Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya and the fantastic Khasi People - a travelogue by Timothy Allen | #OKTravel

Timothy Allen and young women from Meghalaya
Born on May 26, 1971, Timothy Allen is an English photographer and filmmaker best known for his work with indigenous people and isolated communities around the world. In 2008, the BBC commissioned him to work on the documentary project Human Planet. He also wrote a weekly blog for BBC Earth, documenting his work during Human Planet. Timothy is a regular commentator on TV and radio in the field of media and travel/exploration. Below is his story about his travel to Mawlynnong, Asia's cleanest village, in 2005.

Living root bridges in Mawlynnong (photo: Jim Ankan Deka)
A few years ago during a bout of backpacking in India I heard about Megahalaya‘s living root bridges from a fellow traveler I had met in Darjeeling. Although he confessed to never actually going there himself, he said he had heard from another person that the area called the East Khasi Hills was a fascinating and under explored place. I clearly remember trying to conjure up an image in my mind of what a living root bridge might look like, and to be honest, the best I could muster was something akin to a log across a small brook, a sight I’ve seen many times during various jungle treks the world over. In fact, when I think about it now, I’m amazed I ever bothered following up the lead on his recommendation, but I am so thankful that the lure of the North East States as a whole was strong enough to eventually get me on a train to Guwahati, which serves as the gateway to this part of India.

At that time there was no mention of this part of Meghalaya in any guide books. In fact, the Lonely Planet only devoted a few sparse pages to all seven of the North East frontier States due to the ongoing conflicts in the area with a general warning for tourists to stay away. Of course, a warning not to go somewhere is a very seductive thing to a person like myself. Experience has taught me that an intelligent and friendly traveller can avoid this type of internal conflict quite easily, since flash points tend to occur as isolated incidences in an otherwise peaceful and welcoming place.

The East Khasi Hills, site of the many living root bridges constructed by the Khasi tribe have one quite major claim to fame. The Guinness book of records regularly sites the village of Cherrapunjee as being the rainiest place on earth, an honour which is hotly disputed by neighbouring Mawsynram, about 10 miles to its east. Regardless of who’s right, it’s fair to say that this part of the world gets a hell of a lot of rain, and if you are intending to travel there yourself you may be advised to take this factor into account when planning your trip, with the monsoon generally happening between the months of May and October.

In my opinion, apart from the living root bridges, the main reason to come to this part of Meghalaya is to meet the fantastic Khasi people who populate these hills which sit majestically overlooking the plains of Bangladesh. When I originally came here, I had a tentative plan to stay a week or so, but I ended up staying nearly a month and a half in all, returning on two occasions with friends.

The place I called home during that time was a lovely little village called Mawlynnong which I had heard about from a Canadian guy called James Perry who lived in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong with his Khasi wife and kids. Back then, before guidebooks existed for the area, all my information came from people I met on the ground and James was a wealth of knowledge on the Khasi tribe, having lived there for quite a while. As a native speaker, he was well involved in the culture of the area and gave me a list of local festivals and places of interest. More importantly, he advised me not to travel to the better known areas around Cherrapunjee to see living bridges but instead to base myself in Mawlynnong to its east as a place to explore the hills.

James had recently helped the Khasi get funding to build a community guesthouse in Mawlynnong with the aid of a government grant but admitted that the only visitors they had thus far attracted were Khasi tourists from Shillong who wanted to visit Mawlynnong, known locally as the ’cleanest village in India’… a title the Khasi were very proud of, but one that not much of the rest of India had heard about.

Living root bridges in Mawlynnong (© Timothy Allen)
My first visit to Mawlynnong was a beautiful eye opener and one that, looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I can identify as a pivotal cross roads in my life that will live with me forever. On James’s instruction I located the yellow minibus at Shillong’s Bara Bazaar market which left for Mawlynnong and immediately fell in love with the Khasi way of life as I was packed into the back along with a handful of smiley welcoming folk who immediately took me under their collective wing.

