If you travel through the forests of Meghalaya, Northern India, you may come across something extraordinary: bridges made from the living branches and roots of rubber trees. These often century-old structures have been tended and shaped to create sturdy natural crossings over rivers and gorges. Patrick Rogers is passionate about this type of botanical architecture and has made it his mission to preserve and document the knowledge about how to construct them. Read on to find out more about Patrick and his noble endeavor.
What piqued your interest in botanical architecture?
As long as I can remember, I’ve always had a strong interest in historical architecture. I love old forts, palaces, and ruins. Then, after traveling to Northeast India to study abroad for University in 2009, I became fascinated with the tribal cultures of that region. The root bridges seemed like a sort of intersection of these two interests.
But, frankly, before I visited the Khasi Hills, in the Indian state of Meghalaya, I had no idea that botanical architecture even existed. It really was something that I stumbled on to. The Khasi Hills are the sort of place where, each time you visit, the more you learn and the more interesting the place becomes. I ended up traveling again and again to Meghalaya, trekking from village to village in various remote corners of the state, at first more to find out about the culture than anything more specific. But each time I did so, I kept getting new, tantalizing little scraps of information about living root bridges. With each new bit of information, my interest in the subject grew. Slowly it became clear that, rather than there only being a few living root bridges, there were dozens, if not hundreds, and that these were part of a widespread, centuries-old, cultural practice. So, for me, botanical architecture was kind of like a story that just kept getting bigger and bigger.
How did you feel the first time you saw a living root bridge?
The first time I visited a living root bridge was in 2011 and it was under rather terrible circumstances. I was visiting the area with my brother, and we were staying in a hotel. The day before, one of the other guests at the hotel had gone to visit Nongriat (the village the root bridge is in), and had died in a flash flood – the region’s monsoon seasons are some of the most intense rain events in the world. When my brother and I went to Nongriat, the whole village was organized into search parties, combing a nearby river to try and find the woman’s body…it was a truly weird time to be in the village. Certainly, it underscored just how dangerous the area can be.
Visiting Nongriat’s living root bridge, my brother and I were certainly impressed by its beauty, though what we had been told was that Meghalaya’s living architecture was confined only to this one area. That didn’t ring true at the time and it seemed to me that there had to be more, but it was a bad time to be in the village. It was, in part, wanting to visit under better circumstances that led me to return and travel in the area in much more depth later on.
Why do you want to preserve these bridges, and pass on the knowledge of how to build them? What drives you to save this type of knowledge?
What the bridges represent, at least to me, is something very special. They are both an incredible chapter in the history of the world’s built heritage – entirely worthy of preservation purely from a cultural conservation standpoint – and yet they are also something which I think can, down the line, inspire an entirely new and completely sustainable way of thinking about architecture. They are an ancient way of solving a very basic problem. They seem to have been around for hundreds of years, yet the principals used to create them could be applied to, and developed in, the modern world. In a time when so much cultural heritage is disappearing, and when sustainability is more important than ever, the fact that a tribal community in the remote hills of Northeast India has successfully grown and used dozens (if not hundreds… it’s hard to be sure!) of self-sustaining, living, botanical structures, just seems important to me.
But, having spent many months in the jungles of the region, I’ve found that the bridges are under threat and that a large number have disappeared in only the past few years. This is a rather disappointing fact. I wish it weren’t the case, but the sad truth seems to be that the practice is well on its way out in many places. Yet, when I began this project, there was virtually no trace of information pertaining to the threats the root bridges faced. Simply pointing out that the bridges are under threat and publicly making some of that information available is a major goal of my project.
Also, I think it’s worth saying that the bridges are just astoundingly beautiful. The world is a more interesting place with them in it.
Is there much interest in these bridges from the public sphere? Or is there a struggle to ignite other people’s interest?
I think when people view a picture of a living root bridge, just hear about them, or even travel to a place where root bridges can be easily seen, they find them interesting. Certainly, people rarely deny that they’re beautiful or unusual. It’s easy to take a lovely picture of one. But going into detail about the wider phenomenon – explaining about them in depth and mentioning the threats that they face – is rather difficult. I think this is mostly because the overwhelming majority of the bridges are incredibly obscure. It’s kind of hard to call for the conservation of a thing which almost nobody knows anything about.
Right now, while there is a little bit of information about the bridges online. This is really quite inadequate. For example, just typing the term “Living Root Bridges” into Google, and you’ll find that 15 out of the 20 top image results are of the same two bridges (the Nongriat Double Decker and a root bridge in the village of Riwai). I would venture that roughly the same ratio continues when it comes to the overall body of information easily available about the bridges. That means that while there are a great many living bridges, and a great many of them are threatened, there’s virtually no easily accessible information about them. This makes trying to explain in depth about the phenomenon difficult.
