The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.

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