Easy paths seldom lead to magical destinations. This was true for the Living Roots bridges in Cherrapunji. I think I planned a trip to Meghalaya solely to witness these bridges. Even though the state is home to many such bridges, only a few are known to the world outside. Out of these, the Umshiang Double Decker is the most popular and a major tourist attraction. But getting here is no mean feat. Getting there means an arduous trek which includes climbing close to 6500 steps, both up and downhill. As if the steps alone weren’t enough to make the trek hard, added to that were two very narrow bridges made of bamboo, iron cables and rods.
I started my journey from Cherrapunji (also known as Sohra), one of the wettest places on earth. The hour and a half drive from Sohra to Umshiang took us through lush, dense forests on bumpy, narrow roads. As I reached Umshiang and looked at the never ending flight of steps I was to descend, the only thing I could think of was the ascent. I looked at our guide Paradise for that much-needed confidence boost.
The start wasn’t too bad. On our way downhill we brushed past trees and flowers, spotted butterflies, crossed tiny hamlets that looked right out of the Lord of the Rings. Such beautiful place demanded our attention and we complied. We took pit-stops and sips of water en route while Paradise kept us updated with the names of the small villages, customs of the tribes, and the history of the place. We crossed locals going about their daily business; children and adult alike climbing those dreadful steps and making it look like child’s play. This sure made me question my fitness status.
We came upon our first bridge. No, not the Living Roots bridge but one that was made of bamboo and some cables meant for one person at a time. If only the bridge didn’t shake and sway so much…
First experience didn’t make any difference whatsoever because the second bridge (similar to the first one) scared me as well.
It was after walking for two hours that we reached our destination. It was better than I had imagined, and none of the pictures I had seen of the place did justice to its beauty and serenity. Imagine looking at bridges sprouting out of tree roots, growing every day. There was a double-decker Living Roots bridge on one side and a small waterfall on the other; the place enveloped with quiet and peace. To me, the place was no less than any magic. Coming out of my dream-like state, I noticed that commuters from a nearby village don’t actually use the bridge, but instead use a normal path right next to the waterfall. Turns out, locals use these bridges during monsoon when these walking tracks lay submerged in water.
I sat there for a while, feet soaked in cold gurgling water, when I felt something nibble at my feet. Fishes! A tiny school of fish played happily with my feet and gave me a fish pedicure while at it! If that’s not an amazing experience then I don’t know what is.
We didn’t even realise how time flew and just like that we found ourselves heading back to where we came from. The way back was extremely tough. Every single step felt like drudgery and I took a break every few minutes, catching my breath, massaging my calves. Every time I looked up, all I saw was nothing but countless steps. Though it took us three hours and a lot of huffing and puffing to reach the starting point, we did it.
History and Origin: Southern Khasi and Jaintia hills around Cherrapunji are home to a species of Indian rubber tree with very strong root system. The species has a secondary root system originating from high up in the trunks that can easily roost atop big boulders or even in the middle of the rivers. A tribe in Meghalaya called the War-Khasis noticed this a long time ago and realised that these strong roots can become a means of easily crossing rivers in many places.
How to get there: Umshiang Double Decker Living Roots Bridge lies in the state of Meghalaya. It is a trek and the starting point is approximately 45 km from Cherrapunji. Cherrapunji is located at a distance of 54 km from Shillong by road, and undoubtedly makes for one of the most beautiful drives in India.