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Sunderbans of Bengal: An Exquisite Gift of Nature to West Bengal

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Sunderbans of Bengal: An Exquisite Gift of Nature to West Bengal

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Sunderban, is a combination of Bengali words referring to ‘sunder’ as in beautiful and ‘ban’ as in forest. Often pronounced as ‘sundorbon’ reiterating the meaning the beautiful forest in the local Bengali dialect, it is the best nature’s gift to the land of Bengal. It represents bio-diversity combined with exclusive flora and fauna along with the existence of danger for humans dwelling in the surrounding regions. It is a true mixture of beauty, beasts and balance of nature.

The Breathtaking Sunderbans-Credit Google

It is an unmatched creation of nature located in the Khulna district of the state of West Bengal, extending over to the boundaries of the earlier East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh, covering an area of almost 10,000 sq. kilometers. The borders of the state of Bengal and the country of Bangladesh, merge in the mushy waters of the Sunderbans. It is also said to be the end point of the famous river of piety for the whole of India-The Ganges, which drains off in the Bay of Bengal, meandering through the Sunderbans.

It has been declared as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO due to its rare flora and fauna, the endangered Royal Bengal Tigers and its rare mix of bio-diversity. The complete name of the forest is the Sunderban Reserved Forest, as declared in the year 1992. The Sunderbans are considered to be one of the most dangerous and dense forests in the eastern zone of India as it is very difficult for even skilled poachers and miscreants to encroach this versatile Jungle. The forest is divided into 3 sections under the Sunderban National Park - a national park, a tiger reserve and a biosphere reserve.

Life in Sunderbans-Credit Google


History of Sunderbans

Since we are already familiar with the meaning of the name of the forest, it may also be mentioned that the name is said to have been inspired by the famous Mangrove trees found at large within the dense forest. The reasons behind these trees inspiring the name of the forest is that they are referred to as the Shundori Trees in Bengali which means ‘Beautiful Trees’.

The historical accounts about the forest can be dated back to the 200-300 A.D as the ruins of a city, which was said to have been built by the famous Bengali trader-Chand Shoadagor in a region referred to as the Baghmara forest.

During the rule of the Mughals, the Emperors, leased parts of the forest to nearby villagers. A major section of the forest was used by various criminals as shelters to escape the wrath of the Mughal king, Akbar, of which many were attacked by Tigers.

Later during the British rule in the 17th century, the buildings built by the criminals and nearby residents were occupied by Portuguese pirates, dacoits and salt smugglers.

Legalities Associated with the Sunderbans

The forest area underwent several legal changes along with being the only Mangrove forest in the world to be under scientific management. The region was under the ownership of the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II which was acquired by the British in the year 1757 and this was followed by the first mapping of the forest area by the Persians in the year 1764.  The forest began being managed systematically only during the year 1860 following the establishment of a Forest Department in West Bengal by the British rulers. The purpose of this management was meant to find and extract all possible hidden treasures in this treasured forest. Due to such an unfamiliar terrain, the British staffed the forest department with local villagers as only they had the expertise to traverse through the Mangrove forests.

The first jurisdiction for the Sundarbans was established in 1869 in the form of a Forest Management Division. A major section of the Mangrove forests was declared a reserved forest as per the regulations under the Forest Act VIII of 1865. The remaining portion of the region was declared as a reserved space in the next year and was designated to be controlled by the Forest Department, as earlier it was under the administration of civil administrative district.A primary forest administration and management unit in the form of a Forest Division was established in 1879 in Khulna, Bangladesh and the first management plan was created for the time period of 1893–98.

In 1911, it was considered to be a waste country tract that was neither surveyed ever, nor did the census extend to it. At that time, it covered an area of almost 266 kilometers intercepting from the mouth of the River Hugli to the mouth of the River Meghna, with the inland bordering of the 3 settlements or districts, namely 24 Parganas, Bakerganj and Khulna. The total area of the forest inclusive of the water covered region was estimated to be around 16,900 square kilometers. The mangrove forest is an out and out water-logged region which binds and protects the tigers from posing any danger to the villagers or being exposed to any danger from poachers. In spite of being covered by the impregnable Mangrove trees, the river channels, creeks and backwaters passing through the Sunderban, are an important source of water communication for numerous steamers and local boats across the whole of Bengal.

