It’s a sleepy afternoon in the riverine forests of the Sundarbans. Far away, on a lonely, meandering creek, a boat suddenly makes a sharp turn, and speeds in the opposite direction. Ramkrishna Mondal, my forest guide for the week, is on his feet. “Chal, chal, CHAL!” he bellows at our boatman Robi, who has just stepped away for lunch. Robi scampers to the cabin, shoves aside his 15-year-old son who has just taken the wheel, and with sticky, curry-covered fingers powers the engine. “There is only one reason for making such a risky turn in the Sundarbans,” Mondal tells me. “Bagh! (Tiger!) Let’s see how lucky you are.” Neelima, Robi’s wife and resident cook who rarely comes out of the crammed space under the deck, has suddenly appeared beside me. My quiet, sonorous morning has just turned a corner.
As Robi powers the old, chugging motorboat through the river, the forest dramatically transforms. So far we have been drifting through lonely creeks flanked by dense, emerald mangroves. But now, our boat faces an endless expanse of calm water so vast that for a moment there is no land in sight. For the first time, I encounter the staggering scale of the world’s largest mangrove forest that spreads across 10,000 sq. km of India and Bangladesh. We are at the heart of Panchmukhani mohona, where five massive, wide-mouthed rivers meet, before marching towards the Bay of Bengal. In the monsoon of 2019, the rough tidal waters of the “mohona” or confluence, produced a whirlpool so scary that it threatened to topple the tourist boat Mondal was leading. But there is no time to be overwhelmed by the gargantuan size of this wide network. As we close into an island, we hear the crowd on the boat erupt in cheers. We’ve just missed the tiger by a few seconds.
I sigh. Neelima pats my shoulder reassuringly, and quietly walks away.
The Sundarbans is the only mangrove forest in the world inhabited by tigers. It is also the single largest continuous habitat of the tiger anywhere in Asia, but spotting the tiger here is harder than in any other forest.
Let’s look at the numbers. The Indian Sundarbans is about 4,000 sq. km, with 102 islands — 54 are inhabited by humans and 48 are protected as the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. Demarcated in 1973, the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve covers an area of 2,585 sq. km of the Indian Sundarbans. A little over 100 tigers rule this landscape. About 1,330 sq. km is designated as core area and remains closed to tourists. The rest is the buffer zone. Within the buffer zone, about 360 sq. km is carved out as the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, a network of rivers and islands that we were riding through.
Add to this is an almost impenetrable mangrove forest dominated by tides twice a day, and guarded by estuarine crocodiles, king cobras, and pythons. Unlike other sanctuaries that have the luxury of safari jeeps traveling deep into its thickets, we stay at a safe distance, on large motorboats, along wide channels, several feet away from the edges of the islands. Every river splits like veins into narrow streams where the tiger lurks, but these are out of bounds for us. The mouths of a few streams are marked by a red flag to document the death of a fisherman or a crab collector taken by a tiger along its banks. Spotting a tiger in the Sundarbans, along its wide channels, is so rare that guides tell me it is entirely up to the tiger if it wants to be seen.
But Mondal is already pointing in another direction, while mumbling to himself. I can hear his brain whirring. For somebody who was born on one of the 102 islands that make the Sundarbans, Mondal can read this mysterious forest like no university-trained expert can. To him, the tiger is not an exotic species. Back in Bali, the Sundarbans island he grew up on, the tiger is lovingly called “mama” or maternal uncle. This morning, when he woke up, he prayed to Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest who protects all its inhabitants from the tiger demon, before venturing out. The tiger animates his life. “Turn, turn!” he says. Robi’s dark, sinewy arms are now swiftly spinning the wheel with urgency, to take us in another direction. Pushed to the limit, the boat belches out a series of violent coughs before reluctantly taking off. “If this tiger is who I think it is, I know where he is headed,” says Mondal.
