During monsoon season in northeast India, rainwater gushes through the emerald valleys and deep gorges of Meghalaya, the “abode of the clouds.” The mountainous plateau between Assam and Bangladesh is one of the wettest places on Earth, and the Khasi tribes who inhabit these hills have developed an intimate relationship with the forest.
Long before the availability of modern construction materials, the Khasi devised an ingenious way to traverse the turbulent waterways and link isolated villages: living root bridges, locally known as jing kieng jri.
Tree trunks are planted on each side of the bank to create a sturdy foundation, and over the course of 15 to 30 years, the Khasi slowly thread Ficus elastica roots across a temporary bamboo scaffolding to connect the gap. A combination of humidity and foot traffic help compact the soil over time, and the tangle of roots grows thick and strong. Mature bridges stretch 4.5 metres 15 to 76 metres over deep rivers and gorges, and can bear impressive loads—upwards of 35 people at a time.
Unlike modern building materials like concrete and steel, these structures typically become more resilient with age and can survive centuries. They regularly withstand flash flooding and storm surges that are common in the region—a low-cost and sustainable way to connect remote mountain villages scattered throughout the steep terrain. The exact origin of the tradition in this region is unknown, but the first written record appears more than a hundred years ago.
Beyond their sacred groves, the Khasi’s reverence for nature suffuses daily life. Like many villages in Meghalaya, Mawlynnong has no formal sanitation infrastructure, and every person is entrusted with safeguarding the environment. Waste is collected in bamboo receptacles located all over the village, which is then recycled into fertiliser and used for agriculture, their primary occupation. Plastics are repurposed, and villagers sweep lanes and public spaces daily.
Self-named “God’s own garden,” Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in India, a title that has attracted a steady stream of tourists and bolstered the local economy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the community as a model for the rest of the country, which is also home to one of the world’s most polluted cities.
Travel tip: Meghalaya is remote, but accessible to tourists. Find accommodation, tour operators, and attractions at Meghalaya Tourism.
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Lead Image: A group of children cross a living root bridge in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The bridges are essential for rural connectivity in a vertical landscape. PHOTOGRAPH BY GIULIO DI STURCO