Illusions and the Illusive
Sunderbans is the name given to a beautiful forest or a forest in which the Sundari tree (Heritiera fomes) grows. At the early stages of the history of the area, the entire Bengal basin was submerged under the sea and sedimentation from the Ganges-Brahmaputra River systems created a landmass, which is today’s Bengal Delta. The first Sundari trees presumably first took root below the Rajmahal Hills, establishing the northern extent of the Sunderbans.
Sunderbans has a vivid history that dates back to as far as the 13th century. Quite fascinatingly, it’s often been a convenient fleeing spot for a number of races, throughout time. Initially, locals from India fled when foreign invaders swept over their land. Sometime later, they were joined by the Khiljis, who faced a similar fate as a result of being displaced by the Afghans in the West. It was only in 1757 that under a treaty, the now ceded land got reclaimed for agriculture by the Robert Clive led English East India Company.
Our Sunderban trip was a journey across two nations but one habitat. It was of train rides, sails, breathing roots, alluvial soil and saline water. But what stood out in this wonderful sojourn was a little walk that took us from one country to another, not forgetting the crocodiles and the tigers of course!
We first decided to visit the Indian Sunderbans before moving towards its distant cousin, Bangladesh. On an overcast morning, a buzzing Sealdah Railway Station greeted us with people in hundreds or thousands perhaps. It was in this 140 year old, busy railway station that we would be hopping on to the much crowded, Sealdah-Canning local that would take us to the port city of Canning in Southern Bengal. A hotbed of fishing, Canning (named after a Governor General of India) is from where most of the supply of fish to Kolkata happens. The locals told us of stories that spoke of Lord Canning’s unfulfilled dreams of making a port as big as that of Kolkata and Singapore; unfulfilled because of the drying up of the Malda River. It was from Canning and via Godhkali that we arrived at Sunderbans after a ferry travel that lasted us nearly three hours. It was much pleasing to know that the comforts of a Forest Lodge awaited us.
All over the world, mangrove forests are known by different names. Some are called ‘mangals’ while others are referred to as just tidal forests. But, what’s interesting here is that very often than not, these forests are confused as manmade or are quite funnily linked with mangoes. Beyond the debate revolving around its Spanish vis-à-vis Portuguese etymologies – mangroves evolved 114 million years ago with the Indo-Malaysian belt acting as its cradle. And from there, seeds were borne by wind and sea, leading to its spread to India, Africa and certain parts of America as well. So, what the Florida mangroves mean to an American, the Sunderbans mean pretty much the same to an Indian or a Bangaldeshi.
A little away from the centre of the forest was the tourist lodge where we stayed. It was equipped with all basic amenities and built on the lines of a wooden cottage. There was a verandah on the first floor which became quite an attractive spot to put our feet up and sip a hot beverage; that too in a jungle setting, with the noise of crickets in the background and chirrups of birds echoing through, just like the wind gushing past tree leaves. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some monkeys who were not as amazed to see us as we were to see them.
Any tourist wishing to move around the forest is required to first take a permit from the local authorities. We weren’t any different, so after finishing the formalities, we quickly got set to begin with our boat ride that would take us around, gently sailing through the narrow rivulets that resembled nothing less than a nerve system in that ecological setting. And what we saw wasn’t short of the extraordinary – there were large crocodiles submerged in the grey alluvial silt & almost impossible to spot. It was only when the boatman pointed it out that we exalted in joy on spotting one of the more popular species in that area. Our lookout was for tigers and tigers all along, but sadly enough, we weren’t as lucky and had to do with capturing photographs of hundreds of exotic birds, some whose names only Google could tell us later on as Open Billed Storks, Black-headed Ibis, Water Hens, Spotted Doves, Common Mynahs, Seagulls and three distinct variants of the Kingfisher species.
That night we spent at our lodge, enthralled by cultural performances. The following day, we took bicycle rides across the village and witnessed the hubbub of the village markets. Vendors lined up in rows to sell vegetables that varied from potatoes to chilies. Fish, which again is a staple diet of the people in that side of the country found a prominent place amongst the items sold. In addition to that, we were told that during the winters, date-palm jaggery found its way to a number of buyers both from inside and the outside, due to its sheer uniqueness associated with that particular region.
