05 February 2018

Bewitching Sundarbans

Our trip to Sundarbans was booked so long in advance that we managed to log three more destinations in the intervening period! There was no scope for travel fatigue as Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide kept interest levels high and if possible even increased them. Yet there was an underlying element of doubt as the area is the home of the swimming tigers.. the Royal Bengal Tiger.



Nurturing these doubts would serve no purpose if I was to enjoy my holiday so I buried them as much as I could as we embarked on the journey in the wee hours of the D-Day. From Kolkata city we travelled to Godkhali - the place where we were to board our boat. The young bus driver treated this drive like a Formula 1 training session, overtaking everything and everyone in sight. This meant close encounters with cattle, villagers and other vehicles irrespective of their direction of motion. The road was infested with buses and rickety three wheeled vehicles that had passengers stuffed inside, hanging outside and even on top! With our destination only 10 kms away, Murphy made his presence felt in the form of a burst tyre. The aforesaid young man showed equal speed and proved his mettle by making quick work of replacing the troublesome auto component - faster than our group leader could summon the rickshaws to take us the final few kilometers…

The jetty at Godkhali is rather unassuming considering that it is the main sourcing point for the islands in the Sundarbans delta. After a quick settling in at our resort we took off for our first glimpse of the jungle. 


Gosaba, boats, jetty

Our boat which was to be our home for the next 3 days boasted of a kitchen and toilet (I give it 4 stars considering its location) with sufficient space for everyone in our group to get a ring side view of the forest without stepping on each others toes! 


motor boat, sunderbans


ALERT: LONG POST

The Sundarbans archipelago comprises several islands crisscrossed by rivers and channels of sea water. The resulting saline and brackish conditions are ideal for the mangrove trees. (Rather they seem to be the only species growing there along with mangrove associates.) Elsewhere, we always explore the jungle by walking or driving through it, for example Tadoba, but walking among the trees of Sundarbans is not permitted for our safety. Which means the magnificent flora can be viewed only from the boat. While the trees are not tall, yet, in most parts, the Sun barely reaches the jungle floor. It is impossible to see beyond a few meters of the tree line along the sticky shore. The jungle floor seemed to be booby-trapped with several pointy branches poking upwards. These were the  ‘breathing roots’, some of which were sharp and pointy while others were rounded. Walking through these was extremely tricky and could be painful as well, something we experienced at the Interpretation Centre. While there are dire reports of islands lost to rising sea levels, we saw some new ones that have risen up over the past decade and still rising. This was due to silt deposition.  
breathing roots, saline, brackish
Breathing Roots
The Forest Department has created watch towers and information zones on different islands. Besides introducing visitors to this ecosystem, it is a unique way to sensitise visitors to the difficulties faced by the locals in their interaction with the jungle. Besides the tricky ground, they also face a threat from crocodiles and of course the secretive and much dreaded Royal Bengal Tiger (RBT). We did glimpse a couple of the 17 footer crocs but the RBT eluded us… I am sure we must have been spotted by one of them considering that we spent over 20 hours chugging along the coast. More about the RBT later.
canopy walk, sunderbans
Canopy walk at the Interpretation Centre
Our resort boasted of ecofriendly credentials which meant no paper or plastic or thermacole. It offered almost all creature comforts except perhaps running hot water but I guess being environment friendly meant some sacrifices ;-) Practically it meant being served tea in the good old glass crockery (which evoked a thoroughly pampered feeling) and the tastiest of preparations made from locally grown fresh vegetables. The Nolen Gurer Payesh had us licking our lips and scraping the bottom of the bowl  The efficient and ever smiling staff took pride in their work and seemed really happy.
boat, eco friendly
Cottages at the resort
We spent two entire days on the boat. Actually three if you add up two half days as well.  Our day began early at 6 am as we boarded our mist-shrouded boat - the northerly winds were the cause said Mr Paul the resort manager. We spent the entire day on board, returning only at dusk. Our guides Nabho and Krishna joined us here. Both were very knowledgeable about fauna and flora. IMHO , info about the latter is often ignored by most naturalist guides but these two were a pleasant surprise. Seeing my interest in trees, they specifically pointed out special species, their distinguishing features etc using the correct scientific terminology.

Getting back to our boat safaris… The resort staff had a detachment on the boat who had breakfast ready for us even before hunger pangs could take our minds away from the Black capped / Collared Kingfisher or many of their feathered brethren who obliged us with prolonged sightings. Now I was quite prepared for something like sandwiches but I was in for a shock. A very tasty shock I must admit. The breakfast was Alu Paratha, Puri, Omlette, Cut Fruit with the most delicious honey from the very forest we were enjoying…. Considering our location, hats off to the team! Naturally we did full justice and lunch was a bigger surprise with a choice of two nonvegetarian preparations! However the humble tomato chutney was the star - so much so that we got copy of its recipe when we said goodbye!


A spread fit for a king!
Again I digress.

