Besides being the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunji in India's north-east is home to a series of unique bridges, strange tapestries of live tree roots woven by indigenous tribes. Jini Reddy explores these marvels of bioengineering The hike down to the Khasi village of Nongthymmai at the bottom of a forested gorge isn't for the fainthearted. It starts with a dizzyingly steep descent down stone steps. "How many steps?" I ask Peter, my guide. "Two thousand," he says. I don't think he's joking. Jelly-knees and mild vertigo aside, it's worth the effort. Cherrapunji is one of those places with a whiff of the mythical about it, and not just because of its record rainfall. This part of Meghalaya, a green, wet, little-visited state in India's north-east (sandwiched between Bangladesh and Assam) is home to the Khasi, a tribe of Mon-Khmer origin, and the Khasi villages dotted among the hills and valleys outside Cherrapunji's town centre offer a glimpse of the subcontinent far removed from the usual tourist trail.
In lieu of shrines, saris and incense, there are churches (thanks to the arrival of Welsh missionaries in the 19th century, the tribe is predominantly Catholic), the jansiem, a toga-like outfit worn by the women, and - most intriguing of all - the mysterious living root bridges. These ethereal bridges look as though they've sprung from Middle Earth, and exist nowhere else in the world. They are little-known outside the state (certainly the Delhi-ites on my flight over had never heard of them) and are the invention of the Khasi.
The Khasi, or rather their forefathers, needing a means to cross the many rivers and streams in their midst, came up with the idea of training the roots of the indigenous Ficus elastica (rubber tree) along hollowed-out trunks of betel palm and bamboo across riverbanks. These roots then anchor into the soil and create the base of the bridge. Others are woven together to make handrails and supports.
You need the patience of a Zen master to create a living-root bridge - it takes a quarter of a century or so before it's usable, but when it is, it can last for hundreds of years. Impressive, when you consider that not a single nut, bolt, or man-made material is used. Today, there are about a half a dozen of the bioengineering marvels, with more in the works. The bridges were first "discovered" nine years ago by Denis Rayen, an ex-banker from Madurai who runs the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort with his Khasi wife Carmela. Around 17 kilometres from the main town, and a kilometre or so above sea level, theirs is the only place to stay within walking distance of the bridges. The guest house is in a beautiful spot overlooking the Bangladeshi plains and the surrounding ridges and valleys - valleys within which are hidden the fabled flyovers. "I was exploring hiking routes with some villagers when I stumbled upon them. I took some photographs, did some research on the internet - and realised that they were pretty unique," says Denis. "Ordinary bridges would rot under the relentless onslaught of the rain, but the living root bridges just get stronger as they get older."
Keen to encourage eco-tourism as a means of generating income for the Khasi, he has launched an earnest one-man, and somewhat eccentric, ad campaign: the winding road up here (it's the last leg of a six-hour drive from the airport in Guwahati, over the border in Assam) is dotted with boulders he has doused with yellow paint, and which extol the pleasures - the treks, the bridges, the waterfalls - to come. More memorable still are the homilies to the weather: "Romance the rain!" declares one. "Keep your head in the clouds - feet firmly on the ground," exhorts another.
Undoubtedly, these are a cheering sight when one drives up in the midst of a torrential downpour or eerie mist - but under the clear, cloudless blue sky I've arrived, it's all a bit surreal. In the wettest place on earth, it turns out, there is a dry season - from November to February, and I have arrived on the cusp of it. Things get even more surreal on the 10km hike the next morning, which I'm told will lead me to the 200-year-old double-decker living root bridge, the most photogenic of all the bridges. Ten minutes down those vertiginous steps and I'm sweating profusely. Still, this is paradise: on either side of us are a tangle of mango, tapioca and pineapple trees, coffee plants, orchids, hibiscus flowers, clouds of butterflies and, in the distance, frothy waterfalls tumbling from cliff walls.
Birds - about 200 or so species have been spotted in these parts - flit about the treetops. There's also a barber perched mid-step, cutting the hair of a young boy. He smiles and waves his comb in greeting. On a pilgrimage to a magical Tolkienesque bridge I may be, but for the Khasi it's business as usual. Nongthymmai, on the valley floor, starts where the infernal steps end. Through the small village of betel palm growers I traipse, grateful to be on flat ground. The farmers, Peter explains, eke out a living selling the leaves and nuts of the tree in local markets. Paan, a chewy parcel of betel nut and lime wrapped in a betel leaf, is a popular stimulant in India (and elsewhere in Asia), one that stains teeth a vampiric red. It's an acquired taste though - as I learn when I'm offered one - bitter and fiery.
Leaving the village behind, we tread carefully across slippery moss-covered boulders and enter kaleidoscopic vales of butterflies, the latter pure enchantment. Then I nearly tread on the tail of a fat brown snake, which briefly dampens my enthusiasm for our venture. We cross fast-flowing streams on rickety suspension bridges - sadly it's not all living-root bridges here - until at last, we approach the next village, Nongriet, and the famous bridge.
The photographs don't do it justice. It's an almost mind-bendingly complex tapestry of thick, gnarled roots on two levels, nature harnessed to human ingenuity - but it looks more like a bridge for hobbits. Or is it? "It can bear the weight of 50 villagers," says Peter. Alas, there's not even one to test it, so I do the honours. I tread gingerly across the top level, which spans 21 metres, and then the slightly shorter bottom one, being careful not to get my foot stuck in a stray, toughened root. Thankfully it doesn't give way.
After a bout of enthusiastic bridge-crossing, I settle down to lunch - jadoh, a sort of pork biryani (the Khasi, it seems, are fond of their pork) - and then take a dip in the adjacent rock pool. Idly I wonder why the Khasi built the bridge on two levels. To guard against monsoon rains? Human traffic jams? No, says Denis, shrugging his shoulders, on our return to the guest house late that afternoon. "They just felt like it."
Indeed, the canny Khasi, cottoning on to the fact that they have a unique tourist attraction in their midst, are now embarking on an enthusiastic programme of living-root bridge-building. "There's even a triple decker bridge in the works," chuckles my host. The mind boggles.