Monday, 13 May 2013




The ‘Sunderbans’ which means ‘beautiful forest’ has always captivated my interests ever since I read the book ‘Spell of the Tiger’ by Sy Montgomery not so long ago when I was pursuing my masters in International Tourism in Singapore. The book talks about the culture of Sunderbans, the man eating tigers that the Sunderbans plays host to and the never ending conflict between the tiger and the villagers who live in the vicinity of the Sunderbans.

                                                THE MANGROVES.
The Sunderbans is the largest belt of mangrove forest in the world spanning around 26,000 sq\kms, an area shared between India and Bangladesh. The land is divided unevenly between the two countries with Bangladesh getting the lion’s share of it with a total of 16,000 sq\kms and leaving India with only 10,000 sq\kms. The Sunderbans was declared as a biosphere in 1989 and it plays host to 84 species of plants, 324 species of birds and about 40 species of mammals.

It is quiet an interesting story to hear about how the Sunderbans got its name and there are several variations in the meaning of the word ‘Sunderbans’ that differ from village to village and here are some anecdotes of the ‘name-game’.
1)      Sunderbans got its name from the Sunderi Tree which is found in abundance inside the forest.
2)      Sunderbans is a combination of two words i.e. ‘Sumander’ meaning sea and ‘ban’ meaning forest.
3)      A river named ‘Sundra’ located near Bangladesh runs through the Sunderbans and according to the locals it is a treat to the eye to see the river flowing amidst the flora and fauna of the mangroves and hence the locals named the patch of mangroves as the ‘Sunderbans’.
4)      Sunderbans is also an amalgamation of two words ‘Sunder’ meaning beautiful and ‘ban’ meaning forest and since the Sunderbans is a very beautiful forest, the locals have named it ‘Sunderbans’.
To be quiet honest, I personally would rate the Sunderbans as one among the top three forests in India and anyone reading this article should definitely pay a visit to the forest and I can assure you that you will get your moneys’ worth.

How to travel to the Sunderbans?   
I spent about 5 full days in the Sunderbans in a forest guest house in Sajnekhali. Little did I know then that I would have an experience worth sharing with the whole world.  To begin with I would like to tell the readers about how to get to the Sunderbans as that could turn out to be a tricky little affair with several challenges that one might face on their travel. Presuming that the reader would follow in my footsteps I will recite what I did to get to the Sunderbans and what I experienced during my stay as one would experience pretty much the similar thing. I reached the city of Kolkata on the 19th of April where I spent the night in a shady little Motel to save on my expenses. I was up at about 5am the very next day, left the motel and made my way to the closest bus stop. My initial plan was to take a bus that would take me to a village called Sonakhali which is about a 3 hour drive from Kolkata and from there on catch a local ferry to the Sajnekhali guest house located in the midst of the Sunderbans with a travel time of about 2 hours and 30 minutes by boat. It is extremely difficult to find a local bus that goes directly to Sonakhali and I had to travel to three bus stops before I could find a bus that took me half way to a place called Dhamakhali and from there on I had to hop onto another bus that took me to Sonakhali. One can also hire a taxi from Kolkata to Sonakhali but I refrained from doing so as my experience of rural India will be limited to a great extent and it’s a lot more fun traveling the hard way where I can learn a lot about the people and their culture.

                                         MONIRUL,  MY BOATMAN.

At Sonakhali I was met by a short dark man wearing a white shirt and a cloth around his waist and legs (dothi) who turned out to be my boatman. His name was Monirul and he stayed with me through the entire duration of my trip including sailing me into the core jungle of the Sunderbans where I hoped to meet the man eater himself the ‘Tiger’. After about 150 minutes into the sail, we reached the guest house where I was treated to a hot chicken lunch. I spent the rest of the evening perched high on a watch tower that was located within the premise that overlooked the Sunderban forest.


For the readers’ convenience and better understanding of my travels into the jungle I have included a self-drawn map of the Sunderbans forest area which is open for tourists. The map does not include the tiger project area and the core area that are out of bounds for tourists. 

Day 1: 21\04\13

                                ASHOK MY GUIDE FOR THE TRIP.

