Here Monideepa Das talks about her memorable trek to the double decker living root bridge at Nongriat Village and a rendezvous with prehistoric fossils in Mawsmai caves
PART – 3
While planning our Shillong-Sohra trip, we learnt that living root bridges located in the thick tropical forests of Meghalaya happen to be the star attractions of Meghalaya tourism and that there is a unique double decker bridge near Sohra (Cherrapunji). Hence, my son and I made up our minds to include it in our itinerary.
Our driver was convinced that the trek to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Nongriat would be an impossible feat for me, perhaps because I was the mother of a grown up son. As if that wasn’t enough, even the staff at Jiva Resort, where we were putting up, discouraged me. But I was determined not to be dissuaded because I was certain that with a motivator like my son by my side, making the impossible ‘I’m possible’ would be a cakewalk.
So, with the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge of Nongraiat Village in mind, we took the drive up to the Tyrna Village where the motorable road ended. After making the necessary payments at the ticket counter, where each of us was provided with the equivalent of a walking stick, we embarked on our trek to the living root bridge, accessible only on foot.
We hired Raplang, a guide, hoping that he would be a good companion and would also share the salient information about the living root bridge.
As I listened to our guide briefing us about the 3.5 km one-way trek comprising of 3500 narrow, steep concrete steps, with a descent of 2,400 feet, I realised that it called for solid fitness and strong determination.
Raplang told us that the 7 km round trip including the halt at the Nongriat village, would take around 5-6 hours to return to the starting point. He was small built but very fit. He confessed that time permitting, he could do two such round trips on a single day.
We carried nothing with us as we had been told that we would find many small shops, well stocked with bottles of mineral water and soft drinks, ORS tetra-packs, biscuits and potato chips on the way ahead; some even had the provisions of serving Maggi instant noodles.
We entrusted an amiable Kong (the equivalent of Miss/Mrs in the Khasi language) at the first such shop with our jackets as we had already begun to sweat. The two tiny villages that we crossed en-route to the Living Root Bridge had some neat dwellings, most of which apparently offer homestay. Bamboo and concrete dustbins dotted the trek with innumerable signs requesting against littering.
The initial part of the trek was relatively easy, but the second part was pretty difficult, with very narrow steps and a steep, almost vertical ascent. At the end of this part, we reached a bifurcation with a signage pointing towards the Ritymmen Root Bridge located at Nongthymmai Village. This is the longest living root bridge. However, since we had already seen one single decker at Nohwet the previous day, we decided to skip it and headed to Nongriat.
The weather was pleasant and quite surprisingly, it was neither raining nor drizzling, but even so, most of the steps were wet. Picking up the Bay leaves that were lying on the steps and dutifully disposing them in the bins along the way, Raplang explained that Bay leaf trees and many other spices grow abundantly in this region.
The third part of the trek consisted of ascending steps and two Hanging Iron Bridges; of which the first one was narrow, allowing just one person to cross at one time. I thanked my lucky stars that I do not suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights). I could hence, enjoy the beauty of the river gushing below the swinging, swaying bridge. I noticed that the sturdier second one had replaced the rickety old iron bridge which was hanging forlornly at a lower level, now obsolete.
We reached a short Single Decker Living Root Bridge and I asked Raplang, “How far now?”
He pointed forwards and that’s where we caught our first glimpse of the coveted Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge of the Nongriat Village.
I must say that the picturesque panorama of the two-tiered living root bridge and the mesmerising surroundings of water cascading over rocks forming crystal clear natural pools, was truly a fascinating sight to behold and well worth the toil and the sweat of the trek.
We spent over an hour in this peaceful place nestled in nature, gazing with wonder struck eyes at the 150+ year old legendary Double Decker Living Root Bridge, which could justifiably be called a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
My son and I were excited to climb both the levels of the bridge. We took turns so that each could take pictures of the other. After all, these pictures would bear the testimony of this memorable experience.
Splashes of the cool, clear water from the natural pool on my face promptly washed off most of my fatigue. While my son was busy clicking pictures, I feasted my eyes on the unspoiled beauty of the place while the soothing sounds of the forest caressed my ears.
Sitting on another rock, Raplang explained how a living root bridge is made. The incessant rains during monsoons, result in the rapid decay and breakdown of the bridges made from bamboo and wood, causing the people to get stranded. Therefore, as an alternative, the local people embarked upon the idea of making bridges using the long, pliable, aerated roots of the Indian Rubber Plant (Ficuselastica).
The roots of trees are tied and twisted in an interlocking manner and pulled across the river. They are then planted on the opposite side and thereafter left to grow and strengthen over time. Apparently, it takes between 10-30 years (minimum 15 years) for a living root bridge to become strong enough to bear the weight of people.
