A trip to Sundarbans, a stay at Sunderbans Jungle camp, Bali village & full day boat rides (West Bengal, India)

 In a Nutshell:

This trip to Sundarbans ended up being one of the most intense, enjoyable, uplifting, eye opening & visually delightful trips we have had. A memory of a lifetime.

 

Address & other details: 

Vanasafaris.com – http://www.vanasafaris.com/

Tagore society for Rural development – http://www.tsrd.org/

Sunderbans Jungle camp, Bali village – http://www.helptourism.net

Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com does not have any sponsored post

The background –

When we randomly (that’s quite unlikely us) decided  to do a week long trip to Kolkata & a short visit to sundarban at the end of 2020, little did we know what an amazing experience lay ahead of us. After we bought the tickets to Kolkata, we started looking for options in Sundarbans. We had heard about a company named vanasafaris.com, who, specialize in travels to the wilderness. We casually started browsing their site. The text in the site had depth, the pictures were beyond obvious & that’s when we decided to connect with them to plan a trip with them to Sundarbans. Avijit Sarkhel, who runs this company (with his wife, Monika), is a 25+ year experienced wildlife expert & an avid photographer. His personal experiences & his understanding of people made a huge difference to our trip. 

The planning was detailed. Several rounds of discussion happened. Avijit made sure the expectations were set very clearly. He was very upfront about the NOT POSSIBLEs & POSSIBLEs. That made us set expectations right. He also gave his expert advice on every subject with clarity.

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How this story flows (index):

 Our first hand experiences are written in normal font. The generic information that is needed to understand the context is in italics. Most of the generic information is also based on our conversations with people on the trip (all numerical data & facts have been cross checked later from articles on the internet). If you are already aware of the generic information, kindly skip the italics sections.

·       About Sundarbans (a background)

·       Geography

·       History

·       Flora & Fauna

·       Beliefs

·       Tushar Kanjilal & Rangabelia village trip

·       People & livelihood

·       Royal Bengal Tiger

·       Our Resort – Sunderbans Jungle camp, Bali village 

·       Our boat – Dokkin Roy

·       Birds & animals we saw during the trip.

·       Food during the trip 

The beginning of the trip & the gentlemen who made this trip memorable –

 It was a 3 hour’s drive from Kolkata (started 6 am in the morning) to Gadkhali jetty, sundarban, where a boat was waiting for us – A boat named DOKKHIN ROY.

 

We had Manoj as our full day guide on day 1 – He took us to Rangabelia village & showed us something that touched us to the core – the lifelong work of Tushar Kanjilal towards improving the standard of life of people in these islands. Details follow. After lunch in the boat we went for a cruise & stayed till sunset. Manoj was telling us stories about the place & the people all the while. 

 

In Day 2 we were lucky to have super passionate, extremely well read, research scholar & naturalist, Rishin Basu Roy as our ‘story teller’. Lucky not only because we were not the only people visiting Sundarbans on that day, who would want to avail of his services, but also because he was incidentally visiting Sundarbans. We had some memorable & very insightful conversations with him. 

We also had Krishno Pada Mondal as our forest guide – an excellent person who knew the flora & fauna of the region in great detail. He would patiently keep watching all around, throughout the day, even when we were talking or eating & seek our attention to the bird or the animal that he spotted.  

 

Krishno was carrying a book of birds with coloured pictures in it. Immediately after we would see a bird, he would show us that bird in the book so that we could get the name, spelling etc right.

Avijit, founder of vanasafaris, had told us ‘You don’t want to miss a jungle for a tree’ after understanding our need & the result was just beyond memorable ………..

About Sundarbans

Sundarban forests are unique natural forest in the southernmost tip of West Bengal, India & Bangladesh – a collection of islands with delta formed by confluence of ganges, brahmaputra & meghna rivers. It is a very difficult terrain for everyone – man, other animals & also plants. All of them are vulnerable to the forces of nature. That vulnerability of Man, animal & nature leads to a constant tension in the daily life of everyone here. We heard endless stories of exploitation & rejuvenation ….. It’s a constant struggle to survive here …….

…… but life goes on. 

