The Sundarbans are a land mass formed by the large deposits of silt carried by Ganga and Brahmaputra from the hinterland and the relentless sculpting of silt mounds by the tides of the Bay of Bengal. This geological phenomenon gives birth to large clusters of Islands which are tightly bound and separated by narrow channels and stream. The slit composition of the Sundarbans Islands makes it an unstable landmass which are prone to disintegration caused by the vagaries of climatic fluctuations. The vast tracts of Sundarban lands are of such geological formation that has given rise to an expansive mangrove forest.
The mangroves act as a deterrent to the dissipation of silt mounds and gives stability to the newly formed landmass. It also provides the building blocks for a unique ecological habitat and laboratory for the evolution of a tiger species endemic only to the environs of the Sundarbans. Coincidentally the tiger is also the guardian of his own species and the forest habitat that he dwells in. The terror of the man-eating tiger safeguards the Sundarbans from human encroachment and the problem of deforestation and wanton extraction of natural resources which accompany them. Besides housing the tiger the Sundarbans is also a foraging ground for the cheetal and the wild boar which form the major diet quotient of the tigers. Endangered species like the estuarine crocodiles, otters, gangetic dolphins, Olive Ridley turtles and water monitors are part of this fragile ecosystem. In the past, leopards, wild water buffaloes, Javan and Indian rhinoceroses, hogs and swamp deer also shared this habitat however today they are not sighted in the environments of Sundarbans. This haven for endangered species is increasingly coming under threat from the ominous presence of the humans who frequent these forests way too often.
Historically humans have always avoided venturing into the Sundarbans unless it was deemed necessary. The story of Bonbibi, a popular folklore of the sundarbans encapsulates one such narrative that is focused on the need for maintaining a fine balance between the use of forest resources by humans and the ownership of forest lands by the tigers. In this story, humans and tigers are in a perpetual conflict on the ownership of the Sundarbans. The tigers personified in the character of Dokkhin Rai attacks humans and devours them whenever humans encroach into tiger territory. This spate of attacks on humans in the land of the tigers caused a conflict between the two parties. Bonbibi becomes the arbiter in this conflict, she decides that humans would henceforth enter the Sundarbans pure minded and barehanded. In addition, the humans promised her that they would consider the forest as being only for those who are poor and for those who have no intention of taking more than what they need to survive. The tigers on the other hand were left to themselves in the Sundarbans. The story of Bonbibi foresaw the conflict between humans and animals and deduced that the truce between the two interests is in the harmonious existence of humans and tigers.
In modern times, human and animal conflicts have heightened in the Sundarbans. The human presence in the Sundarbans has increased more than ever before. Humans venture into the Sundarbans in search of Forest products such as wild honey which are a lucrative commodity in the open market.There is also a different theatre of conflict between man and man in which the tiger has become a scapegoat. This conflict as some believe has made the shy tiger a man-eater. The infamous Marichjhapi massacre is rumoured to be the source of this problem. According to one account human corpses was set afloat into the Sundarbans which became an easy bait for the tigers. The taste of human flesh is speculated to be the cause for the heightened attack of tigers on humans. Here too the human element is at play for the changing dietary pattern for the tigers and the tigers have merely fallen prey to the human machinations.
The story of the Sundarbans is intrinsically connected with the tiger. The tiger protects it and in turn the Sundarbans provides the tiger with sustenance and a cradle for its peculiar evolutionary trajectory. Human interventions in modern times are threating habitat loss in some cases extinction of species from the region as in the case of the Javan Rhinoceros. The myth of the Bonbibi provide solution for modern debates on environment vs development. It enunciates the inviolable sacredness of the wilderness, in the meantime allowing for limited use of forest resources.
- Jalais, Annu. Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans. India: Taylor & Francis, 2014.
- Halder, Deep. Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre. India: HarperCollins India, 2019.