In most parts of the world, when a bridge is needed it is built from wood, steel or concrete. But in Cherrapunji in northeastern India, the locals are much more patient. They simply coax nearby trees to grow into natural bridges. The process takes many years, but the result is completely natural, surprisingly strong, and looks like something out of a wonderful fantasy world.
The Ficus elastica is a type of rubber tree with extremely strong roots. This tree species is unique because, in addition to its primary root system, it also grows a secondary set of roots part of the way up its trunk. This secondary set of roots helps the trees thrive in inhospitable and difficult locations. It also makes them the ideal material to use for building natural, living bridges over the many rivers and streams in the Cherrapunji area.
Cherrapunji is often credited as being the wettest place on earth. Because of the terrain all of this moisture has created, the Ficus elastica has had to develop its unusual root system, and the people who live in the area have had to adapt to the constant rainfall. By making their bridges out of living plants that were already in place, they have created a very cool environmentally-friendly solution that has produced no non-organic waste and required very few resources.
The bridges are made by using a root-guidance system. Betel nut tree trunks are hollowed out and used to surround and contain young, thin roots from the Ficus elastica trees. The roots are then guided to grow over the body of water. When they reach the other side, they are allowed to take root in the dirt there. The guidance system can be removed, and nature takes it course to produce a beautiful, strong, functional natural vegetation bridge.
(all images via: Atlas Obscura)
It can take upwards of ten or fifteen years for the root bridges to really take root and become strong enough to use, but they are certainly worth the wait. Some bridges can support fifty people at a time, and some of the bridges still in use today are over 500 years old. Once the Western world was alerted as to their existence, the local people have had to work to preserve the traditional root bridges. The practice of growing living bridges continues to this day in the area, as a new bridge is currently being grown there.