Just four hours away from Kolkata lies a completely different world - that of the Sundarbans. It's a part of the massive estuarine delta that the Ganga forms before it runs into the Bay of Bengal. It is a difficult terrain and yet, the mangrove forests here boast of the highest density of tigers in India.
It was my first visit to the Sundarbans. We were there to cover the last leg of the journey the Ganga makes on its way to the sea. We had been following the river for over seven months right from its source. It was the middle of April, possibly the worst time for a shoot in this part of the world. Even in the mornings, there was hardly any respite from all that heat and humidity And to add to it, we hardly saw any wildlife on the first two days of our shoot, despite having spent full days on the river. It was enough to sap our energy. We were weather-beaten.
But they say only when you submit yourself to nature, it unfolds itself. Gradually, we started appreciating the unique ecosystem we were in the middle of. Conditions are saline, marshy with tides playing a central role. It was amazing to see how different species have adopted unique adaptation mechanisms in order to survive. The first things to strike one's eyes out there are the mangroves and their aerial roots called pneumatophores. Jutting out like needles from the soil, they help the mangroves to breathe in the unfavourable conditions.
If you take a closer look near the banks, you might see a fish that can walk on land! Yes, you read it correctly. It's called mudskipper. Mudskippers are amphibious fish that have uniquely adapted to the inter-tidal habitats and it is fun to watch them slither in the middle of the marshes as they carry air bubbles in their gill chambers to breathe out of water. On scanning the area further, one can see many crabs in brilliant colours of red, blue and even yellow!
Our Cinematographer Praksam noticed and filmed a very interesting behaviour of the fiddler crabs. In order to save their burrows from getting flooded with tidal water, these crabs were cutting out 'lids' from the muddy surface and covering the holes with it. It was amazing that how the crabs could cut these lids of the precise shape and size of the mouth of the burrows that fitted them perfectly!
While we saw a lot of interesting creatures on the bank, we were keeping our fingers crossed when we visited the national park as it was too hot for good sighting. We had all been hearing stories of the man-eating tigers of Sundarbans, yet we were desperate to see the big cat. The islands of Dobanki which are part of the Tiger reserve were beautiful. We left in the wee hours of morning and it felt like being transported to another land. It was picturesque and there was a certain stillness in the air. The only sounds we could hear were of birds and the river water. No, we didn't see a tiger but Bahar spotted a crocodile in the water. We all jumped with excitement to see the croc crossing the river.
When we returned back from the forest, we got the solemn news. The honey-collection season had had its first casualty - an 18-year-old honey collector who went into the forest was attacked and killed by a tiger. Such incidents are common here. Between 100 and 250 people die every year due to crocodile or tiger attacks. Villagers in fact believe in the legend of the forest goddess - Bonbibi. They believe that worshipping the goddess before entering the forest protects them from any accident.
It's amazing to see how nature adapts to changing environments. The tigers of Sundarbans have learnt well how to cope in such an unusual terrain. Contrary to the belief that cats stay away from water, these big cats have in fact mastered the art of swimming, hunting and fishing in the river. As we bid goodbye to the river Ganga and its delta, we realised that the Ganga is truly a life giver not just for millions of people but countless species of wild creatures which live off and in it.