Sunderbans: Kingdom in the Delta

Sunderbans, that group of islands in the Bay of Bengal where tiger is the king, is for those who like to be in the middle of nowhere. Jaded though it  may sound, it really is not so much about the destination but the actual travel. Naturally, there isn’t much of the regular tourist traffic coming this way. Thank god for small mercies!

To elaborate on my account, I boarded the cruise in Kolkata at night and while I slept, it glided silently under the starry sky towards Sunderbans, the world’s largest delta. The morning brought the first glimpses of the mangroves…those islands of green interspersed in the blue-green Sunderban waters.

At the crack of dawn, we transferred from the cruise to a launch to see the tiger from close quarters, or at least that was the idea. A distant red glow in the horizon prompted frenzied clicking of the sunrise as the red glow transformed into a ball of fire. There is something about sunrise and sunsets that makes the most ordinary folks among us into passionate photographers.

Our launch took us to the island of Dobanki where tigers can be often spotted. As we waited in the early morning chill, we noticed something ambling towards us in the morning haze. The more imaginative among us excitedly whispered, “tiger!” The wave of euphoria caught the rest of us till everyone waited in anticipation of the venerable beast of the jungle. A little while later however, what we thought was ‘the lord of the jungle’ turned out to be a spotted deer foraging for its breakfast.

Our growling stomachs reminded us that we needed our own refills and we boarded our launch to go back to the cruise. The breakfast spread was one of the most lavish arrangement one could expect away from civilization– fluffy idlis, poha, scrambled eggs, sausages, assorted breads, parantha, egg bhurji, fried tomatoes  and more made my day. After having had our fill, it was time to explore the Sunderbans again. We transferred to the launch yet again. The boat took us to the narrower stretches where the cruises couldn’t normally traverse. The fact that Sunderbans is the biggest mangrove ecosystem in the world is brought home when you see the the unique flora and fauna. Stilt roots supporting trees in the mud and “breathing roots” pushing their way towards the sky through the mud in the marshy land are a common ecological adaptation visible to the eyes. Sunderbans are not just home to the dreaded tiger, but also the crocodiles that thrive in the marshy land, deer, dolphins and brightly-plumed birds.

We also had a speedboat at our disposal, which had advantages of speed, (naturally!) and was easier to maneuver. Spying a rifle in the speedboat brought home to me our vulnerability in the water. A stealthy tiger could easily have taken us unawares. But, tigers usually avoid confrontation with humans, especially when there are boatloads of shutterbugs!

The ride did not yield much success in terms of seeing the majestic beast. However, we did see numerous deer, a crocodile sunbathing along the banks and birds – one a flaming orange kingfisher! The afternoon was spent lazing in the cruise, clicking pictures of the sunset and generally having a good time.

There was a small soirée in the evening and wine flowed freely in the winter chill. There was a small magic show by a forest department staff and a local folk dance. We joined in and after a few steps realized that the innocuously simple steps were actually deceptive. After ten minutes I was panting and only revived with some more wine. Floating on water, the legend of Bonbibi came alive as the drama troupe from one of the several Sunderban villages enacted the folklore.

Bonbibi (the protector of the forest) wanted to rule the Sunderbans jointly with Narayani, mother of Dakshin Ray. Dakshin Ray, Lord of the Tigers, refused as he wanted to be the sole ruler and wanted human blood in return for collection of honey. Dukhe, son of a poor widow, was apprenticing with this uncle Dhana, a rich merchant. One day Dakshin Ray appeared in his dream and asked for the sacrifice of Dukhe, in exchange for honey and wax from the forest. His greed getting the better of him, Dhana agreed and left Dukhe in the forest to become the tiger’s dinner. Dukhe remembered his mother’s advice of invoking Bonbibi’s blessings in times of need. She appeared with her brother Shah Jongolee and saved Dukhe from the tiger. In the end, Dakshin Ray admitted defeat and promised that anybody offering prayers to Bonbibi before entering the forest would not be harmed.

And that is how the legend of Bonbibi grew, a legend of a deity who is worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike and on both sides of the border: in India and in Bangladesh. Small temples dedicated to Bonbibi in the various islands stand testimony to the absolute faith that locals have in the divine. They also bear witness to the communal harmony that can exist between two religions, which have historically been at odds with each other in the rest of the country.

I intended waking up the next morning to capture the sunrise in my camera. But I realized that vacations are not the time for me to wake up early. So I lolled about in the bed long after the sun rose. As we inched towards habitation, I saw numerous dinghies and small fishing boats dotting the landscape – a contrast from the quiet Sunderbans waters. Fishing is not allowed in the Sunderbans for ecological reasons and the only contraption we saw there were launches ferrying tourists. The sun glimmered on the water, and as I pointed at some boats to shoot, a few fishermen got excited and waved back.

In general, the air of tranquility was all pervasive. The winter sun seemed to be smiling on the world. It reminded me of the lines from a French poem

“Le soleil brille pour tout le monde,

il ne brille pas dans les prisons,

il ne brille pas pour ceux qui travaillent dans la mine

……… ceux qui ont du travail…”

The lines translate as, the sun shines for everyone, it doesn’t shine in the prisons, it doesn’t shine for those who work in the mines, and those who have work. I couldn’t agree more. The prison reminded me of Delhi (metaphorically speaking) and I delighted in the fact that I was away from it all. As I spent the day clicking photos and savouring the wonderfully delicious Bengali cuisine for lunch on board, we had already reached the quay near the Millenium Park in Kolkata. It was disappointing to walk on terra firma after gliding on the hungry tides of the Sunderbans. But there were unexplored horizons still……