In the tiger’s lair in Sundarbans

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on November 16, 2019

One upmanship: Stories of tigers swimming for miles and attacking to take men off their boats, abound in the villages of Sundarbans   -  THE HINDU

Cat-and-mouse games between man-eaters and humans are a part of life in the Sundarbans

I am back in Kolkata after more than a decade. But, within days, the initial nostalgia about visiting my hometown is crushed by the city’s unimaginable streams of people. So much so that I decide I need a break from my break.

In search of an antidote to crowded Kolkata, I zero in on the Sundarbans, just a few hours’ drive from the West Bengal capital.

My earlier trips to the Sundarbans, a Unesco World Heritage Site a little over 100 km from Kolkata, had been rather luxurious. We stayed in comfortable cabins aboard a steamer and were taken on a tour which was a picturesque and gastronomic delight. This time, however, my daughter has booked a backpackers’ tour for us, with a homestay in a village and a small boat to help us explore the creeks. The tour includes a jungle walk, something largely unheard of in the area.

We reach the Sajnekhali town and find that it is spilling at the seams with resorts and tourists who picnic with loud music. Our destination, however, is a village called Pakhiraloy, in the interiors.

It turns out to be a breathtakingly pretty picture of rural Bengal, with winding roads. lush green fields and a canopy of welcoming trees. Electricity is erratic and the only way to access the village is by boat. This is the last village at the edge of the rich forests, but our guide-boatman and accompanying forest guard are locals who know the area well.

It is a serene vacation: We float along the immense delta among the mangroves all day and return to the village in the evening. The food is excellent and mostly consists of locally caught varieties of fish that I have not heard of. The jungle walk is extremely difficult in knee-deep mud. Wildlife spotting, as expected, is rare.

But one morning, we hear some disturbing news. A villager crab-fishing in a creek more towards the town than the forest had been killed by a tiger. This is a part of life for the people of the islands, villagers rue.

The forest guard gives us deeper insights into the closely linked lives of the villagers and the infamous man-eaters of the Sundarbans. Some of these tales have been captured in books and films, but some are quite extraordinary. We hear how tigers swim for miles, attack only from the rear and often take men off their boats. They leap 20 feet in the air, and boats in the creeks are easy prey. The lack of natural prey because of high salinity and rising water levels has forced the tigers into hunting men. Ironically for the area surrounded by water, sweet water fit for drinking is scarce, and animals and humans tend to congregate around the few sources of rainwater-fed ponds that dot the human settlements.

The government tried to introduce masks to be worn on the back of villagers’ heads to fool the tigers, but within a year the animals saw through the ruse. Strategically placed nets masquerading as traps are now used to keep the tigers from entering the villages, but the lure of livestock and stray dogs — and occasionally people — often tempts the tigers to venture into settlements.

But the real astonishing stories, the forest guard says, are those narrated by honey gatherers who go deep inside the forests. Fishing and honey-gathering are the only livelihoods in the interiors.

The honey gatherers on a boat follow bees into the woods to find a hive. Then, leaving the boatman behind with the craft at the mangrove forest, they look for the hive to smoke the bees out and collect the honey. The honey gatherers, however, believed that the tigers have figured this out and wait by the hives for them. Sometimes they prey on the distracted gatherer at the edge of the group and, sometimes, on the lone boatman, always attacking from the right rear so as to incapacitate the arm that holds the axe or weapon.

Even more intriguing is the honey gatherers’ claim that the tigers have developed a taste for honey. A tiger first rolls in mud and lets the mud dry on its body, creating a mud shield against bee stings. Then it leaps into the air to knock down a part of the hive. As most of the bees swarm back to the remaining part of the hive, the tiger rushes to the river with the broken hive and drops it in the water. This drives the remaining bees out, leaving the tiger to enjoy a rare dessert in this saline marshland.

We are awestruck by the story of the ingenuity of Dakkhin Rai, the god of the tigers and king of the south, worshipped here by both Hindus and Muslims. But we are also saddened to find that the current atmosphere of disharmony has infected even these remote areas: The imams forbid their flock from worshipping idols while the Hindus have started referring to Bon Bibi — goddess of the forest — venerated by local Muslims, as Bon Devi, thus endangering yet another unique regional observance of communal harmony and shared gods.

Sundarbans reminds us, again, of our lost treasures — environmental and cultural.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

Published on November 14, 2019

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