STEALTHY BEAUTY OF THE SUNDARBANS
THE LARGEST DELTA IN THE WORLD
By the time the initial rush of getting on a boat headed towards the Sundarbans subsided, we were treading through the middle of the Matla river, headed into the dense interiors of this self-sustaining ecosystem – a world heritage site, the largest delta on earth, a biosphere reserve, and the biggest mangrove tiger habitat comprising 104 islands covering an area of 3,500 sq kms. Cloudy skies, choppy waters, excited faces, crowded deck, buoyant spirits, bright dresses, fresh river breeze, fried prawns and loads of excitement. Two hours of sailing and we were in wide open spaces. With low tide the engine took on a smooth chug as the coastlines receded further. Soon we were crossing confluence points where as many as five, seven and sometimes eleven huge rivers met. No coastline, endless water world, frequent movements between bow & stern trying to figure coordinates, tourists
crowding the deck, all added to the allure. The only man at ease was the 42 year old boatman Tarok Mondal. He turned out to be quite a sport, engaged in multitasking from the beginning, always all smiles and captain of the ship in complete control.
He was quite a guy as he revealed to us gradually, post a late lavish crab curry lunch, sailing into the dark blue horizon towards the Bay of Bengal. He acted as boatman for three months, then he was a honey collector, wood cutter, occasional farmer and odd job seeker, so offering prayers to Bonbibi (forest Goddess) has become a daily ritual for Tarok. His house in Himalganj is finally under construction after being washed away in the Aila cyclone in May 2009. And for him, venturing into the forests for wood to build the roof of his semi Pucca house is risking his life everyday, but he depends on his prayers to get by. ‘I have to complete construction before the next monsoon arrives’ says Mondal, as his voice cracks with stress. Fear of a tiger attack is visible in his eyes. Dipak Saha, the onboard Sundarban Tiger Reserve guide stated that official figures show in 2010 alone, 27 incidents of Tiger-straying were reported from the Sundarbans, compared to only 9 in 2008. Though the forest department had it’s explanation, experts believe spreading salinity in the delta may be the common thread linking the fates of both predator & prey in this mystic mangrove hideout.
As we know, Himalayan glaciers are receding rapidly due to global warming and the rate of retreat in the last three decades is over three times that of the rate in earlier years. Glacier retreat has implications for downstream river flows which is reflected through lowering of salinity in the Sundarbans. Tiger straying indicates that salinity is penetrating deeper into the forests with more and more tigers straying from south to north. Of the 104 islands, 48 are left with forest cover only on their fringes, and a tiger needs cover to ambush its prey before killing it. Due to less forest area tigers are finding it difficult to hunt and are straying into villages for easy prey. Not only animals, trees like Baine, Gamu, Goran, Hethal, Motgora, Kali, Gorankakra, Gorjon, Keowra etc. which were mainly found in the southern region, can be seen in the north now. Experts say a rise in salinity will further degrade the coastal water quality and reduce the overall productivity of the system. Birds commonly known as waders, like Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel and Sandpipers, can’t be sighted post the Aila cyclone. Though this is not linked to salinity, there’s no doubt the entire system is under severe threat. The rise in water temperature, with the onset of fish & shrimp disease, could spell doom for the entire eco-system, with fishes like Bhetki, Hilsa, Parshe, Bangan, Payra, Chada Datne, Lucho, Koi, Bhol, etc. vanishing in no time. The only solution may be proper protection of the mangrove cover.
