A trip to the Sundarbans
Soaking in the magic of the Sundarbans
Few things are more spectacular than watching a sunrise from a moving train on a winter morning—the constantly changing landscape, thinly veiled in a layer of mist, with the sunrays breaking through it.
It was well worth it, waking up in the small hours to catch the early morning Canning Local from Sealdah station to Canning, the rail head for the Sundarbans. Tea in earthen cups and rushing scenes of the countryside filled in the 1 hour and 12 minutes the journey took.
Outside the Canning station, the aroma of food led us to a shack selling curry and chhera parata, or shredded parathas. The greasy Indian flatbread, torn to bits, was being sold by weight—150g for Rs6. After tucking into almost half a kilo of it, and washing it down with more tea, we took a shared Tata Magic, the most common mode of public transport, to Godkhali Ferry Ghat, almost 30km away.
You can avoid all the hassle—if you think it is—by driving straight from Kolkata to Godkhali Ferry Ghat, as the packaged tour groups do. But then you will miss the sunrise from a moving train, and the chhera parata too.
At Godkhali, we were accosted by Jhonto, the boatman. He was looking for business for his houseboat and did not take long to spot our group of three clueless friends trying to figure out what to do next, mainly where to stay. We readily accepted Jhontu’s deal to make his boat our home for the night for Rs2,500. It was a basic wooden launch, with a huge plank for a bed inside its hull.
Our first stop was the nearest island of Gosaba (2.5km), where we shopped for provisions. The market was a veritable delight with its array of fresh vegetables, fish and village craft. After stocking up for the next four meals—to be cooked by Jhontu—we paid our respects to Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton by visiting his wooden bungalow that was set up in the early 20th century. A Scottish businessman, Hamilton had set up the zamindari system on Gosaba as a case study for rural and social upliftment of the locals. Gosaba is one of the 54 inhabited islands of Sundarbans; 48 are under forest cover.
Travel brochures on Sundarbans are crammed with information on things you can do there: the merits of visiting a watchtower, keeping your binoculars trained for the Royal Bengal Tiger, and watching myriad exotic birds. But what we relished most in those two days is relaxing and taking it easy. The pleasure of visiting the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a Unesco Heritage site, is not just in seeing things, but in being there, soaking in, and submitting oneself to the sights and sounds of the delta that is constantly changing colours with every ebb and tide. It is a chance to experience life in an otherwise challenging world.
Over the two days, our launch traversed through narrow creeks, flanked by sundari trees and their thick maze of roots. Suddenly, like epiphany, we found ourselves engulfed in the vastness of the Saptamukhi Mohona, a confluence of seven rivers before it enters the Bay of Bengal. The horizon was dotted with ships and fishing boats, tiny particles in the massive universe.
I never got a glimpse of the Royal Bengal Tiger during this or subsequent trips to the tiger reserve. But that’s okay. It is not important to see the tiger. What matters more is the awareness of the tiger’s constant presence. You know it’s watching you. It lives in the pug marks on the marshy soil and in the villagers’ tales.
Route: Drive via Baruipur to Godkhali Ferry Ghat on NH12. Or take the local train to Canning. Train No.34512; 5.45-6.57am; fare Rs15; from Canning, take shared public transport (Rs50).
Stay: In houseboats; for renting, visit Sunderbans.in. Approximately Rs6,000 per night per boat that can accommodate six-eight people.
Top tip: You need a forest department permit to enter the forest area, which is open to tourists from 7am- 5pm. Fee: Rs60 (Indians), Rs200 (foreigners), and Rs400 per boat.
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Anuradha Sharma tweets @NuraRadha