Few know of this place and fewer have the mettle to get there.
What do the most impactful things in life have in common? Think scaling Mt. Everest, or acing a final exam, or even falling in love. They all leave you breathless.
Nongriat, the postcard destination of Meghalaya, took my breath away.
I usually over-plan my holidays up to a point where I’m aware of which day I’ll incorrectly pair which two socks together. Such was my week-long trip to Meghalaya. After a long day spent exploring caves underground, next up on the itinerary was a two day visit to Nongriat.
Nongriat follows ‘Bagan’ or Tea Garden Time, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time. Right after sunrise, a forty minute drive from our base in Cherrapunji brought us to Tirna – the last point beyond which vehicles don’t ply. Nongriat lies in one of those regions that’s only accessible on foot. Getting to the village involves a descent from Tirna- a solid 3,500 steps (roughly 3.5km).
All smiles as the journey begins
The trek down is refreshingly green and comprises of:
1. Effortless concrete steps
2. The bridges - living roots, bamboo and iron
3. A wearisome final ascent
The walk to the village was, and I cannot emphasize this enough, a remarkable journey. The beauty of the trail was to be found all around, in the organic fragrance amidst the leafy forest to the bright sun winking at us from behind the trees. There were barely any glimpses of the blue sky because of the umbrella of greenery forming a canopy above us.
It has been documented that the descent into the village is more challenging than the ascent, and ironical as it sounds, I can testify to its truthfulness. The process of climbing down took an immense amount of grit and determination. Along with four different forms of insect repellant, eight types of sanitation products, I think I might have underestimated the load and overcompensated for my requirements. The freight imposed a deep injustice on my knees and my calves shivered at the thought of the journey back up.
Stairway to heaven
The forest is uncharacteristically noisy right from dawn up to the dead of the night. Strange insects come together to form bands that screech in sync. There’s music of all genres to be found in the woods. The kaleidoscope of butterflies in their 3D, high-definition kept us going. Some of these wild and colourful creatures were as huge as my palm. And 1,500 well-maintained steps and the same number of pictures later, we were rewarded by the single-decker living roots bridge.
Here the path diverged:
1. One leading to the bridge.
2. The other main trail which takes you to the village of Nongriat. It is along this track that you reach the double decker bridge.
Single Decker Living Root Bridge
Living Roots Bridge - Ficas Elastica
Marking the mid-point of the trek, the single decker bridge was the perfect spot for a long halt.
As we entered deep into the thicket, what beheld us was the extraordinary sight of long, intertwined roots that formed a bridge. These tangled fig roots are naturally grown through betel tree trunks on opposite sides of a river or stream. Over 15 years the roots meet, and intermingle to form a sturdy bridge which is reinforced by bamboo sticks, stones and twigs. This ingenious system of living roots that grow and gain strength over time, has been mastered by the local Khasi tribe.
Off the beaten path
I covered the remaining steps, eagerly waiting for the end to near. But every time the steps disappeared from our vision, it was nothing but another spiral turn in the path. We ambled through the jungle crossing three more bridges built over gushing waterbodies.
Blue in the corner is one of the many naturally formed pools
One bridge was made of bamboo, and the other two of iron. Nevertheless, they all had long loose rods that were enmeshed with thin wires, causing the makeshift bridge to sway dangerously while we were on it. Unlike the resilient living roots, these iron-made bridges were narrow and unsteady. In order for us to safely tread on them, we had to ensure a sturdy grip on the side wires.
As we sauntered farther along the dream-like route, we were in for a nasty surprise. The downhill trail suddenly picked up altitude.. and how! The only descent from here was of my steady pace, as gravity, the heavy bag and my legs started to bail on me. The intervals began to get more frequent, the stops, longer. Grudgingly, we lumbered towards the visible specks of human inhabitation.
Point of exhaustion
Nongriat and Double Decker Bridge
There are two minimalistic accommodations in Nongriat - Serene Homestay (run by Byron) and the Village Guest House (run by Challi and his team). I stayed in the latter, which had to be reached by crossing over the much celebrated Double Decker Living Root Bridges.
They’re pretty strong
Featuring in every “list of places in India you must visit”, the Double Decker Bridges are in all aspects, a sight for sore eyes, and an activity for a sore body! For years, the structure only had the lower tier which would get submerged in floods caused by the unpredictable rainfall. The frequent disruption in daily life thus bore the idea of a second, higher decker. It is truly a wonder that was conceived by man but delivered by nature.
Follow me to the postcard destination of Meghalaya
Making arrangements to light mosquito coils in my 5 x 5 insect ridden room, I left for another trek. This trek to Rainbow Falls beats any I’ve ever done. It lay at the end of a self-navigable 1.5hr climb from the Double Decker Bridge.
Hard rock - the road less travelled
Secluded deep within the forest, it takes mammoth effort to reach Rainbow Falls. Again, there are stairs; this time they’re stony, broken, raw and earthy. Along the way the only set of people I came across was a small group of foreigners. I befriended Janice, an Israeli who was on a sabbatical, exploring corners of my country that I hadn’t even heard of. Not much of a trekker, she found it hard to keep up with the rest of the guys whom she had only met the previous day. Crunching twigs along the muddy track, we spent moments of absolute bliss buried within the arteries of the woods. For three fourths of the trek, the sound of running water teased us as we sweated past another curve, another crest to no avail. The continuous siren set off by the insects got louder and louder.
Amid the green and brown curtain that not only enveloped the hills but also obstructed our view of the sky, the mighty roaring of water finally took the form of a thick, rough, pearl-white strip.
Spot the rainbow above the rock!
This was not the gentle, fun sort of waterfall that I’d seen before. It was one that had torrents of water pounding over a gigantic rock, hard enough to crack every last bone in the human body, mash the bloody remnants and swirl them in the pool below that was violent enough to drown the best swimmer. The suns rays fell lightly upon the beaten rock and reflected a rainbow on both its sides.
Sparkling in the warmest blue, it challenged us to take a dip. While most trekkers stood there and gaped, the three guys I met earlier dared to maneuver their way down the sharp, slippery rocks. Pausing to gauge the risk in the terrain, the final impetus came from Janice who had managed to finish the trek. With no knowledge or fear of what she was about to undertake, she put an end to my hesitation and championed our descent down the formidable boulders. A lot of cuts and scares later, I immersed myself in the wild waters.
One of my favourite moments
From up where I was earlier, the falls were breath-taking. Down here, they were brutal and terrifying. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, swimming in the chilled, transparent pool, trying to reach out and touch the gorgeous colours of the rainbow.
You need to experience this beauty first hand
That night I collapsed out of happy exhaustion – a state that had begun to frequent my naps on my trip to Meghalaya.
1. Cabs are available from Shillong/Cherrapunji to Tirna.
2. Local guides are available for the hikes.
3. A single day trek can be done to the single living root bridges and back.
4. There are only two minimalistic Guesthouses, one of which is run by the villagers.
5. Bookings are taken on word. So call/email in advance.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nidah Kaiser
Photographs by Nidah Kaiser