I woke up early that morning all excited to enter the sunderban forest of which I’ve read and heard a great deal about. I had a dream of seeing the tiger lying on the banks of the river in the Sunderbans the previous night. I thought it was real for just that moment and I jumped for joy just to be hit with a realization that I had fallen off my bed and onto the floor. I looked up at the ceiling and told god that was a nasty little trick to play on me. I soon got ready and walked out of my room and was soon met by Monirul and a tall man sporting a thin moustache, dressed in a white T-shirt and beige track pants. His name was Ashok and he was to be my guide for the entire trip. 


After having a quick breakfast I made my way to the boat that was anchored to the dock. We were to set off at 8 am that morning and return back at 6 pm that evening. The entire day was to be spent in the jungle where lunch would be cooked on the boat and tea would be served in the morning and evening. 

                                                  BABU AND LALTOO.

On reaching the boat, I saw two young boys waiting for me inside. They helped me with my camera bag as I struggled to get onto the big boat. The boy on the right is Laltoo and to his left his Babu. They are school dropouts and work with Monirul to earn a living. 

It was 8 am and we set off on our journey into the wild. The plan for the day was to enter from Sardakhali and make our way to Sunderkhali, Gazikhali, Pirkhali and exit from Sudhanyakhali. Ashok seemed very friendly and we immediately established a rapport and we started to talk about the jungle and what one might hope to see. He made it very clear that, it was extremely difficult to spot the tiger and that the last confirmed sighting was in early March of 2012. I was quick to respond and made it clear that I was there to enjoy the natural beauty of the forest and my interests are on birding as the Sunderbans is a great place for it. There are 9 species of Kingfishers and I hoped to spot as many as 5 of them. Ashok was impressed with me as he said that it was the first time in 12 years of his guiding career that he met someone who came to the Sunderbans not mainly for the tiger but for birding. Most of his guests would ask him to show them the tiger and he loses interest when he hears that.


We made our first stop at the Sunderkhali watch tower and I was immediately a witness to a world within our own. So much chirping all around me and the forest was brimming with life. There was a waterhole below the watch tower where a water monitor was swimming, deer were drinking out of the waterhole and several sunbirds flying around and working on their daily chores of collecting honey from flowers and inevitably transferring pollen grains and fertilizing the flowers around.

It was extremely difficult to photograph the sunbirds as they are really fast and won’t give you a moment’s time to aim and capture them on film. Most of the times they are hidden inside the tree as they very rarely take nectar from flowers that are out in the open. With great difficulty I managed to get a beautiful picture of a Loten Sunbird sucking nectar from the flower. It is of utmost importance at this juncture to confess that it was the first time that I was using a Sigma 150-500mm lens with no formal training to back me up, I was on a self-taught course to make the best of what I saw.


3 hours into the sail and Ashok asked Monirul to stop the boat. About 100 meters away was a small bird sitting on a thick branch of a tree that was located on the banks of the stream. It took me quite some time to spot the little thing but as soon as I did, not wasting any time in taking out my SLR and having a go at it. Ashok told me that it was a collared Kingfisher, one of the six species that I got to spot on that trip.

                                          BLUE-EARED KINGFISHER.

Another highlight of the day was the Blue-Eared Kingfisher which was very difficult to spot but extremely beautiful and a treat to have clicked one picture which turned out to be a good one.

                                          BROWN-WINGED KINGFISHER.

That evening marked another highlight with me spotting one of the rarest species of Kingfisher in the Sunderbans. The Browm-Winged Kingfisher, which is not easily spotted by guests and guides, had been missing from the forest for almost a year and here I was photographing it before the days end.
What a first day it was, I said to myself. I thanked Ashok for his guidance and soon reached the guest house where I laid myself to rest for the night.
Day 2: 22\04\13

Day two would turn out to be one of the most eventful days of my life. The route planned by ashok was to enter through Sardakhali and make our way via Sunderkhali to Choragazi, Dobanki, Pirkhali and exit from Sudhanyakhali.


It was quite an amazing day as we started off by spotting a huge salt water crocodile and a water monitor lizard. We made our usual stop over at the Sunderkhali watch-tower where I was fortunate enough to spot the wood swallow, Magpie Robin and several sunbirds.


