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




Before getting into this post I would just like to thank Rothell Kongsit and all the folks in Kongthong village who showed me around the Katarshnong. Needless to say, my reaching what you see below never would have been possible without them!

So, moving right along...

THE TWELVE VILLAGES (Known locally as the "Katarshnong")

VILLAGES COVERED: KONGTHONG-SHNONGPDEI-MAWSHUIT-NONGSHKEN-SOHKYNDUH-NONGPRIANG

The name 12 Villages, or Katarshnong, refers to a rugged region of slopes and valleys which is between two of the great ridges of the Khasi Hills. Were one to draw a straight line from Pynursla to Sohra, it would pass over the Katarshnong, and would be only, maybe, seven or eight miles miles in length. But crossing the same area on foot, as I found out earlier this year, is far less straightforward, and involves going up and down endless ridges and valleys, through some of the most isolated settlements in the region.

The area is not, as yet, famous for its living root architecture. As far as I can tell most of the living root bridges in the region have not been visited by outsiders, and even people in the area engaged in promoting tourism have not regarded the Katarshnong's living root bridges as an asset when it comes to attracting visitors (though that might have changed somewhat after my visit). 

As it is, what has attracted a (very tiny) trickle of visitors to the area is a unique cultural practice called "Jingrwai Iawbei," where at birth the children of certain villages are given a sort of musical name, or theme, by their grandmothers. The people of this regions use this musical nomenclature to communicate to each over long distances. For example, if two people are working out in the their fields, separated by, let's say, a valley, instead of calling out to each other by name, they'll actually sing out each other's songs.

For good reason, it is this custom which the area is becoming known for (though it is still exceedingly remote), but the region also has a number of spectacular, and largely unvisited, living root structures. As for how many exist in the Katarshnong, it's hard to say. My travels merely took me on a fairly shallow reconnaissance of the region, rather than giving me the chance to do a proper survey. I do know that, at one time not too long ago, there were many more living root bridges in the Katarshnong. Unfortunately large numbers have succumbed of late to fires and landslides. Of all the areas I covered on my long hike, it seemed like it was this area where the living root structures were in the greatest danger. Vast swathes of the region's jungle are very rapidly being burnt down and replaced with a variety of grass used for making brooms, and this process is destroying most of the area's living root bridges. It's hard to imagine that there will be many left in a decade or so, unless tourism in Kongthong takes off fairly soon, and the people of the region realize just how much they have to gain from preserving their heritage (and what little remains of their jungle).

Of all the living root bridges on this page, the only one which seems to have been visited before I reached it is MAWSHUIT 1. Otherwise, the photos of the living root bridges you see here are the first ever to appear online.


KONGTHONG: 2 BRIDGES, OTHERS LIKELY

At the moment, Kongthong is the most tourist friendly village in the Katarshnong region. It even has overnight facilities in the form of the newly built "Kongthong Travelers Nest." It is probable that in the next few years Kongthong will become a village tourism destination to rival Nongriat, though its not quite there yet. It makes an excellent base for exploring the center of the Katarshnong, and also affords some of the best views I've seen in Meghalaya, where one can look out over a huge expanse of the surrounding hills and valleys, all the way out to Pynursla.

It also happens to be the most accessible place to experience "Jingrwai Iawbei." While there are several other villages where the phenomenon seems to occur, none of them have significant tourist facilities.

KONGTHONG 1:

This is one of the most distinctive of all living root bridges, and also one of my personal favorites. The way it's main span slopes upwards makes it look almost like a living root ladder, and in all my time in Meghalaya, I've not seen another living root bridge like it.

 I was told that I was the first outsider to come to Kongthong 1. That being said, after making it all the way to Kongthong, reaching this bridge is not all that difficult: There is a very clear path that starts right next to the village, and heads almost straight down to the living root bridge, crossing an exceptionally long steel wire suspension bridge on the way. By the standards of the Khasi Hills, the path is almost gentle. However, when I first went my guide Roy took me up to the living root bridge through the bed of the river Umrew. This route takes one through spectacular canyon scenery, and is also highly recommended, though it's a longer and more strenuous hike/canyon scramble.

Before you reach Kongthong 1, there is a living root ladder, which I'll talk about in my last post in this series.


Roy stands mightily upon Kongthong 1. How the original tree wound up in this strange configuration is hard to say. The natural center of the tree seems as though it's being held up by deliberately trained living root load bearing members that appear younger than the branches of the tree above


This is the view of Kongthong 1 from upstream. It can also be viewed as a dual span living root bridge; The first span is the ramp-like structure you see here, while the second is a short, though clearly deliberately trained, span which leads from the center of the tree back to the opposite bank

KONGTHONG 2:

This is a small, apparently damaged, living root bridge, about 40 meters upstream from Kongthong 1. An attempt is being made to grow new roots onto it to make it functional again.