Our boat had sitting space in the front and back each with its own advantages. The best spot was to sit cross legged at the bow which gave an eye level view of the banks but I did not take advantage of it as much as I should have. Nabho and Krishna pointed out an Avicennia or Brugeira or Rhizophora but distinguishing them from a distance needed an experienced eye. Instead of their fruits or flowers it was the tree roots that were most eyecatching. As I said before, the silt laden sticky bank seemed to have become a spiky zone due to the breathing roots whereas others created an interesting circular maze at the trunk base. Some trees seemed to wear a striped skirt (formed by their stilt roots) while others had huge buttressed trunks - all aimed to give better support and improve oxygen intake from the saline water. The twice daily high tide created massive sand shifts which meant the trees needed stronger anchors than trees growing elsewhere. This is just one of the adaptation of these amazing trees. We saw some Tiger Palms and the source of their name is a no brainer - its leaf morphology and colour perfectly match with the RBT stripes making it an ideal place for the cat to hide in.

World heritage site, mangroves
Tiger Palms growing along the bank
Some islands had trees with garlands and Nabho told us it was prayer and offerings to Bonbibi before someone ventured into the forest. The Goddess would protect them from tigers and other dangers. Hindus and Muslims worship her and it is faith that helps them survive in this adverse landscape as they are expected to enter the forest with ‘Khali Haat’ and ‘Pobitra Mann’. We were told that locals never utter the word Tiger because it is believed that to say its name is to call it. The danger is so real that women fast for the entire duration their husbands are out in the forest or in the boat and this can extend for many days.

Goddess, jungle, diety, sunderbans
A local troupe performed the legend of the Bonbibi
A bit about the RBT. This secretive cat has adapted to walking and hunting among mangrove roots and is a good swimmer. This obviously means we had a good chance of spotting the RBT both on the shore and in the water. In other jungles of our country, a water body is the ideal place to spot a tiger but in the Sundarbans, the high tide takes water deep inside the islands. The RBT has adapted to surviving on salty water which eliminated thirst as a reason to come to the water side. We could see the tiger only if it wanted to show itself to us! We passed by several small channels that went deep into the island and I am sure, we would have encountered a tiger if we had ventured into it. However that would need a smaller boat - the kind used by fisherman plus strict rules forbade us from entering inside. For various reasons, the Sundarbans tiger is known to attack humans so I guess somewhere deep inside I was secretly happy at not sighting the great cat. Even if meant seeing gleeful smiles when answering in the negative to the perennial question on our return “Did you see the tiger?”
 
sunderbans, mangroves, water, saline
Forbidden lanes... 
We were lucky that our boat safari timing matched that of the low tide and wildlife activity. Fauna can be best seen once the bank opens up and hence hopes were high. The elusive Jungle Cat was glimpsed twice. Huge swarms of bees buzzed around our boat but flew off without a bite! Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Monitor Lizards also found time to take a peek at us! Everytime our boat neared the sunbathing crocs, they would slip back into the water… The thought of having a powerful 17 footer croc (or even a RBT) swimming close by our basic boat ensured no one tried to dip their hands into the water….

Estuarine croc, sunderbans
A mammoth Estuarine Crocodile Image Credit Rahul Rao , Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
The water glittered in various shades of green with the occasional brown tinges. In the period of the low tide we sailed almost in the centre of the channels as any move towards the bank could sometimes get the boat grounded. Combined with the sand shifting we did face that situation a couple of times and recovery was by pushing the boat out with long bamboos.. Our boat did not boast of modern marine technology and the team relied on its inborn navigation skill and sixth sense. However at the day progressed and the tide came up and swallowed the banks and trees and in some cases the entire the island too. In fact, the leaves till the high tide mark were markedly different from those higher up on the tree trunk.


Our safari took us in deep waters where three or more rivers joined. This created a vast expanse of water wherein the bank was almost invisible! Though close to the Bay of Bengal, the roar of the ocean was inaudible. The tide rose and fell silently as if to let the fauna have their say. Most of the time it was just our boat MB Dakshin Rai. Its rhythmic put-put combined with the gentle sway and cool breeze under a warm sun was hypnotic and especially conducive to dozing off…. until there was a sudden frisson of excitement of spotting someone! ......



Peregrine Falcon? Croc? Dolphin? Pugmarks? Tiger? were the anxious queries as all binocs turned to one direction. Cameras clicked furiously till the object of attention decided he had enough of us! The Kingfishers including the Brown Winged were the most obliging and tourist friendly I must say! 
Mangrove, Birding
Black Capped Kingfisher Image Credit Rahul Rao, Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
And how can I forget the Lesser Whistling Ducks who gave us a glorious farewell.. I think there must have been thousands of them along with Northern Pintails and Northern Shovellers swimming in tandem as if escorting our boat out…
Sand banks, Sea, Ocean, migratory birds
Lesser Whistling Ducks Image Credit Rahul Rao, Director at Foliage Outdoors, Pune
Before I forget, most of these only live in pure environments - and their presence is a positive statement about the condition of that ecosystem.

It is a sheer joy to visit and appreciate India’s huge ecological diversity. There were no colourful flowers in Sundarbans, nor did we see the RBT nor could I walk in the forest. From all reports the jungle is a dangerous place. Yet the Sundarbans was simultaneously mysterious, attractive, enticing and chilling. Bewitching indeed!

This post is incomplete without a couple of lines from the book The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh...


'...This is a land half-submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest, To look upon this strange parturition, midwived by the moon is the know why the name "tide country" is not just right but necessary.....'

2 comments:

Avinash Chikte said...

Well described!

And, as you've predicted, the inevitable question, "You didn't see the tiger?" :)

Vibhas Pande said...

Pristine, serene, marvelous nature. Wonderful experience. Great narration.