Hungry tide – Meeting everyone’s hunger here is dependent on high tide or low tide. Every 6 hours the water rises & falls. In high tide, certain parts of rivers can be mistaken as sea & in low tide, the muddy banks can be extremely difficult to walk on. 

Sundarban national park is one of the 4 UNESCO World heritage sites in the entire Sundarban Area. It’s a Biosphere reserve. 

Unlike other national parks, one cannot drive a car in Sundarbans. Infact, it is not allowed to enter the land area of the reserve forest. Guests sit in boats & watch birds & animals that come to the bank to eat / drink.

The boats are of two varieties – small & large. Small ones can take upto 35 people including crew & the large ones about 50. The boats have kitchen, washroom, deck, sitting / sleeping areas.

In Sundarbans, Boat is like a living entity. People do Pooja of the boat. It’s an intrinsic Part of living in the forest. 

Sunderbans are under threat from both natural and human-made causes.

Geography:

Overall the Sundarban region is about 25000 square km in size. Of that, the sundarban forest covers approximately 10000 square km area of which 60% is in Bangladesh & 40% is in India. Of the 100+ islands in the Indian Sundarban, 50% is inhabited & the rest are reserved forest. Sundarbans forest sanctuary has 12 forest complexes (collection of islands).

In the non-forest area of Sundarbans about 40 lac (4 million) people stay. That’s quite a huge population staying so close to a forest with the most ferocious mammals, reptiles & snakes.

The water flowing between the islands is deep. At some places it is 200-250 ft deep

There are straits flowing out of the main waterbody into the islands.  

The forest is also suffering from increased salinity due to rising sea levels and reduced freshwater supply.

The soil of the uninhabited islands is muddy – very difficult to walk as people tend to constantly skid or sink inside the mud.

History:

 This area was largely an uninhabited jungle. During Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s time (early 1700s), early settlements started. People started clearing forests & farming here & the taxes generated were healthy. Salt making had also started here & had become a good source of income. With time, weaving became a strength of people in this region. 

In early 1800s, the British Officers decided to convert much more of these forests to agricultural land & lease them, so that local zamindars can get farming done & pay revenues to the East India Company. They however imposed a very high tax on salt & cloth & those sources of income dwindled. 

They also built ports (Canning Port) & other settlements by clearing forests. Little did they realize that the mangroves that grew naturally here are a natural buffer to all the cyclones arising out of Bay of Bengal. 

For farming they brought in tribals from other regions & also poor people from different places of India. Many were converted to Christianity. Almost 30%+ of population of this area still follow Christianity vs. a pan India average of 2.3%. 

Story of Scottish Hamilton sahib –

A Scottish Gentleman named Hamilton came to Sunderbans in early 1900s , bought and, started a business & stayed back. He did quite a few things to bring up the quality of life of people. 

We went to see his house – a beautiful wood made building, on wooden stilts.

 

Huge number of people came from bangladesh during partition migration in mid 1900s & also later in early 1970s.

To read detailed history of Sundarbans, please click here – history (https://www.livehistoryindia.com)

Flora & Fauna:

Sundarbans has about 450 kinds of fauna, approx. 300 of which are birds & 45 are mammals.

Mangroves – 84 kinds of plants are collectively called mangrove. They have the ability to live in salt water (sometimes submerged & sometimes not. Mangroves Hold the soil well. They have aerial roots that look like rhino horns. 

 

Sundari plant is one of the varieties of Mangroves. It is said that Sundarban name is due to this plant. 

Most fruits in the forest are not eaten. Even some monkeys have turned to meat eating

All kinds of venomous snakes are found in sunderbans. Death by snake bite is common here. 

Beliefs 

Ill happens when ‘Whatever u are doing is governed by greed & not by need’.

Bonbibi, the local deity, protects people who pray but also have pure intent. So anyone who prays but has an ill intent will be punished by the forest.

 

Bonbibi is a human god. Of late some people are calling bondebi (as the name ‘bibi’ has an Islamic connection).

Narayani is a forest god.

Dakshin roy is kind of a demon (not exactly) who represents the forest.

Shah Jungali is Bonbibi’s brother.

 

A battle took place between Dokkhin Roy & his army vs. Bonbibi & her supporters. Bonbibi won.