Kongthong 2

SHNONGPDEI: 1 BRIDGE

Not to be confused with Shnongpdeng, Shnongpdei is an exceedingly remote village, about a ninety minute hike north of Kongthong. You're only real chance of reaching it would be to contact the tourist society in Kongthong and have them guide you.

The upper reaches of the river Umrew flow next to Shnongpdei, and the one (known) living root bridge in the area is accessed by climbing down from Shnongpdei into the river, and then scrambling some distance down the watercourse to the living root bridge. There may be an easier way to get to the bridge, though no matter what, reaching it would entail a certain amount of scrambling. 

Both from physical evidence and what I was told at the time, the river next to Shnongpdei was once spanned by quite a few living root bridges, though these have mostly been been destroyed in recent years due to rising flood levels, again, a result of the conversion of the jungle into broom grass fields. Several have, however, had a reincarnation of sorts in the form of bamboo bridges (I'll also cover one of these in my last post). The one living root bridge that has survived has only been able to because it's partially protected from monsoonal floods by a big boulder.

The protection offered by the boulder, however, didn't prevent the bridge from being knocked down sometime in the past. Most of the bridge was destroyed at one point, leaving only part of it standing on the western bank. Then the bridge was then reconnected, I'm told, maybe 60 or 70 years ago (figures are fuzzy under such circumstances.) 

 The living root bridge was originally planted to service a village which no longer exists, and the paths down to the structure seem to have largely disappeared. The locals therefore didn't see any real reason to maintain the bridge, and at the time I visited, parts of it had fallen apart. 

I was led down to the living root bridge by the head of Kongthong's tourism society, Rothell Kongsit, a couple of other folks from Kongthong, and also some people from Shnongpdei. It was Rothell's first visit as well. When we arrived at the bridge, Rothell explained to everybody that the bridge could be a major tourism asset, and that they shouldn't let the structure be destroyed. All the locals then started on the spot repairs on the living root bridge. Therefore, the living root bridge I left behind was very different from the one I first encountered. This marked the only time where I witnessed a living root bridge actually being constructed.

I do hope the bridge survived this year's monsoon season. There is a fairly good chance that, as I write this, the bridge has already disappeared.  

Shnongpdei 1, classic, simple, and spectacular. It is a fairly long bridge (I would estimate that it is slightly longer than the longest living root bridge in the Nongriat area). It looks much smaller from upstream than it does from downstream, because the boulder in the background obscures much of it. Rothell is second from left

The view across the span, from the eastern side of the living root bridge, before any repairs had been done. You can see here that the railings on the left side the picture are less intact than those on the right

In the process of repairing the bridge, using the rubber tree roots available. Notice the thin roots coming in from the right side of the frame. This is a sort of a living root variation of a feature one sees frequently on modern steel wire bridges. Once those roots strengthen, they'll serve to keep the bridge from swaying too much in the wind and in flood waters. I'm not sure if it'll work or not: The roots probably won't have grown strong enough by the time the bridge is put to the test


More repairs being done. Note the number of roots that were hanging down that have been incorporated into the structure. If they survive this year, they'll add greatly to the stability of the living root bridge. There always seems to be a certain amount of opportunism that goes into creating and maintaining these structures


The newly repaired railing. These roots will take a couple of years to become useful


The whole team at work on Shnongpdei 1

MAWSHUIT: 1 BRIDGE, 3 OTHERS KNOWN TO EXIST BUT NOT VISITED

Mawshuit is a small village west of Kongthong. It has also seen a few visitors. The village, and the root bridge listed here, would be accessible in a day hike from Kongthong, though I stayed the night in Mawshuit. There seem to be quite a few living root bridges in the near vicinity, and I am told that there are many more in the surrounding villages, though at the time I could only manage to visit one. Exploring this region more thoroughly will be a high priority when I return.

MAWSHUIT 1:

This is a spectacular, though sadly dangerous and badly maintained, living root bridge on the Muor River, northwest of Mawshuit. It is, to my knowledge, the only living root bridge in this post which has been visited, photographed, and had information about it published online. A tour outfit called Vagabond Expeditions reached it sometime this year, though their blog post about it is dated several months after I visited. Also, a few trekking groups, including one apparently made up of American college students, have stayed in Mawshuit and trekked to the bridge. However, visitors are still extremely rare, and, if anything, seem to have ceased entirely, at least of late. 