By afternoon we reached Choragazi. As we made our way along the banks of Choragazi, Ashok saw a huge black bird inside a tree on the banks of the river that looked like an owl. Owls are my favourite species of birds and I was ecstatic at the chance of spotting an owl. I couldn’t spot the owl until the boat was perpendicular to it and within a flash it flew away. Having my camera ready, I managed to click one picture of the owl while it was well hidden by the leaves of the tree. The picture was inconclusive and my conjunctured guess was it was a buffy fish owl. Ashok said that couldn’t be a buffy fish owl as they are extremely rare and one has never seen it in the Sunderbans. I was asking myself if I could really be so lucky as to spot a buffy fish owl in the sunderbans. By now we were about a hundred meters away from the spot where we saw the owl and I had a very strong gut feeling to go back there and take a look. While I found myself engaged in a serious negotiation with myself whether or not to go back and search for the owl, I was shocked when something within me told Monirul to turn back and search for the owl. We spend about half an hour at that spot hoping that the owl would return but unfortunately it didn’t that day. I was feeling really good at having a glance at that beautiful creature and I felt really good about myself. It was as if I had a dose of ‘Felix Felicis’ also known as ‘liquid luck’, a portion Harry Potter drinks in the movie ‘The half-blood prince’ that makes him feel like the luckiest person alive. I told Ashok that we were going to see a tiger that day and as always I heard the guide laugh at my little outburst of a gut feeling.


It was around 2.30 pm in the afternoon when a storm was brewing over our head. We reached Dobanki and stopped over at the watch-tower there. After spending about ten minutes we made our way back to the boat. Before the exit, was a small Bonabibi temple where I happened to look by a happy mistake and thanked Bonbibi (The goddess of the forest) for a wonderful time thus far.

I had a sense of déjà vu. It’s like I had seen this place before and about 5 minutes after leaving the watch-tower did I see a huge animal sitting in the water about 200 meter away from us. It was a setting straight out of a movie scene. Here was a tiger sitting on the bank of a river with no trees around him to hide away in a state of camouflage. The forest covered with mangrove trees was around 50 meters away from the tiger that was resting at the edge of the stream probably cooling himself down in the heat of the day. To the right of the tiger was the river and beyond which was an island. The tiger had just spotted us and started to make his way into the jungle when Monirul starts to scream ‘Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!!!!!’ and starts to sail faster towards the animal. At first Ashok thought it was a log in the water but then the ‘log’ got up and started to move away from the stream and into the jungle. It was no doubt the man-eater himself, the tiger and I started to photograph him. The boat was moving really fast and the waves were quiet strong. I was unable to photograph him and several pictures turned out to be just a big blur. By the time we got to the spot, the tiger had gone into the forest and we lost track of him.






 I was screaming for joy inside the boat. Never did I scream inside the forest but the excitement was too much to hold in. Before I came to the Sunderbans, I was drowned in sarcasm at the possibility of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger of the Sunderbans by several people to whom I disclosed my plans to visit the Sunderbans in the days to come and here I was, standing witness to one of the best tiger sightings of my life and Ashok by my side only to reassure how lucky I was to spot the tiger which had evaded every other tourist for more than a year now and somehow shown himself to me. Ashok went on to say that “only the pure at heart gets to see the tiger in Sunderbans” and that the tiger had considered me special enough to show himself to me. It all came back to me now the sense of déjà vu and everything. The dream I had a day before had now come true. Some people say, one can see their future in their dreams and I actually did see it. Nothing had changed in the dream. The location, the tiger, the storm was all in my dream and now in my reality as well.


Within minutes of losing the tiger, we found ourselves in a storm of sorts. We were at a place called ‘Panchmukhani’ which means a place where five rivers meet. The waves were really strong and the boat wobbled and struggled to make it out in one piece. I was advised to get into the cabin for fear of falling overboard. We held onto the railing for dear life and I struggled to make my way into the cabin. Ashok and I fell several times. I hit my head against the cabin door and almost blacked out before a hand from inside pulled me and my camera bag inside. It was Laltoo who came to my rescue. The boat battled the waves for an hour now and we made it out of the storm alive and the boat intact. Monirul later disclosed that in 20 years’ time, it was the fiercest storm he had sailed through and another 20 minutes into the storm and the boat would have seen the sea bed for the first and last time.