A Treaty was made between Dokkhin Roy & Bonbibi – animals will respect village & Jungle belongs to tiger & other animals. Humans will go to jungle only if they are needy, not greedy.  

The above belief is so strong that if anyone is killed by tiger, it is called ‘accident’ as it is assumed that he broke code of conduct & became greedy!!

Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Santhals, Bhils, Mundas all pray to bonbibi. There are Bonbibi temples in Sundarban.  

We Watched bonobibir pala (a theatrical representation of the story) live at the hotel. It was Only us for whom the whole pala was enacted.

It was fascinating to see that in the Story of Dokkhin roy & bonobibi, there were both Hindu & Islamic characters. Also, Bonbibi’s parents were muslims. More interesting is the fact that the play (pala) was written in the form of a panchali in the end 1800s in Bengali letters but the words are arranged from right to left (like in Arabic)!!!!

The people who took part in the play have all different day jobs. They do this in the evenings for extra income & pleasure. The Child artist of the play studies in class 9. The men – One is a teacher, one is a carpenter. Rest are farmers. The ladies are all housewives. They gather regularly to rehearse & perform

We were absolutely blown away by the drummer. The artists in the play say dialogues & they are good at singing as well. 

 

Tushar Kanjilal & Rangabelia village trip

Tushar Kanjilal, an economics graduate, came as a teacher to Sundarbans in 1969. He settled down here with his family. He found out that due to abject poverty, some of his students used to come to school hungry. That moved him. So along with his colleagues & students he started working towards ‘socio economic upliftment’ of the people by reducing dependence on money lenders & by creating sustainable ways of earning, upskilling, setting up of healthcare centers, creating roads & more.  He founded the Rangabelia Comprehensive Rural Development project focused on agriculture and tried to free poor villagers from the local money lenders. During the left front government, he got support from the Planning commission West Bengal & later from the Central Government. 

 

Later he joined (& merged his project) & eventually led the Tagore Society for Rural development that had been founded by Jay Prakash Narayan & freedom fighter Pannalal Dasgupta. This organization drew its inspiration from Tagore’s vision of comprehensive development. 

He also worked towards uniting the poor people – he created self help groups – Para committees, Gram committees.  

He encouraged people to stay in communities of 20-25 houses & help each other, discuss the challenges at regular intervals, work together etc. 

His organization encouraged people to grow vegetables & cattle feed, in addition to rice & pulses. 

They would buy raw materials & give to the tribals & note this cost as loan. When the produce was sold, the farmer would just pay back the cost of the raw materials & get to keep the balance. 

Women – First basic hygiene training was given & then they were encouraged to influence everyone at their homes. Clean latrines in every house is now a reality – it started with the organization setting up of manufacturing, sanitation mart, training the masons to install toilet pans, water management for the same etc. 

Mahila samity was formed & they created sustainable rural employment for women. We went to a mahila samity where they were making beautiful batik prints using wax techniques, weaving, knitting, block printing & tailoring. They have 3 shops to sell what was being produced. They also occasionally set up stalls in Artisinal fairs in cities. 

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Schools for education were opened. Adult education was stressed upon.

A laboratory had been set up to help farmers increase their produce, reducing water consumption, soil quality, how much fertiliser / chemical per sq meter to be used, resolve specific problems of farmers, new non chemical ways to substitute pesticides etc. A trip to this lab was such a good feeling.

 

Cultural samity – Mrs. Bina Kanjilal (wife of Mr. Tushar Kanjilal) had founded it almost half a century back. Here they taught children not only Rabindrasangeet & classical art but also folk art forms like Tusu, Jhumur, Sarul etc. Over time they started using this platform to communicate about present day issues. Non-traditional forms  of art like dance dramas, street plays etc were introduced. 

An organization focussing on Animal husbandry was opened, with professional help. They helped villagers with growing animal & bird feed & also in maintaining livestock – hens, duck, turkey, pigs, cows etc. When we went to this place, the reaction of the friendly pigs was remarkable.

 

Since this area is prone to natural disasters, a relief unit was opened – temporary shelter, food, medication , basic clothing, to pump out salt water from house, provide materials to repair damaged house etc.

The organization also did sustainable work on restoring the environment, research about medicinal plants & how to grow them etc. 

