The Sundarbans is believed to have once been a part of the sea for it is heavy silt deposits that has created the delta. The rich, isolated 10,000 sq. km. swamps were first thrown into public eye with the setting up of Project Tiger on the 4,262 sq. km. delta on the Indian side. The rest lies in Bangladesh. 2525 sq. km. of it were demarcated as the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve under the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1973, and it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1977. A core area of 1,330 sq. km. was accorded the status of a National Park on May 4, 1984. The park was eventually recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Legends surrounding these swamps date back to 200-300 A.D. when the merchants of Chaand Saudagar built a city in the Baghmara forest area here, the ruins of which still stand today. The Sundarbans were also believed to have offered safe sanctuary to Raja Basand Rai and his nephew who faced a threat from the Moghul Emperor Akbar's army. Netidhopani still contains evidence of the protective structures built by them. Pirates and salt smugglers flourished here in the 17th century AD and used the swamps and ancient ruins to their advantage.
The Sundarbans is an integral part of the Bengali ethos and culture and has been featured prominently in Bengali literature and art. The novel 'Kapal Kundla' by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the sixties' film Ganga are only an indication of the inspiration they have provided to writers, poets and film-makers over several years. The hilsa fish that spawns in the Sundarbans is the pride of Bengali cuisine.
For protection from tigers, locals wear brightly coloured facemasks on the back of their heads (for they feel the tiger springs from behind) when they venture into the jungle, in the hope that such ploys may keep them safe. They worship Banbibi (the forest goddess) and Dakshin Ray (a demon that is said to assume the avatar of a tiger) for protection from tigers. Narayani, Maklukhan, Sa Jungli and Gazi Saheb are the other deities propitiated in return for safety.
The Sundarbans outlines the gigantic fertile delta that is the meeting point of the three mighty rivers mentioned earlier. The smaller Vidya Malta river, divides the region into the western Namkhana Range and the eastern Bashirhat Range. The swamps lie at the feet of the Himalayas in the North, the Rajmahal hills in the West and the Meghalaya plateau and Chittagong hills in the East. The notified forest area, supports dense mangrove forests, several rivers, creeks and estuaries but most of the area is inaccessible swamps. Sajnekhali, Lothian Island and Halliday Island form the three most important island areas of the reserve. The Sundarbans comprises the Chhotahardi, Mayadwip, Chamta, Matla, Goshaba, Gona and Baghmara forests. The soil texture resembles sticky clay and flooding is a daily feature with two-thirds of the land being submerged. Water logging is an obvious fall-out of the hydrology of the area.
As many as 35 species of mammals thrive in this area where they shelter, roost, feed or breed. Because of the varied habitat the creatures that live here are terrestrial, estuarine or marine.
The tiger at the apex of the food chain is well adapted to the habitat. Its numbers were estimated to be around 242, however, recent surveys indicate that the tiger population could be far smaller than earlier estimations. They are difficult to sight since the dense jungle offers perfect camouflage. The Sundarbans tiger has taken to fishing for its food! The adaptation is so comprehensive that the tiger's daily water consumption may contain as much as 3 per cent salt. The Sundarbans tiger is a great swimmer with the capacity to battle strong currents, although in the water it faces threats from the shark and the saltwater crocodile.
Chital can be seen in herds in the grassy and forested areas often interacting with rhesus macaques on treetops. Other terrestrial fauna include the wild pig and fishing cat. The Bengal fox and the Indian pangolin also abound amidst the mangroves. Two species of mongoose, several species of venomous snakes and a variety of otters, bats and rodents are also found. The Gangetic dolphins and little porpoises occupy the estuarine area. The Estuarine or the saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus and the water monitor inhabit the banks of the rivers and streams. The saltwater crocodile is one of the world's largest and rarest crocodiles alive. The fresh water turtle, Batagur baska and the marine olive Ridley turtle, both of which are endangered, can be seen at their nesting grounds at Halliday Island. The Rana and Bufo species of frogs have also been observed.
Snakes like the Russel's viper, banded krait and checkered keelback are found in addition to the Indian cobra, king cobra, pythons, rat snakes, green whip snake or green vine snake. You will probably see the amazing mudskippers, small fish that prefer land to water. They use their fins to move in the swampy soils when the tide is out and seem to be skipping along in the mud.
Some freshwater fish that breed and spawn in the estuaries are found, as are crustaceans like shrimps, prawns, and crabs. The fiddler crab is most common and an interesting aspect is the colour changes they undergo that are beautifully synchronised with the tide. Hilsa, pomfret, pama and polyhemus are the marine species of fish that navigate the estuary to reach their spawning areas upstream. The bhekti, mugili and shela fish thrive in the mangrove areas.
The Hooghly-Matla estuary harbours a profusion of molluscs including bivalves, gastropods and scaphopods, which may be free-living or attached to substrata. Sea anemones are observed at Patharpratina, Namkhana, and Jharkali.
It is not surprising that the dense swamps host the largest variety of insect life. The rock bee is the most prominent. Huge hives can be seen in the forested areas where they make wild honey. Several species of butterflies and moths flutter around, exploring the terrain and magnificent blooms full of nectar.
The Sundarbans is blessed with nearly 260 species of birds. Storks, herons, egrets and kingfishers (seven species exist here) are omnipresent. Resident Spoonbills, ibises, cormorants and bitterns are also found. The White-throated Kingfisher, Small Blue Kingfisher and the Pied Kingfisher feast on the abundant fish, worms and tadpoles found in the region. Many are migrants from the North. Mynas, bulbuls and parakeets, along with barbets, orioles, cuckoo and sunbirds drop by enticed by the mangroves during the fruiting season. As you cruise by, sounds of woodpeckers battering away on dead logs or tree trunks fill the air. The Open-billed Stork builds its nests in the mangroves.