About 4 extremely bumpy hours later (the road was still under construction) and after our midway tea stop at the village of Pynursla, we arrived at what looked to me like an exclusive garden centre from back home in the UK. This was Mawlynnong, a village who’s inhabitants all chip in a few rupees every month to pay for a village gardener who keeps the place immaculately clean and planted up with fantastic flowers and exotic plants from the surrounding forest. I was proudly shown to their shiny new guesthouse and taken out onto a veranda at the back that lead to a series of platforms through the forest canopy where I was offered tea.

The Khasi are a matrilineal society (as oposed to a matriarchy), meaning that a family’s lineage is traced through the surname of the wife, with the youngest daughter inheriting all the family’s property. Clothed in their traditional Dhara, you can really feel the girl power when you spend a little time with the Khasi, something that I really love about their culture. There was a huge amount of community spirit in all the villages I visited, a fact that no doubt delighted the Welsh missionaries that first came to these hills in the 19th century from the Bangladeshi plains below.

One Sunday, after a painfully dull recited history of Welsh Baptist tradition at Mawlynnong’s one hundred year old church, I decided that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that church attendances in Wales had diminished so much in recent times that many churches had been sold off to private owners for conversion to luxury housing. Ironically, on a later visit, I discovered that one of the congregation was about to embark on a sponsored trip to Wales to spread the word to the folks back home.

A stone pathway in Mawlynnong (© Timothy Allen)
All Khasi villages are connected by a network of stone pathways known as the King’s way which traditionally kept the local betel nut trade alive with Shillong. Throughout this network, hundreds of living root bridges form the bridleways over the myriad of water channels that criss-cross the area. A few minutes walk from Mawlynnong is what I consider to be the most beautiful of all the bridges in the East Khasi Hills, namely the bridge at Wahthyllong which we featured in Human Planet.

When I tell people about this part of India, I can’t help drawing an analogy with the appearance of some of the sets in Lord of the Rings. For me, the bridge at Wahthyllong is the antithesis of this analogy. Uncertain of the age of the bridge, I’m estimating 100-150 years but from talking to the locals, all that I can be certain of is that it wasn’t planted by someone who is still alive today.

In the dry season, women come to this place to wash their clothes and a trip here at sunrise is an unforgetable experience. This is certainly a magical place, augmented by the beautiful nature of the Khasi people. The view from above reveals the majesty of this masterpiece and underneath, the ancient organic mesh work weaves its beauty.. Over the years, stones and earth have been lodged between the gaps of the banyan tree roots to form the beautiful pathway.

The development and upkeep of bridges is a community affair. Initially, a length of bamboo is secured across a river divide and a banyan plant, Ficus benghalensis is planted on each bank. Over the months and years, the roots and branches of the rapidly growing Ficus are trained along the bamboo until they meet in the middle and eventually supersede its support. At later stages in the evolution of the bridge, stones are inserted into the gaps and eventually become engulfed by the plant forming the beautiful walkways. Later still, the bridges are improved upon with the addition of hand rails and steps. Lesser know than their cousins the living root bridges but equally as fascinating are the Khasi’s living root ladders.

The Khasi villages in this area sit atop a great plateau providing a comfortably cool climate. However, below them in the plains of Bangladesh exists an environment that is much more suitable for growing oranges. Consequently, many Khasi farmers have cultivated the land below them which is only accessible by traversing huge cliff faces like the ones you can see in the photo of Nohkalikai waterfall near the top of this page. Sensationally, even here the versatile banyan tree can weave its brilliance by way of the ladders and suspended walkways that the Khasi have built in order to be able to scale these sheer faces.

Meghalaya (© Timothy Allen)
A few days trekking around these hills will bring you in contact with some lovely people and beautiful places. Be sure to take a guide from a village. I can recommend a great young fellow in Mawlynnong called Henry, if he still lives there. I went out hunting and fishing with Henry and his friends on many occasions in this magnificently wild landscape.

When I originally went to Mawlynnong, the handful of foreigners who had previously visited were mainly missionaries. That has definitely changed now. When the Human Planet film crew turned up a couple of years ago they found the original guestbook that I had given to the guesthouse as a present before I left. It was completely full and they had nearly filled another one too.

