Sundarban National Park
Sundarban National Park is the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. It is located 130 km east from the city of Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal. The forest is located on the delta formed by the convergence of the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and covers a total area of 9630 sq. kms. There terrain comprises mainly of mangrove swamps and estuaries.
Sundarban National Park derives its name from the mangrove tree “Sundari” (Heritiera fomes) that provides valuable fuel to the inhabitants of the area. The park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 due to its rich biodiversity and for being home to the largest Tiger reserves in the world. In 1984, Sundarbans was given the status of National Park. Prior to that, it was declared as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1977. It was designated as the core are of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in December, 1973. The mangrove forest is home to a variety of flora and fauna, the most popular one being the Royal Bengal Tiger.
The closest city to the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve is Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal which is easy to reach via flight or train from every part of the country. From Kolkata, one can travel 90 km to a village called Gadkhali/Gothkhali, a 2–3 hour drive by road. From this village, boats ferry visitors up and down to the entrance of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. The last inhabited area before the Sundarban forests begin is Gosaba village.
The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, its adjoining Wildlife Sanctuaries and Reserve Forests are open all year round. However, the best time to visit is between November to March. Due to the geographical constraints of the landscape, it is only possible to travel into the interiors of the forests via boats and ferries through backwaters, hopping from one island to another. In fact, experiencing nature and wildlife though boat rides is unique to this National Park and its main attraction. These boats are available on a full day basis, but a boat permit and a guide is a must. The Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary within the Tiger Reserve is also a well-known tourist destination, especially for bird watchers.
Sundarbans is home to about 64 species of plants that thrive in the estuarine conditions and large amounts of saline in the water. Some of the other commonly found plants and trees in the park are Dhundal or Cannonball mangrove, (Xylocarpus granatum), Passur (Xylocarpus mekongensis), Garjan (Rhizophora spp.), Sundari (Heritiera fomes) and Goran (Ceriops decandra). In the month of April and May the flaming red leaves of the Genwa (Excoecaria agallocha) the crab-like red flowers of the Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza) and the yellow flowers of Khalsi (Aegiceras corniculatum) can be seen.
The most famous inhabitant of the Sundarban National Park is the Royal Bengal Tiger, with over 104 estimated to be living in the forest. Besides the tigers, other animals that can be seen in the national park are Fishing Cat, Leopard Cat, Jungle Cat, Rhesus Macaque, Wild Boar, Indian Grey Mongoose, Smooth-Coated Otter and Spotted Deer.
The park is home to over 230 species of birds. Some of the species that can be seen are Lesser Adjutant Stork (Madan tak), Black Headed Cuckoo Shrike, Plaintive Cuckoo, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Oriental White Eye, Minivet, Long Tail NightJar, Ashy Wood Swallow, Flying Fox, Indian Roller, Grey Headed Lapwing, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Buffy Fish Owl, Mangrove Whistler, Mangrove Pitta , Indian Pitta, Goliath Heron, Gray Heron, Ruddy Kingfisher, Barn Owl, Collared Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, White Throated Kingfisher, Stork Billed Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Blue Eared Kingfisher etc. Some of the migratory bird species that can be sighted are Northern Shoveller, Eurasian Curlew, Ruddy Shellduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Purple Heron, etc.
The Sundarban National Park houses a large number of reptiles as well, including Estuarine Crocodiles, Water Monitor Lizards, Turtles – including Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, and Green turtles. Snakes include Pythons, King Cobra, Rat Snake, Russell’s Viper, Dog Faced Water Snake, Checkered Keelback and Common Krait.
Some of the animal life found in the Sundarbans National Park like the Royal Bengal Tiger, Saltwater Crocodile, River Terrapin, Olive Ridley Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Gangetic Dolphin and Mangrove Horseshoe Crab have been placed on the endangered list.
Out of the 102 islands that make up Sundarban National Park, 54 of them are inhabited. The human settlement at Sundarbans dates back to 600 years. The people here are dependent on agriculture, fishing and honey collection. Religion is a vital issue for the people of Sundarbans. To avoid the natural hazards, quite prevalent in this region, the people have taken recourse to the same religious belief. It is the only place in the world, where you will find both Hindus and Muslims pray to the same Gods.
Banabibi (Bonobibi) is a Goddess who is popularly worshipped in the Sundarbans, by all communities, as the savior of the natives. The other Gods and Deities that are worshipped in the Sundarbans are Manik Pir, Olabibi, Manasa, Gazi Saheb, Shah Jangli etc. But among these, “Dakshin Rai” holds a special place. Dakshin Rai is a legend who is worshipped by all, irrespective of their caste and creed and is considered as the God of the Tigers. Worshipping Dakshin Rai is a must for the people before they enter the forest. This bonding among the people, irrespective of religion, is the setting of a beautiful example for all to follow.
