The first images of Sundarbans were captured by my eyes in 2005, while flying past over them, en route to Port Blair from Kolkata airport. I was preening outside as my flight started ascending from Kolkata and suddenly realized, that just below me there was an unbelievably beautiful labyrinthine and serpentine waterways dotted by lush green mangrove trees. Sundarban, named after Sundari mangrove tree found here was not only unique but appeared stunningly beautiful due to natural patterns crisscrossed by waterways and from the height looked like a perfect picture postcard. I was literally mesmerized and continue to harbor the wish to see that place closely one day. I finally had my wish fulfilled in 2012.
On an opportunity to visit, Kolkata in Dec 2012, I included Sundarbans in my itinerary as a natural choice. I booked a trip through a travel agent, who claimed to know a lot about Sundarbans. The pricing of the trip was economical, but we soon realized that this economy was at a cost!. The trip started from Kolkata stuffed with few too many passengers on a rickety bus. There were perhaps too many tourists that day. The two seats of this bus were twisted and the journey to Sundarbans of approx 120 km was somehow completed by most of the travelers. We reached to the end of motor-able road by afternoon and took a boat to reach a local village of Sundarbans.
Our trip organizer had purchased some land in a village and developed a sort of barbed-wire resort in this rather poor village. I felt little odd initially and had a guilt-feel of rich cornering the resources of poor right there in this remote village and teasing them with sort of feudalistic display of money and power, all in the name of eco-tourism. However knowing my limits soon, acquiesced in to seeing the scene as a tourist only. No value judgments therefore.
The Sundarbans recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an area of approx 10000 km and is divided in the ratio of 40:60, between India and Bangladesh due to colonial history. It is the proud repository of single largest reserve of halophytic mangrove forests, anywhere in this world. India has declared its area as a National Forest Park, as apart from some most precious flora and fauna, it has a sizable population of Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris Tigris). This tiger genetically similar to tigers of other parts of India has developed some unique hunting skills in marshy waters. Then there are stories galore, of tigers hunting fishes even humans in all possible ways and being the perfect swimmer. In fact no group of tigers in entire world is more man-eater by preference than Sundarbans tigers. So I had a lot to watch out there and that too very carefully.
So after quick lunch we went around for a walk in the village and saw traditional ways of extracting rice from paddy. The foreigners in the group showed more interests and clicked some snaps too.
In the later afternoon we took boats to nearby marshy area. It is interesting to know that in Sundarbans, one has to continuously watch for water levels or at least twice a day on low and high tide. So if you get your boat too close to side and wait there for too long unmindful of depleting water level, you may soon find your boat stuck up in the marshy land. Like wise you may find yourself floating in a boat if you had not anchored your boat properly, on banks as a rise in water level could get you soon, floating in the unknown territory. One has also to be mindful of sharp edged, protruding roots in these muddy banks. These roots of mangrove trees are means of getting vital oxygen for the trees and to adjust with tides have developed this unique way to grow. You can hurt yourself very bad by these bayonet type sharped edged roots of Sundari trees.
Our post lunch trip got us to see some good marine life and a feel of the place. The boatman on our trip while rowing his small boat carrying just 6 of us suddenly plunged his hand in water and came out with a unique to Sundarbans, horse-shoe crab. It is called a living fossil too and is really impressive. Check the pic below for that.
After doing some pics etc, we requested our boatman to let the lovely crab go back to water so that the species can continue to live for generations to come. We were also watching some beautiful flocks of Herons and other birds. We came across a poor cormorant too, which due to some reasons was unable to fly away and our over experienced boatman did not think twice before getting that too in his hands. We clicked obviously and once again pleaded for the release of this new hostage too. I over heard that these birds were sometimes hunted illegally for their meat too.
We proceeded to see some more, and were getting anxious by depleting lights. The stories of Man eater tigers were playing in our mind and we were sitting more cautious in our boats than we were used to, in any other place while navigating in a boat. We were looking at any signs of movement on banks nearby or even water, from where the wily Sundarban man eater tiger could emerge. We now prayed for Bono Bibi too, a truly secular local forest Goddess as all inhabitants of Sundarbans irrespective of their religion, worship Bono Bibi for their safety as she is supposed to hold her sway and order over all of Sundarbans. There is a tradition that when ever the men go for fishing or honey gathering, two most important source of livelihood there, there women back at the houses sleep on the ground only and continue praying for the safety of their husbands from the ruthless and wily man-eater tigers of Sunderbans.
