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 

This, the final post in my four part series on unknown or obscure living root architecture, will deal with structures made from living roots that are not bridges, along with failed or destroyed living root bridges. 

While the living root bridges are by far the most famous variety of living root architecture in southern Meghalaya, similar techniques have been used to create a surprising number of other functional structures. Broadly speaking, these include living root ladders, platforms, and retaining structures, along with hybrid constructions that are several of these things at once. 

Perhaps the least photogenic, though nonetheless extremely ingenious, use for the living roots of Banyan trees is in the construction of retaining structures. While walking on horizontal paths in the Khasi Hills, which usually hug the sides of steep inclines, one often notices that there will be Banyan trees directly next to the trails with roots that seem to be almost holding the slopes up. That is indeed what is happening, and, as I found out earlier this year, the trees have been deliberately planted to perform this function. The roots of the tree are being used to stabilize the slope, rockfalls and landslides being a major problem in the hill country of Meghalaya. It's well known that having lots of trees on a hill side can make it more stable due to the gripping power of tree roots. Banyan trees, given their exceptionally numerous roots which have evolved specifically to adhere to rocks and steep inclines, are uniquely suited to this task. 

While these structures (which may even stretch the definition of architecture a tad) are less visually appealing and not as likely to draw huge crowds of visitors as other forms of living root architecture, they nonetheless continue to have great practical value. Particularly at a time when the slopes of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills are under increased pressure due to unsound farming techniques, the use of Banyan tree roots as retaining walls could be potentially lifesaving. Projects for stabilizing hill slopes through the use of conventional retaining walls is not something that the people of remote Khasi villages would be likely to be able to complete, as to do so effectively would require large amounts of construction equipment, not to mention government funds, which would probably entail outside construction crews. Using Banyan trees much more extensively than they have been used already would be both free (saplings would simply have to be transplanted) and, in the long term, more effective. The roots used in the retaining structures would only grow stronger and more numerous. The slopes would get more stable over time. 

However, it took me until about two thirds of the way through my long hike in the Khasi Hills to even notice what these structures were. Unlike other forms of living root architecture, they don't tend to stand out very much, and don't look like much more than a tangle of roots in a photograph. Still, when I return next year, I do intend to map as many of them as I can. 

Another .as yet very rarely visited, form of living root architecture are living root platforms. I've only personally encountered two of these, though I know of the existence of a third. They seem to be used for observation, though more examples would need to be found to say anything definite. For me, an interesting question is whether or not platforms have been grown high up in trees (presumably for hunting). This certainly would be possible, and might mean that I have walked underneath numerous examples of these structures without noticing. 

Finally, there are living root ladders. The use for these is pretty obvious: When a trail needs to be built over terrain that is too steep for stairs, the roots of Banyan trees are used to create a vertical pathway. Confusingly, Khasi languages do not draw a distinction between ladders and bridges, so the term "Jingkieng Jiri" (alternate spelling: "Jingkieng Jri") is used for both kinds of architecture. 

Interestingly, though I've not stumbled into as many living root ladders as I have living root bridges, I have come across two very distinct methods for modifying Banyan tree roots into structures one can climb up and down. The first is simply to train roots horizontally so that they form rungs. The second is to cut out rungs into large, already established Banyan tree roots. The cuts will, over time, expand with the growing root.

Again, as with living root platforms, not many living root ladders have been found. There may be many more in southern Meghalaya but their locations are as yet unknown. 


This is the most spectacular example of a living root ladder that I can across during my month long hike in Meghalaya. It's near the medium sized Khasi Village of Pongtung, about 20 minutes hiking to the east of N.H. 40 (one way). After the initial turn off of N.H. 40, reaching it is fairly straight forward, however you'd need to have a pretty knowledgeable guide to recognize the turn to begin with. Basically, just south of Pongtung, there is a concrete barrier on the eastern side of the road, and the trail begins on the southern side of this. Still, for now, getting a guide would be the best idea. I'm not sure whether or not the ladder has seen other visitors. My guides to the bridge were from Burma Village, and weren't really acquainted with the tourism scene. 

The structure is exceptional because it consists of two distinct living root ladders, one above the other, which employ two separate modes of living root construction, though both ladders are formed from a single tree. The path where the ladder was formed had to head down a cliff, so the original planters decided to create the ladder where there were a couple of tall natural steps in the cliff face. The ladder was sort of draped over these steps. Unfortunately, this arrangement means that, from the upper ladder, one can't see the lower, and vise versa, so getting a really satisfying photo of the structure in its entirety wasn't an option when I visited.