After surviving the storm the crew bear witness to a spectacular rainbow, signifying a sense of hope after the storm had passed. Soon I was hit by thoughts of how beautiful and magical the Sunderbans really is. One minute we see the tiger and the next we find ourselves battling for our lives and soon after relishing in the calm water under the glimmer of the rainbow. It was as if the sunderbans was talking to me, a lesson in the making. My conscious was speaking to me and explaining to me that life is pretty much like what you have experienced now. One minute you are happy and the next you have an obstacle to overcome. There’s nothing like complete happiness or sadness. All we need to do is live the moment and learn from every situation that life throws at us. There will always be laughter after pain, sunshine after rain so why worry ?

Ashok soon came to me and said "forgive me sahib for I had not believed in your gut instincts and from now on, we shall follow your gut instincts all the way for the remainder of your stay." Come to think of it, we were at the right place and at the right time. Everything we did prior in the day, made us arrive at the tiger sighting at the precise time. My instincts to go back to see the owl after it had flown away and our time at the Dobanki watch-tower, my little 5 minute prayer at the Bonobibi temple lead us to the tiger at the precise moment. Had we arrived 5 minutes later, the tiger would gone into the jungle to take shelter from the storm that was brewing above and had we arrived earlier, we would have missed the tiger altogether as it was mid-day and the tiger would not have come out in the open in the scorching heat. 

Day 3: 23\04\13

Having been exalted by the tigers presence the day before and after having received a warm welcome and gestures of how lucky a person I really am from the personnel of the forest guest house, I now made my way to the boat to start the day anew where Ashok, Monirul, Laltoo and Babu awaited my arrival. Ashok greeted me in a typical western style with a firm handshake and said ‘where to sahib?’ and I told him that I was very eager to catch another glimpse of the buffy fish owl which we had spotted the day before and as I read a lot about owls, I knew for a fact that they would return to the same tree and the same branch once the immediate disturbance had passed. So we made our way to Choragazi following the same route as the previous day until Choragazi and instead of turning towards Dobanki we made our way to Deul Barani which is the most beautiful stretch of mangroves in the whole of Sunderbans.


                                       THE ORIENTAL WHITE-EYE.

                                             BRAHMINY KITE IN FLIGHT.
Before entering the park, in the buffer zone our eyes were treated to the presence of a pair of Pied Kingfishers flying past our boat, a Collard Kingfisher and a long tailed shrike. We made our usual stop at the Sunderkhali watch-tower and this time saw the oriental white-eye, purple rumped sunbird, orange breasted green pigeon and a honey buzzard. 
When we reached Choragazi, we were soon followed by another boat. Since this was the off-season, I was the only person in the whole of Sunderbans except on this particular day when I saw for the first time another tourist boat. Not wanting the owl to be disturbed by the other boat, I asked Monirul to quicken our pace. Soon we reached the spot where we last saw the owl and would you know it, my instincts were right again and the owl was positioned on the same tree and on the same branch. We were moving so fast that we sped past the owl and had to turn back. The owl did not spot our boat but my worst fears had come true. The owl had noticed the boat which was coming behind us and the noise from that boat had disturbed it. Monirule had to turn the huge boat around and as luck had favoured us, the owl stood on the branch and looked at the other boat without flying away and the people on the other boat had not yet spotted the owl and were wondering why our boat was coming back. 

                                               THE BUFFY FISH OWL.

                            THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY SUNDERBAN TRIP.

                                          A TREAT TO THE NAKED EYE.

We were now right in front of the owl and I wasted no time in photographing it. I was able to get four snaps of the owl before it flew away in the commotion caused by the two boats. I knew for certain that the owl was gone for good and would never return to that spot again. It was never spotted again. After comparing the photos I took of the owl with a guide book on Indian birds, it was confirmed that the owl was indeed a Buffy Fish Owl and that it has never been recorded there before. I was happy as ever, and the owl sighting surpasses the tiger sighting of the previous day and to this day remains the highlight of my Sunderbans trip.

                                            THE GREEN BEE-EATER.


Other highlights of the day were a Black-Capped Kingfisher, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Green Bee Eater and the Brahminy Kite.
Day 4: 24\04\13 

Day 4 would see us entering from Sudhanyakhali and moving along Pirkhali, Dobanki, Choragazi, Sunderkhali and exit from Sardakhali.