The bridge itself, at least according to the Vagabond Expeditions website, used to service a major trail that connected Mawshuit with the nearby small town of Khrang, though the entire trail was mostly abandoned around 1996 after an alternate route was constructed. 

The bridge is clearly a very young one: So much so that the roots are thin enough that in places you could slip right through them. The bridge is also very high up above its stream. These two factors combine to make the living root bridge one of the most dangerous I've ever encountered. I learned this the hard way when I wandered right out onto the middle of it and then realized I was centimeters from doom...I'm afraid, unless you're tiny, going out on it is probably not a good idea. 

 It is, however, in one of the most spectacular settings of any living root bridge, as it spans a narrow, rocky, gorge. Were the people of Mawshuit to put their minds to it, they could develop and maintain the bridge. If the bridge itself were not in such poor condition, the view of it from downstream could become one of Meghalaya's great post card shots, and the village could do a steady business in bringing people to see it (a guide, at least at this stage, would be a must).

The former headman of Mawshuit village, standing upon Mawshuit 1. He is, of course, much smaller than I am, making the bridge much less of a safety hazard for him. You'll notice that there's a steel wire bridge right above it. I'm not sure which came first. Both are abandoned and rather too dangerous to cross. 


The tangled view of the bridge from the eastern end of it. This is what you see first when you approach the bridge from Mawshuit. It really isn't very picturesque from this vantage point. Here you get a good impression of how thin the roots are


Closer to the center of the bridge


Zooming in on the span and the ex-headman

NONGSHKEN: 1 BRIDGE

Nongshken is a tiny village on the long route between Mawshuit and Cherrapunji. If you were to walk from Cherrapunji to Kongthong, you might come this way. I have absolutely no information on other living root bridges in the area.

NONGSHKEN 1:

This is a pretty, classic, medium length living root bridge in a small wooded valley below Nongshken. It lies directly on the fairly important route linking the villages of Rymmai, Nongshken, and Sohkynduh. 


Nongshken 1


The view from upstream....

....and from downstream. The man in the photo was my guide from the village of Rymmai

SOHKYNDUH: 1 BRIDGE

Sohkynduh is a village within sight of Cherrapunji, and would be accessible from Cherrapunji itself in about a five hour (at a moderate pace) trek. The village does not have any tourist facilities, and is at this point very unused to outsiders. However, if it did have a home stay, it would make a very good base to begin exploring the Katarshnong from. 

I only spent one night there, though that was just long enough to see that the village is the terminus of a network of trails that lead into the southern part of the Katarshnong, a region in which I have never set foot, though which almost certainly has a significant number of examples of living root architecture. 

SOHKYNDUH 1:

This is a small but very interesting, and clearly very ancient, living root bridge a steep two and a half hour hike (both ways) from Sohkynduh. It has a very distinctive, triangular, profile, as the planters decided to use what would become some of the tree's main branches in the structure of the living root bridge.


Sohkynduh 1

My guide from Sohkynduh on the living root bridge


A local villager crossing Sohkynduh 1. Note how thick the root next to him is. Allowing for the fact that the man is probably very short, the root must still be in the vicinity of two and half to three feet thick, meaning the bridge must be hundreds of years old

NONGPRIANG: 1 BRIDGE, SEVERAL DESTROYED BRIDGES

Walking from Kongthong, Nongpriang is the last village one goes through before reaching Cherrapunji. It lies directly at the bottom of the steep slope to the east of Cherrapunji, I'd say about an hour's walk downhill, or a three hour's walk up.

It still manages to be a pretty little village, though the surroundings are sad: As I walked through, the jungle in the area was literally in the process of being burnt down. It's clear that, not too long ago, there were a great many living root bridge around this village. While I saw one functional one, I also saw two other places where living root bridges had been, though they were destroyed recently. I didn't have the time to do a proper survey of the area, so it's more than possible that there are other, still functional, living root bridges accessible from Nongpriang.

NONGPRIANG 1:

This is a small bridge on the path between Sohkynduh and Nongpriang. It's very near some large patches of jungle that were cleared in shifting cultivation fires recently. It looked to me at the time that the bridge itself had only narrowly missed being consumed in the fire. It also happens to be the last living root bridge I discovered on my month long trek. A few hours after the photos below were taken, I was back in Cherrapunji. 


My guide on Nongpriang 1

Nongpriang 1


The view of Nongpriang 1 from upstream

Coming soon, the final entry in this series: The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 4: Living Root Ladders and other uses for Living Root Architecture





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