Have you been to India's largest halophytic mangrove forest, aka, Sunderbans? The tidal forest is a rich ecosystem with thriving flora and fauna that every nature lover should visit. Lush, dense forests, the gushing, swirling waters of three rivers, and thriving, vibrant wildlife complete the charm of Sunderbans, located partially in West Bengal, India, and partially in Bangladesh.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, for its unique eco-system and biodiversity, these salt tolerant mangrove forests provide habitat to over four hundred wildlife species. It is also home to the reclusive, majestic Royal Bengal Tiger, the one whom the Immortal Hand framed with such “fearful symmetry”.
But, enough of the dry facts. A visit to this magical land had long been on my travel agenda. In 2019, I made a three-day trip to Jharkhali, a tourist stop in the vast Sunderbans area. My family and I drove down from Kolkata at the height of summer for a quick retreat in these green hideouts.
The road journey from Kolkata by car was anything but smooth. Not so much because of the bumpy road, but due to the umpteen barricades and traffic snarls. Unfortunately for us, that day a political rally was taking place at about the same time, and the roads were filled with banners, flags, placards and people.
Anyway, the normal four-hour road journey took six and half hours, and we reached our hotel famished. After freshening up, and wolfing a delicious meal of rice, dal, and prawn malai curry, we set off to explore the local dock area. The sunset at the riverside was mellow and reflective of the calm around us.
The next day, we planned to go tiger-spotting. On a steamer journey towards Dobanki, across the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Meghna (where waves matched the intensity of sea waves), my eyes searched the marshes in quest of the elusive majestic beast.
But our guide informed us that the king of the jungle has been losing its habitat and hunting grounds to human encroachment of late. Locals forage the marshes for crabs and honey, and the tiger has had to retreat further into the deep wilds. The freshwater estuaries are regularly swamped with silted water from floods occurring too often. As a result, the topography has changed, as have the habitat of the marsh creatures, including the lord of the jungle.
We couldn’t manage a tiger sighting, though we covered a large area by boat. The watch tower at the island of Dobanki disappointed us too. Though a couple of wild sambals frolicking in the lush greens did offer us some cheer! We saw plenty of other fauna, particularly birds of all kinds. The place is teeming with all kinds of wildlife!
To compensate for our disappointment at not being able to spot a tiger in the marshes, we ventured to the local Tiger Rescue Centre the next day. And yes, we did get a glimpse of the magnificent beast, and a bonus sleepy crocodile thrown in too!
But it's not really the same thing.
What we didn’t expect to see, but unfortunately saw in plenty, were remnants of irresponsible tourist activity. Plastic wrappers and water bottles were strewn around littering the place, robbing it of its natural charm.
Though the lord of the jungle gave me the miss, the grandeur and beauty of the forests, the countless estuaries, the sighting of various birds and the sounds of bird-songs remained with me long after the visit.
Tigers – may their tribe increase, if they survive and flourish, will probably deign to meet us at some later time. Keeping our fingers crossed for next time!
If you plan a visit to Sunderbans, do ensure your visit permits are in place (our guide took those for us), and bring a good pair of binoculars with you. Spotting elusive fauna in the dense jungles from aboard the steamer is not possible without those.
There are some decent places for boarding and lodging. Local Bengali (mostly non-vegetarian) fare and some “Chinese” food items would be available. Don't go looking for boutique or fancy 'star' hotels though. That kind of commercial tourism has thankfully not yet corrupted this place.
And remember to leave nothing behind, except your footprints, on the marshy lands of the Sunderbans islands. The folk at Sunderbans will thank you for it!