Pirkhali is an extremely beautiful stretch to sail through. One can easily lose oneself and revere in the natural beauty of the Sunderbans. It’s a wide canal of water surrounded on either side by several islands. The high tide and low tide play an extremely important role when deciding on our entry and exit paths. One can travel the forest during a high tide but must refrain from entering the channel during low tide as the water level could reduce to a trickle. The timing of high tide and low tide increases by 45 minutes each day i.e. if today at 9am one experiences a low tide in a particular channel, the next day one would experience the low tide at 9.45am and so on. The tides get reversed every 15 days with the advent of the new and full moon.

                        A CHANNEL ALONG THE PIRKHALI ROUTE.

                                       THE IDLES INSIDE THE TEMPLE.
I also chose this route because I wanted to reach the temple inside the Dobanki Watch-tower early during the day and hear to the stories that the idles inside had played a role in. From the right the first idle is Shah Jongli (Bonbibi’s brother) and to his left is Bonbibi the goddess of the forest. The two idles are resting on a tiger god known as Dakshin Ray. The small idle below Dakshin Ray is Dukhi (a small village boy). Finally to the complete left is an idol of the priest of the temple. The story has three stages and it goes a little something like this. There are of course several variations to the story as they are to all folklore but I shall write about the story narrated by Ashok (my guide). 

Stage I  
Ibrahim had two wives Phulbibi his first wife and as he was unable to have children with her, he got married a second time to Gulalbibi. After a couple of years Ibrahim was blessed with the pregnancy of Gulalbibi, much to the dismay of Phulbibi. Phulbibi forced Ibrahim to banish Gulalbibi to the forest to spend the rest of her life away Ibrahim. In the forest Gulalbibi gave birth to two babies whom she named Bonbibi and Shah Jungoli. On hearing the news, Ibrahim rushed into the forest to bring back Gulalbibi and their two children but Bonbibi was angry with Ibrahim for having left her mother all alone in the forest having to fend for herself. So the two children refused to go to Ibrahim’s house and they grew up in the forest.

Stage 2
The forest belonged to a king named Dokerai and his mother Narayoni. Dokerai received news that two gods were living in his forest and he didn’t want to share his land with them, so in a fit of rage he took up his sword and was on his way to kill the gods. Dokerai was stopped by his mother who told him that he cannot kill Bonbibi because she was a goddess and a man should never raise his hands on a woman. Dokerai then ordered his mother to fight with Bonbibi. Bonbibi defeated Dokerai’s mother and soon became friends with her as Bonbibi knew that Dokerai had forced his mother to fight with her. Dokerai was fuming with anger on hearing news about his mother’s new found relationship with Bonbibi.

Stage 3
It was honey collection time in the Sunderbans during the months of April and early May when a rich merchant named Dhona along with his crew of fishermen were on the search for bee hives. Pretty soon they stumbled upon an island filled with bee hives, something Dhona has never seen before. Dhona prayed to the gods and thanked them for leading him to this mystery island that no one has ever heard of before. When they collected a few bee hives to extract the honey, they found to their utter surprise that all the bee hives were empty. Quite strange said Dhona that an island filled with bee hives and none of them containing honey. The crew were tired and they decided to sleep for that night and explore the island the next day.

Dhuki was a small boy, the youngest of the lot who was part of the fishermen crew on Dhona’s boat. While sleeping Dhona had a dream in which Dokherai appeared and asked Dhona to sacrifice the life of Dhuki if they wanted any honey from the island. Dhona refused to sacrifice Dhuki and this only angered Dokherai. Dokherai told Dhona that if they do not hand over Dhuki the next day, the entire crew including himself would die.

Next morning when Dhona woke up, he told everybody except Dhuki about the dream he had the previous night. The crew after discussing amongst themselves came to the conclusion that they would leave Dhuki on the island for Dokherai to kill and they would be on their way. Dhona send Dhuki into the forest to collect some firewood and by the time Dhuki came back, the crew had taken off. The crew reached an island known as kendokhali where they were treated to lots of honey as promised by Dokherai and they went back to the village and spread the word that Dhuki had been killed by a tiger. On hearing the news Dhuki’s mother wept for days.

