Saturday, June 19, 2010

SUNDARBANS – WORLD’S LARGEST MANGROVE

I arrived in Sundarbans, the World’s largest mangrove forest, famous for its chief inhabitant – the Royal Bengal Tiger, on a hot morning in April 2010. Now, getting here can be an adventure and perhaps a challenge in itself, because of the remoteness of this place. If you look at the map of India and its Eastern border with Bangladesh, you’d notice a string of marshy islands with hundreds, perhaps thousands of minor rivulets cutting in and around the various islands. These low level islands constitute the Sundarbans- a word in Bengali that means “beautiful forest” but the name is actually derived from a mangrove tree called Sundari, which also means beautiful. There are many ways of getting here from Kolkata, the nearest major city, all of those ways are somewhat complicated but I will provide those details at the end of this blog. Here I am going to recount the route I took and the method that seemed the shortest way to get to the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve on Sajenkhali Island.


(Islands of the Sundarbans)

I rented a vehicle, air-conditioned of course, the April heat this year being exceptionally hot on record, I was not going to rough it out like I would have in my younger days or in better weather. I don’t mind roughing it out once I get to my destination but if I can avoid a rough ride to get there, I’ll do it any day. Driving down, one heads South from Kolkata on a narrow state highway that passes through the outer fringes of Kolkata, passing through stinking areas of leather processing plants, brick kilns, small and very congested fish and vegetable markets, grubby satellite towns and so on. After about 40 kilometers from Kolkata we seemed to have left everything behind and all that I could see were vegetable gardens, water pools, canals and for some time we paralleled a river that was quite polluted, a river that leaves India and goes into Bangladesh at some point. Apparently it’s our polluted gift to the people there!

(Chimneys belching smoke-brick kilns)

The small villages of Bengal are neat, with mud walled huts and clean surroundings, a far cry from dirty villages that I have seen in many parts of Southern India. These villages were neat and tidy and one is surprised at the level of cleanliness after leaving the dirty polluted environment of a big city like Kolkata. Each mud house has a small pond near it, called a “pukur”. I suppose this water is used for many things, I saw people swimming in it, bathing in it and even cleaning their vessels and clothes in it.
We passed through several such villages, some of them the driver knew by name and most he didn’t. What mattered to me was that he was able to find the route correctly, even choosing the right forks in the road and so on, since signboards were entirely missing.


The last town and it’s a really small town is Basanti and possibly the last place where one can use their ATM cards to withdraw cash, I saw a new one being installed in the town, off the main highway, at the State Bank of India. 10 Kms from Basanti is the waterfront, a place called Godkhali where one can park their hired cars for a fee, at sheltered car parking areas. A short distance away at the waterside is a bus stop type shelter for the country boats and water taxis that ply between Godkhali and Gosaba. Gosaba is a large island and gateway to the Sundarbans. Overloaded, open to air/sun ferries with people and bikes cross the waterway between Godkhali and Gosaba, one look at the engine and one can start praying straightaway to their favorite God because the entire thing looks too rickety to support that many people.

(Country boat before people, livestock, motorcycles etc get on it)

The system is strange, they go a short distance and collect more people from what looks like sand bank and then cross a larger section of water to Gosaba. When one gets off at Gosaba, a guy with a wooden table sits at the point of exit and I noticed that everyone placed a One Rupee coin on his table as they exit. I too did the same, do as the locals do, I thought. One Rupee is a great deal for 20 minutes in the Sun on an overloaded country boat indeed.



Now, just so that I don’t scare the bejesus out of you readers, let me tell you that if you are in a group or booked through a resort that’s on Bali Island, one can proceed by a covered vessel that starts from Godkhali to the resort directly. I was alone and did not want to take one large boat to go to Sajnekhali, that’s where the Government run Forest Guest House is, inside the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where I planned to stay. For one person, it would have cost me a few thousand Rupees in this offseason. Anyway, the adventurous side in me wouldn’t have it. I really wanted to experience this as the locals do.