Zipping along a eerie mangrove lined creek, not wider than a couple of 20 foot homemade skiffs in the purple after dusk, we reached another sort of a semiconfluence of several creeks. This, Tarok informed us, as he killed the engine & dropped the heavy iron anchor, will be our halt for the night. The beautiful red flower from the Sundari trees (the mangrove species Heritiera Fomes), found in the Sundarbans in large numbers, glowed in the light at dusk. Post sunset, it was a dramatic orange sky, surrounded by thick mangrove kharis, a few more boats in the distance, small fishing dinghies returning home against the horizon, the air soundless except for chopping waves against the boat, a flickering kerosene lantern on the deck with glow worms and fireflies for company, as the late night party started. A modest vessel, the boat had separate sleeping cabins, dining space, tail & attached toilets, kitchen and a huge deck. I later learned it takes 6 months to build one boat and costs Rs 8-10 lakhs, cost of which breaks even in one tourist season. As we settled on the deck for the evening, we met Sheikh Pradip, our chef, for the first time. A local from Ghoramara island, he was quite an expert in prawn curry & mutton kassa and narrated another amazing story over the next few hours. For the people of the Sundarbans, adaptation to the harsh life is critical for survival. Even if we don’t produce any carbon dioxide for the next 100 years, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, inundating the islands and forcing the islanders to migrate. Our evening ended with one question – will we continue to disown them and look the other way? Or will we demand that they get their rightful due? Before we could get to what’s what... dinner was served & right after it we retired to our cold, swaying beds obediently, and drifted off to the chirping of crickets and singing of frogs, feeling how far we were from civilization, floating on a wobbly boat at midnight in the heart of a tiger-infested, dense, dark jungle.
Sundarbans is a demanding home to those who live there. It requires much to survive, regardless of gender. Living and working in the Sundarbans is dangerous. And just as the men, women’s lives are equally challenging here. Their live revolve mostly around prayers to Bonobibi, humility and gratitude, ingenuity, and tolerance, yet they do not have the power of the goddess in their daily lives. The women of the Sundarbans are practically unknown outside their direct social relationships. Women here manage the household but also help the family survive financially. Some of them cultivate family plots while others fish. Prawn fishing is a particularly dangerous job. Women and children move through waters waist or neck deep, dragging
nets behind them to catch their tiny prey. Each year there are cases of women and children lost to crocodiles and tigers but the battle to survive rages on. Sundarbans women tend to marry early, sometimes as early as age twelve, but when they lose husbands from tiger attacks, particularly if their husbands were not permitted to enter the forest to take fish/honey/wood, they are often forced out of their homes with their children and made to live in widow villages. Here they become sole providers for their families and take on the roles traditionally taken by the men – wood cutting, honey collecting, and fishing. Healthcare, irrespective of socio-economic background, is dependent more on quacks for treatment over rural healthcare providers. They are extremely popular for their proximity and cost effectiveness and a weak healthcare and transport system force the majority to depend on quacks.
This huge delta is a geomorphological and hydrological fascination. Few areas in the world undergo the transformation visited upon this place by the gods who are endemic to it. Water plies mud into different shapes, sculpting it into new islands and reforming the old. We visited Jharkhali, a small inhabited island with patches of paddy fields and small ponds around mud houses. The ponds’ surfaces are completely covered by a thin layer of fresh water hyacinth. The island is surrounded by a high mud and brick embankment to keep it from getting flooded during bad weather, which is quite a common phenomenon here. These drowned lands and everything that live in them have adjusted to tides that rise twice daily to a height of 6-9 feet. Cyclonic activity is more intense here than anywhere else in the world. Tidal waves 250-feethigh rise up the Bay of Bengal, funnelling their way up the channels to disintegrate entire villages built on mud and houses made of mud – villages that are surrounded and protected from rising waters by mere 20-foot embankments. Both sides of the Sundarbans experience 4-8 cyclonic depressions every year, which makes it unique because of its human and animal habitats.
