The tribes of Meghalaya recognize that the survival of mankind is closely linked to our relationship with nature. Their aspirations to live a sustainable lifestyle are reflected in their efforts in bio-engineering the living-root bridges dispersed across Meghalaya. The most popular one – Umshiang Double Decker living root bridge is hidden in the dense forests of Nongriat, a village in the East Khasi Hills district. In this blog, I will take you through my journey at Nongriat. However, Meghalaya being the land of living root bridges you can find many in areas like Mawlynnong while the others are in the West Jaintia Hills district.
How to Reach Nongriat?
There are two routes to Nongriat; one is from the viewpoint of Nohkalikai Falls which is a much longer trek and not advisable during the rains. The other route which is the usual path taken is from Tyrna, 13 km outside Cherrapunjee. It is a small village which is the starting point to the Nongriat trek. Share taxis are available from Cherrapunjee to Tyrna for INR 80 per seat. The roads to Tyrna are in poor condition but it’s all worth it for the views of the broad and lush green valleys below.
I was at Tyrna in under an hour but it was already 3 pm. Being in the North-East, the sun sets by 5, so I had a mere 2 hours to get down to the bridges and see the marvel beauty of this creation. Through the hike, you are going downstairs and more stairs until you complete 3500 of them. Now imagine climbing them on the way back up.
Along the trek, you’ll find a few stalls for refreshments that are set up by the villagers who live in these forests. I filled my bottle of water and started the descent. I moved past tiny huts in the village, all hidden in the thick forest cover. As I moved deep in the forest, I saw a kaleidoscope of butterflies, snails, and spiders, on my way to the living-root bridges. As I moved quickly down the stairs, I saw large groups of people struggling for breath on their way back up. Some telling each other, wish they never planned to visit here and some believing this is all part of the wondrous journey. I wondered which one of the two would I be.
Climbing 3500 stairs, placed in steep phases of 50-60 stairs, is a sheer test of your endurance. However, going down them in the monsoons can be tricky. Moss thrives on these stones and they are best navigated with your heel placed first on the step to avoid slipping.
Past two suspension bridges and a couple of thousand steps, you’ll see the first living root bridge. A nominal amount of INR 20 is taken for admission and contributed towards the welfare of the bridge. A few more stairs and past a couple of huts you will see the double-decker living root bridge. Hallelujah!
History of Living Root Bridges
Owing to high rainfall in the state, crossing overflowing rivers and streams on wooden and bamboo bridges was always a tough proposition. Here is where the brilliant minds of the indigenous people come into play – use the strength and longevity of nature to build what we know today as the living root bridges. Aerial roots of rubber trees (botanical name – Ficus Elastica) were merged with betel nut tree trunks to form a pathway. With time these roots grew thicker and intermingled to form a natural bridge. It is said some of these bridges are more than 500 years old. Purely insane, the longevity of these structures.
To make it more convenient for travelers, wooden planks are laid out on the bridge. I haven’t seen anything like this and infact the root bridge is sturdier than the suspension bridge.
You can get a fish foot massage right by the natural pool formed by the bridge. A couple of us who kept the same pace on our way down to the bridge eventually sat around here to rejuvenate. The fish spa had an element of surprise, something skittered right up till my shin. A crab, smaller than my fist but enough to unsettle me while I unwind.
Where to Stay?
There are plenty of basic accommodation options in Nongriat. I was told ‘Serene’ is one of the better guest houses. However, in the humidity, I was drenched in my sweat & got myself a room in the first available accommodation. There was no signboard at this homestay which was by the flowing river. On reaching the small cottage, the young lady offered me some piping hot ginger tea which was satisfying after a tiring day. This is also when I felt the sheer exhaustion.
I took a much-needed shower and was offered the traveler’s staple food in India – Maggi and an omelette. Don’t expect to get mobile phone network in the forests of Nongriat. With the homestay vacant on the night, it was just the hosts; the young lady and her brother, and me. They are so hard-working and bent over backwards to make me feel welcome and comfortable in their home. Such a happy family who ate and laughed together.
After spending time with the family, I went to my room, which was at the backside of the entrance and by the river. This was a perfect setting to practice mindfulness, collect my thoughts, and immerse myself in the beauty surrounding me. As night approached, I soothed myself to the sound of the rain pitter-patter on the roof and the treetops which cannot be savored anywhere else but in Meghalaya. Soon a power cut followed and I was knocked out.
As the first rays of the sun slowly filtered in my room, I woke up with a growling stomach. On the porch outside was a squirrel mirthfully feasting on what I suppose were blackberries. My spread included eggs and a banana pancake; energizing me for the next adventure to Rainbow falls.
After passing more living-root bridges came a narrow trail. Walking on these indigenous structures was so adventurous and I was doing it without holding on to the sides for support. Right then I noticed a leech on my bootlace. A flick might have done it but I instinctively pulled out a visiting card to do the job.
The Rainbow falls were anything but like the pictures I saw on the internet. Well, the monsoons don’t make all waterfalls look pretty and this is a fine example. The turquoise blue that I had imagined was now a murky brown, with a strong flow of water carrying with it sediment from the mountain tops. Despite not experiencing the true-blue waters the magnitude of the flow amazed us and ensured nobody went too close. The water gushed down the cliff onto the gigantic rock below creating a misty spray that made the camera hazy.
To be honest, I knew the rains would have a major effect on the Rainbow falls. Regardless, having come this far, I was eager to go beyond the double-decker bridge up till the Rainbow falls. Not just me, there were others too who were just as curious and loved every bit of the trek.
Travel Tips for Nongriat
Things to Carry
The weather is unpredictable in Meghalaya which makes it crucial to carry the right apparel, footwear, and other essentials. Exploring Meghalaya during erratic rains and chilly winters can be a daunting task. Some essentials to carry so you can spend your time creating memories are mentioned below.
Poncho (raincoat) – If you don’t have one of these you can request the locals to set you up with a knup, an alternative to an umbrella. Two blankets of palm leaves put between two loosely woven bamboo lattice. Crafty!
Other essentials are hiking shoes, sleeping bag, torch, and a mosquito repellent.
How to Travel Responsibly?
- You can trek alone with ease till the living-root bridge. From there till the rainbow falls, especially during the rains, it is advisable to take a guide along. The path is straight forward but you may encounter some blocks where the water gushes from above. Guides are easily available at the entrance of the village. You will also come across some locals carrying their essentials to their homes deep in the forests. They will happily pose as a guide – let them. After all, there aren’t many ways to earn in the forest. The cost of a guide is approximately INR 300. Being a popular trek, it’s rare that you’ll be trekking alone unless you’re out at an odd hour.
- The natural pools at the living-root bridge are inviting for a swim. During the rains, the pools are off-limit. However, Meghalaya has plenty of safer options. Check out my blog on Shnongpdeng for some stunning hidden pools that I got to experience.
- Lastly, as responsible travelers, we must not litter anywhere in these beautiful forests.
- The living root bridges are a precious jewel in the rich architectural knowledge these tribes possess. Infact they are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We must respect and encourage the efforts of the people of Nongriat.