Launched into Sundarbans

 

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I am excited. I am ready before the appointed time of 8 am, and, in fact, we leave 10 minutes before from The Astor Hotel in downtown Kolkata for Sundarbans. It’s about 100 km drive. The traffic has not thickened as yet. We pass through Kolkata central, Kolkata suburbs, and are soon driving in the interior of Bengal towards south-east and pass through congested towns of Baruipur and Canning. At places, it is single lane road!

In about two and a half hour, we are at Godkhali, our destination by road. The name gave me a little shock for ‘khali’ in Hindi, as many of you know, means empty. If God is Khali, who will fulfil the greed of ever demanding man. Anyway, here onward, all travel is going to be by motor boat (launch) only. A forester friend has taken care of all the logistics – I have to be just there to relax, eat, enjoy the luxury and admire the wonder. The boat supervisor and his assistant have come to escort me from the car. It is a small walk to jetty. I stand at the head of stair leading to jetty and eye the scene. I can see, the white beauty, Bharat Laxmi, parked at the end of jetty stair. I am elated to board the boat. I envy myself to be able to make it to the unique landscape.

The driver and cook also welcome me, and here we go.  There are score of boats and several jetties around, and lot of movement of man and material. One of the towns in the region, Gosaba, is just across – people are connected to mainland by boat only. It is a question of getting used to it, since it is few minutes ride across. I see a boat carrying three motor bikes along with people. The bikers continue wearing the helmets as if not to waste even a second in speeding away when they land.

For those who may not know, Sundarbans is the largest delta (10,200 sq km) in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. Sundarban Tiger Reserve is part of the delta. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and inhabited or forested islands.

I inspect the boat a little closer since this is going to be my companion for two days. I can see, from ‘bow’ about 7-8 feet space is open with rope bundles lying for tying the boat at jetty and rope hold on either side. There is flight of 8-10 steps to go to lower deck while two steps on its either sides take one to upper deck. The upper deck, has a driver cabin which can, besides the driver seat two more persons, in front of the cabin is a foot raised platform about 5 feet by 6 feet for people to sit or lie down on. The passage on either side has a chair placed. If need be, many more chairs can be placed. Behind the driver cabin is room with a large bed for staff to rest. Behind the room, till the tail, there is about 25 feet long open space with drums of fuel and fresh water, anchor and several of other miscellaneous stuff, and stair to go down to lower deck from the back. Lower deck houses two small bed rooms, two toilets and a dining hall. The section behind is partitioned off, comprises of boat engine and kitchen. The supervisor tells me, “The boat is 59 feet long. Of the boat’s height, four feet remains under water.”

I have the whole boat to myself. Tea is served. I stretch on the platform and enjoy the ever changing and passing by scenes.

We are cruising in the Bidhya River. The channel is quite wide. I can see many ships carrying merchandise to Bangladesh from Kolkata. It looks like a train of ships. This is an important trade route.

Also, the area is inhabited with several villages on both banks of the river. Sundarbans is a tidal delta. Presently, I feel that the water level seems to be rising. I check the tide times on net. Yes, this is high tide time and going to peak around 4.30 in the afternoon. Nevertheless, the boat is steadily cruising. The driver tells me, “The speed is, generally, 10 to 12 km per hour.”

The sky is overcast and all uniformly grey. In bigger channel e.g. the confluence of the Bidhya and the Malta rivers, where the channel is more than a kilometre wide, the view is somewhat monotonous – the grey sky almost merges with the grey water surface and the forest appears as dark, thin dividing line on both sides.

The cook announces lunch. I move to the dining hall. Wow! The spread covers the whole table –soupy daal, fried cottage-cheese and potato curry, okra curry, curd, papad, potato shreds deep fried, green salad, steamed rice and sweet rosogulla! It counts perfect 10!! And it’s all so tasty that I do not feel like ending. This is a luxury on water. Yes, I know, there are many, more luxurious, cruises catering to throng of tourists, but this is a different ball game. We are boating through a tiger reserve!

Soon, we leave the habitation behind and it is forest all around. I cannot peak deep inside but as we pass narrow channels or closer to the banks of islands, the vegetation is conspicuously different from inland forests I generally get to see.