The Gorgeous Mangroves of Sunderban-Credit West Bengal Tourism

Local Myths and Stories Surrounding Sunderbans

Banbibi (also referred to as Bandevi, Bandurga and Byaghradevi) is a revered to be the guardian Goddess of the forests worshiped by both Hindu and Muslim residents of the Sundarban. The honey collectors and the wood-cutters mainly call upon her every time they enter the forest to engage in their daily livelihood. She is revered as she is thought to offer them protection from the attacks of tigers, who are considered to be the incarnation of the demon king Dakkhin Rai, believed to be the arch rival of the goddess, who comes disguised as a tiger to kill the villagers.

The Mythical Story of Banbibi

The life story and incidents of Banbibi can be found in different texts such as Banbibir Keramati (the magical deeds of Banbibi) and Banbibir Jahuranama (the glory of Banbibi). These books primarily consist of two major episodes- her battle with the demon king Dakkhin Rai and the story of Dukhe-a young village boy.

There are mentions of the goddess and the myths and stories associated with her in Booker Prize winner Amitav Ghosh’s environmentalist novel of 2004, The Hungry Tide. Here he mentions the two main incidents of the Banbibi story of "Dukhey's Redemption" and her “battle with Dakkhin Rai”.

In another book by Qurratul Hyder -"River of Fire", in the footnote, he mentions that "Banbibi" is Fatima, who was the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and is worshiped as the patroness of the woods by the Muslims residents of the expansive forest of Bengal.

It is believed that she was the daughter of a Faqir from Mecca known as Berahim or Ibrahim and his second wife Gulalbibi. She had a twin brother in the name of Shah Jangali, who is said to accompany her at all times in all her adventures.

Ibrahim, was married to Phulbibi, his first wife, who could not bear children. So he married Gulalbibi, with the permission of his first wife who allowed him to go ahead on the condition of fulfilling one wish of hers in future, and impregnated Gulalbibi with the twin brother and sister. Jealous by the pregnancy of Gulalbibi, Phulbibi, asked Ibrahim to leave her in the forest, now the Sunderban, while she was asleep. When Gulalbibi, woke up, she found herself in the forest, all alone and gave birth to the twins. She took Shah Jangali and left the forest abandoning the infant Banbibi, who was believed to be raised by a Doe and protected by the Islamic Prophets and blessed with the powers of a Goddess.

Bonbibi's Idol Reverred at Sunderbans-Credit Amitav Ghosh

When, she was 7 years old, Ibrahim, realized his mistake and took back Gulalbibi and her 2 children and visited Mecca. When the twins were praying at the mosque, they received magical hats from the Prophet of Islam, with which they flew away to the land of 18 tides (athero bhatir desh), in Hindustan, which refers to the Sunderban, where the confluence of several rivers takes place.

After this, it brings us to the account of her fight with the demon king, Dakkhin Rai.

After reaching the land of 18 tides, Shah Jangali gave a call to prayer, referred to as the Azaan in Urdu. At that time the Sunderban was under the rule of the king Dakkhin Rai. The sound of Azaan by Shah Jangali reached the ears of Dakkhin Rai and he sent his friend Sanatan Rai to look into the matter. When, Sanatan brought the news of the duo to the king, he decided to oust them from his territory.

While he was about to take on the battle with the twins, Dakkhin Rai’s mother Narayani prevented him from proceeding and she herself proceeded for the battle with her own army of ghosts and goblins. Banbibi quite inadvertently defeated Narayani after a prolonged battle. But, being a Goddess, she returned half of the erstwhile kingdom of Dakkhin Rai and Narayani, out of mercy and befriended the latter. Since then the inhabited region of the forest is believed to be ruled by Banbibi while the deep forest area, where the Tigers primarily reside, is believed ti be under the control of Dakkhin Rai.

The Story of Dukhe

Another local story glorifying the Goddess, Banbibi, is the narrative of Dukhe, a simple young village boy. Once 2 brothers who were honey collectors, referred to as Moule in Bengali, namely Dhonai and Monai, who lived in a village named Barijhati planned to go to the forest to collect honey.

