Taibok hung dangerously from the edge of the forest a thousand feet above the raging mountain river that flowed at the bottom of the cliff, on whose edge stood his small and obscure village. The hamlet lay in India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, in the interiors of the dense East Khasi Hills near the modern-day Cherrapunji town, the world’s wettest place.
He did not mind the continuously pouring rain, which lashed wildly on the steep slope of the forest. He was a Khasi, a strong and robust tribal people indigenous to the region, who were, used to the wet and wild, merciless terrain. For thousands of years, the Khasi tribe had lived in this mountainous jungle domain.
He secured his weight with his arms and legs wrapped around the hanging roots of the Ficus elastica or the rubber tree. With his machete, he relentlessly worked on releasing the long areal tubers, which clung to the cliff face.
Finishing his work and calling it a day, Taibok slowly climbed up to retreat into his tiny makeshift forest shanty and gazed at the opposite side of the valley anxiously looking for someone to appear any moment.
His memories took him back many years when for the first time in his teenage days he had come to the cliff’s edge to look at the village hidden in the forest across the valley on the opposite mountain face. Behind a specific large rock, amidst the mosaic of the hilly foliage, he had seen the most beautiful face that had taken his breath away.
A glance turned into a wave, then there were few words, and slowly a conversation had started. It was the beginning of a beautiful love-across-the-cliff between Taibok and Ibahun, two souls just fifty feet from each other, separated by a thousand feet deep valley between them.
It was forbidden for the villagers to come to the cliff and talk or communicate with each other. It was considered a bad omen to speak or interact across the valley from the cliff face.
It was superstitiously believed and said that only those who would walk ‘across the valley through the air’ could freely mingle with the other villagers, the curse would not affect them in any way. There was, however, another permitted channel, through which the villagers met.
Once every year, people from both the villages would climb down to the bottom of the valley to interact and trade, which was the only permitted socialising between the two villages. They called it the harvest festival, which could only be done within the narrow window of a few days in the winter months when the raging river barely froze, just enough to a fragile but crossable pathway.
Only the strongest of the men and women usually came. The climb down and up the cliff with all the goods was extremely difficult. Many would consider it nearly impossible. It was even remarkably challenging for any full-harnessed and well-experienced mountaineering men.
Down at the valley, it was a custom with the villagers to only talk business. They would not speak about the others left behind on the mountain. It was a superstitious tradition that everyone strictly maintained. They believed sharing news about those left back on the cliff with the opposite villagers would bring bad luck to them.
They would meet, greet, and barter goods, spending four days in the valley singing, dancing and socialising, till they packed their goods and returned to their respective villages. People from one village would never go to the other. It was again forbidden.
It also made sense as it meant an unnecessary and treacherous climb up the opposite cliff and an each-way journey of four days. Further, there was a very short window of time before the barely frozen river crossing would thaw and break, which could strand a villager at the opposite end.
Both the villages were cut off from the rest of the world. Being completely self-sufficient there was no reason for them to go anywhere else. It was a world of its own, two isolated communities with minimal contact with each other, capsuled in a pristine and unique, wet and wild ecosystem.
Taibok lost in his thoughts, remembered Ibahun’s sublime face. He recalled how she would rest her elbows on the stone and with her hands on her cheek would talk with him from behind the forest foliage for hours every day.
After a few months from the start of their love-across-the-valley, Taibok had told Ibahun that they should meet at the bottom of the cliff during the harvest festival at the year’s end. He had said that he did not care for traditions, and would happily break them to marry her and bring her up to his side of the mountain and go and live somewhere else if his villagers did not accept them.
All of Taibok’s elaborate plan was fine, however, there was one problem. Though Ibahun loved Taibok very much, her feelings were sincere, and from the deepest realms of her heart, somehow, she always said that she would not come down to the plains. She said that if heaven willed, she would go ‘across the valley through the air’ but would never climb down the mountain.
Ibahun’s adamant denial to meet Taibok in the valley below disturbed him to a great length. Somehow, she only preferred speaking across the valley from behind the rock and forest foliage.
Few years passed, and during each of those winters, Ibahun did not come down the mountain. Taibok’s frustration kept on growing, and he could not bear the physical separation in this love-across-the-cliff even for another day.
So, the next day, at the beginning of a particular year, Taibok gave Ibahun an ultimatum that if she did not come down for the harvest festival at the years’ end, he would never see her again.
The day after giving the ultimatum when Taibok went to the cliff to meet with Ibahun as he usually did, she was not there. It had never happened before. Like clockwork, Ibahun was always there during the designated meeting hour of the day. Further, she was always there before Taibok ever came.
A day turned into a week, then into months, and finally, nearly to a year, Ibahun did not come, alas something surely must have happened. There was no way Taibok could get any news about Ibahun’s sudden disappearance.
He nearly became mad, no one from both the villages ever came near the cliff, it was forbidden. Even if someone did, they would not speak out due to the omen. Talking, interacting, and speaking with each other was only permitted at the bottom of the cliff face or by reaching to the opposite side ‘across the valley through the air’.