During my first trip there, I was asked by the village council for suggestions on how they could attract tourists to come to their corner of Meghalaya. Over the weeks I did the best that I could to warn them of the potential pitfalls caused by of an influx of outsiders, but they were extremely adamant that it was what they wanted. They are a very strong community of people and I had no doubt that they would deal with the inevitable increase of visitors in a responsible and socially acceptable way.

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Well, it appears that 5 years is a long time in NE India, since there have been some interesting developments in the Khasi Hills since I was last there. Mawlynnong, the once sleepy and undiscovered place has become a little overrun with tourists during the day. The unexpected thing for me however, is the fact that these tourists are Indian and not foreigners. It appears that home grown tourism in India has exploded since I was last here, a fact I noticed the moment I arrived back in Shillong to discover all my usual hotels fully booked.

Nongriat on the other hand, the village containing the somewhat more famous ‘double decker’ root bridge has remained relatively unaffected by this boom in indigenous travelling, mainly because there is still no road there and 4 wheels are most certainly the preferred mode of travel for your average Indian vacationer. Judging by the names in the guestbook of the village’s new ‘rest house’, in the rainy season they get about 2 visitors a week dropping by.

There’s no question that Mawlynnong IMO still has the best looking bridge nearby, but make sure you visit it first thing in the morning or last thing at night if you want to experience it the way I did. I would advise you to visit Mawlynnong and base yourself there for a few days whilst you explore the forest all around on some treks. In the evenings it’s as quiet as it ever was as few people stay over night. After that take a trip to Nongriat, where the bridges aren’t so good, but where you get a more a peaceful experience, more interaction with the locals and better swimming pools in the rivers.
How to get there:

To see the living root bridges you must first get to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. You can fly into Guwahati and get a share taxi all the way to Police Bazaar in Shillong for Rs 400 per person. Alternatively, rent the whole taxi for Rs1600. If you arrive into Guwahati by train, catch a Sumo (The 11-seater jeeps that are the main form of transport around Meghalaya) from right outside the station. Guwahati to Shillong takes about 3 hours including a food stop.

A market that is mostly run by women in Meghalaya (© Timothy Allen)
To get to Mawlynnong, you must find the Khasi Hills Sumo stand at Bara Bazaar market.. it’s the first one you come to on the left going up the hill away from the market. It looks like a 2 storey car park with a ramp up the left hand side going to the second level. Look for the Pynursla and Sohra stands which are the first ones on your right at the top of the ramp. Mawlynnong Sumos aren’t marked but they tend to be parked behind the ones to Pynursla and they leave at 1pm sharp. The trip takes about 2 and a half hours and costs Rp80 including a 15 minute tea stop at Pynursla, the half way point. On market days in Pynursla, there is no direct sumo to Mawlynnong from Shillong, so you will have to change in Pynursla which is very easy… there are loads of vehicles going both ways on market day. There are no Sumos to Mawlynnong on a Sunday.

Mawlynnong now has 2 guesthouses and about 3 home-stay options. Prices are Rp2000 a night for the tree house, Rp350 for the guesthouse just off the turning circle and whatever you negotiate for a home-stay.

If you need a good guide in Mawlynnong, use Henry or someone he recommends. The going rate is Rp250 a day. Henry’s mobile is 09615043027.

Getting to Nongriat is a little more complicated. Look for the Sohra Sumo stand (same as above) and take the first available one to Sohra for Rs 50 (Sohra is the Khasi name for Cherrapunjee). In Sohra you will most probably need to hire a small taxi to get you to Tyrna which is the village where the road ends. It’ll be about Rs 200 and takes about half an hour. From Tyrna you have to start walking. The path is quite obvious but get a local to point you in the right direction at first, then descend the 2004 steps (yes, I counted them myself) down to Nong Thymmai and then on to Nongriat over 2 wire suspension bridges and a couple of root bridges. It should take you about 1 and a half hours. The guesthouse in Nongriat is just on the other side of the double decker bridge and costs about Rp400 a night. In the rainy season this is quite a walk and you might be advised to pay a local to carry your largest bag. The going rate is Rs 100 per trip.

The monsoon in Meghalaya is generally between May and October, but it has fluctuated recently.

Other articles by Timothy Allen - Nagaland; Living Root Bridges