The Living Root Bridges are incredible feats of engineering built by the indigenous people of Mawkyrwat village in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya. These bridges are built using the living roots of Ficus trees (Ficus elastica) planted on both sides of a stream and then made to span the width of the river until they meet in the middle. They are a product of traditional knowledge which has been preserved over centuries by the Khasi tribe of Mawkyrwat village. In order to make the roots grow in the desired direction, they use bamboo filled with soil and place them from one end of the stream to the other end. This trains the tender young roots of the trees to grow in the desired direction. Once they reach the other side, they are made to grow into the soil. When maintained well, they become sturdier over time lending unparalleled longevity. The average lifespan of these bridges is believed to be more than 500 years. These bridges are structurally tough, resilient and there is a progressive increase in its load bearing capacity. Ficus elastica is well adapted to the geological and climatic conditions of the region and can also grow secondary roots from the trunk which are further interwoven with the main bridge. These bridges grow over a period of 15-20 years across gorges which may be 15-250 feet wide.
Meghalaya is a state with highly undulating mountainous terrain. The topography is interspersed with deep gorges, river streams and thick vegetation between villages, settlements and farmlands. The communities with farming and livestock rearing as primary occupation found it almost impossible to reach their agricultural lands and grazing areas. Attempts to use bamboo or wooden bridges proved futile as these bridges would not last long in the heavy rains and natural disasters. Living root bridges are an innovative and indigenous solution to resolve this issue. The root bridges have been created in remote places where no other form of connectivity existed to cross over and reach the other side, for their day to day journey.
The construction of the first Living Root Bridge of Mawkyrwat, Pynursula, East Khasi Hills, was initiated by their forefathers, about 5 to 6 decades ago. The people of Mawkyrwat have been successful in creating two mature bridges. They have been engaged in constructing the longest and the highest Living Root Bridge since 2010. The bridge is envisaged as having a span of 52m over a 35m to 40m deep gorge.The use of the bridge by the local people is ensured to be within it carrying capacity. Maintenance of the bridge and the adjoining area is carried out by the community members twice a year during the monsoon period since it is considered to be the most suited period for redirecting the roots. No synthetic or man-made material is used in the process. As compared to their concrete counterparts which require huge initial and recurring investment, the Living Root Bridges are low cost bridges. They enhance the ecosystem services and contribute to carbon sequestration. Shri Moyarwest Khonglam, a community member, leads a Self-Help Group (Sengtreilang) in Mawkyrnot, in constructing these bridges. The practice of constructing root bridges is widely prevalent in Khasi and Jaintia hills of Meghalaya, especially in remote villages. Regulations have been laid down for protection and maintenance of the bridge which prohibit cutting of trees, building fire in and around the bridge in the forest area and disposal of garbage in the vicinity. The community wishes to explore new opportunities for livelihoods by showcasing these live root bridges to tourists through eco-tourism.
Self Help Group of Mawkyrnot, won the India Biodiversity Awards (IBA) under the category ‘Sustainable Use of Biological Resources’ in 2016.
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