As part of the Khasi patchwork that makes up Meghalaya, I wanted to visit the Living Bridges near Cherapunjee. These bridges, made from the roots of Ficus elastica trees, a type of Indian rubber tree, span the rivers, thus connecting the village trade routes. Some are centuries old. Others are just now in the process of being created and may not be useable for another generation or more. Ecologically sustainable, they will withstand the monsoon flood waters in ways that steel bridges never can. A lot has been written about the Living Bridges lately, and for information on how they are built, this article in Treehugger gives a pretty good rundown.
Thanks to the Lonely Planet, the Living Bridges are now part of the international backpackers trail and during the few days I spent at the small guesthouse in Nongriat at the base of the bridges, I met trekkers from three continents six countries.
As with everything, there are good and bad sides to this. The 150 inhabitants of Nongriat are clearly benefitting from the money that comes in. The guesthouse is a cooperative and supports the entire village and signs of new construction were evident. There is also money to made from guides, meals, tea and some of the best honey in the country.
On my second day there, I hired a guide, Bitalis, to trek to Weiphngam Falls–which has been renamed Rainbow Falls. After mainly city walking, it was pure bliss to hike on mountain trails again. They were steep up and down and the cicadas’ song wailed throughout the forest like a siren. But it was good to push myself and sleep with sore muscles.
Weiphngam Falls plunges a hundred feet or more over gray boulders rubbed smooth by the water. There must be a story behind these falls. In Khasi every significant natural spot has a story behind it, but no one seemed to know what it was. Is this a result of Christian conversion to eradicate anything remotely pagan? The entire village is Catholic; everyone I met had a plastic rosary dangling around their necks. Or is it simply because modernization is taking its foothold in a tiny village cut off from the rest of the world. There’s not even a wheel to be found anywhere in Nongriat.
One old man told me about a husband who killed his step-daughter and so the wife threw herself over the cliffs and became the waterfall, but that’s the story of Nohkalikai, the highest waterfall in Cherapunjee. Likai was a widow who remarried a man who became jealous of her daughter. He wanted Likai’s attention all to himself. One day while Likai went to market, he killed the daughter and made her into a stew. Likai returned home and feeling hungry, ate the stew. Afterwards, she began to search for her husband and daughter. In a basket of betel nuts she found her daughter’s ten tiny fingers.
When she realized she had eaten her own child, she went insane and began running, screaming throughout the village, calling her daughter’s name. She came to the top of a large cliff and leaped over the side. And from that day, a waterfall has cascaded over the rocks and Likai’s voice can still be heard calling.
What is the story of Weiphngam Falls? I know it’s there and in a matter of time I’ll track it down. But in generations to come who will keep alive the tales of the Living Bridges so they are more than just another sight to tick off in the wonders of the world?
It’s also made me realize how disconnected I am from the stories in my own land. I’ve been corresponding with a man from California, a Maidu, who told me the story of the river known as Pam Sewim in the northern Maidu language, the river that flows at the bottom of the hill where I live. I’ve only known it as the Susan River, my town as Susanville, names of white settlers who killed and displaced the area’s original inhabitants and gave the area European names. When we lose a place’s name, we lose some of its history and the mythology of the place vanishes. Through this correspondence, I’m beginning to find new nuances and depth in the mountains and desert where I live. There’s a lifetime of discovery in the stories the rocks and water can tell us.