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The Living Bridges Of Meghalaya

June 30, 2020

Who would have thought that amidst the deep jungles and rain forests of Meghalaya – lay in plain sight an engineering and architectural marvel, that owes nothing to these scientific disciplines; but more to the Buddhist idea of man being one with nature. The adjective anthropogenic is typically used in the context of pollution – and other similar negative man-made outcomes. But here, the word underlines how there could be another gentler, symbiotic way – we humans could enhance nature by being one with it. And that it is a part of our national heritage, is enough to give you goosebumps.

This paper published by a group of German scientists (Ludwig et al) in the journal Nature in August last year, explains how the indigenous (and also ingenious!) Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya built living bridges across rain-swelled rivers using the roots of Indian rubber tree. The bridges – referred to as LRBs (living root bridges) – were thought to be only a handful, but these researchers managed to geolocate over seventy of them. Their study of these bridges over three years uncovered many a fascinating fact. For example- some of these LRBs are over 200 years old. Or that some of them are over  50 metres in length.  And that they can take the weight of 50 people at a time, and are mechanically very strong. But most striking is the fact these bridges were built and maintained, by families and communities who were part bonsai gardeners and part engineers, sometimes over generations. 

The above picture is of one such LRB, from near Mawlynnong village; in the news for being the cleanest village in all of Asia. As you can see, these bridges are also stunningly beautiful. 

A search on “ficus elastica” (the Botanical name of the same tree) further revealed to me that the indoor potted plant that is in my living room is the same species (see photo below).  

Photo : My potted rubber plant – who knew he had such illustrious family in Meghalaya!

The tree, more famous for latex which is used to produce rubber is native to my own Kerala, Malaysia and Thailand; but curiously not to Meghalaya. Its presence in Meghalaya is in itself anthropogenic (that word again!).
For architects and engineers, these bridges hold secrets to Baubotanik or living architecture. Intrigued? So was I – to learn about this discipline that combines botany and architecture.

Here is a video that features the same architect/scientist Ludwig Ferdinand (who wrote the paper we referred to above) talking about his passion for building with trees. Looks like he never outgrew his boyhood obsession with a tree-house. Jokes apart – this does seem like an interesting solution for greening our cities.

As you can see, Bio-architecture is a brilliantly innovative concept, that has the potential to radically transform the urban landscape.

And all of this, made me think of my childhood in my grandmother’s house in Kerala; with it’s bio-fencing we called “veli” – but that’s a whole another post.



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