Years before I visited Meghalaya, I had a head full of images of the Living Root Bridges. That these bridges were accorded the UNESCO heritage status, further fuelled my wanderlust to step on them some day. A turning point and my decision to visit the remote north eastern corner, however, came through when reams of media articles screamed “One man’s journey to save the Living Root Bridges.” As I flipped through one of my favourite travel magazines, an article on the ‘destruction of these bridges’ and ‘how GPS could save them’, caught my attention. The possibility of never being able to visit these bridges, eventually hit me and I was pretty much on my way to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.
Learning about the Living Root Bridges:
Historically, Meghalaya has received the heaviest downpour during monsoons. The local inhabitants, have ever since, struggled to cross villages, as the rivers would swell, disconnecting one village from another. When they tried building bamboo bridges, the mighty rivers would just wash them away. It was then that the villagers turned their attention to the locally grown species of rubber trees called Ficus elastica. They guided the roots of the trees to hollow canes of Areca nut palm to meet halfway across the water. The roots were tended to and were nurtured for decades, until they reached the opposite river bank, forming a skeleton that would eventually grow into a huge bridge capable of carrying weight of multiple people at one single time.
So naturally, when I first contemplated what the destruction could mean, I was shocked. What would happen to an entire community, if these bridges were destroyed I wondered. I was curious and decided to meet some of the local Khasis (the creators of the Living Root Bridges). As I reached Shillong, I was fortunate enough to be hosted at a home-stay, run by James Perry, a key member of the movement of promoting sustainable travel and environmental conservation in Meghalaya. James Perry, a Canadian, born in the capital city of Meghalaya, Shillong runs, a home-stay. He grew up in a missionary family and returned to Canada for his later education. He came back to India and married a local Khasi girl- Valeriena Perry Syiemlieh. James has been since, living in India for almost 30 years now, along with his three kids. As I unwrapped my backpack and relaxed to soak into the vibes of a Khasi house, I observed the interiors of my cabin. Built by James himself, they were simple, predominantly wooden, running independently, on solar energy panels and windmill set-ups, disconnected from the Meghalaya power grid. There was a separate cabin, where travellers could avail and relaxing massages, offered by the local masseurs. Before going to sleep, I feasted on the Khasi culinary specialties and salads made out of organically grown and locally purchased ingredients.
The next morning, I decided to explore the local area myself. With my young guide, Lyndoh in tow, I started hiking towards the Sacred Forest of Mawphlang, an hour’s drive from Shillong. The Khasi tribes have stood as keepers of this forest for about 800 years now. “For us, nature has always come first. We have a belief that nobody can cut any trees or branches. Visitors can’t carry a single dried leaf or flower out of the forest. This is to avert any bad luck,” informed Lyndoh. In my mind, I made a note and hoped that the ‘fear of ill-fate’ can actually, discourage people from deforestation and ruining our natural heritage. Interestingly, with the tribal community’s incessant efforts, Mawphlang’s Sacred Forest, became the country’s first REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and (forest) Degradation) pilot, a mechanism that allows communities to generate income from carbon credits.
The next day, James accompanied me to a Living Root bridge in a tiny hamlet around Shillong. As we made a steep 40-60 uphill walk, I saw, the landscape, mostly devoid of human habitation. All I could hear was the floating sounds of a magpie and millions bees buzzing around. On my way up, I mostly saw young local boys relaxing while a few brought in dried grass to burn. As we walked up, I took multiple stops to breathe. Giving me a glimpse into the issue, James made a startling confession. “Though, the bridges have caught the attention of the ‘travellers’ across the globe, many villagers are yet to understand what the fuss is all about. For them, these bridges are a part of their daily village life. They use the bridges to cross over to other villages for their livelihood. They are used for community interactions, to transport products from one to another. The villagers cross these bridges to host their weekly markets in the neighbouring village to sell fruits, vegetables, clothes, utensils, betel nut leaves, etc.”
On our way down, James explained. The locals are now waking up to the issues that dominate their lives. Visiting the local headmen or village chieftains, James, with his colleague- Morning Star, is currently working to bring the villagers together to understand the sudden tourist influx to the state, bringing in both beneficial and harmful effects in the region. He is trying to encourage them to make their own decisions based on a better understanding of the bridges and its significance to the outside world. In the evening, as I relished the delicious Khasi spread prepared by Valeriena, back at home, James continued to shed light on the topic. At present, there is no centralized authority regulating or monitoring the flow of the crowd that flock. The bridges are seen as ‘tourist spots’, failing to recognize them as an important resource for villagers and their needs.
The future and the way ahead-
As with all the challenges, there has to be solution to this challenge as well. At my nudge, James reckoned, there is! He believes that people need to be able to travel in a more empathetic way, encouraging understanding of the area one visits and further forging deeper, meaningful interactions with the locals to understand their way of life, their challenges. He is currently working with different villages to help them set-up traditional Khasi home-stays that give traveller’s a slice of the local life, such as farming, washing clothes or maintaining irrigation systems. This would allow the traveller to gain a slice of a local’s life, while allowing the locals to earn an additional avenue of income in exchange of resources such as accommodation, food, etc. “The idea”, he says, “is to encourage a two way exchange between the travellers and the villagers. When individuals, including me, think we know best and do things with possible the best intentions, it often leaves the locals as second or third. With an outsider deciding to document the bridges on GPS and putting that data out on the internet for all to see, without understanding its significance to the local people, is deciding something without empowering the locals. The locals, if provided with the right tools and understanding, can actually document the bridges themselves if they so wish to.”
When I started my journey, I had expected my conversations to be of spiteful politics and angry locals. But a week’s stay with my Khasis hosts and friends, reiterated the fact that anger cannot solve any problems. Creative ideas and indigenous solutions are the way ahead. Technology may aid, but is clear that today, even the modern environmentalists are gawking in admiration, in our ancient knowledge and methods of conservation. On my way back to home in the concrete jungle, I wondered, how could we learn from Meghalaya? May be as travellers and responsible citizens, the time has come for us, to reflect and understand how our travels are impacting or contributing to empowering of the local communities, environmental eco-system and livelihood.
What are your thoughts? Are we really destroying our local communities and culture to further our ‘globalization needs?’