We exchanged the bus for a boat to continue with our onward journey into the heartlands of the Sunderbans National Park but were surprised to find that we were not far from human habitations. Our launch sailed past islands that did not seem any different from villages on the main land;  passenger-laden ferry boats crossed our path; there would be women and children trawling the water with nets, collecting fish and prawn seeds we were told later. Although the Sunderbans is better known for its mangrove forest and wildlife, it also has a sizable human population because many of the islands were settled in during the British period and others succumbed to population pressure, said our host as we sipped on our welcome drink of green coconut.

Thankfully, as we sailed further, the inhabited islands fell back and we met with the occasional fishing boats. Stretching across the Gangetic delta, the Sunderbans is shared by India and Bangladesh. Located along the southern tip of West Bengal, the Indian Sundarbans region consists of 4,200 sq km of reserved forests along with 5,400 sq km of non-forest area.  Of this, the Sundarban Tiger Reserve is spread over 2,585 sq km. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has also been tagged a Global Biosphere Reserve. Kolkata is the gateway to this waterworld.

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Fishing boats on the Bramhaputra river in Sunderbans
Fishing boats on the Bramhaputra river in Sunderbans

“The Sunderbans is very different from any other forests of India, especially where tiger reserves are concerned,” explained our guide Niranjan Raptan. Located in the Gangetic delta, the region mainly consists of a network of rivers, channels and islands. Tides play an important role here and large areas go under water for several hours when the water rises. The inhospitable terrain not only makes it difficult for people to eke out a living but also forces people and animal to tread into each other territories for food. “Tigers soon lose their fear of people and are quick to attack them,” said Raptan, “making people believe Sunderbans tigers are all man-eaters.”

Even though it was the fag end of winter, the sun could be really strong by day. We were glad that our launch had a roof while the open railed-in upper deck allowed us a clear view of the forest. Sometimes, the rivers were so wide that we easily mistook it for the sea. Sometimes, the launch entered a creek or a narrow channel where the tree-laden banks formed a watery avenue for us to sail through.

We had booked with a private tour operator who also owned a resort in one of the habitable islands inside the forest. Therefore, while we sailed by day, the nights were spent in their well-appointed cottages. The food served was mostly typical Bengali cuisine. Let them know in advance if you want to sample the local fish or prawns and lobsters.

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A crocodile on the lookout in the swamps of Sunderbans
A crocodile on the lookout in the swamps of Sunderbans

We visited other islands such as Sudhanyakhali, Sajnekhali and Netidhopani. A guarded path led to the watch towers located in these islands. There were also waterholes – sweet water is a premium here as the water is largely saline – where we saw spotted deer, monkeys and a wild boar. The Sunderbans is also home to many bird species but you have to be really watchful to catch a glimpse of the kingfishers and other birds against the dense forest. We were rather excited when we found what we had initially thought logs on mud banks turn into crocodiles and splash into the water disturbed by the noise of the launch. We spotted mudskippers and red crabs on the muddy banks dotted with thorn-like breathing roots of the mangrove trees. According to local people, it was the presence of the Sundari trees that gave the forest its name – Sunderban or the ‘forest of Sundari’. At Sajnekhali, there is a nature interpretation centre where details about the unique aspects of the forest are highlighted. At the Dobanki island, a raised boardwalk offered us a closer look at the forest canopy.  One evening, we watched a local play called ‘Bonbibir pala’ at the resort. Bonbibi is the protector of all those who venture into the forest for wood and honey or go fishing. One can also take a walk along the island village any morning and interact with the local people in the marketplace.

As the launch embarked on its return journey, everyone prayed for the glimpse of the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger. A cruising launch had seen a tiger crossing the river the day before, we were told by one of the fishermen we met while boarding our launch. Our expectations jumped when the guide drew our attention to the fresh tiger pugmarks etched on the muddy banks. The engine was killed and we waited with baited breath but alas. After a while the boat’s captain signalled we have to move on. “Don’t be disappointed,” the guide consoled us, “There is a saying here, even if you do not see the tiger, it is always watching you.” Hoping for a role reversal the next time, we flopped back to our seats and watched the forest fringe disappear into the horizon as the boat neared the disembarkation point.

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A tiger in the marshy forests of Sunderbans
A tiger in the marshy forests of Sunderbans

The information

Getting There: Kolkata is the nearest airport and the gateway to the Sunderbans. There are several entry points to the forest. Canning town, the headquarters of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (Project Tiger) can be reached by road and suburban rail from Kolkata. Besides, from Kolkata, one can also drive up to the boat jetties in Sonakhali, Dhamakhali and Godkhali for onward journeys by boats. 

Although it is not impossible to arrange a visit on one’s own, it is far more comfortable to choose a package tour where organisers take care of everything, from permits to boats to accommodation and food.

Stay: The state-run WBTDC has a budget accommodation at Pakhirala island (Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge;  https://www.wbtdcl.com/). There are a few well-appointed private resorts – Sunderban Tiger Camp (http://waxpolhotels.com), Tora Eco Resort (http://www.toraresort.in/), Royal Sunderban Wild Resort (http://royalsundarban.com/), etc.

Cruises: Cruises can vary from overnight to two/three night tours. WBTDC have fixed day departures until April-end. Packages start from Rs 5280. Sunderban Tiger Camp and Vivada Cruises (http://vivadacruises.com/) offer fixed day departures as well as chartered services.  

Permits: All tourists have to obtain permission to enter Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Indian tourists can obtain permission from the Office of the Field Director, Sundarban Tiger Reserve, Canning apart from forest offices in Sonakhali, Bagna, Sajnekhali, on payment of entry fees, boat fees camera fees and other miscellaneous charges; you have to produce original Government issued photo id cards. Foreigners have to obtain a special permit from the Joint Secretary, Forest Department, Writers building, Kolkata.