Still, interest in the bridges is growing, if slowly. I think it just needs to become common knowledge that there is much more to the story of botanical architecture than the few living bridges that have already become famous.
You mentioned that many of these bridges have been torn down in favor of modern, metal bridges, even though the latter are of poorer quality and stability than their botanical predecessors. Do people there actually prefer the metal bridges? Or would they like to see more root architecture?
As weird as it sounds, many of the villagers in the areas where root bridges were once grown simply didn’t know what they had was anything unusual. One question that I am often asked when trekking in the hills is: “Don’t you have living root bridges in your country?” While this attitude seems to be slowly changing, the fact is that many root bridges were torn down because nobody realized that they were something special.
I think the locals mostly viewed the bridges as just pieces of infrastructure. They thought they were useful, but not especially interesting. Kind of like how someone from North America would regard a well-paved highway.
One of the main reasons root bridges have been replaced is because when one is damaged or fails due to environmental factors it’s simply quicker to replace it with a steel bridge. This takes weeks or days, rather than the years it takes to develop a living root bridge. Whereas living root bridges get stronger over time – and cost literally nothing – conventional bridges grow weaker over time, are expensive, and often require outside investment.
So, as far as I can tell (and it’s hard not to generalize here), the locals mostly view the bridges from a practical perspective. Frequently, environmental changes in the areas where root bridges are found – such as de-forestation, road building, landslides, etc. – have destroyed the bridges, and the locals have simply had no choice about what to do. If they want to keep working in their fields, they have to replace them with steel bridges.
It is possible to make practical arguments for preserving botanical architecture and creating new examples. For instance, they can attract tourists and become a source of revenue. While tourism has its good points and its bad points, at present, this is what drives the conservation of the bridges in the few pockets where they are being actively preserved. Also, the fact that living bridges are much cheaper in the long-term is something the villagers take into account. I think that in most areas where living root bridges are found the locals would want to maintain them, and to create new ones, though they need a practical incentive to do so.
You mentioned that these bridges are grown from Ficus elastica trees: do you know whether there are any other species that can be used in a similar fashion?
While I think it’s certainly true that the Ficus elastica plant is uniquely suited to forming botanical architecture, I don’t see any reason why living structures couldn’t be made from other plants. The Ficus elastica is only one of several kinds of Strangler Fig. Ficus benghalensis trees exist in tropical regions all over the world (even in Florida), and have similar properties. There seem to be several places in the world where the idea of growing living root bridges have (in all likelihood) developed in isolation, namely in the Indian state of Nagaland, and in two places in Indonesia. I think that probably means that if you have a tree with lots of relatively quickly growing aerial roots, you could probably use it for living architecture.
I think it’s important to point out that the basic principles used by the Khasis to make root bridges are really very simple and straightforward: You take young, pliable, aerial roots, pull them across a gap, and then wind them together until they’ve grown enough that you can stand on them. It would not be difficult to get similar results with other kinds of plants.
Do you have any long-term goals with regard to botanical architecture? For instance, are you hoping to rekindle the practice throughout Northeast India? Or put the techniques you’ve learned into practice elsewhere in the world?
My personal long-term goal is simply to collect and make publicly accessible as much information as I can on the subject. In the end, other people have to come along, use the information, and expand upon it. The gathering and presenting the information is only a first step.
It’s hard to say if rekindling the practice is possible, given that conditions in Northeast India have changed drastically in the last few generations. They were made in a world that is very different from the one of today. Still, the locals are not averse to creating hybrid structures that use both steel-wire and ficus elastica roots. It may be possible to develop methods of generating root bridges employing structures that are immediately useable as scaffolds. In this way it would be possible to bypass the problem of how long it takes for a root bridge to become functional.
From a pure cultural conservation standpoint, one thing that I do hope is that certain examples will be set aside for long-term protection. The idea of a UNESCO designated Living Root Bridge heritage site seems like a very good idea to me. I would recommend the area around the town of Pynursla, including the villages of Rangthylliang and Mawkyrnot, for a start.
But, in the long term, I think that the bridges can serve as a source of inspiration for other sustainable design endeavors the world over – though the exact form that inspiration will take is hard to predict. The basic idea of the bridges could be replicated in all sorts of contexts, from low-cost rural infrastructure development in South America to indoor art installations in Sweden.
If you are interested in learning more about root bridges, Patrick has a book out with Westland India publishers called The Green Unknown, which is about the process of tracking down the living root bridges and traveling in the Khasi Hills. For those of you who share Patrick’s love of these bridges, the book is available on Amazon.
Photos by Patrick Rogers