It is mandatory for most people who depend on the forest for their livelihood to engage in rituals that involve worshipping these deities along with many others. The struggle to overcome several natural hazards makes the natives of Sundarbans dependant on supernatural powers. Apart from the aforementioned cultural and religious practices, there is a cult of worshipping snakes, tigers, trees and other entities among the forest natives. This proves the antiquity of the region and provides evidence of the pre- Aryan cultural trait.
Sundarbans in Popular Culture
Sundarbans can be traced in numerous Bengali folk songs and dances talking about folk heroes, several deities and goddesses who are specific to the Sundarbans (Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai) and to the lower Gangetic Delta (Maa Manasa and Chand Sadagar). Manasamangal, a Bengali folk epic, includes a couple of passages set in the Sundarbans that mention the heroine Behula’s quests to bring Lakhindar, her husband, back to life.
Sundarbans has been mentioned in several popular novels by renowned writers like Emilio Salgari, Shibshankar Mitra’s ‘Sundarbaney Arjan Sardar’ and Manik Bandopadhyay’s ‘Padma Nadir Majhi’. Sundarbans had a subsequent film adaptation in Kunal Basu’s short story ‘The Japanese Wife’. Sundarbans forms the backdrop for ‘The Hungry Tide’, a prize-winning novel by noted Indian author Amitav Ghosh.
Sundarbans has been the subject of multiple non-fiction books, such as ‘The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans’ by Sy Montgomery. This book was shortlisted for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award. Emily Eden discusses her travels through the Sundarbans in her book ‘Up The Country’.
Apart from these, numerous documentary films have been shot with Sundarbans as the subject. 2003 IMAX production ‘Shining Bright’ that focused on the Royal Bengal Tiger is one of those. The popular BBC TV series ‘Ganges’ that documented the lives of Sundarbans’ villagers, honey collectors is also worth-mentioning. BBC One’s BIG CATS series focuses on swamp tigers in the Sundarbans.
It is also the Head Office of the Forest Department. Permission to enter the Sundarban Tiger Reserve is required to be obtained from here. The Mangrove Interpretation Centre, a Bono Bibi Temple as well as a Crocodile Park are located in the Sajnekhali Watch Tower complex. There is also a sweet water pond near the watchtower that is visited by different bird and animal species. Observation lines have been cut out that allow visitors to see wildlife from a distance. Bird watchers can see seven colourful species of the Kingfisher, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Plovers, Lapwings, Curfews, Whimbrel and Sandpipers.
Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower is one of the better watchtowers for wildlife sighting. There is a sweet water pond made by the forest department, where animals come to drink water. There are stretches of land behind the pond which are bereft of vegetation. Observation lines have been cut out that allow visitors to see wildlife from a distance. Axis deers, Wild Boars, Crocodiles and the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger can be seen from this watchtower.
Dobanki Watch Tower has a Canopy Walk that offers a unique vantage point to observe wildlife. This Canopy Walk is about half a kilometre long and at a height of about 20 ft from the ground. There is also a sweet water pond nearby that is visited by different bird and animal species. Observation lines have been cut out that allow visitors to see wildlife from a distance. Spotted deer as well as Brahminy Kites are very often sighted apart from the tigers.
Jharkhali Watch Tower has a tiger rehabilitation centre and a butterfly park.
Netidhopani Watch Tower offers visitors a view of the ruins of a 400 year old Shiva Temple. It is also believed that there is a road on the extreme right of the forest which was built by King Pratapaditya to guard the coastal area from the invading Mughals. It is now covered with earth. There is a sweet water pond nearby where animals come to drink water. Observation lines have been cut out that allow visitors to see wildlife from a distance.
Burirdabri is renowned for its watchtower, a mud walk and mangrove cage trail that leads to the Raimongal Watch Tower. The ground fauna consisting of telescopic snails, varieties of crabs and mollusca can be observed closely during the mud walk. The walk culminates at a wooden watchtower that offers views of the Bangladesh Sundarbans.
Best time to Visit
The Park is open throughout the year, however, the best time to visit the Sundarban National Park is between November and March when one can spot maximum wildlife and migratory birds. A visit during monsoon, i.e, June to September, will provide guests the experience of a lifetime.