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The living root bridges of Meghalaya are one of the only such structures in the world. Here’s an illustrated account of the exhilarating trek to the double-decker bridge at Nongriat, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
“Ow!” I cry, as a steel nail pricks my palm. Hurriedly withdrawing my hand from the railing, I put another foot forward on the suspension bridge, which sways from side to side. The river below me tumbles over the rocks and disappears into the Himalayan valley. The thick rainforest seems silently amused, as I gingerly make my way across.
My partner and I are an hour into the 5-km trek to the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee in northeast India. These unusual structures, found in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya, are thought to exist nowhere else in the world. The most striking of them all, the ‘double-decker’ at Nongriat, is accessed by a steep, downhill path comprising about 3500 steps.
We were warned that there would be no toilets during the trek which, of course, meant that I wanted to use one as soon as we left Tyrna, our starting point.
“Khublei,” I say to a villager, practising my newly-learnt Khasi greeting. “Is there a toilet here?”
“Just go in the forest, madam!” he replies. “Nobody can see!”
“Just go in the forest, madam!”
The path goes through the village of Nongthymmai, fertile with bamboo, palm, banana and pineapple trees. One can see that Meghalaya is primarily an agricultural state. The houses are built on stilts, to protect against flooding during heavy rains (Cherrapunjee is the second wettest place on earth, after the nearby Mawsynram). Curious children wave to us, not unused to visitors. Some of them carry their siblings in cloth slings on their backs. Hens, puppies and cats seem to exist alongside each other here in perfect harmony.
Crossing the suspended rope bridge
We cross the wire bridge with our bones and belongings intact. The seemingly-endless steps promise an aftermath of wobbly knees. A second rope bridge greets us, which I take on with confidence. The river below is of translucent lapis lazuli – I can even see the rocks on the riverbed. Nongriat is an unassuming village, with happy kids running about. We follow the cemented path, when suddenly my partner announces, “We’re here.”
I find myself looking up at two large tiers of tangled brown ropes that stretch across the Umshiang river. The thick, python-like roots of the Ficus elastica (Indian rubber) tree, which might have once tempted Tarzan to swing across, now form a latticed platform, connecting hill to hill. The tree itself towers above, forming a natural canopy. I venture onto on the moss-covered network of vines, which is surprisingly sturdy.
The double-decker living root bridges
These bridges are an ingenious invention by the Khasi people – they help them get across rivers that would otherwise be impassable during the merciless monsoons. Hollowed-out betel trunks are placed across the river, inside which the fig tree’s aerial roots are coaxed to grow horizontally. The roots strike the soil on the other side and grow deep inside it, strengthening the hold. It takes about 15 years for the bridge to be ready for use. With the strength to hold up to 50 people at a time, it grows stronger with age, renewing itself naturally. The bridges connect the locals to neighbouring villages, farmers to towns and children to schools. They exemplify the word ‘jugaad‘, a Hindi term that refers to finding a clever fix or solution.
An hour’s walk from Nongriat takes us to the Mawsaw root bridge, the first part of which has been replaced with steel ropes. I’m pleased at the transition underfoot as we walk across – from swaying wire to steady root. I look behind me to see a classic landscape – jade mountains surround the white river valley like sentinels. We walk on a desolate path, which (thankfully) leads to the natural swimming pools. I plunge into the cold, sparkling waters of the ‘Rainbow waterfall’, that cascades over a gigantic rock. “I’m staying here,” I declare to my partner. “You can go back.”
Getting comfortable in the icy cold waters of Rainbow waterfall
On our return, we stop at Nongthymmai for oranges, which we eat beside a temperamental rooster. The village is strikingly clean, like many others in Meghalaya. I ask the shop owner if she knows how old the living root bridges are. “I don’t think anyone knows,” she laughs.
As I sink into a rock to rest, a man carrying a sack of betel leaves on his back walks past us. We look at him in unabashed admiration and then plod on. A girl carrying a satchel skips past us, grinning at our huffing and puffing. She is barefoot.
Wobbly, painful knees
How does he do it?
It is 5 pm now, and the valley is growing dark. Each of the last 500 steps feel like I’m lifting bricks tied to my feet. At the top, I gush about our experience to the taxi driver, who’s never done the trek. He looks at my flushed, excited face and says, “Maybe I will go there next time.”
Also read: Magical monsoons: The rains in India
This piece was originally done for the travel company GoMowgli, highlighting Indian food experiences a first-time visitor must have.