The shorter upper ladder uses a method whereby a number of roots were trained horizontally in order to form a series of very closely set rungs. On the lower ladder, it begins with the same method, though over the majority of the structure steps were formed by directly modifying the roots. It looks as though the makers of the ladder simply took a machete and carved out a series of gashes in roots that had already established themselves and the gashes then expanded along with the roots, creating a series of steps.

Climbing the upper part of the Pongtung living root ladder

This is the lower part of the Pongtung living root ladder. Notice that at the top, near the kid, are several rungs like those on the upper part of the ladder. Those oval shaped holes in the sides of the roots are the steps that have been formed with machetes

Looking straight down  to the ground from the top of the lower part of the living root ladder


This living root ladder is located right before the spectacular living root bridge I've named Kongthong 1 in the post The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 3: Bridges of the 12 Villages. Any hike from Kongthong to the living root bridge will mean climbing this ladder.

My friend Roy on his way up the Kongthong living root ladder

Roy ascending. Note the horizontal rung near the bottom of the picture 

Looking down from the top of the Kongthong living root ladder


Note that more pictures of this bridge are included in the post The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 2: Bridges Near Pynursla

It come as no surprise that many living root structures simply don't fit neatly into any particular category. For example, Rangthylliang 8 is both a living root bridge and a living root ladder. You can see in the photo below that the roots hanging down from the bridge have been used to form several rungs of a ladder that provides access to the stream the bridge crosses. A swing was also made out of the roots hanging down from the bridge, so you could even say that Ranghtylliang 8 serves three separate purposes at once!

Morningstarr climbing the living root ladder


This was one of my favorite discoveries of my month long trek. In the village of Kudeng Rim, next to their football field, a Banyan Tree has been modified to serve as living root root bleachers. It seems to have been altered specifically for the purpose of allowing the villagers to watch football games from a lofty vantage point. 

The tree has been altered in two ways. First, roots have been trained so that, rather than hanging down onto the ground, they run closely around the outside of the tree, which makes it easier to climb up into. Secondly, several living root platforms have been created in the branches of the tree by interweaving aerial roots. 

This is an example of a piece of living root architecture where I really am surprised that no one's ever posted anything about it online. Unlike many of the obscure living root bridges, it's not at all hard to get to, given that it's right next to Kudeng Rim. I would even go so far as to say that, if you knew where it was, it would be vastly easier to access than, for example, the world famous living root bridges of Nongriat. 

Yet, somehow, this fascinating structure has up until now remained entirely off the radar. 

The Living Root Bleachers are in the tree directly behind the three kids in the center of the photo

Two people from Kudeng Rim in the Living Root Bleachers. Here one gets a good look at the way the secondary roots have been trained to adhere directly to the side of the tree. Without them it would be much harder to climb up into it

Up on one of the platforms. While the roots of the platform are relatively thin, the fact that there are so many of them makes it safe to stand on

Another platform, facing a different direction


I'm not sure I know how to characterize this thing. It's primary purpose might be to serve as a retaining structure. You can clearly see something like a walkway made of roots near the bottom of the picture. However, the archway, and the small but obviously trained root that you can see running across it, are features that I've never seen in any other living root structure. Unfortunately, I had to hurry past the Mystery Object, so I could only get this one very insufficient photograph


I spotted this from Rangthylliang 9, and later from downstream while fording the river Rangthylliang 9 crosses. What it is is a very long, straight, and, by the looks of it, trained, Banyan Tree root, suspended high up above a river. However, with no railings of any kind it could never be used as a bridge.  I never actually took a photo specifically of it....what you see here are pictures of other things, where this was in the background, which I cropped to make this object as clear as possible. 

I was told at the time that this was just a random root. However, looking at it again, I don't see how that could have happened. I think there are two possible explanations for what this thing is. First: It might be a remnant of a much larger living root bridge that got mostly swept away. Second: It might be a bridge that failed to form properly and was abandoned. 

