Thursday, June 13, 2024
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End of Khasi-Pnar benevolence

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By HH Mohrmen

Have you ever tried to google or bing search the three words “Living-Root Bridge”? If you haven’t, you will be amazed at the amount of information available on the internet on the subject. My google and bing search took me to more than 20 pages of information which link me to blogs, websites, news report and even video documentary about the bridges that were built without using any nails or any man made building materials but living roots of two or more trees intertwined to each.

Most of these links are write-ups, travelogues and even tourist information sites about the living-root bridges of Nohriat village in the Sohra area. So far the living-root bridges in the area are the most sought after destination for travellers and trekkers in particular. It reminds me of my childhood days when our grandmother would take us to our orange orchard in the place call Shmia-ladiang in Nongtalang village and during our winter sojourn we crossed certain living-root bridges on the way from the village to the orchard. I immediately started using an old natural search engine which is most reliable and involves humans. I first posted Timothy Allen of the Lonely Planet blog and also shared a link of a video documentary about the living roots bridge in the area. No sooner did I share the information on the Jaintia4u facebook page and a blog on the same name hosted by wordpress.com when Remika Lanong a scholar in the North Eastern Hills University and a dear friend of my late sister immediately responded to inform that there are two living-root bridges in Kudeng rim a village near Sohkha where she lives. One of the two bridges in Kudeng Rim village is on the river Amlamar and another is on the river Amkshar.

Information started pouring in from all quarters. A young friend from Shnongpdeng village informed that there is one living-root bridge in Darang village on the river Amsohmi. Another from Khonglah shared more information that in the Khonglah village there is one bridge over the Amsohkhi rivulet and another over the Amlunong stream. In Nongbareh village there is one living-root bridge over the stream Amlaye and this particular bridge is a double-decker like the one in Nohriat village. A close friend confirmed that in Nongtalang village there is one bridge over the river Amrngiang on the way from Nongtalang to Amlympiang; another is on the river Amladiar on the Amtyrngui River and there are two more root bridges one over Amdap Sohpiang and another over the Amdoh stream. In Padu village I was informed by another friend that there are three living-root bridges there. This is less than 10 kilometers from Amalrem. All the three living-root bridges in the village are on the Amdep creek which connects the farmers to their farm land.

All the living-root bridges are located on the southern slopes of the state on the Indo-Bangla border, the area where the “War” community of Khasi and Jaintia hills districts lives. In each case two trees Ficus elastica or Ficus Indicus (dieng jri in local parlance) were planted on each side of the river, and once the tree started growing, humans plaited roots of the trees to each other to span the river in the form of a bridge. Once the main roots are connected to each other across the river, then people direct some more roots to make the bridge’s rails and so on and so forth.

The making of the bridge was a community effort because it took years to complete the bridge and the work was done voluntarily. I don’t know much about the War Khasi but at least amongst the War Jaintia it is a tradition that the farmers themselves jointly make the paths to their respective orchards or beetle nut and beetle leaf plantations and they are also responsible for maintaining them. The bridges are part of the trail towards the terrain where they farm. Making the root bridges and keeping the same is by tradition the responsibility of the farmers. The contribution of an individual farmer in the making of the bridges could simply be by way of helping tie the roots while walking down to his plantation; if one found the tendril wander away from the planned handrail. It could also be by using a sliced bamboo to tie the roots together and making them trail on the right direction. Hence the farmers who use the bridge in the course of many years contributed in whatever way they can in making the bridge. Since it is also a living bridge, it still needs care and protection hence farmers are not only the makers; they are also the keepers of the living bridges.

The living-root bridges were made by the community on voluntary basis and the job was also completed without any supervision. There was neither blueprint nor community planning done before starting work on the bridge. It was a spontaneous human instinct with one clear objective – to make a bridge out of the roots of the trees across the river. The goal is to enable the farmers to cross the river even during monsoons when the rivers are in spate. The process of making a root bridge (or should we say growing a bridge) is bio-engineering at its best and a living testimony to the genius of our ancestors particularly the “Wars” of Jaintia and Khasi hills.

To some a living-root bridge may look spiky; like snakes big and small entwined with each other or like the Anaconda in its mating rituals. The sheer sight of a root bridge is awesome. It has attracted and will attract many visitors who will be enchanted by the marvel of this bio-engineering feat. People in other places can boast of majestic bridges of ten or twenty kilometer long made of brick and mortar, and of steel, but the living roots bridge of the Wars of the Districts of Jaintia hills and East Khasi hills are wonders of nature created with human intervention without causing any harm to the tree.

All information about the living-root bridges on the internet are from Meghalaya. The blog entries, news reports, documentaries or information on travel sites are stories about the living-root bridges of Meghalaya. This proves that the art of making a bridge out of the living roots of trees is unique to the people of Meghalaya and of the War people of Khasi and Jaintia hills to be specific.

The dictionary meaning of the word benevolence is ‘desire to do good, kindness and generosity, it also means ‘doing good rather than making profit’. The desire to make the bridge for the common-good rather than individual profit is the spirit behind the living-root bridge among the War of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. The spirit that puts common good (ka bha-lang/ ka bha ka imlang sahlang) before selfish interest (is sad to say) is a diminishing spirit among the Khasi Pnar today. Today it is individual over common good. This is seen in the implementation of NREGS where funds for making footpaths and other community needs is misused for personal gains.

The southern slopes of the state bordering Bangladesh have huge lime stone deposits. People have now started mining in the area which will definitely have huge impact on the fragile eco-system of the place. This same greed is threatening the very existence of the living-root bridges because once the forests are cleared and water level recedes, the bridges will also be affected. So is the Khasi-Pnar benevolence lost forever? What will remain of the Khasi-Pnar society if the spirit that built the tribe is lost? The community needs to do an immediate retrospection. Do we want progress at the cost of the environment and our tribal value systems? Are we going to let greed take over benevolence which is the essence of the community? Ironically the living-root bridges are the only remaining links that connect the past to the present. It is for us to decide if identity is only a badge we wear or whether we retain the value systems on which our ancestors built the tribe.

(The author is a research scholar and environmental activist. He can be contacted at [email protected]>)

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