Sunday, 19 April, 2009

Trailing the Tiger: Sunderban 6

There is a saying that, if you see a tiger in the Sunderbans it is probably a dead one. So rare is a tiger sighting in the land of the tiger. Yet there's never single moment that an unseen omnipresence of the tiger is not felt. The people of the Sunderbans are survivors. They have few means of livelihood, limited to fishing and forest gathering activities like honey collecting. Theirs is a stranded existence between the great saltwater crocodiles in the river and the Royal Bengal Tiger on land.

The Tigers, unlike the leopards that went extinct in the late 60's in the sunderbans, learnt how to adapt to the unforgiving terrain and evolved into the most intelligent and hardy branch of the tiger family. They can survive on saltwater and crabs, swim across the croc infested waters with a kill on their back and have developed a keen sense of testing water currents and drifting with the flow to save energy. They also have darker, rougher coats that blend flawlessly into the lush Tiger Palms on the banks. But what makes the Royal Bengal Tiger one of the deadliest predators on Earth is desperation. The harsh habitat has given birth to a constantly hungry species that goes after it's kill with a vengeance.

Many a time different theories and remedies have been introduced to counter the sheer cunning and boldness of the Sunderban tigers. From erudite theories on shrinking preybase to explain the desperation to ingenious methods of making masks that villager wear at the back of their heads to confuse and scare the tiger away while at work. It all comes to naught in the tidal country where Tiger outwits man every single time.

In my trips to other sanctuaries I have heard people speak of the Tiger in varying tones of respect, fondness, excitement, passion, hatred and admiration. But here, only fear, they speak of it in hushed tones and euphemisms, like the devil or a ghost with supernatural powers. Never must you take it’s name, lest it summons the beast. The forest has many such rules that every inhabitant of the tide country is born knowing.

The following example will give you an idea of the atmosphere that a Tiger sighting can create. Every evening a village troupe would come to the guest house to perform. They danced to unique couplets that spoke of daily life in Bengal touching upon many topics, from Singur, Tata and Nano, to humourous Man-Wife relations in a Bengali household, but their most popular act is the story of Bon Bibi

Once upon a time, Ibrahim of Medina was blessed by the Archangel Gabriel, to be the father of twins. The girl was named Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongli. After reaching adulthood, they were sent by the Archangel to the shores of Bay of Bengal, now known as Sunderbans. A demon named Dokkin Roy ruled this marshy land and terrorized human beings. Bon Bibi & Shah Jongli defeated Dokkhin Roy and saved the humans. A poor villager named Dukhey played the helpless human that is rescued.

Ever since Bon Bibi divided the tide country into two halves, one protected by her where the humans could live and one still reigned by Dokkin Roy. The legend is now modified to suit the modern times. The Royal Bengal Tigers, which devoured the humans, is called Dokkhin Roy. The fishermen and bee-collectors are represented by Dukhey. There is an invisible line that divides human territory from Dokkin Roy’s territory into which one must never cross.

The “Lady of the Forest”, Bon Bibi, is still sacred in the tide country and temples dedicated to her can be found at the entrance of the forest. The story shows an interesting mixture of religious influences. It is Hindu by nature, but always starts with the Muslim word “Bismillah”. This story is a mainstay for the people of the Sunderbans and regulates a large part of their daily lives. Even to this day, nobody enters the forest without asking Bon Bibi’s protection. To earn this protection, you have to abide by the rules, which say that no human trace should be left in the kingdom of Dokkhin Rai. So the honey seekers will not even spit during their work, a habit that is perfectly normal in Dhaka.

On my last night at Jamespur it was rumoured that a Tiger had been seen crossing the river on our side of the village. Immediately a government jeep with a loudspeaker roamed the village announcing the possible presence of a tiger and cautioning people to stay indoors. The troupe cancelled their last performance and we had an early dinner as the cooks wanted to hasten home. Fireworks were let off throughout the night to scare away the predator and the straying cows and dogs were herded into the hovels of the villagers lest the tiger attack. The hovels themselves were hardly adequate protection, I thought, if the Tiger did decide to attack. We on the other tried to sleep in this unnatural atmosphere, in 'pakka makans' with a 12 ft strong fence surrounding it.

That is the kind of activity and atmosphere the mere mention of this wonderful beast inspires. It is true, the people live uncertain lives, but it is also true that without the Tiger, there would be no tiger-land, no Sunderban and no people, to begin with.


These butterflies were as close as I got to Tigers.

The below the Striped Tiger and above, the Glassy Tiger.


Saif said...

Its really fascinating and exciting to be at a wildlife sanctuary. I've been to Dudhwa park. I couldn't see a tiger, but we (me and the people that accompanied me) had found fresh footprints of the tiger. The whole atmosphere had completely changed, there was an eerie silence at that place.
Our guide said that if we follow the footprints we might find the tiger, but we got a news that there are Nepali terrorists nearby and that it can be dangerous to be around. we had to go back immediately. it was such a bad luck that i missed an opportunity to see a tiger.
After that i never got an opportunity to be at a wildlife sanctuary, but i wish to be at one soon.
btw ... these are really nice pictures and it seems that you had a great time over there.

Deepa said...

Hi. I followed this link from Orkut. Good reading. I've never been to the Sunderbans - only got a feel of it from Amitav Ghosh's excellently written Hungry Tide. I also noted the syncretic traditions that you have noted in your blog about the legend of Bon Bibi. Indian history and culture is replete with these kinds of fusion and exchanges - though with the latest attempts at saffronisation, I don't know how long this ethos would last.


Truth and Lies said...

You atually saw the 'bon bibi' performance?
I have been wanting to see it ever since I read the hungry tide.
And I love wild life and the jungles, last year I went to Dooars and it was fascinating.
The pictures are also lovely.


Nomad said...

@ Saif: Dudhwa!!! That is one of my fav sanctuaries, so untouched.. check the video on the blog.

@ Deepa: saffronisation.. hmm but I think communism will more likely be the end of Sunderbans, that or the other extreme, rampant capitalization, The vast land natural resources it harbors, lets see how long it stays protected!

@Truth and Lies.. thanks!

Velu said...

You seem to have had a great trip out there with some very nice pictures to remember it by. Loved the story.


Canis Aureus said...

verry nice!!!