For eons, Meghalaya has had the unique distinction of being synonymous with natural beauty. The jungles of Khasi and Jaintia in Meghalaya are home to unique living root bridges that can seemingly last forever. These living root bridges, for centuries, have sustained life on the southern slopes of the hills.
For generations, these bridges have been a means of transportation, linking one place to another over rivers and streams.
First, the skeleton is made either from hollowed-out areca nut or bamboo, onto which they pull the roots of the rubber tree. Gradually, these roots are manipulated so that they entwine onto the frame.
At the initial stages of the bridge, not more than 5-10 people can cross it in a day.
The issue is, every two years, this framework needs a change due to damp and humid conditions that cause the bamboo to rot.
Fun Fact: The longest known living root bridge in the state is 175 feet located near Mawkyrnot village of East Khasi Hills district.
“These bridges can last forever! According to me, if you can take care and maintain the bridge properly, it will continue to grow roots that will replace the older ones,” says Morningstar Khongthaw, a 23-year-old school dropout and founder of the Living Bridge Foundation (LBF), a foundation dedicated to the preservation of this unique natural heritage.
Morningstar is a native of Rangthylliang village in the Pynursla tehsil of the East Khasi Hills district. He calls himself a ‘living bridge activist’, for being involved, for the past five years, in maintaining living root bridges that have gone into disrepair and building new ones. Traveling from village to village, he helps people understand the value of this ancient skill and how they can take care of this heritage.
“Sometime around late 2013, while I was studying in Shillong I began involving myself with local communities, and NGOs. Growing up, my father, a farmer, along with a few other relatives, were actively involved in the maintenance of these community-owned bridges,” says Morningstar.
Strangely enough, an American traveler, Patrick Rogers, who came to Meghalaya in early 2014, was the first person to encourage him in this endeavor, claims Morningstar.
A visit in 2015 to the famous Nohwet bridge near Mawlynnong village, a Major Tourist Destination, shocked him. What pained him was the concrete made in the area surrounding the tree. Besides poor aesthetics, these structures reduce the roots’ access to water.
And this led to the setup of the Living Bridge Initiative in 2016. Morningstar’s work truly transformed after he acquired a smartphone. Besides facilitating greater awareness of social media, it also helped him organize and create his own Facebook page.
During the rains, maintenance becomes the primary focus for him.
He applies rotten leaf, soil, and wood close to the bark of the tree, giving the ficus tree nutrition and helping it grow.
Even today, these structures are useful in places that don’t have roads.
Besides bridges, Morningstar is using similar techniques to build other structures in the forest, ranging from ladders, swings, seating platforms to even tunnels. Morningstar calls this ‘living architecture’.
He is also a guide for travelers in these parts, and on occasions, receives additional donations from them to fund his endeavor.
He was particularly surprised by the unexpected support from the Technical University of Munich, who supported his initiative and even presented him with a camera to take quality photos.
He has also received recognition from institutions in Shillong like the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), which invited him to give a presentation at a conference in March 2019.