Living Root Bridges

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Apr 14, 2013 | By Coles Jennings

America has built 13,000 miles worth of road in the last decade. 22 of the 30 longest bridges in the world have been built since 2000 (take it easy, China). The Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s modern-day Tower of Babel, was built in less than six years.

As astounding as some of those numbers are, it’s become a matter of course these days. As technology and processes advance, economic success demands bigger, better, and faster construction. Time is money, after all.

So it’s hard not to take notice when we come across something that stands in total contrast to this breakneck pace. In the hills of Northeast India, in the jungle of the Cherrapunji Valley, the War-Khasis have taken a much different approach to their built environment (pun intended). Behold, the stunning living root bridges of Cherrapunji.

Formed by the roots of the aptly named Ficus Elastica, the tentacles of these Indian rubber trees twist and tangle their way across some of the more formidable river crossings in the valley. The locals use the trunks of betel nut trees as a root guidance system. When laid over a crossing, these root guides allow the rubber tree roots to find their way to soil on the other side.

With enough time and a little TLC, a fully functional bridge forms, some as long as 100 feet. According to the locals, a typical root bridge takes about 10 to 15 years. Let’s keep in mind a steel bridge of that size would go up in a matter of months. And of course, these bridges are built without a single power tool or an ounce of synthetic material.

While the patience required is impressive, the longevity of these natural structures is what is truly staggering. Some of the larger bridges are estimated to have lasted for 500 years. The king of them all is the Umshiang Double-Decker, believed to be one of a kind.

Surprisingly, it turns out the locals were not quite aware of how special these structures truly were. A local resort owner, who re-discovered the bridges in recent years, had to persuade the tribe to keep the root bridges in place as a tourism draw instead of replacing them with steel structures.

Photo #1: Amos Chapple/Rex Features. Via Atlas Obscura.