Namaste from the Sundarbans (on the Indian side of the border),
We have made our third foray into India, for a third dose of sensory overload. By happy coincidence, we’re in India on the day when India plays Australia in the semi-final of the cricket World Cup. In India, the passion for cricket intersects with the obsession with new technology, so the remotest village has access to the up-to-the-minute news of the national team in action Downunda. It’s actually a privilege to be here when the heightened expectations show the Indian people at their most ardent. But we didn’t come to see the cricket. We came to see the Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans are the immense forest which straddles the hundreds of mud flats at the southern end of the huge delta which gives Bangladesh most of its dry land. In fact, there are 54 rivers which flow from India into Bangladesh and thence into the Bay of Bengal. Over thousands of years, they’ve dropped their flood alluvium and created hundreds of large, flat islands, just above sea level. (Think about this fact: Dhaka is 11 metres above sea level and it’s 300 kms from the sea. That’s one measure of the size of the delta.)
The Indians have had the foresight to protect the forest from human predators. Most of the islands are uninhabited and the Sundarban National Park is divided into Core, Buffer and Sanctuary, with three different levels of human access. This is the habitat of the Bengal Tiger. We didn’t spot a tiger – despite Linda’s optimistic efforts with binoculars all day – but there’s strong photographic evidence to suggest that numbers are on the slow increase. There are 103 on the Indian side of the border and 319 on the Bangladesh side. (35% vs 65% of the land area, respectively)
the honey collectors
One landuse which is allowed (for exactly one month per annum) is honey collection. This is a highly dangerous practice, since the Bengal Tiger is known to maul and kill humans when they encroach on their territory.
I wondered if there were any revenge killings when there is a human death (reminiscent of those egregious shark hunts off Western Australia). There was a description of a revenge killing of a tiger in Amitav Ghosh’s fictional book “The Hungry Tide” which is set in the Sundarbans. My question was met with incredulity on three separate occasions here. Manas said, “Man is tiger killed no problem. Tiger is not man killed”. Nirmal commented wryly that the local people are very respectful of the tiger and its right to live in its own habitat. It’s good to know their respect is not a function of the tourist money; more an innate respect for the animal.
protection from inundation
The Sundarbans serves another vital function for the region. When the massive tsunami swept up the Bay of Bengal ten years ago, Bangladesh and eastern India were spared its wrath because the forest absorbed most of the wave’s fury. This provides another compelling reason to maintain the forest intact.
During the three days in the Sundarbans, we stayed at an eco-village on one of the inhabited islands. The people here are that much closer to nature, compared to their urban countrymen and consequently are much more respectful of nature’s delicate systems. They live in neat and clean dwellings and deport themselves with dignity and determination.
I must report, dear reader, that the local population was just a bit subdued after India succumbed to Australia in the semi-final of the cricket. The village boys were out playing their own hybrid version of the game again next day, living in the moment as these people do. The Sundarbans was worth the effort on more than one count.