This is all estuarine system of tidal swamp forest, largely comprising mangroves. These mangroves tolerate daily inundation of salty sea water in high tide! There are numerous uniqueness of the forest. I can count few, which I am just watching. One, the forest is refreshingly shiny green or yellowish green. No dust. Two, here and there are dashes of yellow or red leave canopies breaking the scene. Drying leaves. Three, these are low height vegetation, none of the lofty trees we see in inland forests. Loose soil cannot support lofty trees. Four, there is not even an inch of dry ground to be seen. Inter-tidal zone. Five, it is all alluvial soil. Six, nowhere any rock can be seen. Slit being brought in by rivers all the time. Seven, the vegetation is very dense. Eight, because of the forest falling in tidal delta, plants have evolved unique survival mechanism – some species are standing on stilts, others have pencil thin or dragon like thick aerial roots  (breathing roots called pneumatophores bearing lenticels for gaseous exchange)…

I can recognise Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) and Mangrove Date Palm (Phoenix paludosa) though there are many more species present in this highly productive ecosystem.

Among the trees, one that stands out is Sundari. I do see one closely at the interpretation centre. I notice, the trunk develops buttresses and is grey with vertically fissured bark. The tree is in flowering. The pinkish bell-shaped small flowers form panicles. The canopy is conspicuous with drying bright yellow leaves ready to fall.

Sundarbans delta forest is apparently named after Sundari tree. I am told that in good old days, Sundari used to the dominant species here. I go by this idea, though there is also a thought that Sundarban is combination of Sundar (beautiful) and ban (forest).

Towards, late afternoon, the sun shows up. Forest brightens up. Monotonous grey is converted to varying hues. Sky and water liven up. We are passing through narrower channels and several smaller rivers. By and by, it is nightfall. We are going on and on. I am slightly worried. How is the guy driving? He has not even switched on the boat light! Probably, the sky light is guiding the course. Soon I realise, it’s foolish of me to worry. These people know the delta like the back of their hands. Though it’s manual driving but virtually auto-piloted with digitisation in their minds and hands. Without any doubt, they drop me safely to my night halt destination – Sajnekhali Resort.

 

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Post Script

Sundarbans is the largest delta in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. This delta consists of 10,200 sq km of mangrove forests spread over India (4,200 sq km) and Bangladesh (6,000 sq km). The Indian Sundarban region consists of 4,200 sq km of Reserved Forests along with 5,400 sq km of non-forest area i.e. a total of 9600 sq km. Of this, Sundarban Tiger Reserve is spread over 2585 sq km. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and islands which total 102 in number. Of these, 54 islands are inhabited and the rest 48 islands are forested. Sundarban tidal delta experiences ‘the average tidal amplitude of 2.15 metre (maximum 5.68 m and minimum 0.96 m)’. There are host of wild animals found here among which, tiger tops the list.

There are 100s of species of plants in Sundarbans. Some of the important species are Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Dhungul or Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza), Gewa (Excoecaria agallocha), Goran ( Ceriops decandra) and Keora (Sonneratia apetala); palms Poresia coaractataMyriostachya wightiana and Nypa fruiticans (Golpata); and grasses spear grass (Imperata cylindrica) and Khagra (Phragmites karka).

 

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Ladvi – Fit for Hermit’s Abode

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It is night when we enter the Ladvi FRH. There are two suits on the first floor. The room is big. Chowkidar and others quickly do bit of dusting – re-spread the bed sheet and arrange blanket and pillows. I open the door at the other end. Oh! There is huge balcony. I prefer to spend time out. Staff lay a sofa, half a dozen chairs and a table here. Soon they are done. I take only five minutes to change and fix a drink and come out to balcony and incline on the sofa.

I am in another world. The moon is 3-day waned and the chandni is spread across the scene, lighting it softly. The Narmada, is inconspicuously flowing in front of me – almost running parallel, half a km spread of greenish water sheet, slightly simmering under the moonlight.  The scene sends a cool wave through my spine and now my mind understand, and I whisper  ‘Ma Narmaday’ i.e. mother Narmada. There is no artificial light. There is no human being. There is no noise. There is no disturbance. There is nothing in-between me and nature.  I envy my own luck. What an opportunity because of my forester friend, Anil Nagar. I mentally thank him.

A bamboo grove on the left side and few scattered trees on the right and open scrub in front without any construction make the rest house, a prefect site for meditation. I am virtually sensing spirituality in the air and surrounding.

In the night, the nature is over enveloping.  I am overwhelmed. I love to forget everything and be light and fresh. Moon’s soft light, indeed, always fills my heart with joy and love. If fact, I have named my daughter, Chandni. And yes, the presence of a water-body in forest makes the scene complete. I can hear a nightjar in the back ground. There are insects, moths…. around. Many of them are already resting in my bed.  I have to close the door of the room. I am sure there must be minor mammals, amphibians, reptiles active down there – busy in nitty-gritty.

