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LAND OF THE HUNGRY TIDE.

T HE PORT town of Canning along the eastern coast of West Bengal is just another small town, crowded and caught up with daily life. Yet, it is just a few hours away from the country's only tidal mangrove forest, the Sunderbans, the archipelago of islands laced with the many tributaries and distributaries of river Raimangal and the wilderness that is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

' Sunderban' in Bengali means the beautiful forest, although many believe the name has been derived from the most popular kind of mangrove that grows on the delta -- the sundari tree.

An hour's road journey from Canning takes us to Dhamakhali, where MV Debendra is revving its engines and getting ready to hit the water.

The mangrove forest of the Sunderbans ( a UNESCO World Heritage site) is unlike any other forest. The trunks of the trees are slender yet sinewy, the branches thick- leafed and the foliage dense, making the jungle almost impenetrable.

The wildlife safari, thus, mostly takes place on a boat, instead of a jerky jeep or a swaying elephant.

The journey to Sajnekhali, which demarcates the reserved forest area, is long and might get longer depending on the nature of the tide, informs our guide Subir. In fact, life on these shores is much dependant on the tides, the ebb and flow or, as they are known in Bengali, jowar and bhata . As I settle in for the river cruise with Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide for company, I appreciate the pertinence with which the author calls this land bhatir desh ( the tide country). B ARELY a few pages down, I am interrupted by the cries of the boat's helmsman -- Gangetic dolphins ( one of the four freshwater species of dolphins) have been spotted afar. Soon, we see kingfishers perched on trees, and storks, herons and fish eagles flying above us.

Life in India's easternmost archipelago is different and dangerous.

The estuarine rivers that spread out like a labyrinth determine the geography of this virgin wilderness, often washing away islands during the flow and giving birth to new ones during the wane. While some islands are vast and house many villages, others stretch for

Fishing is the primary means of livelihood for the people of the tide country and fishermen in their boats waiting patiently for a catch is a familiar sight across the length and breadth of the river. The scrumptious Bengali lunch that is prepared and served on the boat also includes freshly caught prawns ( cooked in coconut milk), crabs and bhetki fish.

By late afternoon we reach Sajnekhali Tiger Reserve, where a well- designed museum offers information about the flora and fauna of this unique land. Outside, along the canopied paths, my camera spots several spotted deer

drinking from a sweet water pond.

The famous Bengal tiger, however, remains conspicuous by its absence. And although we don't see any during our journey back either, I am told about the ferocity of the tiger and how nothing misses its watch in the Sundarbans.

Back on the boat, Subir narrates the story of Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli, the sibling gods who are believed to protect the helpless from the clutches of the evil tiger god, Dakshin Ray. Even before the tales of the tiger could be wrapped up, we spot a crocodile basking on the muddy shore.

The Bangladesh border is nearby and at sunset we halt at Shamsernagar, across which the river flows into the neighbouring country.

Night comes early in the jungle. While the villagers make preparations to move indoors, we are back on the boat, moving towards the tourist For travellers, the Sunderbans opens up like a land shining with possibilities, only to captivate them in its own wild ways, leaving them overwhelmed and enchanted

lodge in Hemnagar, where we are to rest in the night.

The wind is strong and carries with it sounds of jatra pala ( folk theatre) from nearby villages.

Standing on the bow of the boat, with Raimangal stretching endlessly ahead and the mudflats shining like gold in the last rays of the sun, I realise that the tide country is beautiful not because of its forests or rivers, but because of the unique world they have created.

For travellers, the Sunderbans opens up like a land shining with possibilities, only to captivate them in its own wild ways, leaving them overwhelmed and enchanted.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Apr 6, 2014
Words:748
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