Hally War was just 10 when an idea took root in his mind. Seeing his parents’ daily struggle to cross a river to reach their farm, little Hally decided to build a bridge, nay a root bridge.
Sixty years later, his creation over Umkar river in Siej village near Cherrapunjee, also known as Sohra, in the undulating East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya has grown into a living marvel.
As is the traditional practice, he used the roots of the rubber fig ( Ficus elastica), learning the techniques to mould and model the roots into a bridge with the help of bamboo from his grandfather and other elders in the family, Mr. War, nearing 70, reminisces.
With hard work, the living root bridge across the Umkar has grown to two decks, stretching to 20 metres and 15 metres, respectively, and is now a tourist attraction. Mr. War’s family now helps him grow it further.
“People, including my parents, were finding it difficult to cross the river to go to the farms on the other side, particularly during the rainy season,” Mr. War says. “It took 30 years to make the bridge strong so that people could use it to cross the river.”
He charges a nominal amount from visiting tourists, which is used to protect the bridge.
The main crop in the area is areca nut along with orange, lemon, lychee and some medicinal plants. Rubber fig trees were originally planted by the elders in the village to make bridges.
Meghalaya is known for its living root bridges, locally known as jingkieng jri. They are on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Many bridges across the State are over a century old.
Daphisha Gabriela Pyngrope, manager of Nomads Adventure Shillong, an organisation that promotes living root bridges, says the Khasi-Jaintia people, like most indigenous tribes, have a sense of oneness with nature.
“Although the exact history of the living root bridges remains undocumented, it is believed that they were built to overcome natural calamities, especially since Meghalaya is highly prone to floods due to the excessive rainfall during the monsoon.” Ms. Pyngrope says.
She adds that these bridges are taking forward the culture of the tribes. They feed into the idea and practice of sustainability, keeping in mind the good of future generations.
Mr. War says his wife, Philoris Khyllep, has helped him through the years. “For some time, I had to abandon construction, as there was no help from the government or any other agencies. But I continued the work later with the help of my wife and children. We made the entire bridge by ourselves. I did not receive any government aid,” he says, adding that a parallel bridge was built by the government in 2001.
“There are many people like Mr. War, who have dedicated their life to protecting the ecology by building and maintaining living root bridges. Governments must help them by constructing parallel bridges so that tourists can see these root bridges and take photos to spread the word. It will also help to protect them. I have tried my best to help by ensuring MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) and other funds be spent to build parallel bridges,” Shillong MP and former Minister Vincent H. Pala says.
A spokesperson for the State Tourism Ministry says the Department hasn’t added Mr. War’s bridge to their map. “We will examine the unknown bridges soon and add them to the tourism map.”
“I have seen Mr. War’s struggles to make this bridge a unique and beautiful site,” says Philarisha Shullai, a tour planner and guide in Cherrapunjee who is happy to bring tourists to the bridge.
In the meantime, Mr. War is passing on his knowledge of twisting and turning roots to make bridges to his three sons.