At the year’s end when Taibok was climbing down the mountain, his mind was puzzled with what must have happened. Down at the valley that year too, Ibahun was not there. At the festival, though people from both the villages interacted and traded, no one would say anything about Ibahun as it was forbidden to speak about those left, back in the mountain.
Nearly a year passed by again, and the next harvest festival was just at the month’s end. Taibok now had left his village dwelling and was permanently residing in a tiny makeshift forest shanty precariously hanging right on the cliff’s edge.
He would spend his nights and days looking at the other side, waiting to see Ibahun once again. Then after many sleepless nights of much thinking one day, he finally came up with a plan to get to Ibahun’s village.
He made 250 feet of rope with the roots of the Ficus elastica or the rubber tree, wildly growing in the region. That year for the harvest festival he climbed down the mountain with no goods to trade but a massive roll of root-rope, bringing which down the cliff was a mighty challenge in itself.
Then during the festival, he requested people from Ibahun’s village to carry one end of the rope to their side of the cliff and safely secure it to a tree’s base, while simultaneously he would carry the other end to his side of the mountain edge.
The other villagers agreed to this, as it was not breaking the forbidden rules in any way. After the festival when both the villagers went back to their respective villages, now a Ficus elastica root rope was strongly secured between the two cliff faces.
With the help of the root-rope, Taibok crossed across to the other village. He was welcomed by Ibahun’s village folks since he had not broken the taboo and had come ‘across the valley through the air’.
They offered him food and water, but he only wanted to see Ibahun. His heart palpitated with anxiety as an elder approached him to reveal something that had happened a month before the harvest festival two winters back on the day he had last spoken with Ibahun and since when he had not seen her again.
After a long pause and moments of silence, the elder said “I guess you did not know that Ibahun could not use her legs, she had to crawl on the ground to move around. A fatal disease, which nearly took her life at infancy, had paralysed her from down the waist, rendering her legs useless.”
Taibok then realised why Ibahun always stayed hidden behind the rock and foliage. Why she never stood up or walked about, why she never came to the cliff’s edge. Now he understood why she had said that she would or rather could, never climb down the mountain.
Though sad, this, however, did not alter Taibok’s emotions even for a moment, he truly loved Ibahun come whatever may. He just wanted to hold her in his arms and comfort her with his embrace.
Looking at everyone’s face, he realised that something worse had befallen. Resting his hands on Taibok’s shoulders in a gesture of support, the elder revealed a sad turn of event. A month before the harvest festival two winters back, the day Taibok had given Ibahun the ultimatum something terrible had happened.
After speaking with Taibok, Ibahun had crawled back to a particular spot on the cliff face, where she had been training on a climbing routine, which she had just started practising for a few days. She was determined, that even with her disability with sufficient training and practice, one day she would be able to climb down the cliff face. Sadly, during that day’s training, Ibahun lost her grip and fell down the mountain. She could not be found again.
Taibok’s life fell apart that very instance. He broke down and kept on sobbing like a child for the whole day. Unable to give him any solace, the villagers went back to their chores feeling sad with this turn of event.
After lamenting for nearly seven days, sulking on the stone, behind which Ibahun would sit and talk with him every day, after wading through an ocean of a million thoughts, after contemplating to end his life many times Taibok finally found a reason to continue his existence.
He came up with a brilliant plan to connect both the hamlets. He thought of a way by which anyone could cross ‘across the valley through the air’. Taibok did not want anyone else to suffer like him or Ibahun due to the gauge separating the two villages.
For the next fifteen years, Taibok painstakingly built the first living root bridge in the Meghalaya state. A simple suspension bridge formed by living plant roots of the Ficus elastica or the rubber tree commonly found in the region. For many years he guided the roots from either side of both the mountain’s edge to gradually creep and grow along his first root-rope line to secure them on the opposite cliff face.
After few years, when back and forth roots spread across a width of six feet had firmly rooted to the opposite ends and were able to comfortable carry human weight, Taibok built a platform on top of the webbed living root bridge base. He smoothed the platform with mud bamboo and wood, even made living root railings and finally completed the bridge in fifteen years connecting both the villages.
Many years passed from the time Taibok lived and slowly the art of building a living root bridge spread over to different places in Meghalaya’s hilly regions. The earliest written mention of a living root bridge is found in a journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal from 1844 by the Scottish Orientalist and geographer Lieutenant Henry Yule, who however does not mention about Taibok’s pioneering feat of engineering achievement.
Today one can find many living root bridges dotted across the contour of the East Khasi Hills in the Meghalaya region. They can survive for more than five-hundred-years if properly maintained. No one, however, knows the fascinating story behind how the first one was ever made.
The story of a love-across-the-cliff between Taibok and Ibahun, two souls just fifty feet from each other, separated by a thousand feet deep valley between them. The story of how their love created the first living root bridge so that generations after them could escape a bad omen and meet each other by walking ‘across the valley through the air’.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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