Sweet, Sour and Salty Sundarbans

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We set sail in Sundarbans from Godkhali around 10.15 in the morning. Sky is overcast and uniformly grey. It’s warm and humid. On the boat it is me and four staff members – boat supervisor, driver, cook and an assistant. I change to comfortable basic – vest, short and slippers and take it easy.  Around 1 pm the cook announces lunch. The spread covers the whole table in dining room in lower deck. Slight sweet touch is added to all the curries and vegetables. Of course, there are hard core sweets – famous Bengali Misti Dahi and Rosogulla also. We have been sailing smoothly for about four hours. I am slightly sleepy with heavy meal. But I wake up when I notice the boat is heading towards a camp. One more departmental boat is parked here, probably for foresters to petrol the area. I look through a binocular. Sign board reads Netidhopani Camp.

First thing I see at the entrance of the camp is a temple. It carries idols of Bon Bibi and Dakhin Ray. It has been built by the Forest Department. This is a paradox since temples are difficult issue in wildlife management across the country.  Anywhere you go, Ranthambhore, Sariska, Kanha, Pench, Gir, Kalakad, Periyar…, there are old temples in the forests to which over the years, with increase in population, visitors and pilgrims have increased drastically, running into lakhs. People create disturbance in the whole forest – vehicles, camps, trample across and litter. These occasions provide opportunity to criminals to make hay while sun shines i.e. timber theft and animal poaching.

Local people in Sundarbans have great faith in goddess, Bon Bibi, who is worshipped as savoir and Dakhin Ray, who is worshipped as the tiger god. Local people dependent on forest e.g. baulis (wood cutters), maulis (honey collectors) and fishermen do not enter forest without praying to them. One of the reasons is persistent tiger-man conflict.

Sundarbans is known for honey. Come April-May, the honey season, local honey collectors, the ‘Maulis’ are all set to take plunge. Honey is reported to be extracted from forested and inhabited islands of Sundarbans to be tune of tens of tonnes! But honey is also cause of death of many collectors who illegally enter the forest and tiger poaches few of them, now and again. Man and animal are both stressed for resource – local are stressed for livelihood and tiger is stressed for prey. In fact, to avoid man-animal encounter, the forest sides surrounding the fringe villages have been fenced using nylon nets.

In Sundarbans, the forest department has fallen back on goddesses and gods to have respite from man-eating tigers. I ask the camp in-charge to open the temple gate and I pray as I too have put my foot on tiger land. I do not feel any threat, rather pray to have an encounter with tiger (of course, from safe distance and safe ground).

As I walk around the camp, local myth and mythology is explained on several boards. Sundarbans gets the highest national importance as a protected area. It’s a national park as well as tiger reserve. It’s  global importance is depicted here in displays e.g.  signage on Man & Biosphere Reserve declaration, and monument for Park’s status as a World Heritage Site (as recognised by UNSECO). There are few animals e.g. tiger chasing spotted deer;  fishing cat with prey; etc have been depicted in action to create excitement for visitors, though artificial. Real action is difficult to see in thick mangrove forest.

Sundarbans management has taken a major conservation initiative to revive the population of the northern river terrapin, Batagur baska. This ‘is a large critically endangered river turtle that previously occupied most rivers and estuaries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar)’. I see a fresh water tank dedicated to the species to breed.

Now, the best part of the camp – the watch tower. I have been watching the mangrove edge along the river channels for last four hours. It is for the first time, I get to see forest from top. Swampy soil is expected. The forest is thick and green. The tree line is uneven.

I am pleasantly surprised to see a group of five Lesser Adjutant Storks – guard and boat assistant with me shout together – madantak, madantak. It’s after long time I have seen this huge bird. They are huddled together at one spot in a clearing. They appear to be taking afternoon nap. Wonderful. I see one Brahminy Kite – a really colourful bird. The bright rust and pure white make it real conspicuous. I do hear a kingfisher and see a drongo. I later notice in the photo another Brahminy kite in the tree, maybe, it has been a pair.

Fresh water is hard to come by in Sundarbans. A tank has been developed which captures rain water just outside the fenced camp area. It is fully viewable from the tower. This is a temptation which I suppose no animal would resist. Willy-nilly, the animals in the area must be visiting the tank. Forest Guard, who is camp in-charge also, tells me spotted deer, wild boar, water monitor lizard are occasionally seen at the tank.

I notice tiger sightings by staff have been jotted down on a white board. I can see five of the six recorded sightings are from the tower and one is actually at the fresh water pond, mentioned as ‘sweet water pond’. So sweet.

 

Pushp Jain

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.

 

Pushp

 

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).