what I've posted here. I think you could spend your whole life studying the area and still not see absolutely everything.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Coracle crossing the Tungabhadra River, late in the afternoon. Coracles have been a means of conveyance in the Hampi area since prehistoric times, and even in the present they seem to have certain advantages over traditional boats. They're cheap, and so lightweight that they can be carried balanced on a person's head like a great big hat. Yet, with such low displacement combined with such a large amount of surface area in contact with the water, they can carry surprisingly heavy loads. The craft in this picture is holding three motorcycles and four people...what must be well over a thousand pounds in a vessel that looked like it weighed less than thirty. Coracles are used quite extensively in the Hampi region, sometimes just for tourist boat rides, but also because, at the moment, there's no bridge that connects Hampi with the settlements just on the other side of the Tungabhadra, such as Anegondi and Virupapur Gaddi. Note the dragonfly flying through the upper righthand corner of the picture.    

The little, sleepy, laid back village of Anegondi (Anegondi meaning something like "elephant enclosure") is situated across the Tungabhadra river from the remains of the city of Vijayanagara. Though the ruins in Anegondi are less spectacular, the village has a longer history than the much more well known and frequented historical site on the opposite side of the river. It is also on the other side of the Tungabhadra that the rocky, central Karnataka boulderlands rise to their most spectacular heights.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hampi Pt. 1

A beautiful maiden with a creeper, on one of the door jams in Vijayanagara's ruined Krishna Temple. 

Combining an entire city's worth of incredible South Indian architectural marvels with one of the subcontinent's grandest landscapes, Hampi is unequivocally one of India's most magnificent historical sites.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Feroz Shah Kotla

In a chamber under the Feroz Shah Kotla Mosque. 

The ruins of Firozabad, the fifth city of Delhi, stand tucked away next to a giant cricket stadium, just south of the former line of the walls of Old Delhi. It's not on most visitors itineraries, and even people I've know who have been living in Delhi for quite some time haven't gone there. The reason for this is, I think, relatively simple: Firozabad, otherwise known as Firoz Shah Kotla, is not pretty. Rather, it's scary, immensely atmospheric, and is generally considered one of Delhi's primary centers of supernatural activity....It's not for the faint of heart. Visiting the ruins on a Thursday afternoon, when people come from the surrounding area to petition disembodied spirits for favours and forgiveness in dark, dungeon-like chambers in the sad remnants of a once grand, but now almost totally destroyed, 700 year old city, is one of the most intense experiences that Delhi, a city that is nothing if not replete with intense experiences, has to offer. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Day Out From Badami

Nataraja, in the Ravana Phadi cave temple in Aihole, flanked by Ganesh. Nataraja is the form of Shiva whose dance of cosmic destruction will obliterate the old universe in preparation for the new. The Ravana Phadi Cave, dating back to the 6th century, is one of the very earliest Chalukyan monuments, predating the cave temples at Badami. Though Chalukyan architecture would develop a great deal between the this period and the 8th century, their skill at sculpting appears to have peaked rather earlier. For my money at least, the very greatest Chalukyan carvings, which certainly include this Nataraja, are in Aihole...Aihole is actually pronounced "Aye-oh-lei," and frankly I wish that whoever decided to render the name into English had gone a more phonetic route...talking about it actually presents exactly the same problem as bringing up the name of the planet Uranus...oh well....

My second day in the Badami area was one of the very best purely travel days I've ever had in India. In the twelve hours I spent on my feet, I wound up visiting roughly three quarters of the core of the ancient Chalukyan Empire (something which I can't say I do every day.) 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Frieze of Varaha, the boar-headed incarnation of Vishnu, holding his consort Bhudevi in one of the cave temples of Badami. The story behind this carving is that the demon Hiranyaksha, the beheaded corpse of whom Varaha is standing on in this depiction, kidnapped the Earth, as personified in Bhudevi, and took her to the bottom of a cosmic ocean, whereupon Vishnu sent his boar incarnation to slay the demon and take her back.

So, this is back in Karnataka, during the trip I took in October of 2012.

For me, visiting Badami was a trip into Terra Incognita: Whereas most of the historical sites that I visited in Karnataka were from a period that I was at least nominally familiar with, the great cave temples and temple architecture of Badami were mostly from a much earlier time, before the advent of Islam in South India. What's more, though I had been to a number of old Hindu sites before, most were in Assam, a place extremely culturally different from Karnataka.