Step by step, I descended through jungle and quaint villages towards Nongriat. I passed women in tartan shawls, carrying bamboo baskets of produce on their heads. Smiling at me through their red teeth, stained from years of chewing beetle nut. The tall palms in which the nuts are grown surrounded us, shaping the dense green forest.
After a few hours, a clearing opened out to a river, and I saw my first bridge. Twisting and turning, it was made from the roots of rubber trees, which are trained by the Khasi people to grow into strong and stable structures. The area is one of the wettest in the world, and after heavy rain, these bridges are essential for people to pass between villages in the region. As I crossed the bridge, I saw the skill that had made it come to life, and the incredible way in which nature had worked together with man to help make the lives of the locals here easier.
I was in India, but perhaps not the India you know. Some 2,000 kilometres from the Taj Mahal, the East Khasi Hills are full of jungle-clad mountains, emerald-coloured waterfalls and tribal communities where women rule the roost.
A few days earlier I had arrived in Cherrapunjee, in a battered jeep that had carried me from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state. Located just north of the Bangladesh-India border, Meghalaya is sandwiched between the Assam plains and the vast lands of Bengal. Hindu temples are replaced with white churches; saris with tartan shawls; and dry, dusty landscapes with wet rolling hills.
My first day was market day. The town was shrouded in a thick layer of mist, but the vibrant sacks of the buzzing marketplace filled the little hillside town with colour. I walked around, observing the women selling red chillies, bundles of green vegetables and the round, orange beetle nuts that sat in bags on the open courtyard of the market floor.
The next day, I took a bus to the small village of Tyrna and began to descend into the valleys below. After spotting my first root bridge, the path snaked through a local village where Khasi children greeted me with beaming grins and women hung washing from lines tied beneath the beetle palms. I stopped for tea a few times – a drink which is as much a part of life here as it is across the rest of the sub-continent. As usual, it’s sweet, milky and laced with spices.
I arrived at Nongriat around lunchtime and found a comfy bed in a homestay with a balcony and beautiful valley views. The village here is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Clamber up to the church on the hillside and you’ll see houses dotted across bright green valleys and the tall beetle palms protruding from the fauna below. The Khasi tribes here have been welcoming tourists for the last few years, and lots of the homes offer beds for guests coming to see the bridges. Many will often stay longer than planned after falling for this truly peaceful place.
Khasi culture is matrilineal, meaning the family name and property is passed down through the female line instead of the male. The women here are powerful, bold and confident. The homestay I choose is run by seven local women, as part of a self-help project. Veronica, my host, is caring and incredibly accommodating. As well as running the homestay, she forages black pepper, crushes it and sells it to businesses in Shillong. She’s not only a fierce woman, but a double entrepreneur too. She tells me that these valleys are dotted with gems – waterfalls and viewpoints, hidden bridges and crystalline swimming pools.
The next day I head out to find a few of them. I pass the village church again and spot bees buzzing around honey hives and children running barefoot down to the river path. I follow their footsteps and it’s only minutes later that I find Nongriat’s greatest attraction – the double decker root bridge. Hanging over the water, the two bridges are created from the huge rubber trees sitting on either side.
The East Khasi Hills are one of the wettest places on earth, and unlike ordinary wooden bridges, the root bridges were found to withstand heavy rain much better. I continue on from here and find myself on the track to Rainbow Falls. Through jungle, I find swimming spots with the clearest water imaginable. And at the falls, I see a rainbow created as the water crashes into the pools below. The landscape here looks like it’s been pulled straight from the pages of a fairy-tale.
Back at Veronica’s, the evenings are serene. I find the time and space to finish the last chapter of my book, before she serves me up a feast of food I might more commonly associate with my travels in Myanmar than elsewhere in India.
It’s my last day in Meghalaya, as I plan to head north again and back into Assam. I came here to see the root bridges, and while they’ve astounded me, it is the Khasi culture that leaves the lasting impression on my mind. And the strong, vivacious women of these rolling hills.
Feature image C/O Annapurna Mellor.