However, once the bridge becomes functional, it can hold the weight of about 35-40 people at the same time and can last for centuries; there is evidence that the oldest bridge is over 500 years old. I bowed my head in deep respect at the ingenuity and inventiveness, patience and perseverance of the master-craftsmen of the Khasi tribe.
Our knowledgeable guide elaborated that during one particularly heavy monsoon, the water level of the Umshiang river had risen up to the level of the bridge (now the lower tier) inspiring the local tribe members to grow the second level.
It was inspiring to see how diligent and dedicated the local people are in their concerns over the environment and I was very impressed by the cleanliness in Nongriat. I spoke to a Kong who told me that a fine is levied if one is found littering or caught relieving in the forest area.
As expected, the return trek was a tad bit more tedious. On reaching the steep rise, I stopped several times to catch my breath. We collected our warm clothes from Kong. We sat for a while on the bamboo bench at her shop and sipped some tea before climbing the final few steps.
Our trek to Nongriat had been completed in one hour and fifteen minutes. The return trek took slightly longer; two hours and twenty minutes, to be precise. I must confess that the trek is long and tiring and visiting the Double Decker Living Root Bridge is by no means easy.
For this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I must give due credit to my son for being the ideal travel partner. He consistently whispered gentle words of encouragement and offered his reassuring hand whenever he saw me slacken, convincing me that with him around, there is no reason for me to say, “I can’t…”I met our driver and staff at the resort with the satisfying feeling of achievement. A hot bath and some good food summed up this eventful day.
We had set aside our second day for exploring the Mawsmai Caves, located in the Mawsmai village, about 4 km away from Sohra.
It is no secret that Meghalaya is famous for its cave formations and that the top nine of the ten longest and deepest caves in India, are in Meghalaya.
From the car park, we walked through a lush green forest to the ‘Krem Mawsmai’ (Krem means Cave and Mawsmai means ‘Oath Stone’ in the Khasi language). The Mawsmai Cave is the only cave formation of Meghalaya that is adequately lit up. It is open to tourists for fixed hours during the day (9 am to 5 pm). We had to pay an entry fee to earn our access into the caves.
My mind was suddenly crowded with apprehension and anticipation as I took gingerly steps through what appeared to be a rather large and spacious opening of the cave, but it soon turned out that ‘appearance is often deceptive’. The echoing voices from the dark interiors of the cave were rather comforting because they assured us about the presence of other tourists with matching ‘explorer’ instincts.
Only 150 meters of the 250 metre long cave is open for tourists. We noticed signs strictly prohibiting entry into many of the tunnels and caverns. The intriguing contemplation of what lay inside those dark and dreary forbidden tunnels gave me goosebumps. We had been told that the caves were home to bats and a host of insects.
My son and I stuck as close to each other as possible, but there were portions which were very narrow allowing only one person to pass through. I must add that we had to literally crawl in order to squeeze past a few extremely narrow passages.
Thankfully, the artificial lights in most of the caverns compensated my fears, allowing me to appreciate the stalactites and stalagmites formed over millions of years. I tried to get a closer look of the well preserved fossils of prehistoric creatures and gazed in wonder at the beautiful hues and patterns created by the light falling on the glistening walls of the limestone caves.
There was constant dripping of water from the roof of the cave; as a result of which the walls were wet and the floor was slippery. I took cautious steps for fear of slipping and falling with a thud. My son kept warning me to mind my head so that I would not strike it against the low cave roofs.
Midway into the cave, it was very deep; thankfully there were small wooden bridges to help tourists across the pools of accumulated water. Further ahead, we came upon what looked like a ‘skylet’ opening upwards, through which we could catch a glimpse of the forest outside.
Standing erect in one of the more spacious ‘chambers’ of the cave, I distracted my mind from the feeling of being engulfed within the humongous jaws of an unknown creature to the firm belief that I was in the warm embrace of Mother Earth.
I pondered about how minuscule we are as human beings and remembered the quote by Alex Trebek, “If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.”
At the end of the adventurous trek through the Mawsmai Cave, it felt good to be out in the open. We drove off, first to the viewpoint of the Seven Sisters Falls and thereafter to the viewpoint of the NohKaLikai Falls both of which were spectacular sights to behold.
Our rendezvous with the prehistoric natural formations and fossils of the Mawsmai caves had its own charm, but the trek to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge will invariably remain the the best memory of our Meghalaya Trip.
Photographs by Piyush Plabon Das
What's Your Reaction?
Dr. Monideepa Das, with a Post-Graduate degree in Medicine from Assam Medical College Dibrugarh, she is a Physician by profession and a homemaker by choice. Penning down thoughts, ideas, experiences and travelogues is her passion. Travelling and cooking are her other deep interests.