The vast mysterious Bay of Bengal is fed by the great delta of the Ganges. Here
the river finally discharges the debris, silt, melted snow and runoff waters
accumulated on its descent from the Himalayas. Land and sea merge imperceptibly
in a shimmering stretch of tidal waters, mudflats and mangrove
This is the Sunderbans, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, a
water mass stretching from India’s east coast south of Kolkata across to the
shores of Bangladesh. It encompasses a unique ecosystem, maintaining a delicate
balance between the human inhabitants, the rich bird and animal wildlife
population and the great tracts of mangrove forest, all in thrall to the whims
of tide, storm and hurricane.
It is perhaps the last wild frontier of the
And it is home to the magnificent Royal Bengal
Tiger, fewer than 300 of them at the last count, the dreaded man-eating
Near the mainland the bay is dotted with tiny vulnerable
flood-prone islands where tribal villagers eke out a precarious living
fishermen, shrimpers, farmers and honey gatherers.
I learned about the
Sunderbans from The Hungry Tide, a novel by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh
marvelously evokes the place and its people. Searching for a way to
area, I found there were several lodges and camps offering different
accommodation for tourists.
Most provide transfer from Kolkata, bird and
animal watching cruises and an introduction to the local village
Leaving behind the frantic chaos of the city, we travelled by
car to the coast through rural wetlands – rivers, fish ponds, rice
mangrove forests and poor villages of reed or straw thatch huts.
is a makeshift transit point for the boats carrying people and cargoes
from the Sunderbans islands. Here our own private vessel and two-man
waiting to sail with us to the Sunderbans Jungle Camp on the island of
This is a model project, set up by Help Tourism, to ensure the
the local community through carefully planned tourism, as well as the
conservation of the wildlife and flora. Except for the project
the staff and guides at the camp are from the village of Bali. They
training in tourism hospitality basics, and are permanently employed.
Housekeeping, laundry and the supply of local organic vegetables to the
managed by a local ladies self-help group.
It was high tide when we
arrived, and the mangrove trees were deep in the water. The Jungle Camp
village are below the high-tide level.
Each inhabited island is
surrounded by a high built-up embankment, meticulously maintained. This
as a perimeter road and as a barrier against the sea – and against the
Man and beast are carefully separated. Further to the south where the
Bengal meets the Indian Ocean, some of the uninhabited islands are a
nature reserve, enclosed with netting to protect the tigers, and landing
And the more distant islands remain a natural
There are six thatched cottages for visitors at the camp,
with large rooms, simple and clean, and decent bathrooms, all
No air-conditioning, but a ceiling fan is switched on at night. There is
mains electricity, no telephone, no television and power only when the
operates. Solar panels provide lighting in the bedrooms. Mosquito nets
are provided, but it’s always a good idea to bring your own repellent
flashlight. The dining area is outdoors, under a thatched awning beside a
pond, with fan coolers. The buffet-style meals were excellent, with a
choice of tasty Bengali dishes using local products – fish, chicken,
Each morning, while it was still cool, we set out on
our cruise, with breakfast cooked and served on board by the crew
honey, fruit and coffee or tea). Our boat was small and quiet, with room
shaded upper deck for four passengers. Drinks and snacks were at hand at
The Sunderbans is a bird-watcher’s paradise. We were provided with
binoculars and bird guide books to help us match the amazing birds to
less amazing names: whitebellied eagle, rose-ringed parakeet, snake-bird
jungle babbler, mangrove pitta, drongo bronze, lesser adjutant stork.
guide, was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, a specialist in recognizing
We cruised through the islands, up narrow creeks shaded by
mangrove trees and across stretches of open water where fishermen sit
under the blazing sun in narrow wooden boats, waiting for the catch.
landed at designated spots in the nature reserve, and climbed the
and platforms for an elevated view of the landscape and the wildlife. In
addition to the birds, we spotted dolphins, deer, crabs, lizards and
crocodiles stretched out in the sun.
But alas, no sighting of the great
tiger – only a fresh imprint of his paw marks glistening on the mudflat
down to the water. Although rarely seen, the tiger’s presence is felt
everywhere, and the tension between man and beast is palpable.
man-tiger relationship is central to village life, with many resulting
ambivalences. The tiger is worshiped as a god. The locals are in awe of
animal, they respect and admire it, tell endless stories and ambivalent
about it, even love it.
The tiger is a protected animal that may not be
killed. Much effort has been invested, at both local and national
preserving the dwindling tiger population of the region, decimated by
over the years. But when attacked, men must protect their families, take
revenge. Poachers still break the law.
Fishermen and honey gatherers risk
their lives when they venture into the tiger reserve. The threat to the
villagers is a very real one.
After dinner one evening, the dining area
was cleared and turned into a stage. A group of villagers, actors and
performed for us a play based on the traditional legend of Bonbibi. The
performance was surprisingly good, partly sung, partly spoken, with
comedy, drama and horror. The villain of the tale, a demon, who is
vanquished by Bonbibi, the goddess of the islanders, turns out to be
than a tiger in disguise. Next day, from the safety of our boat, Apu
a long stick swaying in the water near the shore, with a white
attached. “In memory of a fisherman killed last month by a tiger, when
fishing in the area reserved for tigers,” he told us.
Help Tourism, email@example.com, based in Kolkata, made all
cost of our three-day Sunderbans package for two, was 18,900 rupees per
everything included except the cultural show. In addition to running the
Sunderbans Jungle Camp, Help Tourism organizes tours in the eastern
states, all with an emphasis on ecology, conservation, local culture and
(Note: NIS 100 is the equivalent of about 1,200 rupees.)