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Mangrove marvels

It was an unexpected literary touch to a colourful expedition. Here we were, sailing along the mangrove tree-lined waterways of the Sunderbans on board the MV Rajlaksmi. To add to the experience, we were being treated to a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Suddenly the imagery of the book acquired an altogether new meaning.

We — a group of 15 — had boarded the boat from the bustling Shonakhali jetty for a two-day trip to the Sunderbans with Compact Calcutta, a travel outfit that specialises in niche and bespoke local experiences in Bengal.

Only 150km away from Calcutta, the Sunderbans is the largest tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world and covers an area of 10,000sq km, of which about 6,000sq km are in Bangladesh. The Unesco World Heritage Site is made up of 54 islands and is also one of the most ecologically threatened areas on the planet.

We chugged slowly along the River Bidya — fortified by a constant flow of steaming fried fish and gobi pakoras. As we sailed through the creeks, a different world unfolded before us. Unending miles of mangroves. Boats abandoned on desolate mudflats. A fishing net being flung on to the water. Boats loaded dangerously with people. An osprey or a kingfisher flying overhead. Even a mobile boat dispensary funded by Dominique Lapierre.

But there is a darker side to life in the Sunderbans.

The mostly impoverished inhabitants wage an eternal war against nature here. The place is famous for its crocodiles and snakes, not to mention the tigers, most of which are man-eaters. Unfortunately, the mangrove trees, with their spike-like breathing roots, make hunting difficult for the big cats and so they hunt down men — the easiest prey.

On the boat, we watched out eagerly for a flash of gold and black. But the locals don’t even refer to the tiger by its name — they call it dakshin rai. And baulis (woodcutters), maulis (honey collectors) and fishermen — both Hindus and Muslims — never go into the forest without saying a prayer to Bonbibi, the lady of the forest, who is believed to look out for their safety.

We came across the first Bonbibi temple at Dobanki camp. According to folklore, the goddess, who sits astride a tiger along with her brother Shah Jongoli, is said to have come from the holy city of Medina. She came to the Sunderbans on a divine mission to save men from Raja Dakshin Rai, a wicked Brahmin with a passion for human flesh.

Back on the boat, it was time for lunch and we enthusiastically sat down to a divine spread that included delights like bekti curry and shorshe prawn. The feast, all cooked on board, almost made up for the elusive wildlife — we hadn’t spotted anything except a couple of deer and some birds on the way.

The sun had set by the time we reached the Sajnekhali sanctuary and there was only time for a quick visit to the forest museum. Then, we headed to the Sunderban Gateway Resort on Pakhiralay Island.

After freshening up, we gathered on the resort’s courtyard for a barbecue.

The night was beautiful and very cold. A red half-moon climbed the eastern sky and the stars seemed huge to my city-weary eyes.

Little Martin and Anthony, who’d come with their Belgian parents, got the fire going and soon we were biting into succulent mushrooms, tiger prawns, chicken and sausages. We bonded over the warmth of the fire and before the evening was over, we’d all become friends.

I was up early next day and watched the sun rise up over the misty paddy fields. The day starts early in the village and soon a lady came along to sell a jar of khejur rosh. I polished off two glasses of the refreshing sweet liquid — it has to be had before eight in the morning, after which it ferments into toddy. Then I walked a little way into the neighbouring village and chatted with some of the residents.

Still trying to battle the ravages left behind by cyclone Aila, the farmers here have finally been able to raise a crop for the first time in three years. Life is not easy for the honey collectors either.

“We light a fire under the hive to chase away the bees and then climb the tree to break the hive. It’s around these mahua trees that the tiger waits for prey,” one of them told me.

Boarding the boat that morning turned out to be quite an adventure! It was low tide and we had to step across a super-slippery gangplank to step on board, all the while hanging on to a bamboo pole for dear life.

Breakfast comprised luchi, alu chocchori and mowa, after which we headed for Manmatha Nagar. The village was idyllic with paddy fields, coconut and palm-fringed roads, thatched huts and ducks frolicking in the pond. A young man swiftly climbed a tree to treat us to fresh green coconut water.

Next came a visit to Hamilton House in Gosaba. Sir Daniel Hamilton was a Scottish banker who initiated a co-operative movement here in the late 19th century. He created the Sir Daniel Hamilton trust at Gosaba in 1905 to develop the lives of the people of the Sunderbans. The house is a neat wooden structure in white and green and stands on stilts. A marble plaque records a visit by Tagore, who was much influenced by Hamilton’s work, in December 1932.

It was now time to head home. I stood on the bow of the boat taking in the last sights and sounds of the forest, and let the wind whip through my hair. The river flowed tirelessly before me. It was the best feeling in the world.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: A 2-day trip to the Sunderbans with Compact Calcutta will cost around Rs 9,500 per person on twin sharing basis. It includes accommodation, meals, beverages, all transfers, giveaways and expert advice. Compact Calcutta also promotes tailor-made photography, gastronomic, heritage and eco-tours. Call 033-65001086/ 9830024002 or go to www.compactcalcutta.com.

Best time to visit: Between October and March.


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