Still there are stories galore, of man and woman being attacked by tiger. One unique way out to deal with tigers here, has been to wear masks of the human face on the back of head. It is believed widely that tiger attacks from back and suddenly and hence gets be fooled by the mask of the human face on the back of head, thinking as if the man was watching him. This has worked in some cases and is practiced widely. Kudos to man’s ingenuity and true Indian spirit of Jugaad!
I think we need some better done masks really! I don’t know if some some Chinese company has by now realizing the potential of this market of face masked and started producing these masks at competitive prices really.
After coming back to our resting place of night, we heard of even few more stories of tigers of Sundarbans (approximately 500 of them), attacking everybody from all impossible corners of water bodies and jungle. We were told of n number of widows in Sundarbans who lost their husbands to tigers. There were also stories of some brave man and women who fought tigers with their tooth and nail and survived the ordeal though with some unwelcome scars on different parts of their body. So there was some hope too in this dark area.
My kids were listening to all these stories with even more attention as the night progressed and huddled closer to us. It was a family therefore fighting out the stories together, if not tiger itself! This cuddled up family in some distant village close to Bay of Bengal and staying in a mud earth village built up by our wily tour operator, did spend the night besides dim lights of a British era kerosene lamp. The cuddle and huddle had become even thicker due to some bathroom creatures noticed at the start of night by the younger ones. Nobody used the washroom therefore in the night and amidst few bouts of sleep, waited for night to pass and day to break.
The next morning we got readied up early and left for tour across Sundarbans on tow bigger boats. The operator smartly divided Indian and foreigner tourists in two groups and we cruised on with the promise of the breakfast on board the boat. The journey however was slowed down by the morning haze and fog and slowed down even further by need to procure few permits from forest department etc. Few of the group got down from boats to have a look at the decent interpretation center at Sajanekhali. It depicts the flora and fauna of Sundarbans and can be interesting for the kids. Interestingly, though we were so close to sea, it was really cold in the last week of December, 2012 and we had to get ourselves, covered up well.
We finally left for our day long ,journey after some two hours from the jetty. Travelling in waters of Sundarbans, we realized the unique beauty of the area. Also the small villages around on islands negotiating the daily chores of lives invokes a sense of awe and respect for them. These villagers are living on the edge and face death every single day due to harshest conditions of life. There were no 100 or 108 number to call police or a doctor. You have slog it out every single day of your life, just to survive. I was amused however by sight of of a DTH telecast plate in the backdrop of a thatched mud house, even in this remote place. The people have a life of their own.
From the top of the boat deck, we could see far and wide and the scenery was breathtaking. It was lush green span of mangrove forests characterized by the muddy banks, protruding bayonet roots on lower tide. The jungle with water ways looked really impressive.
Our nature guide was however looking for any hints of impressive fauna around and was particularly keen to note any stripes of wily tigers in those green forests. He kept on checking everything with his sharp eyes and continued to enthrall us with many stories of Sundarban jungle. We were really enjoying this boat ride and with sun rising higher in the horizon, unburdened us from muffler etc to enjoy the sun-bath over a moving boat. What a luxury to have really!
The pleasure of relaxing was broken suddenly by the strong nudge of my guide, who gestured me towards a wild crocodile on one side of the banks. The body of crocodile was glistening in the sunlight and we could take a clear snap of that impressive beast, believed to be on planet earth right from the days of dinosaurs.
We had breakfast on the moving boats and our trip organizer kept on shuffling himself and the required ration between boats to keep. both the boats replenished and happy. The food was simple but the surrounding was outstanding and we had a stomach full of meal. We contined to navigate and noticed that close to some villages, there were nylon mash traps placed strategically to ward of tigers from the living places.
In the afternoon we reached one Dobanki camp of Sundarban National park and were exposed to forests in more interesting ways. The department has built an elevated walkway here for some good 1 km and below you, you can see the wild life of Sundarbans depending upon your luck. This was also a different experience, right in forest.
The search for tiger continued but we could not see the tiger in the trip and satisfied ourselves with some more interesting stories about the hunter and the sightings of birds and other flora and fauna of Sundarbans. The journey continued till late in the evening and we arrived little late, back to our resting place.
Though we were tired, we left for our journey back to Kolkata. Few of the group members stayed back for the night to be spent in the boat parked in waters. I decided to play safe with kids, as by now I had heard too many stories of tigers attacking the boats also, in the darkness of night. We reached back to Kolkata by late night, but really enjoyed the whole process of knowing this unique World Heritage Site of UNESCO. It was really worth it.
Thanks Sunderbans and hail Bono Bibi!