Kya apne kabhi sher dekha hain?” [Have you ever seen a tiger?] I crane my neck to ask the boatman, his shirt fluttering in the wind. He glances away, eyes crinkling in amusement, and hollers, “Haan. Bees bar” [Yes. 20 times], over the sputtering engine. A nine-hour journey to the Sundarbans in the heat is no joke, but it’s all in the hope of encountering the royal Bengal tiger that lurks behind an impenetrable mesh of mangroves.
Notwithstanding the big cat’s numbers (274, according to the last controversial census in 2001, making it the largest tiger habitat in the world), it is still extremely rare to sight one here. Almost in consolation, the boatman translates an old Bengali saying for us – Here in the Sundarbans, the tiger is always watching you.
The Great Beyond
Whether you catch a glimpse of the striped beast or not, the Sundarbans’ ecological architecture is a marvel – perhaps emphasising why it earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. The region derives its name from the Sundari trees – salt-tolerant mangroves that thrive in the grittiest conditions. Spread over 9,630sqkm, the intermittently submerged archipelago of 54 tiny islands float like tea saucers. They were once inhabited by Burmese and Portuguese pirates, and are now home to indigenous tribes. The Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers merge to make the Sundarbans the largest delta in the world, 38 per cent of which lies in India, the rest in Bangladesh. The only way to explore the area is by boat, through rivulets and estuaries that comb through saline mud flats and halophytic plants like the unearthed roots of an old tree.
Survival of the fittest
Long celebrated in fables and music, the Sundarbans has been referenced in phantasmagorical scenes in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Even Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore sought respite here in the 1930s. (The bungalow that he stayed in, built by Scotsman Sir David Hamilton, still stands today.) Angry, ebbing tides are known to devour villages and islands in hours. The endangered tiger, known for its amphibious ability, will subsist on deer, but also devours cattle and unsuspecting villagers every few weeks.
Our Humble Abode
We finally set foot on the island of Satjelia and are greeted by the smiles of the children of Sukumari village. Our eco-friendly accommodation is a cluster of thatched mud huts; also home to village dogs, goats, ducks and chickens. By 7pm, the sun crawls into oblivion, leaving streaks of crimson, fuchsia and tangerine to stain the sky. There’s no electricity or hot water here, only thumb-sized mosquitoes to keep you company. But despite the many discomforts, when you look up to the boundless canopy of constellations, you realise that being here – in the heart of the wild – is the only thing that truly matters.
An Early Start
The best time to enjoy a safari is around 5.30am. We settle in our colourful boat, and intensely scan the banks, often being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the water and the sun’s strong haze. “Crocodile!” someone shouts, and everyone leaps to attention, brandishing cameras. You can also spot dolphins, chital deer, monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys, red fiddler crabs, kingfishers, egrets and storks. Although tigers are known to be shy, there’s no doubt their presence haunts the forest. The locals have unflinching faith in Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest, who protects woodcutters, honey collectors and fishermen from attacks. One of the highlights of our trip was an evening boat ride. While wobbling around in a creaky dinghy can induce panic attacks, it is the most charming way to get close to the magnificence of the forest. There’s a stillness that sneaks up on visitors here. As darkness falls, only a sliver of moonlight guides the strokes of the boatman, a lone gush, soon drowned out by the symphony of chattering crickets and other nocturnal musicians. Completely cut off from urbanisation, this hidden legacy offers no room for change. Instead, what you discover is an alluring paradise, which promises future generations that everything will stay the way it is, long after we have gone.
Getting there The nearest city is Kolkata. The Sundarbans is around five hours from the city: three hours of road travel and a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride.
Where to stay Organised tours are best to plan your trip. We booked ours with Tour de Sundarbans (tourdesundarbans.com). West Bengal Tourism (app.westbengaltourism.gov.in) also operates them, as do private operators.
Best time to goOctober to March. From HT Brunch, June 2 Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch