A drive lesser than 100 kilometres from Kolkata and we step on the world’s largest Mangrove Forest, Sundarbans. It is a matter of 3-3.5 hours’ drive. The Sundarbans mangrove forest covers an area of about 10,000 km2 out of which a little more than 4,000 km2 is in India. The remaining 6,000 km2 is in Bangladesh. The Indian part is in the North and South 24 Pargana Districts of the State of West Bengal. Four protected areas in the Sundarbans are enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are Sundarbans National Park, Sundarbans West, Sundarbans South and Sundarbans East Wildlife Sanctuaries.
The Essence of Sundarbans
Last weekend I made a day trip to Sundarbans. Tourists can even spend nights at guest houses or homestays and also in houseboats or on the tour boats only. However, we can easily make a good day trip and come back at night to the warmth and comfort of our sweet home. It was an absolutely unique experience. Sundarbans is a delta with mangroves formed by the confluence of three rivers – Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna in the Bay of Bengal. It comprises of closed and open mangrove forests mostly comprising of Sundari trees (Heritiera fomes).
There are some land used for agricultural purpose, mudflats and barren land, and is intersected by multiple tidal streams and channels. The dense forests of Sundarbans are famous for the Royal Bengal Tiger. Well, besides Bengal Tigers, there are dreadful crocodiles too. It is habitat to a variety of animals, mammals, reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians.
Sundarbans is also famous for honey. Honey and bee wax collecting, wood collecting, fishing, crustacean and mollusc collecting and a bit of one-crop farming are what make the livelihood of the people of Sundarbans. They have a difficult life, fighting with odds every day. Day in and out they face tigers or crocodiles. They fight the lack of clean drinking water. The cyclones make it even worse for them. Despite government aids and protections, the Indian Sundarbans were considered endangered in a 2020 assessment under the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems framework.
Let me now tell you about the itinerary and how we spent the whole day.
We left from Jadavpur, Kolkata, at 6 am. It is better to leave Kolkata as early as possible. 5.30-6 am is the ideal time. We were a group of 18 adults and had booked a 26 seater ‘Tempo Traveller’. We reached Jharkhali via Canning at 9.45 am. From the parking, the Jharkhali Jetty is a kilometre’s walk. We had pre-booked our boat from Kolkata itself and from 10.30 am to 5 pm we were on board. The boat had two storeys – the deck to sit and observe the forest around and the lower level to accommodate some beds and restrooms for boarders.
We had breakfast, sumptuous lunch, snacks and evening tea on board. At 5.45 pm we started homewards and reached Jadavpur, Kolkata, by 9 pm. The total cost was below Rs. 30000 where the vehicle charged almost Rs.8000. The remaining was spent on boat and food. It is ideal to go in a group to the Sundarbans.
The Exotic Flora and Fauna at Sundarbans
I had visited numerous forests before but the experience of the mangroves was mind-blowing. The whole day we were on board. There was water all around. We traded those parts of the river which were extremely wide and at the same time, we went into narrow creeks too. Narrower creeks provide a better chance of an animal sighting. We were lucky to have seen wild boars, numerous spotted deer, porcupines, viper snake, Gangetic dolphins, water monitor lizards and red crabs that made the muddy bank look red. On the muddy shores, we also had a glimpse of the deadly crocodiles, lazing and sunbathing on the muddy shores.
We could spot several birds which we don’t find in our city life. The herons, swamp francolin, three to four types of kingfisher, varieties of ducks and cranes and different kinds of kites and eagles were visible. Probability of a tiger sighting is low in Sundarbans compared to other forests in India. We too didn’t have the chance. Now, I am not sure if we can call ourselves fortunate or unfortunate as the Royal Bengal Tigers are the most ferocious and unpredictable breed of tigers. Animal sighting is possible if one remains silent, alert and observant. Music onboard is prohibited and maintaining silence is a must. Also, be careful not to throw litter into the river.
We were taken to an island, Dobanki Camp of Sundarban Tiger Reserve. There was a watchtower too. From the watchtower and the array of pathways which are alleviated from the ground, we could see the vast extent of the forest. The watchtowers of Sajnekhali and Sudhanyakhali are two top attractions of the safari. Sajnekhali has a bird sanctuary too. There are a few wild animals Park maintained by the Government of West Bengal for breeding, medication and keeping rescued animals from the forests. There are a few more watchtowers and islands which can be visited if time permits. Pakhiralaya is a tiny village developed for eco-tourism. It is great for night stay.
Regarding the food on board, we had prefixed the menu. We were more interested in having fish and crustaceans as they are easily available there compared to that in Kolkata. One can customize accordingly. Bengali home cooked style food is available.
A Unique Experience
It was a different day, a day well spent, the whole day spent on waters. Besides wildlife, it was a wilderness that we soaked into. The wide river, the breathing roots, the Sundari trees, an animal, bird or a reptile, here and there, conjured the magic. Watching the sun go down from the deck was pure bliss.
At some turns, through the creeks, we watched red-bordered white sarees tied to trees. We didn’t know what that signified. We found out from the boatman that a saree is tied to a Sundari tree for a person who has been killed by a tiger in the name of Bono Bibi, the goddess of the mangroves. Something crumbled inside the heart. Every day that passes in a villager’s life is a day that has been lived. This is their struggle. We boarded our bus after paying our homage to Bono Bibi, who is believed to be the goddess who protects the villagers from the deadly big cats. Bono Bibi is beyond religion, for in the mangroves of Bengal survival strategy is of utmost priority and beyond most other things.
A versatile writer and travel freak, discovering the world in her own casual way. Loves to immerse into the core of Mother Nature and extract her inherent beauty.