They’re among some of the world’s most unusual forms of architecture: living root bridges, or suspended crossings made of aerial roots people have trained overtime to twist into a natural pathway. For centuries, locals in the jungles of Meghalaya, India began building them to cross streams and rivers. Cost-effective, largely self-sustaining, and simply beautiful, they were ingenious solutions for villagers who searched for ways to explore beyond their isolated communities. Some are known to span over 150 feet long.
But this unique type of botanical architecture has been disappearing over the years. Many have degraded from community neglect or have been destroyed by floods or landslides, then swiftly replaced with structures made of modern materials like steel or concrete. To spread awareness of the bridges and to illuminate their threats, travel writer Patrick Rogers has created an online database to collect as much information as possible on these structures.
The Living Root Bridge Project, launched in 2015, compiles all his diligent efforts to locate, map, photograph, study, and even measure the bridges around Meghalaya, which he has been traveling to since 2011. It also provides a history of living root bridges, describes how they are spun from the roots of the Ficus elastica, and highlights the ongoing threats to these gnarled routes.
“Sadly, from what I’ve seen, there are many individual bridges that simply are beyond saving, so the most that can be done is to create some kind of a record that they existed,” Rogers told Hyperallergic. “The bridges that survive now mostly came from a period several generations ago, where there weren’t roads in many of these areas, agricultural practices were different, and many of the materials available now for bridge building, such as concrete and steel cables, were not to be found. I think it’s impossible to hope to recreate those cultural conditions.”
His journey to catalogue Meghalaya’s natural bridges began in 2015, when he embarked on a month-long walk through the region’s jungles and villages to speak with locals about their unique cultural tradition. His contacts told him that the number of bridges is on the decline and that many disappeared within the last few years, often replaced by more conventional bridges.
“It became fairly clear that, rather than there being only a handful of examples over a very large swath of territory, the creation of living root architecture had been a very important cultural practice,” Rogers said. “I was astonished to learn that there could easily be ten times as many living root bridges as I had thought, and that many of these were longer, taller, and just more impressive generally, than the few living root bridges that had become well-known.”
Among these are the Nongriat double-decker suspension bridge, a 250-year-old living root bridge that features one pathway over another. It’s the most famous of its kind, representing a major tourist attraction in the region that fuels a large part of its village’s economy. While Rogers laments that many living root bridges are “simply beyond saving” because of their degradation, the practice of nurturing this botanical architecture may be resuscitated with the help tourism industry. He’s noticed widespread growing of new root bridges at areas popular with tourists, as locals have incentive to maintain the existing architecture and even begin cultivating new bridges.
Although he has been sharing all his knowledge online since his journey in 2015, he still needs help from people in Meghalaya to collaborate on the project and report on the various states of undocumented bridges. Rogers has so far collected data on about 90 living root bridges, both those in tact as well as the destroyed. A page on his database is dedicated to the lost living root bridges, with many entries indicating why a bridge is no longer functional.
Ultimately, Rogers would like to see the structures receive protection from agencies such as the Archaeological Survey of India or UNESCO, which has already declared the village of Nongariat a world heritage site. His project is a grand undertaking, but it’s a small step towards reaching these larger conservation goals to safeguard spectacular examples of ancient, eco-friendly architecture.