Once on Gosaba, I was told that I needed to take a “van” ride to the Southern part of the Island and catch another water taxi to Sajnekhali. So, I set off to hunt for a van. On the way, I passed through a small lane market, bustling with people and goods exhibited like a fair was going on. This seems to be a normal affair everyday, with Islanders flocking to buy everything from medicines to groceries to Vegetables and fish of course. At the end of the market, it just suddenly stops, I spotted a State Bank of India with an ATM there! Imagine, you are in the middle of nowhere, village island at the edge of the Sundarbans and there was 21st Century convenience! That euphoria was short lived when I found out that the ATM had broken down and had not been fixed for some time! Carrying some cash is a prudent thing to do when you are going to visit the boondocks.

(Riding on a cycle van through Gosaba)

Backtracking to the market and not seeing any “van”, I asked a local yokel where I could find a van and being a good Samaritan that he was, led me to a group of cycle rickshaws at the stand and told me in Bengali and sign language that I had to get on it. This cycle rickshaw is a bicycle hinged to a flat bed made of wood. One sits all around it, I believe 9 people can share a ride! I thought that this wiry bloke on the cycle rickshaw was going to take me to another place where one could continue in a Van. It struck me a little while later, during the 45 minutes cycling this guy did, with me and my bag on the flatbed and trying a conversation, to realize that this contraption was indeed “the van”, it’s a cycle van, he told me, sweat dripping off his legs as he pumped furiously, speeding on the narrow road, dodging people and other “vans” coming from the opposite side.

(Cycle van perspective)

The two videos posted above gives a good idea of what it feels like bumping along on the van for 45 minutes, going through many neat villages of Gosaba before finally ending up at what they call Sajnekhali ghat (or Pakhirala - another name for this place), the place to catch another open to air country boat to Sajnekhali Island, home to the Sajnekhali Tiger Camp, a part of the core area of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. This time, however, I was the lone paying occupant of the country boat and accompanying me were two others who worked on Sajnekhali island which has no other occupants or villages. Check out this video of the boat and its engine.

(Boat from Pakhirala to Sajnekhali Tiger Camp)

The next part will have stories about my boat trip into the Sudhanyakhali Tiger Reserve in the core area of the Sundarbans, my animal encounters in the Sundarbans, Legend of Bon Bibi and will have videos and more pictures of these things. Coming soon!

19 comments:

Swaram said...

Anup, we hv so wanted to visit Sunderbans, but hv nt been able to till now. Thanks for the detailed post about how to go there.
The only mangroves we have visited are the Indonesian ones :) I lovved them :)

Glad to c ur post :)

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Swaram: Part 2 will be about experiences there. I will be going there again this year, will bring more information on other options. I too love mangroves as you know. You have a real nice mangroves area in Pichchavaram TN, lovely place I've heard from friends and beautiful mangroves. Also on my list is the mangroves in Goa, among the least degraded ones on the West Coast of India. Thanks for your compliments.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

That was nice - and so are the videos. Wasn't it hot though bumping along on the bicycle van?

Vishwas Krishna said...

Super. Looks very clean too. Will add this place too, to the never ending list of places I should visit before I die.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Raji Madam, it was hot in the boat while waiting to move, under the blazing sun but once the boat started chugging along, the breeze off the water felt good. Same thing with the Cycle 'Van'. I actually enjoyed that cycle van ride more than I did in any ride in Disneyland! That was how I commented to a close friend of mine as I got a call on the mobile while I was bumping along these narrow roads through the tiny villages on Gosaba! Usually I am better prepared for trips but this time somehow I had forgotten to take a hat along. A simple hat would have been quite effective I think. No one visits the Sundarbans in summer because of the heat but to be honest, Sajnekhali and the general Sundarbans area, surrounded by water, was a few degrees cooler than Kolkata and comfortable in the evening and night.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Vishwas: Thats what struck me also, the cleanliness of the place. All that plastic garbage that we see strewn over rest of India was missing. As you can see, everything is rustic/rural in the Sundarbans and very little development has taken place there but people are generally orderly, friendly and helpful. The local people are very poor as they have been neglected completely by the Government and hence no power supply in the Sundarbans (now experimental power station being established on Gosaba Island only) and no piped water or garbage disposal etc, people do everything themselves. One video shows a mud hut with a solar panel on top. This is their best source of power. Many NGO's have taken the place of the Government in providing some amenities to the people there. Sundarbans is worth a visit, I'm glad you have added it to the list of places you want to visit!