From the 36-course Kashmiri wazwan to the simple biryani of Tamil Nadu, India offers to your palate a mind-boggling variety of tastes and flavours. Much like its people and culture, Indian food is highly diverse, with each region having a distinct local cuisine. Read on for must-have food experiences in India, that could lead to anything from gastronomic delight to Delhi Belly (which will be worth its every bit!).
Tea and coffee
Most Indian faces light up at the proposition of a cuppa chai or coffee. Indians are passionate about their beverages, and sharing a cup of tea or coffee is almost essential aspect of social bonding.
Tea (chai) and coffee are usually had with milk and sugar. Both are grown in abundance across the country, in the cooler climes of the mountains. Drinking chai on the roadside is very much a part of Indian culture across the country – you will find a tea stall on almost every street! In some areas, especially around busy offices, there is a chai-wallah who delivers or sells tea from a carrier. ‘Masala chai’ is a variation of tea with ginger or cardamom added to it – a must-try! Inside the home, tea is usually offered along with biscuits or savouries. Pink tea or Kashmiri tea is a special preparation of tea and spices, along with baking soda, cooked in a samovar.
South Indians are passionate about their filter coffee, a strong concoction which is prepared by brewing ground coffee in a special, two-storeyed coffee vessel. It is not uncommon for Indians to drink tea or coffee multiple times a day.
The quintessential Indian meal, comprising a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Each state has its own version of thali, and the dishes vary according to the local cuisine. A thali is usually served in a circular plate with little cups of colourful gravy or dry accompaniments arranged all around. The cups consist of lentils (daal, sambar, rasam), vegetable dishes, a sweet dish or two, and curd. The main course usually consists of rotis, followed by steamed white rice or flavoured rice. While in North India, especially the Gujarati and Rajasthani thalis, you get a variety of rotis, in South India, the main course is predominantly rice. The thali is also accompanied by friend snacks and/or papad. Consider it an accomplishment if you can polish off each and every dish on your thali plate!
A ‘dhaba’ is a roadside restaurant, popular with travellers and truckers alike. Dhabas usually serve fresh food made to order, hot off the stove or tandoor. They are known for serving different varieties of paratha (wheat dough stuffed with vegetables such as potato, gobi, paneer, etc.) along with butter, pickle and curd. North Indian side dishes such as daal, channa, and paneer dishes are staples alongside tandoori rotis. Don’t forget to try, especially in Punjab, ‘lassi’, a tall cool glass of yogurt blended with water, sugar and sometimes topped with chopped dry fruits.
In the land of the backwaters, it is not very often that you come across an entirely vegetarian meal. The Kerala Sadya (sadya meaning banquet), however, comprises an assorted variety of vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf. It’s prepared during festivals and mostly by men, a tradition hard to come by in Indian homes. Dry curries (with grated coconut) and wet gravies (with coconut milk) are placed on specific positions on the leaf, along with pickles, banana chips and poppadam. Buttermilk (usually spiced) is served in a glass. Most of the dishes are prepared in coconut oil, due to the abundance of coconuts in Kerala. The meal ends with a sweet dish (payasam or prathaman) made from milk/jaggery/other ingredients. Sitting at the sadya prepared on Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, will make for a a memorable experience.
South Indian food
Idlis, dosas and vadas are the three things that immediately come to mind when you think of South Indian food. All three dishes are typically served with chutney (a ground paste of coconut and daals) and sambar (spicy lentil soup). Idlis are steamed rice cakes, that can melt in your mouth when made right. Dosas are pancakes made from fermented rice batter, that vary from the crispy, paper-thin kind of Tamil Nadu to Karnataka’s thicker and softer counter part. Vadas are deep-fried and doughnut-shaped, with a crispy outer layer and soft insides. Also popularly had for breakfast in South India is pongal (steamed rice and lentils) and upma (made from semolina or rice).
Chaat is Indian fast food – quick snacks that are served from roadside carts. A dazzling variety of chaat is available in India, most comprising a base of fried dough accompanied by chopped onions, lemon, coriander, and masala. Pani puri (thin round puris filled chikpeas/potato, onions, and tangy mint and tamarind water) is a popular chaat item. Paav bhaji (buns with a spicy gravy), bhel puri (puffed rice with puri and masala) and dahi chaat (puri mixed with yogurt and tangy spices) form some other popular chaat items. Vada paav, famous in Bombay, comprises a fried potato patty in between two bread buns.
