An ode to the Sundarbans
Sunderbans – one of the most mystic lands of mangrove forests where man and tiger co-exist! Located at the south-eastern tip of Bengal, the place derived its name from one of the mangrove plants – Sundari. This largest delta area is formed by the three rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. The entire region is crisscrossed by numerous creeks and tributaries. You can visit the Sundarbans both from India and Bangladesh side, the area in India side alone covering 4264 square kilometers. Sunderbans is also known to be the home of the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger; in fact, it is one of the largest national parks in India. Every year, hundreds of travelers come here to witness the Royal Bengal Tiger in the wilderness. However, you need to know that Sunderbans is not just about tigers. In fact, you need a lot of luck, if you wish to spot one! Sunderbans is one of the four biodiversity hotspots in India and home to many endemic species too.
Up close and personal with Sunderbans
Although I grew up in Kolkata, I never had the opportunity to visit this river-riddled swamp region which is just 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Kolkata until recently. After much contemplation, we finally planned a trip in December 2019. And what a trip it was!
We set off for the journey one wintery morning from Kolkata. We took a bus ride to a place called Gadkhali via the Basanti Highway. It is a good three hours ride, so you can catch up on some sleep, chat with your fellow travelers, or listen to some music. The ride may also get a bit bumpy at times, so be prepared!
Sunderban has over a hundred islands, but only half of them are inhabited by humans. The only means of communication in Sunderbans is a country boat or a steamer. You can travel by train (from Sealdah station to Canning) or take a bus/taxi ride till Gadkhali jetty. Upon reaching Gadkhali, you need to hop on to a boat or steamer to reach any of the islands. The Government of West Bengal operates two vessels – M.V. Sarbojaya and M.V. Chitrarekha. They have the facility to stay in the vessels during the entire two days trip. Alternatively, you can opt to stay in one of the local villages to witness closely the livelihood of the locales of Sunderbans. The warmth and the hospitality of the locales, the delicious local cuisine, and the numerous folk tales you will get to hear from the villagers will definitely make your trip worth.
We decided to stay in one such eco-village called Sukumari village on Satjelia Island. This is one of the largest islands of Sunderbans after Gosaba and Sajnekhali. Both these islands have plenty of tourist lodges and hotels where you can stay, but these islands also get a lot of footfalls during the peak season. So, if you want to avoid the peak time crowd, I would recommend a stay at Satjelia.
The biodiversity of Sunderbans
As I already mentioned, Sunderban is one of the biodiversity hotspots in India. It is the home to the world’s largest mangrove forest that has a unique ecosystem. There are over 425 species of wildlife including 300 species of birds and 42 species of mammals – the Royal Bengal tiger being one of them. Sunderbans was also declared as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1997.
Unfortunately, this region faces adverse natural calamity frequently like the rising tides and cyclones (traces of the cyclone Bulbul and Aila can still be seen all over the islands) along with unsustainable human activities like poaching, cutting down the mangroves for livelihood, that have put this biodiversity under threat. However, the government and the locals are trying to balance biodiversity by taking up various measures. As a traveler, you will be requested to not dispose of any plastic wrappers or water bottles anywhere in Sunderbans. So, ensure you carry your own water bottles that you can fill with drinking water from your hotels.
Best time to visit Sunderbans
The best time to visit Sunderbans is between October and March when the temperature remains most pleasant. For a pleasant boat ride and enjoying the local delicacies, December is the most preferred time to visit, just as we went. You could spot some crocs basking under the sun in the river banks. Many migratory birds too flock the region during this time of the year.
Summer months are extremely hot and humid and not recommended to travel especially if you are not comfortable with the heat. However, chances are more to spot tigers at this time of the year. Monsoons are adverse with plenty of rainfall and rising water levels that make boat rides risky.
The local life
The locals of Sunderban live a modest life because of the scarcity of resources. The main livelihood of the people is honey collection, fishing, and farming from the mangrove forests. While in Sunderban, you will get to see the temple of Bonodebi or Bonobibi – the goddess of the forest who is worshipped by the locales before they enter the forest to collect honey. People of all sects worship the goddess as they believe that the goddess will save them from Dakhin Rai – yes, that’s how the locales address the Royal Bengal tiger! There are plenty of folktales and stories that are intriguing and will fascinate you about the narratives around Bonodebi or Bonobibi.
Expect traditional Indian hospitality during your stay at the Sundarbans. The staple food is rice served with dal (lentils), local seasonal vegetables, and fresh catch of the day from the local rivers. You may also ask for roti (flatbread). Breakfasts are usually luchi or puri (deep-fried flatbread) that is served with a curry. Delicious country chicken curry is also served to non-vegetarians.
What to see
The boat cruise will take you around the different islands in Sunderbans. Some of the islands have watchtowers where you can visit and spend some time. Some of the popular ones are at Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali, Dobanki watchtower, Burirdabri watchtower, and Netidhopani watchtower. Each of the watchtowers has a sweet water pond where different wildlife frequents including tigers. The watchtowers are caged canopy walk amidst mangrove trees. You could see different species of birds and other animal species. We were able to spot a few deer, a couple of crocodiles, migratory birds, Brahmini Kites, and a Bengal Monitor. There is also a bird sanctuary and a museum in Sajnekhali that are worth visiting.
Things to do
Take a local village walk tour to see the villagers, their mud huts, and a glimpse of their daily lives. A boat cruise and a boat safari are a must to explore Sunderbans. Carry your binoculars to spot wildlife at the bank of the rivers. A country boat ride at sunset time or in a moonlit night will give you an experience of a lifetime! Don’t forget to carry your camera to carry back memories at home. Our eco-village also organized a musical evening for us where the local performers sang some beautiful local folksongs and staged drama that was based on their life in Sunderbans.
Personal care and safety
Expect a typical village life if you’re planning to stay in Sunderbans and so it is recommended to carry your personal belongings that you might need during your stay including first aid and medicines. To protect yourself from mosquito bites, carry insect repellents and sleep with the mosquito net on (your hotel will provide it). Carry a comfortable pair of shoes to walk around the villages; you will also have to climb up the boats, so carry shoes accordingly. If you’re traveling in the winter months, carry warm woolens. You’ll need them for the early morning boat safaris. Remember, to carry a torch along with you, and avoid venturing out alone at night.
Wishing you a safe and memorable trip!