A few minutes later, we are parked at the mouth of a stream that is thinning with a receding tide, exposing glimmering, golden shores. Neelima has reappeared beside me. For several minutes, we stare as the sharp afternoon sun reflects off the wet surface and pierces our eyes. No deer sounds an alarm call. There are no rhesus macaques creating a racket in warning. I see no telltale signs of a tiger coming. Except for Mondal’s unwavering conviction. And then, from behind the thick cover of mangroves, the tiger emerges. Its soft paws sink several inches into the moist clay. This is no skinny cat. It is a large, dominant male, with a full belly hanging heavily, and soaked in salt and silt. Its legs are thick, dark amber, dripping with water. Clay clings on to its flame-coloured coat like a mudpack. As it climbs down the shore, gingerly avoiding the aerial roots of Keora mangrove jutting out like spears, I notice that its hindlimbs are much longer than the forelimbs. The hindlimbs help it leap across wide channels with breathtaking grace. Mondal points out its short, muscular forelimbs that have large powerful paws built to strike down prey. “Nontu,” whispers Mondal, his face is pale. “Maneater. Very intelligent. Last week he attacked a fisherman. The fisherman tried to defend himself with a knife, but Nontu killed him merely seconds later.” I gulp. Within seconds it vanishes into the thick forest, but Mondal is on its trail.
The Sundarbans tiger is unlike any beast I have ever seen. The tiger on the mainland is leaner, longer in length, with a warm yellow coat. Its Sundarbans cousin is smaller in overall size, but stockier, and more reddish-brown in colour. It lives a much harder life too. Twice-a-day hundreds of kilometres of the forest disappear under the currents of the high tide, pushing the tiger to drink saline waters and lead an amphibious life. The habitat has turned the tiger into an expert, long-distance swimmer that hunts with as much finesse in tidal currents as it does on land. Sy Montgomery in her book Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans observes that its tail is muscular and thicker too. The tiger whips it from side-to-side like a crocodile while swimming. Unlike Bengal tigers in other regions that feed on a limited variety of food, the Sundarbans tiger also hunts fish, crab, turtles, and water monitor lizards, apart from the usual chital, wild boar, and other prey. On rare occasions, it gets into a bloody battle with the equally powerful estuarine crocodile over a kill. Wildlife ecologist Jayant Kumar Mallick in his paper notes that the Sundarbans tiger is also known to hunt snakes. In July 2009, an autopsy of a carcass of a tigeress found after the onslaught of the cyclone Aila, she had eaten two poisonous snakes, including a king cobra!
Mondal guides the boat, as we stalk Nontu, cautiously watching his amber coat appear and disappear through the mangroves as he walks a few feet from the edge of the island. But he is hard to track. His dark stripes look like moving shadows behind the foliage. For a moment though, he turns and stares straight at us. A shiver runs down my spine. My palms sweat. I don’t reach for my camera. Instead, I stare back, awestruck. Unlike the drenched, dark golden body, his face is a beautiful flame-yellow. The head sits on a short, thick muscular neck that forms a formidable base for a strong jaw that has to open wide, before it can sink its long canines deep into prey. Neelima and I swap binoculars as we watch for half-an-hour, as the tiger sneaks in and out of the forest, finally disappearing behind a mangrove called the tiger palm. We are shaking with excitement.
Over the next week, I hear several stories of ‘Nontu’ — of how he takes a human being every single month with such incredible stealth that often people a few feet away only notice when a person has vanished. He then swims with these bodies through saltwater and drags them over mucky shores in unnerving silence. Nontu has no respect for territories, says another local from Bali. He is often seen traveling vast distances across the Sundarbans, swimming for kilometres across wide rivers. I was told that a few days before our trip, a boat of foreign tourists saw Nontu hunt and devour an old fisherman. The forest department made great efforts to convince them to delete all images, afraid that the bloody photographs would spread unnecessary panic. A couple of weeks later, Nontu was seen again, this time far away, in an entirely different territory. Efforts to catch him have failed time and again. That evening, Mondal and I visit the Sajnekhali Forest Department office where he shows me numerous, iron tiger traps and cages. “He knows how to polish off a goat in a mechanically, devised trap cage without getting caught,” he says pointing at a particularly large tiger photo.
