Thursday, December 1, 2011

The living-root bridge the symbol of Khasi Pnar benevolence

Have you ever tried google search or binged the three words “Living-Root Bridge”? If you haven’t, you will be amazed the amount of information that is available on the internet on the subject. My google and bing search took me to more than 20 pages of information which link me to blogs, websites, news report and even video documentary about the bridges that were build without using any nails or any man made building material but living root of two trees attached to one another.
Most of these links were write-ups, travelogue and even tourist information sites about the living-root bridges of Nohriat village in the Sohra area. So far the living-root bridges in the area are the most sought after destination for travelers and trekkers in particular. It reminded me of my childhood days when our grandmother would take us to our Orange orchard in the place call Shmia-ladiang in Nongtalang village and during our winter sojourn, we did crossed certain living-root bridge on the way from village to the orchard. I immediately start using an old natural search engine which is most reliable and involve human. I first started posting Timothy Allen of the lonely planet’s blog and also shared a link of a video documentary about the living roots bridge in the area. No sooner did I shared the information on the Jaintia4u facebook page and a blog on the same name hosted by, Remika Lanong a scholar in the NEH University and a dear friend of my late sister immediately responded to inform that there are two living-root bridges in Kudeng rim a village near Sohkha where she live. One of the two bridges in Kudeng Rim village is on the river Amlamar and another is on the river Amkshar and information start pouring like the proverbial summer rain. A young friend from Shnongpdeng village informed that there is one living-root bridge in Darang village on the river Amsohmi. Another from Khonglah shared more information that in the Khonglah village there is one bridge over the Amsohkhi rivulet and another over the Amlunong stream. In Nongbareh village there is one living-root bridge over the stream Amlaye and this particular bridge is a double-decker bridge like the one in Nohriat village. A close friend confirmed that in Nongtalang village there is one bridge over the river Amrngiang on the way from Nongtalang to Amlympiang, another is on the river Amladiar on the Amtyrngui River and there are two more root bridges one over Amdap Sohpiang and another over the Amdoh stream. In Padu village I was informed by another friend that there are three living-root bridges very close to Padu which is again less than 10 kilometers away from Amalrem. All the three living-root bridges in the village are on the Amdep creek which connects the farmers to their farm land.
All the living-root bridges are located on the southern slopes of the state on the Indo-Bangla border, the area where the “War” community of Khasi and Jaintia hills districts lives. In many cases two trees Ficus elastica orFicus Indicus tree (dieng jri in local parlance) were planted on each side of the river, and once the tree start growing human manipulated the roots of the trees to connect each other across the span of the river. Once the main roots connected each other across the river, then people start to direct more root to make the bridge’s rails so on and so forth.
The making of the bridge was a community effort because it took years to complete the bridge and the work for building the bridges was done voluntarily. I don’t know much about the War Khasi but at least amongst the Wars Jaintia it is a tradition that the farmers themselves jointly made the path to their respective orchards or beetle nut and beetle leaves plantation and they are also responsible for keeping it. The bridges are part of the trail towards the terrain where they farm and making the root bridges and keeping the same is by tradition the responsibility of the farmers. The contribution of an individual farmer in the making of the bridges could simply be by way of helping tie the roots while walking down to his plantation; if one found the tendril wander away from the planed handrail.  It could also be by using a sliced bamboo to tie the roots together and put it on the right direction. Hence the farmers who use the bridge in the course of many years contributed in whatever way they can in making the bridge. Since it is also a living bridge, it still needs care and protection hence farmers are not only the makers; they are also the keepers of the living bridges.
The living-root bridges were made by the community and on voluntary basis and the job was also completed without any one to supervise the work. Notable neither was there any blueprint prepared or community planning done before they start working on the bridge. It was made out of human’s own natural instinct with one clear objective to make a bridge out of the root of the trees across the span of the river. The goal is to make it convenient for the farmers to cross the river even during monsoon when rain causes the river to overflow. The process or rather the tradition of making (or should we say growing a bridge) is bio-engineering at its best and a living testimony to the genius of our ancestors particularly the “Wars” of Jaintia and Khasi hills.
To some a living-root bridge may looks spiky; like snake big and small entwined each another or like Anaconda in the mating rituals.  The sheer sight of the bridges is awesome and it has attracted and will attract many visitors who will be enchanted by the marvel of this bio-engineering. People in other places can boast of majestic bridges of ten or twenty kilometer long made of brick and mortar, and of steel, but the living roots bridge of the Wars of the District of Jaintia hills and East Khasi hills are wonder of nature helped created with human intervention without causing any harm to the tree.
All the information on the living-root bridge subject available on the net are from Meghalaya, the blog entries, news reports, documentaries or information on travel sites are stories about the living-root bridges of Meghalaya. This goes on to prove that the art of making a bridge out of living root of trees is unique to the people of Meghalaya and the particularly the Wars of Khasi hills and Jaintia hills.
My dictionary description of the word benevolence is ‘desire to do good, kindness and generosity, it also means ‘doing good rather than making profit’. The desire to make the bridge for the common-good rather than individual profit is the spirit that goes in the making of the living-root bridge among the Wars of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. The spirit that puts common goods (ka bha-lang/ ka bha ka imlang sahlang) before selfish interest (is sad to say) a lost spirit among the Khasi Pnar today. Now people are into making as much profit as one can possibly can in any available opportunity and the good of the society has taken a backseat. This is more prevalent in the implementation of NREGS in which funds for making footpaths and other community needs is being misused for personal gain it.
It is sad but true that the southern slopes of the state bordering Bangladesh is lime stone deposits and people have now started mining in the area which will definitely have huge impact on the fragile eco-system of the area. This same greed is threatening the very existence of the living-root bridges because once the forest is cleared and water level recedes, the bridges will also be affected. The question is, is the Khasi-Pnar benevolence loss forever? What remains of a Khasi-Pnar society if the spirit that built the tribe is lost? The Khasi Pnar community needs to do an immediate retrospection, the question is do we want progress at the cost of the environment and our tribal value system? Are we going let greed takeover benevolence which is the pride of the community? Ironically the living-root bridges are the only remaining link that connects the pass with the presence, it is for us to decide if identity is just like a badge we put on, or continue with the value system on which our ancestors build the tribe.

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