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Bridges made from Trees

Thanks to the sturdy and durable roots of the rubber tree, centuries-old bridges have grown naturally, rather than being built, in one of the wettest places on earth, north-east India. Near the border with Bangladesh, the "living bridges" of southern Khasi and the Jaintia hills are a fascinating spectacle – and they serve a practical purpose.

The state of Meghalaya has some of the highest levels of rainfall on the planet, with floods regularly cutting off the villages in the monsoon season. However, the local Khasi people are working with nature by using the roots of the rubber trees to create sturdy bridges, which keep the villagers' access routes open all year round.


Importance of rubber

Regardless of their roots' versatility, rubber trees are an important commodity. Rubber trees growing wild can reach heights of up to 100ft, while those on plantations commonly grow to around 60ft tall, with thick, leathery leaves that are up to 24 inches long.

They produce a milky sap that is the main source of rubber. Some wild trees are tapped for their sap, but there is a large market of commercially-produced rubber, with the trees grown on plantations. Much of this takes place in south and south-east Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, as well as in west Africa.

Rubber plantations boost the local economy and the natural rubber they produce has important uses in the manufacturing and textile industry, despite the invention of synthetic rubber in the early 20th century.


Rubber bridges

On the slopes of the Jaintia hills, the climate is warm and humid, with fast-flowing rivers and mountain streams criss-crossing down the slopes. In this wet climate, a species of Indian rubber tree with particularly strong roots flourishes.

Called the Ficus Elastica, it's unusual in that it produces a second series of roots from higher up the trunk and these can be seen growing on top of boulders along the riverbanks and even in the water itself.

Two tribes of Meghalaya, the War-Jaintias and the War-Khasis, noticed the unusual tree and realised its potential to help them cross the many rivers in the region. When the need for a new bridge arises, they simply grow their own!


How it works

Villagers devised numerous methods of training the tree roots to grow in the appropriate direction, such as over a river. They can simply pull, twist and tie the roots by hand, until they merge together. Over a period of time, this will form the required architectural structure.

The local people have also created the root bridges by building scaffolds out of bamboo and wood, training the roots to grow out across the temporary structures. The perishable elements used to create the scaffolds often have to be replaced numerous times, as they can rot during the monsoon weather.

Around Nongriat village, the trunks of betel nut trees are sliced down the middle and hollowed out. Then, they can be used to create a root-guidance system, with the thin roots of the rubber trees growing straight down the betel nut trunks and out the other end.

Nut trunks contain additional nutrients as they decay to help feed the rubber tree roots. When they grow to the other side of the river, they will then take root in the soil - over time, producing a sturdy bridge.


Longevity of bridges

The amazing root bridges will carry on growing as long as the tree remains healthy. They can take many years to grow large and strong enough to be functional, which largely depends on the nutrients in the soil and the method used to grow the bridge.

Once the root bridges are mature and fully established, they are remarkably strong - they can support up to 50 people at once. It is believed that some of the ancient root bridges that are used all the time by villagers living around Cherrapunji are more than 500 years old.

Creating an incredible sight, root bridges are grown in a variety of sizes and shapes, with some being up to 170ft long! When trained to grow upwards, they can soar up to 80ft above the rivers that they cross.

The living root bridges have only a single span but in some areas, several are arranged to grow parallel to one another, or even one on top of the other, as is the case with the unusual and renowned Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge in Cherrapunjee.


Global fame

The art of growing root bridges was dying out to a degree in the 21st century, with the historic bridges having been in place for centuries in some areas and no new ones being crafted. However, the root bridges began to attract the attention of people from around the world in around 2004, particularly with the growth of the internet and channels such as YouTube.

This led to a rebirth of local interest in the root bridges and a determination that they would remain in place in the future, rather than being replaced by steel bridges. Now, a number of new root bridges are being grown, using the method with scaffold made of bamboo and wood.

In Nongriat, the existing double root bridge is being expanded, with a third span being grown above the existing two, although it will be around ten years before it will be large and sturdy enough to be used.

Here at Coruba, we recognise the importance and versatility of rubber. Renowned for being one of the UK's leading providers of high-quality rubber matting, we also stock a wide variety of rubber products. For enquiries, please call 01702 560194.

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