Located between India and Bangladesh, the 10000 sq. kilometers area known as Sundarban is the site of the confluence of the great rivers Ganges and the Brahmaputra emptying into the Bay of Bengal and has evolved over the millennia through natural deposition of upstream sediments accompanied by intertidal segregation.
Though sketchy, a survey of the region began in 1761. In 1861, Hugh Morrison of His Majesty’s government conducted a proper survey. In his report, he writes: Great difficulties arise in carrying on…the immense extent of jungle, the habitation of tigers and other beasts of prey, prevent landing on almost every part of this extensive tract. The variety of tides, currents and counter-currents, flowing from a hundred different channels, will in some measure explain the intricacy of keeping an exact log on board the vessel.
A fierce thunderstorm struck the region on 25 May, 2009, causing devastation in the region. The mangroves withstood the fierce onslaught of the storms and saved the city of Kolkata from its impact. Nature, due to lack of oxygen in the soil, has devised pneumatophores for the mangroves to breathe, with the widespread roots emerging from the ground like thousands of rhino horns or pine needles. The fresh waters from glacial rivers meet the ocean, bringing with it thousands of tons of silt from the hills every day. These agglomerate into islands around which the canals are formed. The high and low tides change the water level by almost twenty feet every six hours or so. The currents and under-currents are so strong that efforts to build concrete banks have been thwarted repeatedly.
My special attachment to Sundarban began three decades ago when I went there for photography and to check the prevailing medical facilities with a few doctor friends. The living conditions of the people there were appalling and I went back several times to assist in my small way. Later in 2006, as a keen wild life photographer, I published my first coffee table book of the region with the title: ‘Silhouettes of Sundarban’.
On my first trip, sometime in the early 80s, I drove to Canning, a distance of 70 Kms. from Kolkata, from where I boarded a boat, accompanied by a friend. The British had developed Canning as an alternative port to Hooghly port at Kolkata, as the latter was prone to silt up. In fact even Canning silted up and during ebb tide one could walk across the river at Canning port. Boats now can navigate only during high tide restricting the use of the river at this port. As we sailed, the topography was changing rapidly, with mangroves appearing all around, the eerie silence only breached by the tearing winds over the sheets of water. Today, one can travel by road from Kolkata to Sonakhali to board the boats anytime of the day.
Soon we touched Sonakhali. The boat moored at Gosaba for a while and I went to see Hamilton’s bungalow. Daniel Hamilton, a businessman negotiated with the British in 1903 and bought three islands, where he built bunds, employing labourers from adjoining states and ran a business in the timber trade.
We continued our journey and reached Sajnekhali, registered our arrival and crossed the river to stay at a small motel at Pakhiralay. The road was dotted with a few shops lighted by lanterns. All the shops closed before 8pm and as the lights went off, I could see millions of stars twinkling in a clear sky, a sight, that as a dweller in a polluted city, I would never forget.
The next day we left early, and took on board an armed guard and a guide, as per regulations. Our route was approved as the boat with a small diesel engine spluttered to life. The engine was a common water drawing pump type and the controls were slender ropes that reached the pilot on the upper deck. There were two cooks on board, an oarsman and an assistant. Though it was early in the day, there were many women and a few girls collecting shrimp seedlings in the river. A few men were casting nets to catch fish. I talked to a girl in a forlorn place, who had to forego schooling to help collecting shrimp seeds that were sold to the traders. This girl and many like her tread in the crocodile infested waters everyday earning ten rupees a day. My heart felt heavy as we moved on.
At another lonesome spot, in the core area, where fishing boats were barred entry, a small rowboat was in sight. The boatman was a local and braved tiger attacks with the talisman around his neck, which he proudly claimed to have bought for a princely sum of seven thousand rupees. “Usually it is five to keep the tigers at bay, the extra two is to divert the attention of the police boats, which are on the vigil,” he claimed, adding that the ojhas, (spiritual men) even provide loans on easy repayment instalments. I pitied their innocence.
The pugmarks of the tigers, sometimes with their cubs were seen in many places. I could find a healthy habitat of spotted deer with abundant supply of a kind of grass they fed on. More than the sighting of tigers, the eerie silence evoked a lurking fear that from somewhere behind the trees, the big cat could be currently watching us and would be able to take a plunge at us. The numbers of tigers have greatly reduced due to recurring man versus animal conflicts. The highest concentration of wild tigers in the world is at Sundarban and is estimated at seven hundred. The Indian area could have about 300 tigers.
My first encounter with a tiger was in one of the core areas. The screeching of the monkeys and the chirping of the birds reached a crescendo, the deer bleated in fright. The pilot of my boat, an old and experienced hand shut the engine off, as we sat motionless, keeping our fingers crossed. The bush moved, but it was a false alarm. The boatman signalled for silence. Then the majestic form appeared; it could have been full eight feet in length; it had just killed a deer, which it effortlessly dragged by its neck. It is a sight I will never forget in my life. Calmly it laid the limp body down and rested for a while, before tearing and devouring the warm meat leisurely. The deer herd now resumed their grazing, not too far from a now unconcerned and satiated tiger. I sighted tigers, sometimes in pairs too, a few times thereafter and the thrill remained during every sighting. I learned a great deal about animal behaviour.
Crocodiles are another menace and not spoken or written about as much as tigers are. They come stealthily, grab and sink with their prey to the deep waters. Many village wives have lost their spouses to crocodiles in the treacherous waters. The island is rich in flora and fauna and is home to about 102 persons. The main legal vocation of the people is collecting honey, which is seasonal. Illegally, though, many indulge in the felling of trees and fishing, often collecting crabs or turtles.
The government of West Bengal has embarked on better road connectivity to the region, which could have a positive bearing on the lives of the 4 lac people settled there, but could play havoc with the environment. A few islands have already vanished into the sea and a large part of Sundarban with its four lakhs plus population and its rich flora and fauna could also be forever consigned to history books if we do not care to preserve our environment.
Our boat headed back, towards the hustle and bustle of Kolkata, leaving behind many mysteries of the Wondrous Land unrevealed.
The author is a social worker, poet, writer and photographer and has published three coffee table books, including one on Sundarban. His debut novel, Frozen Waves too is centred on Sundarban. He was knighted by the Italian government in 2006.