Dhonai decided to go for an expedition in the Sunderban with a fleet of seven boats to collect honey from the dense forest area to which his brother Monai vehemently opposed. Dhonai tagged along a poor shepherd boy named Dukhe with him. Dukhe was advised by his mother to remember the Banbibi in case of any impending danger or trouble.

As soon as the fleet reached the Kendokhali Char-a part of the kingdom of Dakkhin Rai, Dhonai realized that he had forgotten to make an offering to Dakkhin Rai. Due to this obstruction, he was unable to collect any honey or wax from the forest area for 2 days. On the third night, Dakkhin Rai appeared in Dhonai’s dreams asking him for a human sacrifice in exchange of safely collecting honey and wax. Since Dhonai was quite greedy, he agreed to sacrifice Dukhe after a few arguments with Dakkhin Rai in his dreams.

The next morning after collecting sufficient wax and honey, he left Dukhe alone in the forest and returned to the village. As Dukhe was about to be attacked by Dakkhin Rai in the form of a tiger, he started invoking Banbibi by chanting prayers to her. As an answer to his earnest prayers and his plight, Banbibi came along with her brother Shah Jangali and defeated the Tiger king or Dakkhin Rai.
 
After being defeated, Dakkhin Rai took refuge at the abode of Bara Khan Ghazi, where he was followed by the twins. Bara Khan Ghazi succeeded in convincing Banbibi to forgive Dakkhin Rai. Ghazi offered seven cartfuls of precious items to Dukhe while Rai gave him sufficient amount of honey and wax in return of the pardon. Banbibi ordered her pet crocodile, Seko to drop Dukhe safely to his village. Following his return to the village, Dukhe popularized the worship of Banbibi in the neighborhood, after which Dhonai married off his daughter Champa to Dukhe who became the Chaudhury (chief) of the village.

These are only a few of the local stories popular about the Banbibi apart from these there are several small accounts about the Goddess and protector of forest. According to the local villagers, the Goddess is losing her affinity and love for the people of the village as they are exploiting the village and damaging the forest, it is like abandoning their Goddess. This is believed to be one of the greatest reasons why the villagers are not as safe from the tigers a.k.a Dakkhin Rai anymore.

In spite of all the dangers and myths of the local people, the Sunderban is a place which must be visited at least once by everyone in the world.

Mangroves and Tigers of the Sunderbans

The Sunderban is located on an exclusive region wherein lies the confluence of 4 popular rivers- the Ganges, Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna merging while running across southern Bangladesh reaching up to the Bay of Bengal. The forest is seasonally flooded and remains underwater protecting the core area of the jungle which lies towards the coastal fringes of the confluence of the rivers.

This forest is the largest and only section in the whole world to be home to the tidal halophytic or salt tolerant Mangrove forests. The forest’s core area is said to be automatically protected by its Mangrove trees which have spikes emerging from the roots that stay sunken beneath the backwaters of the merging Rivers and the Bay of Bengal. This region is hard to access even with the help of boats as the spikes of Mangroves often pierce the boats forcing them to sink and be exposed to the danger of Tiger and even crocodile attacks. These Mangrove regions can only be traversed by the Royal and gorgeous tigers as the spikes act as cleaners of meat from their paws and even their jaws at times. The Mangroves provide natural protection for the Tigers from poachers and to the people from floods.

Deadly crocodiles in the Marshy land of Sunderban-Credit Google

The famous Gharials of the Ganges are largely found here due to the calm and wave-free waters of the region. The Gharial is a species of the Alligator family and is comparatively smaller in size than the average alligators. In spite of being smaller than average, these Gharials are highly dangerous and very agile, often posing a danger to the fishermen as well as Tiger cubs and other animals which come to drink water at the riverside.

The waters of these forests are as exotic and attractive as they are dangerous, much like the Amazon river of the North America. There is a specific region wherein the water is sweet in spite of being close to the merging area of the Bay of Bengal. This sweet-water region is most productive not just for fishermen but also alligators. Both gharials and the local fishermen access this region for acquiring fish for eating and selling off as a form of livelihood, respectively. This demand for fishes makes it an alligator attack prone area proving extremely dangerous for fishermen. These are some of the ways how nature, livelihood and danger dwell together in the heart of Sunderban.