Over to Bangladesh…
The much famed India-Bangladesh border, better known as the Petrapole-Benapole checkpoint stood right in front of us as we hurried our way through all the immigration requirements in order to travel from one country to another. Once that was done, came the feeling of a lifetime…we simply took a few steps, in bated breath nonetheless, those few steps took us from one side of the border to the order and voila, we were in Bangladesh!
It was amusing to know that after all the effort and built up excitement, there was a ‘strike’ or a ‘bandh’ in Bangladesh. Thanks to that we had no regular means of transport at our disposal and after much cajoling did we get a ride to the nearest station, the Benapole Railway Station. A train from there took us to Khulna. From Khulna, an array of transport networks which included a ferry ride and a bumpy bus journey took us to Mongla, where we crashed in at a rest-house run by the Tourism Ministry of Bangladesh.
Arrival at Bangladesh’s Sunderbans was via a ferry from Mongla, a major sea port connecting Bangladesh’s trade with other parts of the world. This time around, the forests greeted us with a difference. The usual permits aside, we were allotted an armed guard who would be shadowing us throughout our trip around the forest. It was done in a bid to keep tigers at bay, more specifically there were rumours of some of them being man-eaters. Thrill was in the air, excitement was up and running, after much disappointment in the Indian-side – we would finally be getting to see a real Royal Bengal Tiger.
The tigers, we got to know, depended a lot on fishes and crabs for their food. However, scarcity of fresh water and absence of a large enough prey made things difficult for them. We were also told that they are small in size compared to a normal tiger and are master swimmers who spend most of their time exploring food. Scarcity of food and difficult terrain are the only reasons, which force them to kill humans. But mainly forest intruders like the honey, fish and crab collectors become prime victims.
Eventually, all we got to see were tiger pug marks throughout the river-bed. It seemed that the mammals were just too shy to make an appearance in daylight, but one thing we were assured of – tigers did exist and so did the chance of spotting one. There were a lot of commonalities between Bangladesh and India. The commonalities ranged from history, geography and society but politically, two major symbols of both the countries were common: one being the composer of their National anthems, Rabindranath Tagore and the other being their National animal, the Bengal Tiger. There’s been a lot of hue and cry over the depleting numbers of this magnificent race and efforts have been undertaken in full throttle to ensure that the Bengal tiger continues to walk this planet. The Indian Government undertook ‘Project Tiger’ in 1972 to combat the growing reach of poachers and came up with Tiger-Protection-Force. On the other hand, the Wild Team has been working with the forest officials of Bangladesh and has been successful in reducing the number of human-tiger conflicts that take place in the Sunderbans in Bangladesh. Their work has included setting up of Village Response Teams that are trained to save stray Tigers. And seeing all of that, one can surely be a little optimistic about the future of the Bengal tiger in the Indian subcontinent.
We took tiny motor-boats that sped us through the narrow river-ways within the forest area. We occasionally got off and walked on the riverbed, tripped on the breathing roots of the mangrove trees and got amazed at our discovery. Another fascinating facet of our journey was finding out about a chief source of income of the people there – palm leaves. Palm leaves were found deep inside the forest periphery and it was usually men folk who entered to collect them. These leaves had multiple uses but most importantly they were used in thatching the rooftops of houses and hence, had a major demand in the market. The earnings of that industry are so huge that there are often reports of palm-leaf collectors being kidnapped in return for hefty ransom amounts by the local mafia.
Our last day was spent in visiting the fisherman colony of Sunderbans and enjoying barbeque by the side of the river. The Sunderban forest was an important breeding ground for shrimp, crab and finfish. And over two hundred different species of fish were harvested by fisherman in large numbers. In doing so, they usually used small motorized or at times manual fishing boats. Speaking to the fishermen there gave us a good idea about all that was required to ensure a good catch. There were gillnets, cast nets, angling rods, fine meshed nets and set magnets – all of which we were shown and ably explained to us.
The Sunderbans are pivotal to Bangladesh’s fight against climate change. With recent onslaughts received at the hands of Cyclone Sidr and Cyclone Aila, a lot of investment has to go into developing the ecosystem in order to withstand natural calamities in the near future. But, our Sunderbans experience was thoroughly satisfying. Although we didn’t get to see tigers, we got to see crocodiles, exotic birds and thousands of different species of flora. The similarity of the two bordering nations and the experience, the sights and sounds would last in our senses for quite some time to come… Join us on our next Sunderbans trip!