The Khasi of Cherrapunjee are no strangers to rain. More than 10,000 of these tribespeople, a Mon-Khmer group originating from Southeast Asia, inhabit the lush green landscape around the sprawling town in India’s northeast. This region, the state of Meghalaya, straddles the Bangladeshi border and holds a dubious claim to fame. Meghalaya, in Sanskrit, translates to the “abode of clouds”. It is one of the wettest places on earth.
Here, hilly terrain funnels and converges southwest and northeast monsoon rain clouds over a relatively small area, resulting in dramatic and seemingly endless showers. Between 1973 and 2010, Cherrapunjee received an average annual rainfall of nearly 12m, edging out Mount Waialeale in Hawaii as the rainiest place on Earth. Cherrapunjee also holds the world record for the most rainfall in a single year; in 12 months to July 1861, over 26m fell.
To live in such conditions requires tenacity and ingenuity. I travelled there last May to see one of the most beguiling solutions for myself.
This place is remote. After an hourlong flight from Kolkata to Guwahati, I spend six hours in a cramped taxi on congested roads before finally reaching Cherrapunjee. From there I find a guide to lead me on the 90-minute trek from the Sohsarat village, down slippery moss-covered rocks, to a shady valley where I find 58-year-old village headman Bakhot Phanrang busy at work.
“Khublei!” Phanrang says with a smile, using the common Khasi greeting meaning “God bless”. “Welcome to Ummunoi, one of the oldest bridges in Meghalaya. We would have liked to have built a steel bridge but we had no money!”
A treacherous combination of dense forests, steep terrain and a monsoon season that lasts almost half the year makes it hard to get around here, especially for those villagers who must cross surging rivers to access their gardens or collect firewood.
Each family in Phanrang’s village has a plot of land where they grow bay leaves or black pepper and all rely on this bridge to cross the river to access their gardens. Six days a week Phanrang descends 700m into the jungle with family members to gather betel nuts, pepper, tipui (a local medicinal plant) and bay leaves, which they sell at the weekly market.
Faced with these challenges, many generations ago – in this culture with no written history, no-one knows quite when – the Khasi forged a canny pact with nature. Someone conceived the idea of a resilient and robust alternative to hand-constructed bamboo and wood bridges, which were often eroded or destroyed each rainy season.
I have come here to see firsthand the Jingkieng deingjri, or “bridge of the rubber tree”. There are 11 functioning living bridges in this district and each has been fashioned by tying secondary roots from the Ficus elastica tree to bamboo trunks laid across the stream.
As the roots grow from rubber trees planted on each bank, the Khasi use the bamboo trunks like a scaffold to guide roots of the living plant across the gap. Villagers now also use hollowed betel tree trunks as an alternative to bamboo, threading the roots inside to absorb the decaying trees’ nutrients, accelerating their own growth.