A tiger always sees you before you see it.
These past two days have been incredible. Early Thanksgiving morning, we left for the Sunderbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the largest mangrove forests in the world. It lies where two rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, converge, between India and Bangladesh, and is best known for its population of Royal Bengal Tigers. To get to the Sunderban Tiger Camp, a 5-star resort catering to outsiders, we had to drive three-hours through quintessential Indian villages, like the ones outlined in travel books or magnificent NatGeo articles, and take a two-hour ferry ride on the water to the camp.
On this trip, I met a man who watched his uncle be mauled by a tiger, who escaped with his own life but is marked with distinct scars, who was threatened to life in jail for illegal poaching, and whose life has been documented by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and BBC. His name is Niranjan Raptan, the “Mowgli” of the Sunderbans, and he was our tour guide. Speaking in broken English, he explained his deadliest encounter with a Royal Bengal Tiger while collecting honey many years ago. As the tiger approached his uncle, attacking from behind (a tiger always attacks from behind), Niranjan defended himself with a stick, luckily surviving. Niranjan used to be a poacher, but was offered a job as a tour guide by the head forest ranger in exchange for an end to poaching. After accepting the job, he began to develop his love for the jungle, as well as his English-speaking skills, all while having no education. But he knew he was talented; he was the most knowledgeable about the jungle.
About two months ago, one of the employees at the Sunderban Tiger Camp lost two goats and a cow to a tiger who entered the village in the middle of the night. Early this morning, he invited us to his house, and showed us around the village. As we walked past the green fields, his wife was washing dishes in front of the house, using muddy water that automatically caught our eyes. She, like the other villagers, was incredibly hospitable, which made me love the village all-the-more. They showed us the small hut beside their own, where the goats used to live, and how the tiger broke down the door, leaving behind nothing. Years ago, the man had another encounter with a tiger when it took away his father, never to see the body again. He spoke nonchalantly, as if this happened all the time, but each of the villagers had a different look in their eyes when they talked about the tigers.
Stories like these seem eerie, mythical, words from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but in the village of Dayapur, tigers are one of the biggest concerns. Every day is spent worrying about them, setting up precautions, and having to live with the haunting memories. Tigers in the Sunderbans are especially dangerous as they’re man-eaters, mostly because humans are more abundant than wildlife. And while tourists happily come to see them, villagers would do anything to keep them away. Dayapur, like other Sunderban villages, thrives off of honey collecting and fishing, but the dangers present in the area make both of these occupations life-threatening. Before going out in the morning, families pray to Bono Bibi, the jungle goddess who supposedly wards off tigers. But many have found that even prayers can’t guarantee anything.
Last night, while we were sleeping, a tiger crossed the river to another village on a different island and attempted to attack some of the livestock, thankfully being scared away by something. In the morning, a group of men went to observe the nets that were previously set up to prevent tigers from crossing the river. All of it finally seemed real, and it felt like more than a 1960 Disney movie. The thought of having to worry about a tiger attacking every night is absolutely frightening. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like knowing I’m in danger every moment, and that there’s very little I can do about it.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see any tigers on our 5-hour trip on the river. There’s one tiger for approximately every 20 km, which isn’t as much when you consider it. In the immense jungle, it can be difficult to spot one. A few days ago, some tourists on this trip were fortunate to see a tiger up close, though that can be a rare occurrence. However, we did see a crocodile in the early afternoon, basking under the fervent sun on the muddy river banks, and that was frightening enough. Additionally, we saw a few water monitor lizards, deer, and monkeys (regardless of my fear for them, they were my favorite). Unfortunately no king cobras, though those are prevalent in the Sunderbans. But I realized through the entire trip that while I was there to see the wildlife, the stories and villagers proved to be much more interesting.
I feel like there’s so much I need to say about the Sunderbans, but it’s also one of those places that has to be visited. It can’t be explained even with the right words or pictures. The confluence of the rivers was simultaneously the most peaceful and beautiful place I’ve been. It opened my eyes up to a new side of India I had never imagined. To me, India has always been Kolkata, and Kolkata only—-an out-dated, polluted city. But the villages are quaint, strong in their roots and proud of their culture. As the boat floated along the river, I suddenly felt a sense of pride in my own roots, which hasn’t always been the case. But I also felt guilty that I was seeing the strife of the village and doing nothing about it. I wish I had continued with my science research from last year in determining more effective methods to purify water. Unfortunately, I gave up on it, and that’s a regret I’ll have for a while. But we can all do more. We can set up funds, we can tell these stories to others, we can gain support for this cause—and I strongly believe that with time, we can change an entire village. It’s optimistic, and I’m on a post-visit adrenaline rush, but I hope I have the drive to do something. India will always be my birthplace, where my roots are, and if I can’t help people in my own birth country, then I don’t know what I can do.
I said before that the villagers were extremely hospitable, and I find this to be true amongst Indians in general. India may not have the most polished environments, but the people are so caring, especially in rural areas. They will always treat you as one of their own, regardless of who you are. However, our resort was more than “polished”—it was easily one of the best places I’ve stayed at. The villagers who worked there accommodated to every need we had, never hesitating and always showing genuine enthusiasm. Without them, the experience wouldn’t have even been close to what it was.
I don’t think I can emphasize how amazing this trip was. I also must be omitting many details that I had originally intended on writing about, but the village was what struck me the most. I have grown up hearing and learning about small villages, but I have this belief that you can’t ever understand something until you experience. And while I may never have a chance to stay a night in a village with no electricity, where tigers periodically visit and steal lives, talking to and seeing the villagers in their natural habitat was enough. I say this every time I travel, but I don’t think there’s anything more interesting than stories. And I like putting pictures to life, written words to spoken words, and mental images to reality. Here’s my tip to anyone who ever wants to see something interesting: visit the Sunderbans. You won’t have to stay in grubby cities or even poverty-stricken villages, but visit and learn and understand. It changes perspectives.
Here a few pictures I took:
Water at sunset
People going across the river
The village, Dayapur
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