Dhuki soon realised that he had been left ashore by the crew and that he had no means of getting back home. Soon he heard a roar and then he saw the tiger. The tiger was a god named Dakshin Ray who was sent by Dokherai to kill Dhuki. Dhuki was scared but he knew that he was in Bonbibi’s land and so he began to pray to her and soon fainted. Bonbibi and Shah Jongli came to Dhuki’s aid. Bonbibi held Dhuki in her arms while Shah jungoli fought Dakshin Ray and defeated him. Bonbibi sent Dhuki home on the back of a crocodile.

Dhuki returned to the village to find his mother blind as she cried a lot on hearing the news of his death. Soon Dhuki prayed again to Bonbibi and the goddess came and asked Dhuki to pour some water from the river over his mother’s eyes and soon her vision returned. Dhuki and his mother lived happily ever after in the village from there on.

It was a wonderful story to hear to and it just amazes me to see how animals have always been a part of Indian mythology and in a sense Indian mythology has always been at the forefront of conservation of forests and animals in India.

                                     FLAME-BACK WOODPECKER.

White-Collared Kingfisher, Black-Capped Kingfisher, Flameback Woodpecker, Ashy-Wood Swallow and the Salt water Crocodiles were the highlights of the day.

Day 5: 25\04\13 


Day 5 was my last and upon a sincere request, Monirul decided to travel through the entire map as he was happy that we saw the tiger. It’s one day that I’ll never forget. It was like a crash course of the Sunderbans and to say that it was memorable would be an understatement. That day we didn’t see much wildlife but it was a day to revere in the beauty of the Sunderbans. It was as if time stood still while we made our way through the murky waters hoping to catch a last glimpse of all that the forest had to show me. 



We came across a boat of honey collectors who were brave enough to enter the forest and spend an entire month collecting honey before finally going back with huge jars filled with honey. Honey collection in the Sunderbans takes place in the month of April and the first half of May. It is during this time that several honey collectors fall prey to the tiger. In a year around four hundred to seven hundred such men lose their lives to the tiger. There are several theories on why tigers in the Sunderbans have turned man-eaters. Most of them are redundant such as the salt content in the water makes the tigers aggressive and hence attack humans that venture into the forest. The most plausible theory is one which states that the prey density in the Sunderbans is quite low and tigers there have taken to other means of food such as fish, crabs and birds which usually does not constitute the regular diet of the Royal Bengal Tiger. And since human beings are easy prey for the 250 kilogram predator many tigers have taken to man-eating provided humans venture into their land. Another possible theory is that, tigers in the Sunderbans are very territorial and have had less human contact. Especially tigers in the core areas of the forest where villagers and tribal people are forbidden to enter yet many of them illegally sneak in to fish and collect honey. It is such people that usually lose their lives to tiger attacks.

We were soon stormed by a swarm of honey bees. At first they were very few about twenty in number and I didn’t pay much attention to them. Within an hour there were five hundred to six hundred of them, a figure not exaggerated by any means. Monirul and Laltoo ran to the deck under and hid themselves for three hours. Ashok and I were inside the cabin above the deck and maneuvering the boat from inside. It was brave Babu who took up arms against the honey bees as he came armed with different types of weaponry to fight off the bees.

                                          BABU ON A RAMPAGE.



                              HERE'S BABU WITH A SPATULA.

 He first took off his shirt and started to whack away at the bees, he then went into the kitchen and bought a big steel spoon to hit the bees. His next choice of armor was to take his slippers in his hands and smash the honey bees by sandwiching them in between the slippers. Babu then retreated to the kitchen and this time brought with him a spatula. On failing yet again, his final attempt was with his jacket. He soon gave up the fight after being stung by the bees in five different places, one of which was in a sensitive area that made him lie down for an hour.


My journey to the Sunderbans was epic with memories far beyond the number of bees that attacked us on the last day. The high tide-low tide, new moon and full moon saga that forced us to change our routes and plans on an hourly basis are experiences that I will cherish for a life time. If you are looking for a place of mystery with several unexpected surprises and a touch of godly presence in the vicinity of natural beauty at its pinnacle then the Sunderbans is the place for you. Never is there a place where the tiger has been feared and revered so much. The forest, the birds, the animals and the man eating tiger of the Sunderbans provides you with an eco-system like no other on this planet. The mangroves, the only one of its kind is waiting to be explored and is waiting for you.

1 comment:

  1. fantastic experience..
    i surely wud want to go to sunderbans once.
    very beautiful place