I have been at Ladvi during the day. Incidentally, rather in fact, Ladvi is an important nursery of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, spread across about ten acres of forest land. There are nursery beds spread to wherever the eyes go. Staff is busy in all kind of nursery activities. The water sprinklers are spraying water across to one and all plants. Oh, one malfunctioning sprinkler sprays some water on me as well. As an impulse reaction, I step back.

I can see there are beds with old plants, may be two-three old. There are beds with sand filled polythene bags, recently seeded, and saplings just emerging in most of them. There are few beds holding one-year old plants, left over of this year’s distribution.  I bed particularly attracts me. It has saplings of Baobab (Adansonia spp.), the famous inverted tree of Africa. The forester in-charge of the nursery informs me, “This monsoon about 4.5 lakh, largely teak and other forest tree species, and some fruit bearing plants have been sent to forest divisions around. 10,000 plants have gone to a village panchayat.” While going around, we pass through a bamboo grove – the massive plants on both sides of a narrow jeep-able path, have formed a beautiful tunnel.

And then, when we emerge in the open, I am unable to believe that we are just 200 m from the bank of a river, the mighty and revered Narmada. I feel like running to touch the sacred water. I do not run but I do touch the water!

Incidentally, Ladvi falls between two sacred temple towns cum Narmada Ghats – Mandleshwar and Maheshwar. These are thronged by lakhs of pilgrims and tourists.  Here at Ladvi, it is our own Ghat, a rare privilege. I do go to Maheshwar in the afternoon. The boat ride exposed the dirt and garbage on the Ghat.  From the middle of the river, I can see, Gods or Goddesses live there in majestic and massive temples. At Ladvi there is no garbage on the Ghat and the Gods are everywhere – a perfect place for hermit’s abode.

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Everest, Antarctica & all that

I have to fly to Indore from Delhi but I am caught in traffic jam to airport even though it’s not peak hour. Delhi’s traffic is unpredictable. I spend quite a few anxious moments. I do say a prayer. Thank god, I am just in time to rush through the process and be among the last to board.

Slightly stressed, I decide to take a short nap. I have a window seat – first row, first seat! It’s too bright outside. I pull down the window shade and soon I am out.

My forester friend, Shashi Malik is with me. As soon as I wake up, he suggests ‘Pull the window shade up.’ I am slightly hesitant. It appears from the corners of the shade that it is quite bright outside. But I oblige. Bright it is but the scene is really interesting. I sit up and notice.

We are flying over a solid white formation of clouds – Quite attractive. I generally do not take photos in plane but here this is compelling.

I have seen many friends commonly posting photos from plane which look like screen shots of Google Earth Satellite maps. Yes, I have seen some photos of clouds also posted.

These days I am flying at least once every month, but hardly take photos. Several times, even if there is good opportunity, delay in pulling out the camera results in the scene passing by! This time it is different. I pull out my new phone and start shooting right away.

Nature is wonderful.  The very first thought is ‘I am on cloud9.’

There is solid white uneven layer of clouds. Is it surface of Moon? Not really.

Bright sun lends snow white texture to the layer. Is it snow? Not really.

There is massive mountain rising out of the layer. Is it Everest? Not really.

And lo, there is a formation as if a river flowing on flat land meets a circular fall? Is it a frozen fall? Not really.

In India, traditionally cotton is spun manually. Raw cotton is filled in a room and massive bow is hung from ceiling and expert spinner works on this. The whole room is all white with balls of cotton which break up into fine cotton with flakes flying all over. Now, we see a layer of cotton spun by nature. Is it cotton? Not really.

Then, there are thin fluffy light clouds flying over the solid white layer which looks like ground? Are we flying only few hundred feet above the ground? Not really.

Clouds are shaped like tips of icebergs in the whitish blue sky. Have we arrived at Antarctica? Not really.

OMG! Looks like clouds are imitating the Hydrogen Bomb testing scene. Are we watching a photo released by North Korea? Not really.

Soon we are descending. There is fast and drastic change in scene. Nearer ground all the cloud formations and Sun is gone. Suddenly we are engulfed in thick fog. It sends a chill down the spine. It feels cold. We are supposed to be insulated from outside weather. Has somebody opened a window of the plane? Not really.

What a transformation as we land – It’s all grey, No sun, no cloud… It’s raining – indeed, that is what the clouds are about.

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