Thankfully, a lot of this has worked & the quality of life has dramatically improved than what it was 50 years back – from a backward area, some of these villages are among the best in the country in terms of overall quality of life.

The President of India R Venkatraman had visited this village in 1991.

Rabin Babu, who was a student when Tushar Kanjilal started his work, is now a senior official. He took out time from his busy schedule to meet us & tell us the stories. We are really thankful to him for his kindness.

This trip to Rangabelia project was just so fulfilling.

People & livelihood

Farming – Due to the nature of the land & water the people are able to grow only one crop of rice in the year. They grow vegetables & pulses in other time. The amount of freshwater needed to have a second crop is not available here.

Apart from farming & other activities mentioned above, the major activities are –

Crab catching – takes 6-7 days, very lucrative but very dangerous – not sure if the person will return / be eaten by a tiger. 

Honey collection & honey wax (used in beauty products) collection is another such high risk high skilled activity that involves walking into the forest land. Forest department issues permit to people (Mouli community) to enter the forest & collect honey. Others can’t enter. 

Honey season happens once in a year. In earlier days, family of the person who was leaving for collecting honey, almost used to follow ashouch customs (usually done by family of dead person) for 8-10 days – Like no sewn clothes , niramish food, no oil in hair, no leather shoes etc. 

Local transportation (land & water) generates a good amount of employment as the modes are manual vehicles or basic motorized vehicles.

 

Nowadays, youngsters go to other states to work as daily labour – they find it less risky, better quality of life & more savings. In a survey of youth few years back, it was found that 35% have migrated to earn a living.

Forest department guard & Forest guide.

Forest guide has to get licence from forest department. Only local residents of sunderban can apply. Training is given by forest department. Exam takes place, based on which, a person gets license to be a forest guide. Regular meetings are done by Forest Department with Forest guides, who act as extended eyes & ears of the forest department in collecting information, helping in tiger census (sometimes), dissemination of information etc. 

Royal Bengal Tiger

In Sunderbans ‘the tiger is feared but not hated, worshiped but not loved, for here the tiger is sacred who rules an enchanted land’, aptly says Sy Montgomery in her book SPELL OF THE TIGER.

As of now, there are 86 tigers in sunderban. Every year approx 8-10 cubs are born. Infant death rate is about 30%. Tigers live about 17-18 years.

Royal Bengal tiger is physically smaller than some other varieties of Indian tigers.

They are compelled by circumstances (extremely dense forest, difficult terrain) to constantly look out for domestic cattle & human beings. It’s also said that consumption of only saline water leads to them considering human beings (salty blood) in their food chain. Another theory is that ever since Calcutta city was set up 300+ years back, unburnt human dead bodies were being thrown into the ganges. That would eventually flow with the water to the sea & might have led to tigers getting a taste of human meat.

Tiger eats about 7-8 kg meat a day & then keeps on eating the balance every day. There are no jackals or hyenas to eat dead animals killed by tiger – so tiger eats the kill till the end. 

Tigress stays with Cubs for 1.5 to 2 years

When hungry, tiger usually walks along the bank of the island as animals are more likely to be found here during low tide & due to open spaces it is easy to hunt here.

Royal Bengal tigers can swim & they survive being in & drinking salt water. We heard that there have been instances where these tigers have chased a boat, the way dogs chase cars!!!

The Royal Bengal tiger, spots an animal/ human at a distance & at times swims with the target in the mind.

Injured / old Tiger swims towards village & tries to eat cattle. Villagers use Chocolate bombs (fire crackers), fire torch, sticks etc. to scare them away.

Initially the forest department had put up a mangrove boundary along the banks of the sundarban reserve forest. However, those used to go bad in 2-3 months. Now they have done a Nylon net fencing that covers a length of 110 km.

Tigers seem to be afraid of the net but when desperate, they breach it.

Tourist boats are high. So tigers usually can’t jump into it, unless the boat is stuck in mud at low tide – coz the tiger needs a base for the hind feet to take a jump. It can’t jump from water. Small boats like the ones used by the honey collectors / crab catchers are vulnerable & can be easily attacked by tiger.

