The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest covering more than 10,000 square kilometers area. It is situated in the delta formed by three rivers, namely, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. While over 6,000 square kilometers of the forest lies in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, the 4,000 square kilometers in the Gangetic delta in West Bengal is located only 110 kilometers away from Kolkata, the City of Joy. Sundarbans gets its name from the abundance of Sundari trees (a mangrove species), and it literally translates to the beautiful forest (sundar - beautiful, ban - forest). And it is an absolutely fitting name for a place which is a treasure trove of pristine natural beauty, rich flora and fauna and unique local culture. You will be fascinated to know that the serene Sundarbans is home to 103 Royal Bengal Tigers along with several endangered species of birds and turtles. There can be no better way to spend your weekend in this part of India than experiencing all that the Sundarbans has to offer.
Sajnekhali is the gateway to the Sundarbans, and it is from here that you get the permit to enter the Sundarban National Park. The Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary is a birdwatchers’ paradise with over 200 species of exotic birds such as the Caspian Tern, the Paradise Flycatcher, the Osprey Herring Gull, the Whimbrel, the White Bellied Sea Eagle and many more. The sanctuary also has a watchtower from where you can spot different wildlife in their natural habitat. The sanctuary remains open from 6 AM to 5:30 PM, and the best time to visit is in the early morning hours.
Jeep safaris or walking safaris are not permitted here. The only way to navigate the area is by cruising along the waterways inside the national park, and it is a truly memorable experience. The lush greenery and tranquility of the surrounding forest will instantly soothe your soul. From the boat, you will be able to spot crocodiles, Asian water monitors, otters, wild boars, spotted deer. And if you are lucky, you may even spot a majestic Royal Bengal Tiger in one of the river creeks. A word to the wise: you will have to be really lucky for that. However, if you are not, do not lose heart as it is not every day that you get to take a look at the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem from such close quarters. Observe the interesting and complex root systems of the mangroves and enjoy the quietude of the beautiful forest that spans 102 islands. You can go for the boat safari anytime between 8:30 AM and 4 PM.
After your cruise in the Sundarban National Park, it will be time to visit West Bengal’s only crocodile project on Lothian Island. The Bhagabatpur Crocodile Project is located on the bank of the river Saptamukhi and is an idyllic hatchery of saltwater crocodiles and northern river terrapin turtles of various ages. This breeding centre in the middle of the calm, lush forest of the Saptamukhi estuary offers the perfect melting pot of nature and wildlife. It remains open from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM.
Next on your itinerary must be the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower. It is the most important watchtower in the Sundarbans area, and it has gained this status due to its reputation of being the most opportune place to spot the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger and axis deer. The freshwater pond across the watchtower lures various animals and makes it a great vantage point. Again, I must emphasise that you must have a bit of luck on your side for the tiger sighting. Also, the panoramic view of miles and miles of never-ending greenery crisscrossed by winding rivulets from the watchtower is nothing short of a treat for both the eyes and the mind.
Your sojourn in the Sundarbans will remain incomplete if you don’t explore a few villages in the area. The inhabitants of these villages are dirt poor, and they risk their lives every day to go out into the forest to earn their living through fishing or honey collection. But their hardships have not been able to overshadow their warmth and welcoming spirit. The people will show you around their farming grounds, the temple of the local deity Bono Bibi and even take you along for an adventurous honey collecting trip in the core forest, for a token charge. Afterwards, you can indulge in some merriment with the local folks with tribal song and dance and the famous local rice beer called Haria. And don’t forget to get at least one bottle of the purest and yummiest honey as a souvenir of your trip.
The best time to visit the Sundarbans is during the dry and cool months from November to February. If you plan to visit the Sundarbans in January, you can club your visit with the Gangasagar Mela, India’s magnificent spiritual carnival, which takes place on the Sagar Island at a distance of 113 kilometers from the Sundarbans. The Gangasagar Mela is held from 13th to 15th January every year.
Whether you want to explore the area independently or go on an organised group tour is your call depending on factors such as security, flexibility and privacy. In any case, the mode of transport remains the same. You can hire a private cab to reach Godhkhali, which is 84 kilometers away from Kolkata. From Godhkhali, you have to take a ferry to reach Gosaba, from where a rickshaw ride will take you to the Pakhiralay village. From there, you have to take another ferry to reach Sajnekhali. Alternatively, you can board a bus from the Babughat Bus Terminus, near Prinsep Ghat, to reach Sonakhali. You can board an auto traverse the 13-kilometer distance between Sonakhali and Godhkhali. Local trains are available as well. You can board any Canning-bound train from the Sealdah Station in Kolkata and then take a direct ferry from Canning to Sajnekhali. Of course, if you choose to go with a professional travel company, they will simply pick you up from a designated place in Kolkata and following that, all the headache will be theirs.
Dense mangrove forests laced with countless waterways and diverse wildlife make the Sundarbans in West Bengal a destination worth visiting at least once in your lifetime. Today, when the bustle of city life is weighing us down, a weekend in the serene Sundarbans is enough to reinvigorate you. So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags as the perfect weekend getaway in this part of India awaits you.
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