Behold the Bridges in India Made of Living Tree Roots

Liv­ing green walls and upcy­cled build­ing mate­ri­als are wel­come envi­ron­men­tal­ly-con­scious design trends, but when it comes to sus­tain­able archi­tec­ture, the liv­ing root bridges made by indige­nous Khasi and Jain­tia peo­ple in the north-east­ern Indi­an state of Megha­laya have them beat by cen­turies.

These tra­di­tion­al plant-based sus­pen­sion bridges make it much eas­i­er for vil­lagers to trav­el to neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties, mar­kets and out­ly­ing farms by span­ning the dense trop­i­cal rainforest’s many gorges and rivers.

Their con­struc­tion requires patience, as builders train the aer­i­al roots of well-sit­u­at­ed, mature rub­ber fig trees into posi­tion using bam­boo, old tree trunks, and wire for sup­port, weav­ing more roots in as they become avail­able.

This mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional con­struc­tion project can take up to 30 years to com­plete. The care­ful­ly-tend­ed bridges become stur­dier with age, as the roots that form the deck and handrails thick­en.

The vil­lage of Non­gri­at has one bridge that has been in place for 200-some years. An upper bridge, sus­pend­ed direct­ly over­head, is a hun­dred years younger.

As vil­lage head and life­long res­i­dent Wis­ton Miwa told Great Big Sto­ry, above, when he was a child, peo­ple were leery of using the new­er bridge, wor­ried that it was not yet strong enough to be safe. Six decades lat­er, vil­lagers (and tourists) tra­verse it reg­u­lar­ly.

Archi­tect San­jeev Shankar, in a study of 11 liv­ing root bridges, learned that new struc­tures are loaded with stones, planks, and soil to test their weight bear­ing capac­i­ty. Some of the old­est can han­dle 50 pedes­tri­ans at once.

Humans are not the only crea­tures mak­ing the cross­ing. Bark deer and cloud­ed leop­ards are also known trav­el­ers. Squir­rels, birds, and insects set­tle in for per­ma­nent stays.

The Khasi peo­ple fol­low an oral tra­di­tion, and have lit­tle writ­ten doc­u­men­ta­tion regard­ing their his­to­ry and cus­toms, includ­ing the con­struc­tion of liv­ing root bridges.

Archi­tect Fer­di­nand Lud­wig, a cham­pi­on of Baub­otanik — or liv­ing plant con­struc­tion — notes that there is no set design being fol­lowed. Both nature and the vil­lagers tend­ing to the grow­ing struc­tures can be con­sid­ered the archi­tects here:

When we con­struct a bridge or a build­ing, we have a plan – we know what it’s going to look like. But this isn’t pos­si­ble with liv­ing archi­tec­ture. Khasi peo­ple know this; they are extreme­ly clever in how they con­stant­ly ana­lyze and inter­act with tree growth, and accord­ing­ly adapt to the conditions…How these roots are pulled, tied and woven togeth­er dif­fer from builder to builder. None of the bridges looks sim­i­lar.

The bridges, while remote, are becom­ing a buck­et list des­ti­na­tion for adven­tur­ers and eco­tourists, Nongriat’s dou­ble bridge in par­tic­u­lar.

The BBC’s Zinara Rath­nayake reports that such out­side inter­est has pro­vid­ed vil­lagers with an addi­tion­al source of income, as well as some pre­dictable headaches — lit­ter, inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior, and over­crowd­ing:

Some root bridges see crowds of hun­dreds at a time as tourists clam­ber for self­ies, poten­tial­ly over­bur­den­ing the trees.

The Liv­ing Bridge Foun­da­tion, which works to pre­serve the liv­ing root bridges while pro­mot­ing respon­si­ble eco­tourism is seek­ing to have the area des­ig­nat­ed as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

1,100 Del­i­cate Draw­ings of Root Sys­tems Reveals the Hid­den World of Plants

The Secret Lan­guage of Trees: A Charm­ing Ani­mat­ed Les­son Explains How Trees Share Infor­ma­tion with Each Oth­er

Daisu­gi, the 600-Year-Old Japan­ese Tech­nique of Grow­ing Trees Out of Oth­er Trees, Cre­at­ing Per­fect­ly Straight Lum­ber

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Navya says:

    Amaz­ing arti­cle. These bridges are some­times cen­turies old and have been in use by the locals. It is quite inter­est­ing to see this sort of raw engi­neer­ing tac­tics. I was plan­ning Megha­laya Vis­it and was look­ing at arti­cles on them. Found this info use­ful. Thanks!

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