Living Root Bridge Ecosystems of India

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Locally known as jingkieng jri, Living Root Bridges are Ficus elastica-based infrastructure and landscape solutions within dense sub tropical moist broadleaf forests of North Eastern Indian Himalayas (25°30’N and 91°00’E). As living plant-based ecosystems, these structures are grown and nurtured by indigenous Khasi and Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya over 10 to 30 years and perform for several centuries in extreme climatic conditions. With 1) low material and maintenance cost, 2) progressive increase in strength and performance, 3) community-led participatory design approach across multiple generations, 4) remedial impact on surrounding soil, water and air, 5) support for other plant and animal systems, 6) keystone role of Ficus plant species in local ecology, and 7) diverse morphologies including bridges, ladders, towers, platforms and soil erosion/landslide prevention structures, Ficus-based living root bridge ecosystems offer an important model for reimagining our environment and reviving our relationship with nature.

However, despite exemplary attributes, living root structures are being destroyed or replaced by inappropriate solutions due to lack of awareness and exigent socio-economic context. Through an open-community dialogue, indigenous tribes, scientists, designers, architects, government representatives and civil society members are currently investigating the scope of this ethno-botanical knowledge and its revival. These participatory dialogues are inspired by Meghalaya’s unique village dorbor based system of governance and informed by precise socio-scientific documentation of the living root bridge sites and their overall context. They are gradually informing increased awareness and sensitivity within all stakeholders and will eventually lead to the protection of these structures. Subsequently, a living plant-based rural connectivity, conservation, livelihood and education project will be initiated where indigenous members are primary stakeholders. The first stage will focus on the propagation and appropriate plantation of Ficus elastica along streams and rivers in Meghalaya to ensure stream bank protection, soil quality improvement, and soil moisture conservation. Concurrently, in situ scientific investigation will focus on technology documentation, analysis of structural performance, resilience and bioengineering by humans, potential use as a host biome for orchids and other epiphytic plants and food for humans as well as other biota, and potential extension of this technology to other plant systems such as Ficus benghalensis. Throughout all stages, a balance between ancient intelligence and contemporary thought will be nurtured to facilitate an alliance of both worlds, and yield the most satisfactory results.

With more than 100 distinct living root structures in active use through out Meghalaya, the global community has a unique opportunity to experience an exemplary relationship between humans and plants. From a scientific standpoint, these structures and their underlying attributes can reshape our approaches to design, engineering and architecture. In-situ research in collaboration with indigenous communities can reveal fundamental principles that inform their performance and resilience. It can also eventually inspire responsible solutions that address critical contemporary challenges related to the environment, climate, biodiversity, and health. The precise understanding and revival of this kind of local knowledge could be a profound and invaluable source of inspiration for the global society—fundamentally challenging the way we see, inhabit and impact our planet.

Sanjeev Shankar
Sanjeev Shankar uses his training in design, science and architecture to merge traditional knowledge with contemporary patterns to nurture responsible solutions with positive socio-economic-ecological impact. A recipient of the Chevening fellowship from Britain and the DAAD fellowship from Germany, his works have been featured at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, Centre for Architecture in New York, International Association of Bridge and Structural Engineering in Geneva and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. He was shortlisted for the Emerging Architecture award at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, has won the ‘Outstanding Young Engineer’ award at the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering conference in Geneva, and the ’10 Great Ideas to Change the World’ competition, at Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai.

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