Indians are known for their sweet tooth. In most Indian households, it is common to offer sweets (along with savouries) to guests. You will probably experience at least one incident of an Indian family asking you to tuck into some ‘mithai‘. India boasts of a fascinating and diverse variety of sweet dishes. Laddoos (round, dry balls of sugar) and barfis (commonly made from dry fruits/gram flour) and are found throughout the country. Kaju Kathli, the diamond-shaped flat pieces of cashewnut fudge, are a universal favourite. The gulab jamun, another noteworthy sweet dish, is made from a dough of milk solids, which is then fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The best way to enjoy Indian desserts is to not keep your calories in mind, as most of them are rich in ghee and sugar, and, of course, absolutely lip-smacking.
Coastal cuisine (Konkan)
The Konkan or Malvani cuisine is specific to the region of Malvan, comprising Goa and the coastal regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra. Coconut is used liberally in all forms due to its availability. Fish forms the staple food for non-vegetarians, whereas vegetarian dishes comprise jackfruit, grains, raw mangoes, etc. Konkan food is known to be spicy. A distinguishing spice of this region is ‘kokum’, which lends Konkan dishes their characteristic flavour.
Some famous dishes from this region are Bombay Duck (fish dry) and Kombdi Vade (chicken curry with a fluffy dough). Sol Kadi is a refreshing drink made from coconut milk and kokum.
Himalayan cuisine is unique to the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and the North Eastern states.
Momos, now gaining popularity as a fast food in the mainland as well, are steamed dumplings found throughout the Himalayas. Usually stuffed with meat (though a vegetarian version is available in some places) and served with soya/chilli sauce, they make for a quick roadside snack.
Thukpa is a noodle soup with vegetables and/or meat, and is usually served as a full meal.
Butter tea is a unique drink made from tea leaves, yak butter and salt, and the method of drinking it is unique as well. It is served in sip-sized portions in a cup. Each sip drains the bowl empty, which is then topped up again. Tsampa is roasted (barley) flour which can be mixed with water or tea into balls, and often accompanies butter tea.
Food from the Northeast is varied and diverse, with each state having a distinct flavour of its own. Rice forms the staple grain. Assamese food comprises mainly rice and fish, with different varietities of ‘pitha‘ or rice cakes being prepared on different occasions. ‘Bhut jholokia’ or red naga chili, is a fiery pepper found in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Fermented and smoked meat is popular in Nagaland. Mizoram’s cuisine comprises mostly boiled food, both meat and vegetables. The pickled bamboo shoots of Meghalaya are a must-try, as is ‘jadoh‘, a dish of rice and pork. The cuisine of Arunachal Pradesh is influenced by China. Fermented bamboo shoots form a staple ingredient, and ‘apong‘, a local rice beer, is popularly consumed in the state. The fermented fish or ‘ngari‘ of Manipur is unique to the region. Tripura’s local cuisine, called Mui Borok, comprises fermented fish, different rice varities and meat roasts.
Langar is the term given to the community dining room of a Gurudwara where food is served to all visitors, free of cost. The cooking, serving and washing is taken up by volunteers. The food is completely vegetarian and consists basically of paratha/roti, daal, vegetables and rice. The number of dishes may vary from place to place. Visitors are made to sit in rows and eat together, irrespective of their background.
All Gurudwaras, no matter how big or small, have a separate area for the langar. Some even have open-air langars where thousands of people are served food.
Prasad refers to the food that is given as a holy offered to a diety (most often, in a temple) and then distributed to devotees/visitors in the temple. Some popular prasad items are puffed rice, payasam (sweetened milk), laddoos, tamarind rice, puris, halwa or even pieces of rock sugar.
Tirupati Laddoo is made from besan, dry fruits and sugar. Palani’s panchamritam (made from five fruits and jaggery) is unique to the Palani temple and is highly popular. The Jagannath Temple in Puri offers ‘Mahaprasad’ – a variety of 56 cooked and uncooked dishes to its devotees. In the temples of Lord Hanuman, it is a ritual to offer ‘vadamala‘, a garland made of 108 vadas, which is hung around the diety and then distributed. In some temples in India, even alcohol is offered as part of prasad. The kind of prasad varies from place to place, diety to diety and temple to temple.
Few meals in the world are as rich and royal as the multicourse Kashmiri Wazwan (waz meaning ‘cook’ and wan meaning ‘shop’). It comprises well over a dozen and a half dishes, usually 36, most of which comprise meat. Some of the commonly prepared dishes in this meal are rogan josh (mutton pieces in rich spicy gravy), tabak maaz (fried lamb ribs), rista (meatballs in spicy gravy), aab ghost (lamb cooked in milk), methi maaz (fenugreek-flavoured minced meat), gustaba (minced meat made into balls and simmered in rich gravy), etc. Mustard oil is used for cooking, and saffron is used for flavouring. Though integral to the culture of Kashmiris, wazwan is served in various hotels in other Indian states as well.