Things To Do In Sunderbans

Sunderban covers a vast region and has many places to be visited within close vicinity. It is place which has numerous activities and a trip of less than a week is just not enough in order to cover all the places worth visiting. Tourists must plan a trip of at least 7 days and 6 nights to cover the activities and the places to visit to their full satisfaction or else the trip may either become too strenuous or remain incomplete. Below are some details about the places which must be visited while on a trip to the majestic and mysterious Sunderbans.

Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM, including public holidays
Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower is meant for spotting Tigers and other wild animals like deer, crocodiles  etc as the visitors and taken to a considerable height for panoramic view of the Jungle.

Sajnekhali Watch Tower
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM, including public holidays
The Sajnekhali Watch Tower is another popular watch tower in Sunderban which houses a Bonobibi temple, a museum and a crocodile park nearby.

Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary

Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Summers: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM and Winters: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM
This specific Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary, located between Peechkali and Gomti Rivers, is possibly the only place where tourists can take a walk. Situated adjacent to the Sunderban Tiger Reserve, it is home to egrets, herons and several other species of birds. Tourists can also visit the Mangrove Interpretation Centre here. Considered a part of Sunderbans, this sanctuary is known for its rich bird population.
In addition, at this sanctuary, tourists can spot several colourful species of Kingfisher, Plovers, Sandpipers, Whimbrels, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Lap-Wings and Curfews. Apart from a breeding colony of herons, the bird sanctuary also houses a Visitor’s Centro where tourists can see a crocodile enclosure and a shark pond along with a turtle hatchery. In addition, this sanctuary also has a Mangrove Interpretation Center.

The Tigers of Sunderbans-Credt Google

Tiger Reserve
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Summers: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM, Winters: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM, Monsoons-Closed
As the name suggests it is the enclosed area within the forest region primarily covering the core area wherein entry is restricted during the monsoons as Tigers are said to become quite violent during this time. Entry in this region is prohibited without trained guides and small kids or infants preferably should not accompany adults.

Netidhopani
Entry Fee: No
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 6.00 AM - 7.00 PM including public holidays
Netidhopani is a famous tourist spot housing the ruins of a 400 year old temple dedicated to the Bonbibi Goddess and every year a huge number of tourists visit this temple to offer their prayers to the Goddess.

Sunderban National Park

Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Summers: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM and Winters: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM
As is evident from the name, the Sunderban National Park is the point where in the sea meets the land and is located at the southern point of West Bengal. This park was holds within it the core area of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve since the year 1973. This site came to be declared as a Wildlife sanctuary in 1977 and was proclaimed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1987. Following this, in 1989, the entire forest region of the Sunderban was declared as a Biosphere Reserve. This park has the largest reserve of a wide variety of Mangrove trees across the whole world. Apart from this it has 64 different varieties of plant species which have the rare capability of withstanding extreme climatic conditions including the salty waters of the Bay of Bengal.

It is not just the flora but also the fauna which adds to the attraction and beauty of this park as it has almost 400 tigers residing within it which are famous not just for their man eating tendencies but also their ability to survive on saline water as well as swim in them. This reserve has the largest number of tigers residing within one forest across the world.

It is also an ideal place for bird lovers as it has a variety of popular birds such as the Black-Capped Kingfisher, Pale-Billed Flowerpecker, Asian Open Bill Stork and Common Woodshrike accompanied by a variety of reptiles as well. This park houses some of the endangered species and provides them sufficient protection from poachers or other unnatural damages. Some of these species include the Olive Ridley Turtle, Batagur baska, Royal Bengal Tiger and King Crabs.

The Roots of the submerged Mangrove Forest-Credit Google

Piyali Delta
The Piyali Delta is the gateway to Sunderban and is located about 72 km away from Kolkata the capital city of West Bengal. This delta is the confluence of the river Piyali and Matla, as it flows through the green paddy fields, making it an ideal location for honeymooners or couples.

Kanak

Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
Kanak is a region of the confluence of rivers which is shallow and has beaches around it making it the residence of the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles, which thrive in such regions. During monsoons, which is the prime breeding season of all animals, residing within Sunderban, these turtles travel to Kanak from distant places.