Tigers usually do not attack from the front. They jump from the back & quickly kill the man by snapping the spinal cord. The dead body immediately wrinkles to a C shape & the tiger then catches it by the neck & runs away into the jungle.

Many a times a tiger is uncomfortable to look at the face of the person it has killed. So sometimes it eats up everything & just leaves the head of the person below a tree!!!

Tigers wait for hours if needed to pounce on a prey – If there are 5 men, the tiger would patiently hide & wait for 4 to go away & then attack the last guy. There have been instances where people are in a boat, watching out towards the forest & a tiger swims in from the water side & picks up an unsuspecting man.

People who have set foot on the soil of the reserved forest say that the feeling of a tiger jumping on you any time is eerie & so is the realization of the fact that we are in the end, made up of meat!!!

Many a times, if a person is taken by tiger, family members usually do not/ are unable to go back to jungle to retrieve the uneaten dead body. Forest guards find clothes and other belongings later. 

Many a times when people have breached the law & gone into the reserve forest & then one in the party gets killed by a tiger, the rest do not come back & announce the same. That would mean accepting the fact that they were party to an illegal activity.

Hundreds of people are eaten by tigers every year. Yet animals & humans continue to coexist. 

Our Resort – Sunderbans Jungle camp, Bali village 

The Jungle camp was a nice place to spend our evenings. There were two kinds of cottages here – modern day brick walled cottages that looked like a mud hut from outside, having all modern amenities within & a real mud hut with as much as possible amenities in it.

 

The real mud hut had a sitting area all around its periphery, tree trunks were initially used for support (now substituted with cement logs) in the balcony area. There was a courtyard in the center where we saw bonobibir pala. There were two rooms – one drawing room with a bed & a bedroom. The attached washroom had a bathtub as well. Due to natural color of mud on the wall (it was made of real mud), the intensity of light in the room was less (kind of gloomy, but that’s how it is supposed to be).

 

The roofs of this cottage & the others were all made with bamboo / wood structure & natural leaves.

 

There were many elements in the room where attention to detail was paid to minimize use of plastic. Only the tea heater was plastic (I think metal tea jugs can be a better option going forward).     

 

The pantry area was really nice. It had a thatched roof standing on wood pillars – with no walls. There was a small book shelf on one side to flip a page in the evenings.

 

The kitchen was next to the pantry area & a peep into it was nice – as clean & organized as it could get. 

But places to stay are also about their people. Sanjay, the manager was a man of few but almost always well thought words. It took us some time to break thru his formal outer cover that was ‘host vs guest’. We had a fantastic, warm chat with him & Rishin on the last evening at the dinner table. Great guy to be around. 

 

The other staff members were also warm & really nice to talk to. From the guy who was in the Dining room to the person who was helping us with the bags to the gentlemen who cooked. Calm, warm, big smiles, speak their mind, experienced, ‘seen a lot’ – they all added positively to this trip of ours. 

We heard this story from our hotel Cook – He used to go to forest to collect wood, honey etc. One day he, his father & brother went to forest. Tiger attached their father from the front. They fought & saved the father & the tiger went away. The father lived for many years after that.

 

Our Boat – Dokkhin Roy

 Our boat stood out from a distance due to its dark green color & contrasting bright orange deck. Comparatively the other white & blue boats looked pale. This boat is owned by the resort & is operated by their employees. 

 

Having a nice boat & a fantastic crew made a huge difference – we spent much more waking time (6 am to 6 pm) in the boat than at the resort. The guys who was driving the boat was shy in day 1 & half of day 2 – he opened up soon after. He was good at spotting & always very cooperative in terms of stopping, going back to a spot etc. 

The boy who was serving us food & doing all kinds of support functions was superb. He was very good at shooting from a DSLR & even better than the boat driver at spotting.

Day 1 we had a cook. Day 2 & 3 we had another one. The gentleman on day 1 was a proverbial ‘rockstar’ – what amazing taste of food he could churn out. The one on day 2 & 3 was good. No comparison with the ‘rockstar’.

The boat had two storeys – The forepart of the top storey had a sitting area with cane chairs & a center table. The hind part was quite empty. It had a wash basin & a table (to lay out a buffet meal). There were no walls & the only obstruction were the strong thin poles that held the roof.