The approximately 300 tigers that live here are part of the Sundarbans mystery, it is here in these thick masses of knotted tree roots, writhing mud, and hungry water that tigers stalk humans as prey. The Sunderbans is famous for its tiger attacks and is one of the only areas in the world where ‘man eaters’ exist in their natural habitat in close proximity to humans. Although the Indian Government has estimated that only about a miniscule of the Sundarbans tigers are actually the man eating type, attacks are regular on locals entering the reserve for honey, firewood, and other products. The reason these tigers kill humans is unclear. One theory is that the salinity of the environment somehow gives tigers a taste for human blood. Another is that the ingestion of so much salt damages a tigers liver and kidneys, making it irritable. More likely, the tiger has become accustomed to the taste of human flesh as a result of the cyclones
and floods which carry dead bodies down the water channels and leave them strewn about to decompose. Sundarbans tigers are like no other. They attack in the mornings and evenings between the hours when people enter and leave the forest. They swim, hunting in the water, hiding among mangrove roots as the fishing boats pass until they spot an opportunity to approach from behind. Despite their size and weight, they stealthily sneak up on their victims from behind, typically grabbing them by the nape of the neck. When killing a deer, they embed their canines into four spaces in the vertebrae, a near lock-and-key fit. This method of killing is almost immediate. Stories run in the region that tigers take their prey with no trace. Men on small fishing boats hear a splash only to discover that one of their crew is missing. Perhaps they get glimpses of the wet tiger slinking up the mud bank of the shore dragging its meal by the neck. Tigers have been known to swim out to larger boats and leap aboard. Those on board may begin to call out ‘Ma’ or mother, a word meant to hail the goddess Bonobibi but legend has it that the echoes of someone’s scream at facing a tiger is also devoured by the tiger. No one hears the scream as the tiger takes its prey.
Dawn was an unforgettable experience, with primary colours raging non-stop in the sky, losing battle with their fast evolving secondary counterparts, with the complete color wheel on an intrepid kaleidoscope display, not to be missed in a place as breathtaking as this. The morning after brought in new thrills as we spotted wildlife at multiple spots, making our trip a worthwhile one. As the day moved on, the boat reached the jetty marking the end of our trip. Tarok handed me twenty business cards as I left the boat. ‘Please tell your friends to come and see the Sundarbans as long as it’s there.’ His voice was solemn and determined. For the first time, I saw the purple crescents beneath his eyes, heard the fatigue in his voice but even so, he was smiling. The silent, eerie forest around me seemed somewhat insignificant to the Tarok story. I came on this trip to see the Royal Bengal tiger in its natural habitat, I came
for adventure, for thrills, for all the wrong reasons. I came to escape the boredom of the routine grind. I suddenly felt embarrassed by my foolish motivations. The disrespect I showed for learning, the ingratitude for my rights and freedom of speech, of privacy, of laughter that many only dream of. Yet I will never regret meeting the Tarok Mondols and Sheikh Pradips. I wish every man could see these people working for their homes & livelihoods, helplessly going underwater and getting lost forever in the middle of nowhere, with minimal or no genuine collateral, spending night after night wading stealthily in predator country for an uncertain morning to be faced next day.
Nearest Airport- Dumdum. Rail Station-howrah or Sealdah (Kolkata). From Kolkata take a car/bus to Canning or Gothkhali 43-50 kms away, or take the train from Sealdah or local station to Canning, a 45-min journey. From there, the boat agent will pick you up & take you to the jetty10 minutes away. Stay on the boat overnight or take a boat cruise through the day, with a night halt at Sunderban Tiger Camp Jungle Resort in Dayapur or various other resorts like WBTDC’S Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge. The cruise is ideal for a 2 night, 3-day trip.
Tired fisherman returns home after a
full night’s catch as the sun rises
Boy swimming in a pond covered in hyacinths in Jharkhali village in Sundarbans
A tiger running in the shallow waters
Women fishing for shrimp & crabs often become targets for the tigers
Fishermen fishing for shrimp
Village woman cooking lunch
Another of the diesel powered boats crossing a confluence
A Spotted Deer looking for its mate
Monkey in the forest
A common Lizard peeking from it’s hideout
Plain Tiger Butterfly
Sunrise in the Sundarbans
Red crab - a local delicacy
A fishing Boat
Women working in the paddy fields right beside the river