Aquatic birds like seagulls, snipe, sandpiper, stilts and stints are found in winter. Ducks, teals, terns, plovers and lapwings abound in the waters and along muddy shores. Sea eagles, harriers, Osprey, falcons and hawks are prominent in the list of raptors. The Crested Serpent Eagle and the Changeable Hawk Eagle are heavyweights that scour the area for prey. Vultures, Brahminy Kites and crows also scavenge the area.
Sajnekhali, Lothian Island and Halliday island are wildlife areas that support a good density of tigers. A good trip is from Namkhana in the 24 Parganas in a motorised craft where sea turtles nest and tigers roam.
Watchtowers at strategic locations enable a greater likelihood of wildlife sightings. Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali, (khali means canal or creek and almost all names end so) Netidhopani and Haldi are some of the chosen spots where watchtowers exist. The first three are key Project Tiger Islands. The Sajnekhali Visitor Centre contains a pond full of sharks, a crocodile enclosure and a turtle hatchery. Turtle hatchlings are released into the wild to counter the threat of extinction.
A heron sanctuary near Sajnekhali is a gorgeous spot, ideally visited between July and September. Egrets are more common around Sajnekhali while the White-bellied Sea-eagle, Black-capped Kingfisher, terns, Whimbrel and Curlew are more likely at Lothian Island. Fraserganj is a busy fishing village, which also attracts a sizeable migratory bird population.
Mayadwip offers sanctuary to the endangered olive Ridley turtle nesting grounds. The Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project (two and half hours from Namkhana) has the largest gharials. In 1997, a Mangrove Interpretation Centre initiated at Sajnekhali, provides a view of the Sundarbans as a protection against cyclones and wind and water erosion.
Deep in the heart of the Sundarbans is Goshaba, a thriving township where local Bengali lifestyles are still extant. 'Bidhaba Gram' is an island village that houses widows, whose husbands have ostensibly fallen prey to the tiger. Many of them have been rehabilitated at Canning where they run a ready-made garment unit. The Forest Department compensates victims' families for death and disability. Piyali is a beautiful resting spot.
Being largely swampy, mosquitoes are aplenty.
Carry adequate woollens in winter.
The WBTDC tours are a good option if you want to be spared the hassle of making your own arrangements throughout the journey. The flipside is that it may involve a compromise on your sense of adventure.
Entry to the core area of the reserve is banned and travel elsewhere must be in groups of at least six people. Do not stray away from your group if you are at the watchtowers.
Avoid loitering in the dark.
Permits are compulsory to visit the Sundarbans Wildlife Sanctuary. These can be obtained at the Forest Department office in Calcutta, for which your passport must be brought along. To visit any other area in the vicinity of the Sundarbans, you may contact the Divisional Forest Officer, 24 Parganas, 35 Gopalnagar Road, Calcutta – 700 027. Tel.: 091-033-245 1037.
Nominal entry fees with additional charges for still and video cameras are subject to change at short notice. Please enquire at the Tourist Office.
The Field Director, Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, Goshaba District, 24 Parganas (South), West Bengal, India, Tel: 091-09118 55280.
Chief Wildlife Warden, West Bengal, Bikash Bhaban (North Block), 3rd Floor, Salt Lake City, Calcutta 700 091, India. Tel.: 091-0333346900/ 0333583208; Fax: 091-033 3345946; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The region is known for its unbearable humidity. Summers are warm and uncomfortably sultry at 370C to 420C. Winter nights can be slightly chilly at around 90C. Thunderstorms and tidal waves are known to occur occasionally. The monsoon breaks in June and lasts for three months. From June to December, Sajnekhali is worth visiting.
December to April is a better bet if you intend to plunge into the heart of the Sundarbans. The wildlife belt is at its prettiest in the monsoons but winter is indeed the best time to be at the Sundarbans. Early morning and late evenings are always exciting.
The area being an extraordinary habitat, all times are unpredictable. The tidal creatures are as exciting as are the earth bound ones so till nightfall, viewing is good.
Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge (60 beds), P.O. Goshaba, District 24 Parganas (South) supports good and cheap accomodation. Visitors, however, are advised not to remain outdoors after dark. Tel.: 03463-52699; Fax: 03463-52398.
M.V.Chitrarekha and M.V.Madhukar are luxury vessels where you can spend a night on-board when you opt for a two-day cruise.
The West Bengal Launch Owners' Syndicate in Calcutta may be contacted for private launches.
The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation organised tour package include a planned 3-day excursion on boats every week during October to March. The trip costs between Rs. 800 for basic rooming to Rs. 2,350 for twin-berth cabins.
By Air: Calcutta (131 km.) would be the ideal base.
By Rail: Port Canning is the closest station, only 48 km. southeast of Calcutta.
By Road: The nearest town is Goshaba (50 km.) From Calcutta, it is best to take a bus or car to Basunti or Sonakhali or Port Canning. Entry points are from Port Canning, Thosiave, Namkhana, Sonakhali, Raidighi, Basanti, Dhamakali and Najat. From here motor launches can enter the park.
By Boat: From Basanti to Sajnekhali, you can either opt for a direct boat or halt at Goshaba. From the Mangrove Interpretation Centre at Sajnekhali, boats are available on hire for the whole day at Rs. 500 and for a four-hour stretch at Rs. 350. Boat permits are required. A guide is also necessary. Motor launches are also available from Namkhana, Sonakhali etc. to enter the park. A bodbooti, which is the local term for a small ferry, is a quaint way to get across the river to Dok Kart from where you can reach Sonakhali by road in 50 minutes.