 

The orange deck was a lovely place to just stand / sit at times in the day. 

The lower storey had a bed room & a washroom in the fore part & a full fledged kitchen in the hind part. The washroom was small, had a smart & practical layout & was always very clean. The beds were wider than the beds in 1st class AC of Indian railways but slightly narrower than the single beds that people have at home. Quite comfortable to sleep in. There was a row of windows in the bedroom, on both sides. 

 

We were told that this boat is good to carry a maximum of 25 people including the crew.

The evenings & mornings in eth boat were magical. We were getting into the boat before sunrise & getting back after sunset. 

 

The sunsets were magical – bright gold at times & silky pink & blue at other times. 

 

It being a full moon fortnight, we got some memorable hours of sailing in dark with just the moonlight.

 

Birds & animals we saw during the trip.

 We saw many birds & animals (reptiles & mammals). Most of them we could photograph. Some we were not able to. Here are the pictures:

 Mammals –

 Spotted Deer

 

Jungle Cat

 

Reptiles:

 Crocodile

 

Monitor

 

Birds

 Darter

 

Collared Kingfisher

 

Greater Coucal

 

Common sandpiper

 

Great egret

 

Pond heron

 

Eurasian Curlew

 

Intermediate egret

 

Jungle fowl

 

Common kingfisher

 

Black Drongo

 

Green Bee eater

 

We also saw few more birds – see pictures below

Food during the trip

Food during the trip was fabulous. As real, as grounded & as home like it could be. Each & every meal was outstanding. We had not a single ‘bad dish’. Of course some were better than others.

We heard that many Men from sundarban can cook because it is needed for survival. When the womenfolk go out to catch prawns or when the men go out for long 5-6 day trips on boat to collect honey or catch crabs, they need to cook. They can’t afford to carry professional cooks with them (like urban people). So they cook themselves. Infact, not just cooking, people here do multiple activities – someone who is a farmer plays the drums & earns from there, someone who is a carpenter acts in a theatre play, someone who is a cook also makes houses & so on. 

Day 1 lunch boat 

This was artisanal, best quality, like ‘home cooked’ food, which can be bought for money. Way better than most commercial grade restaurant food. Cooked in the boat. We polished off the food till the last drop. See pic of my plate before & after the meal below.

I was so happy to see that the crew & us ate the same food. Reminded me of the Bombay canteen where staff dines at the restaurant tables at a fixed time in the afternoon. 

We saw a bright Red coloured fish selling on the roadside from the car onway to the boat ferry. We asked about it & were told it is called ‘Amudi maach’. We heard & we forgot. However pleasant surprise awaited us as we went for lunch – Amudi fish fry was served for lunch. Wah. Super crisp, fresh, full of flavors, minimally spiced fish fries. Excellent. Rate them 4.5/5

 

Aloo cauliflower curry was outstanding. It was simple, home like. Instead of packed masalas, full spices had been used. This food did not have any pre mixes. It was cooked perfectly. Admired the excellent balance of taste. Rate it 4.75/5

 

Dal was excellent. Simple, thick, perfect seasoning, minimal spices but apt. Rate it 4.5/5

 

Bhetki curry was outstanding again. Loved having the thin gravy with rice. Full of flavors of both fish & spices were present – none of the flavors overshadowing the other, but dancing with each other in harmony, on the tastebuds. Rate it 4.5/5

 

Raw papaya chutney was excellent. The strands were soft enough to be bitten but shard enough to give an enjoyablebite. Rate it 4.5/5

 

Day 1 snack evening (at the hotel).

Muri chingri was absolutely new to us – it was puffed rice (muri/murmura/ bhel) with raw onions, crispy fried tiny prawns full of flavour. It was too good. I had not heard of this before. Rate it 4.5/5

 

Day 1 dinner (at the hotel)

We were in love with the outstanding masoor dal cooked with thin & long sliced onions. It was super simple yet super good. Rate it 4.5/5

 

Curried Knol khol (monje in kashmiri, ol kopi in bengali) was new for us & very good. The vegetable had been cut in shape of matchsticks & cooked with full jeera & few other spices. The seasoning was perfect. The chillies had a lovely aftertaste. Rate it 4.25/5