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The Living Bridges of Meghalaya

Located in northeast India, the state of Meghalaya contains two towns with the highest annual rainfall on the planet. No other place on Earth sees precipitation like these two towns and they’re located just miles apart. Just how much rainfall you ask? Try over 460 inches on average. ON AVERAGE. That’s almost 40 feet of rain in a single year, and that’s an “average” year. A more extreme year, such as 1985, produced more than double the average. That’s right, over 80 feet of rain in a single year; over 1000 inches. For comparison, Roanoke receives a little over 3 feet of rain per year, a national average for cities in the United States. It’s mind-boggling to think people could live or even survive in those conditions. But, in these towns, adversity fuels creativity.

photo from BBC.

As you can imagine, getting around in the constant rain is challenging (or at the very least an annoying inconvenience). Indians native to the region never leave the house without an umbrella in tow. They’ve padded the roofs of their homes to try and dampen the sound of the rain. They’ve created special hats that keep them dry when they tend to their crops, and shoes that provide better traction over the muddy terrain. But no invention is quite as innovative as their bridges. That’s because these bridges aren’t made from reinforced titanium steel or poured concrete. No, these bridges are alive and they attract tens of thousands of tourists every year.

Flooding is a major problem in the area (imagine that), and the rising water levels create raging rivers that are impossible to cross. Entire villages would become isolated without bridges, making them essential to the native’s survival. Man-made structures can’t withstand the constant barrage of rain and often fail within a few years. So what does a bridge-dependent community do when they can’t build reliable bridges? They grow them.

The living bridges of Meghalaya are created by manipulating the roots of trees over several decades, eventually creating a rock-solid path capable of holding upwards of 35 people at a time. It’s a slow process, but one that “grows” stronger over time with some of the strongest bridges well over 100 years old. The Indians use the Indian rubber fig tree, Ficus Elastica, because its aerated roots can be tied and twisted across bodies of water. The Ficus Elastica is geographically versatile, as it can grow in steep terrain along the banks or even in the middle of a river. Traditionally, the Indians have used bamboo or betel nut trunks that are placed across the channel and used as a makeshift guide for the roots. The guides have to be frequently replaced (especially during the fall’s monsoon season) due to rot from all the rain.

photo from BBC.

It’s a fascinating technique; and one that the indigenous people are dependent on for survival. As man-made materials become stronger, more affordable and more susceptible to withstanding the elements, the living bridges of Meghalaya are becoming less and less of a commodity. However, the art form still exists and bridges are still being grown to this day. The most famous of the living bridges, the double-decker bridge in Cheerapunji (pictured above), is gearing up for a third-tier expected to be grown in the next 15 years. No one knows when the first bridges were formed, but hopefully the locals will continue this innovative tradition for many generations to come. Check out a short video on the bridges below.

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