Mitr Friend - Bhushavali said...

Hey Anup,
Good to know you've visited Sunderbans... I love that place tho not visited yet...

Gandhi Smriti
Shiva Parvathi Shirt - Office Sytle

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Mitr: I hope you get to visit someday..Sundarbans is worth the trip, to see the mangroves at their best..

YOSEE said...

That was an enjoyable read about an "enjoyable" journey( though the boat isn't exactly a pleasure cruise! ) The pics and videos gave a "3D" effect to the narrative.

Impressed with the villages ! Wish more of our countrysides was like that, unspoilt by the insidious invasion of urban plastic trash.

And LOL ! the "van" ! I guess calling the contraption a van was more convenient than inventing a name for it !
Sundarbans has been on my "to do" list for long; so far have only seen "samplers" in Picchavaram and Jogjakarta.

Part II of your trip eagerly awaited.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks Yosee. That 'van' trip back and forth (had to do return journey too) was fun..better than Disneyland ride! Great lesson I learned was never to forget your hat! Everything is open to sky in these parts and thats the key piece of accessory I'd forgotten! Was burned by end of the trip but enjoyed every moment of it. BTW the Van is pronounced as Ban over there, Bengali way and all that..led to my utter confusion! LOL!

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Congrats Captain on being published. And I do like the new look of your blog.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Thanks very much Raji Ma'am, for your words of encouragement. I have to come up with Part 2 as soon as possible!

Bittu said...

Anup I just spent the better part of two days working with people who wish to protect the Sundarbans and its tigers. I have loved this mangrove wonderland for over 40 years and wonder why more people have not traveled, as you did, to heaven and back. All the talk about man-eaters, by the way, is bullshit. I walked for four kms. on a sandy beach, following tiger pug marks for almost a kilometre. Pure heaven.

Bittu said...

Anup I just spent the better part of two days working with people who wish to protect the Sundarbans and its tigers. I have loved this mangrove wonderland for over 40 years and wonder why more people have not traveled, as you did, to heaven and back. All the talk about man-eaters, by the way, is bullshit. I walked for four kms. on a sandy beach, following tiger pug marks for almost a kilometre. Pure heaven.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Bittu Sir, its an honor to have your comment appear on my blog. I blame myself for not posting Part 2 of the story yet, I have time management issues to contend with, that can be overcome. I do believe that you are right about man eaters. Coming from you just makes it that much more credible. Thanks again.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Part 2 is also posted now: Sundarbans Tiger Camp.

Kamini said...

What a wonderful read! I'm back in the blog world after a long break, and this was a real treat. This is one place on my must-see list, and your piece has only reinforced that desire. Closer to home (in Tamil Nadu) is the world's second largest mangrove forest, Pichavaram. I hope to visit that as well some day. By the way, have you read Amitav Ghosh's book The Hungry Tide? It is set in the Sundarbans, and has some beautiful descriptions of it.
Kamini.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Welcome back to blogging Kamini. Before the Sundarbans posts, I had sort of taken a break as well. Pichchavaram is on top of my list too. Yes, I have a copy of The Hungry Tide and have read it twice, once when it was first published and subsequent to my Sundarbans visit so that I could enjoy the setting even more since I could relate to things. Amitav Ghosh is my favorite author and I have everything that he has written. I could not spot the Orcaella Brevirostris (Irrawady Dolphins) that are in his book but I'm going to go back again (helping with conservation efforts) and surely on one occasion or the other I'll spot them. Thanks for liking my blog piece on Sundarbans.

Jems said...

Hi Anup,
I heard that Sunderbana is beautiful Tiger park but I have never been there. It would be better if you provide more information about Sunderban.
last year I wen Peru and enjoyed the beauty of Salkantay Trek