Wildlife experts inform me that Nontu is probably several different tigers, a mere reproduction of sensational rumours. There are no official names for tigers in the Sundarbans. Most Sundarbans tigers, whose scent marks are washed away by the incoming tide, do not follow strict territories. “We must do away with this myth of the ‘maneaters of Sundarbans’ and stop spreading unnecessary misinformation,” insists Ratul Saha, who leads the Sundarbans landscape project for WWF India. The Sundarbans, he says, is a difficult terrain to hunt in. Fishermen, crab collectors and honey collectors who enter the forest, often without permission and protection, are nothing but easy prey for the tiger. “The Sundarbans tiger has no special taste for human flesh. This hasn’t been established by any scientific research,” he argues. “An unarmed human is easier to hunt than a sharp chital who runs faster and knows the forest better. Simple.”
But rumour and myth trump facts in the Sundarbans. For the locals, tigers are not just apex predators, they are the ghosts of ancestors who have returned for revenge, and demon gods who need to be appeased. They are shrouded in mystery and myth — feared, worshipped, and revered. The story of Dakshin Rai and Bonbibi, that is regularly performed as a musical play during local festivals, and now for tourists in resorts, is one of the most popular myths on the islands. Dakshin Rai, the tiger demon, takes on different roles in different versions of the story, but the common thread remains that he is an arrogant and greedy tyrant who transforms into a vile tiger and attacks the hapless people of the Sundarbans. All tigers are his subjects; they terrorise the forests and feed on humans. After several prayers by the villagers, Allah sends Bonbibi, the daughter of a Sufi saint, to put an end to his reign. When Rai meets Bonbibi in battle, he realizes he is powerless and begs for mercy. Bonbibi is magnanimous and spares his life, but bans him from hurting those who worship her. Temples of Bonbibi, with Dakshin Rai standing beside her as her disciple dot the Sundarbans landscape. In Hindu-dominated villages, the Muslim ‘bibi’ or goddess takes on forms of Durga, dressed in a vermillion sari and golden crown, sitting on a tiger. In Muslim-dominated settlements, her temple resembles a Sufi shrine. But everywhere, locals religiously pray to the icon and believe that it is her protection that keeps the tiger at bay.
I sleep uneasy that night, head heavy with stories and conversations, but mostly with glimpses from the exceptionally long encounter with the tiger. Next day, at 6 am, as I walk towards the jetty for another safari trip, I see Mondal standing on the deck of the boat, smiling. “You look like you haven’t slept. Did you dream of the tiger?” he asks, laughing. “Don’t worry. I dream of him every night.” Seeing the tiger in the Sundarbans is an event so rare and spectacular, that the shared experience has eased any awkwardness that existed on our first day of the trip. Over a breakfast of lucchi, steaming, spicy vegetable curry and black coffee, Robi, Mondal, Neelima and I, again and again go over the previous day’s events, showing off grainy photographs and shaky videos taken on our budget smart phones. But today, we spend our day along narrow creeks in search of smooth-coated otters and fishing cats. The tiger is not on our agenda. We have ticked it off our list.
As the day closes, Mondal leads us to Sudhanyakhali watchtower, a three-storeyed, concrete skeletal structure, that looks over a manmade freshwater waterbody. At its base is a small Bonbibi shrine, and besides it, a chalkboard that documents tiger sightings from the location. The last one was a couple of weeks ago. As I stare at a garishly painted Bonbibi, we hear somebody yell, “Bagh!” and we scramble to the top. This time, a chital shouts in alarm, and rhesus macaques scurry in panic. I wait with bated breath. And there it is. This time, it’s a magnificent tigress who saunters into view in the golden evening sun, her thick tail, swishing proudly in the air. She is slightly leaner than the male we saw earlier, and clearly younger, but just as magnificent. Neelima holds my hand and squeezes it tight, as we stare at her mesmerised. I already know I am looking at another sleepless night. The tiger does not just rule over the islands of the mangrove forest, but also over stories, myths, rumours, shrines and dreams.