The unknown object is that black line near the bottom of this photograph. It's hard to imagine that this root fell out like that naturally

A highly zoomed in photo looking at the same object. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to see where the root began and ended. However, one thing that can be said on the basis of this picture is that the root has been there for a very long time, judging by its thickness


As you might suspect, when it comes to living root architecture there are some cases where its not entirely clear weather the structure in question is natural or man made. The Doubtful Bridge of Rangthylliang is such an example. More or less, it's just one big root across a ravine. It is, however, a useful root, which a guy from Rangthylliang does use to cross the ravine in the monsoon season, though with a bamboo pole attached to provide a railing.

In fairness, I am told that said root was planted, though I've also seen plenty of similar things that had formed naturally, so I'm just not sure. 

Morningstarr looking up at the Doubtful Bridge of Rangthylliang

Another look at the Doubtful Bridge of Rangthylliang


This is a small section of a largely destroyed bridge near the village of Rymmai. The original bridge would have been a double span structure, with the two parts of bridge leading both to and from a small island in the middle of a fairly wide stream.  The longer part of the bridge, which would have crossed the stream's main channel, is gone, though a small part that crosses the narrower part of the stream survives. 

The ex-headman of Mawshuit village standing on the remnant of the living root bridge at Rymmai


There are many places in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills where one can see the sites of living root bridges that have been recently destroyed. This is an example near the village of Kudeng Rim. The bridge was apparently destroyed in a fire. One threat to the survival of living root structures is the fact that the actual rubber in Banyan trees is highly flammable. I was told that this particular bridge was destroyed a few years back when someone failed to put out their bidi before throwing it away as they crossed the bridge. Once a fire really gets going in the roots of a Banyan Tree, particularly in the dry season, it's virtually impossible to put out. The roots may as well be permeated with rubber cement. 

The site of the destroyed bridge near Kudeng Rim. You can see remnants of the structure on either side of the stream. Also, note the root hanging down from above, which looks as though it was once part of the living root bridge


I'm using the term "Reincarnate Bridge" to denote instances where living root bridges have been destroyed, and then other bridges (usually made from bamboo) have been put up in exactly the same place. Frequently, these are hybrid structures, where the remnants of the destroyed bridges are incorporated into the new constructions. 

The Khonglah Reincarnate Bridge. It's a steep bouldering expedition downstream from the bridge I called Khonglah 6 in the first post in this series. Here, you can see the tree that the former living root bridge was made from


This is another example where a bamboo bridge has been built at the site of a destroyed living root bridge. This is upstream from the bridge I referred to as Shnongpdei 1.

The original living root bridge in this case was fairly close to the water. Since flash floods in the area have gotten worse of late due to changing agricultural practices, the builders of the new bridge have deliberately raised the newly constructed bridge high off the stream. 

Rothell Kongsit at the Shnongpdei Reincarnate

Another view on the Shnongpdei Reincarnate. At the time, it was impossible to walk out on this bridge. The bamboo had not been changed, and was partially rotted out...a problem one does not have with living root architecture...


At one time, this must have been a truly spectacular living root bridge. In this case, a part of the original living root bridge survives, and has been combined with the bamboo bridge. Secondary roots are growing along the length of the newly built structure, and appear to be being encouraged to do so. Perhaps, some time in the future, roots from either side of the bridge will be linked together, and a new living root bridge will be formed. Of course, what destroyed the bridge originally will remain a factor, though were the area to become a tourist attraction, the people of Nongpriang might decide to regrow and protect the bridge for that reason.

The Nongpriang Reincarnate. The tree that the bridge is formed from is huge, suggesting that there might have been a bridge here for a very long time. The living root bridge might have gone through several iterations before the one that was most recently destroyed

Here you can see the place where remnants of the destroyed living root  bridge and the newly built bridge meet. Note the way that chords of young roots are being encouraged to grow out along the span. While this may not be a full living root bridge again any time soon, the young roots may well get worked into the existing framework to strengthen it. This raises the question of how often living root bridges, rather than being planted and begun as root bridges, are instead formed by growing out roots on conventional structures. There is, for example, a hybrid steel-wire structure near the village of Nongriat where such a method is being employed to form a new living root bridge

Looking out along the span of the Nongpriang Reincarnate showing how far along the bridge the young rubber tree roots have reached

So, that, finally, ends my posts on the living root architecture I reached on my month long hike from Shnongpdeng to Cherrapunji earlier in 2015. While I discovered vastly more than I was expecting to, the truth is the biggest discovery was that, as much as I found, such evidence as there is points to there being vastly more living root architecture in the region. There is so much more work to be done, and all I've put down here was nothing more than a reconnaissance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.