Katka
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
Katka is the famous base for taking up adventurous safaris in Sunderban, automatically making it an ideal way to spot tigers and dangerous reptiles. It is also an ideal place for bird-watching and several other rare wild animals like monkeys, crocodiles, snakes and even deer. This place is also known for being the starting point of a trekking trail extending till Kachikhali, also known as a Tiger Point. It makes an excellent trekking route for adventurists.

Tin Kona Island
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
Tin Kona Island, refers to a 3 cornered island which is popular for spotting wild animals in Sunderban. This island excellently blends the forest with unique estuaries with easy spotting of deer, tigers and reptiles. 

Halliday Island

Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
Located in the southern end of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve, the Halliday Island, receives considerable number of visitors every year for spotting the famous Barking Deer.

Dublar Char Island
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
The Dublar Char Island holds the southern section of Khulna district that also forms a marginal section of the Bay of Bengal. The River Passur flows from the eastern side of this island with the River Shibsha flowing on the western side. This island is popular for its scenic beauty, fishing, making it ideal for fishermen the entire region is rich in fish fauna. The fishing activities on this island primarily take place starting from mid-October to mid-February each year. Fishermen from different parts of the country visit this island especially from Chittagong, at this period. On the other hand, honey collectors also throng the island from the month of April to May, apart from being an excellent tourist spot for wildlife spotting.

Lothian Island Bird Sanctuary
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
Located in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, the Lothian Island Bird Sanctuary, is one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries, renowned for the different species of birds found here, some of which include Black-Capped Kingfisher, Curlew, White-Bellied Sea-Eagle, Tern and Whimbrel.

Bharat Sevashram Sangha Temple
Entry Fee: No
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 6.00 AM - 8.00 PM including public holidays
A renowned temple thronged by several visitors to offer prayers and worship the Bondevi of the Sunderban.

Kapil Muni Temple

Entry Fee: No
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 6.00 AM - 8.00 PM including public holidays
One more temple in the midst of the forest surrounded by beautiful sceneries.

Hiran Point
Entry Fee: Yes
Not Allowed: Pets
Timings - Monday - Sunday: 7.00 AM - 5.00 PM including public holidays
The famous Hiran point is located in the southern part of the Sunderban in Khulna district and is surrounded by water from all the three sides. In the north of this point lies the Khulna Range of hills, to the west is the Orpan Gachia River and to the east of the Hiran Point lies the Poshur River.
The Hiran Point is also known as Nilkamal, and is among the most beautiful spots to catch a sight of the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger aside from several other rare animals like deer, monkey, tigers and crocodiles and different species of birds. It also has a guest house close to it for tourists to spend their holiday.

How to Reach Sunderbans

The best way to reach the Sunderban is to reach Kolkata, West Bengal via flight or train and then hire a car with a guide-cum-chauffer and drive to the exotic bio-diversity confluence. Large groups can also opt for small tourist buses that leave from Esplanade Bus Terminus, located near the central part of Kolkata. One can reach Bantala which can be reached via a road near the famous Science City passing from beside the P.C Chandra Gardens, a popular place for conducting open-air events or marriages, located on the E.M Bypass road of the city. This is an important road as it connects almost all the sections of the city. From Bantala, the Piyali Delta which is the Gateway to Sunderban, is only 70 kilometres away. Visitors can also opt for local trains bound to Sunderban in order reach faster.

Best Hotels To Stay Near Sunderbans

Sunderban, although now being exploited by different kinds of harmful entities like poachers, wood cutters and hunters, it is still very close to its roots. Life is simple with villagers leading a pre-civilization kind of life and there are barely any resorts or big hotels or restaurants in the area. But development is going in order to make the tourism thrive in this Biosphere Reserve. It has certain Guest houses, lodges and old style Bungalows for people to stay in during their trip to Sunderban.

On such guest house is located near the famous Hiran Point, which is a three storey rest house under the Mongla Port Authority which requires prior bookings as it is a very popular lodging destination.

Tourists can also choose to stay in House boats that stay afloat throughout the day and night on the different rivers that merge in this area.
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