Ficus Khasiana: Finding the Living Root Bridges

Book review

By Glenn C. Kharkongor

This remarkable book was released on April 21, 2022.  In a sense, it’s a book we have been waiting for. It has hardly been a couple of decades since Meghalaya’s living root bridges were unveiled to the world.  The ensuing global acclaim for these ancient bioengineering marvels has aroused much local curiosity among us as well.

So many questions have swirled in my mind. How long does it take to make a living root bridge? Who are these ingenious architects and artisans? What are the tools and techniques? How is the knowledge passed down? How long do they last? How many are there?

Through years of trekking through difficult terrain, pursuing uncertain leads, and countless hours of documentation, Ian Lyngdoh has answered these questions, and provided so much more besides. His intrepid quest to find, photograph, and describe these natural yet manmade wonders has yielded a compendium of informative facts and figures that will have appeal for scientists, tourists and culture buffs.

A wonderful feature of the book is his narrative style that takes the reader along with him. You feel that you are also trudging through the fields and forests on these treks. Listen to this passage about the approach to Nongblai village: “A green landscape carved out of the mountainside, covered with a thick vegetation of trees, ferns, climbers; moss laden earth and rock surfaces greeted us. As we descended, observing the richness of the greenery around the slippery, narrow and steep stone path, we were amazed by the drop in temperature inside the pristine rainforest. The freshness and cooling effect of the air around us was magical.”

On these hikes Ian makes many serendipitous discoveries. In Khatarshnong, he found that the villagers have musical names, not only for the children, but for their dogs as well. In Rangthylliang he finds Bah Phlat, a young man, expert in bushcraft. Phlat can mimic the calls of squirrels, jungle cats, and more than 30 birds. According to a local folktale, one of the bird calls, “leh pop ka kong”, is actually the plaintive song of a wronged woman pushed to her death over a cliff.

Along the way, the author has come across other applications of the unique bioengineering technique of training and weaving the tendrils and rootlets of the Ficus elastica tree. These variations include a platform woven from aerial roots and branchlets amidst the greenery of the tree 14 feet above the ground. The purpose of the platform is unknown. It offers a 360-degree view of the plantations and orchards and may have been a lookout perch to spy for predators. The base of the tree has stone benches for weary travelers to rest, and for porters to set their cane baskets down. Or they may have chosen to lie down and have a nap on the overhead platform.

Elsewhere he has discovered living root ladders that enable climbing up a steep rock face or woven tree root supports that help you negotiate around the horizontal curves on a steep path. One village has made a triple decker bridge, all levels of which are still in use. In another village bamboo bridges are buttressed by ficus roots. Where are these places? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I missed the announcement of the book launch. It seems to have passed without much fanfare or much media attention. So thanks very much to the friend who placed a copy in my hands. Living root bridges are biocultural gems and this book tells their story well. A book of this nature is a labour of love. We are fortunate that one of our ilk has an emotional passion for our precious and fragile biocultural heritage.

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