Exploring the living bridges of India

Why build a bridge when you can grow one? That’s the solution the valley dwellers of northeast India came up with hundreds of years ago. In the isolated East Khasi hills, monsoon swollen rivers can be difficult and dangerous to traverse, and the locals found that homegrown bridges made of living, sidewalk-cracking roots were a lot more difficult to knock down. Not only that, but the bridges thrive in the super-soaked region, growing stronger in the damp rather than rusting or rotting. About ten years ago, a local resort owner took notice of the root bridges and began tirelessly and successfully promoting them as a tourist destination. The attention encouraged the local villagers, who had been considering replacing the bridges with modern concrete ones, to revive their bridge-making craft, and new bridges are growing today. Take a look at this truly green infrastructure…

This particular bridge is known as the Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge, named for the river flowing underneath. It’s a one-of-a-kind bridge among one-of-a-kind bridges, the only double-decker root bridge known to exist. Image via WikiCommons

If you want to build your own root bridge you’ll need to plant your trees and use a guide medium, such as a bamboo or a hollowed betel nut tree trunk, to coax the roots to grow together. It helps if you’re using Indian rubber trees that are particularly amenable to this kind of engineering. Image via WikiCommons

A typical root bridge takes 10 to 15 years to become fully traversable. But the investment in wait time more than pays off as these bridges are known to last five or six centuries. Image via WikiCommons

It might be easy to cross the rivers, but getting down to see the root bridges can be an arduous trek. Be prepared for a lengthy, steep hike to the valley floor. Image by T. Saldanha

Because the roots are alive and continue to grow, these bridges actually get stronger over time. Image by T. Saldanha

The Indian rubber tree has several sets of roots. The roots used in building bridges are part of a secondary set located high up on the trunk. Image by Ashwin Mudigonda

At first glance, one may not even notice the living bridge below these trees. Image by Ashwin Mudigonda

Any gaps between the roots are filled in by stones. Over time these become embedded and absorbed, becoming an inextricable part of the living structure. Image by Pratham Books

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