Sunderban:   The home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, Sunderbans is a cluster of 54 islands and waterways, 40% of which fall in West Bengal and the rest in Bangladesh, and is a part of the world's largest delta region. Covering 10,000 sq. km. of mangrove forests and water on the whole, the core area of the Sunderban is the 1,330 sq. km. National Park. Declared as a World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, the dark and mysterious Sunderban is a unique experience, and home to the largest number of Royal Bengal Tigers in the world.

The waterways are maintained by the tidal flow, and Sunderban is a part of the world's largest delta, consisting of the mouths of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers. In Bengali, sunder means beautiful and bans means forests. However, Sunderban has probably got its name from the sundari trees that strew the jungle.

The main camp of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve at Sajnekhali is sealed off from the jungle by wire fencing. But tigers occasionally stray into the compound and can be dangerous. The Sajnekhali Bird Sanctuary is adjacent to the lodge. One can visit it with a short boat ride. Exotic species migrate here from June to October. It is also home to thousands of butterflies. The flutter of wings, the call of birds and the riot of colours make this sanctuary a sensory experience.

The Sunderban boast of one of the most exciting lists of wildlife on the planet. One need not have to be too lucky to get a glimpse of a Royal Bengal Tiger prowling amidst the dense vegetation. The legendary predator has adapted well to this watery environment, and swims from island to island, covering distances of as much as 40 km. in one day. Almost all Sunderban tigers are man-eaters.

Dolphins (especially the Gangetic variety), river sharks, snakes, crocodiles and turtles can be seen along the waterways. Kalas and Halliday Islands boast of the famous Olive Ridley Turtle, which hails from the Indian Ocean and the far-off Atlantic. Red crabs scurry along the riverbanks.

Back on land, one can spot wild boar, monkeys hanging from branches, pythons, spotted deer and various kinds of lizards. Water birds, migratory birds, and birds of the most exotic colours imaginable are to be found in the jungles. The flutter of butterflies adds colour to the Sunderbans.

The Sajnekhali area contains a wealth of water birds, noteworthy residents including Asian openbill stork (Anastomus oscitans), black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus), greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius), white ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), swamp francolin (Francolinus gularis), white-collared kingfisher (Halcyon chloris), black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) and brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera).

Birds of prey include osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Pallas's fish eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), grey-headed fishing eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), Oriential hobby (Falco severus), northern eagle owl (Bubo bubo) and brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis).

Midway between the Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge and the Beat office are the crocodile and turtle ponds. Late afternoon is the time when the reptiles are fed, which is a sight to look out for.

A boat cruise is one of the most exciting adventures in the Sunderban. The boats make their way through the dark waterways, under over-hanging branches. One can see exotic fish, water snakes and crabs as they scamper towards the shores.

On the bank of the Sudhanyakhali River is the Sudhanyakhali watchtower. It stands in the middle of the dense forest and offers a bird's eye view of the surrounding area. Other such watch towers have been built in Sajnekhali, Jhingekhali, Netidhopani, Haldibari, Burirdhabri and Choragajikhali.

In the lap of the Bay of Bengal is Kalas Island, the last island on the Thakrun River. Nearby is the confluence of the Dhulibhasani and the Matla rivers. As one goes deeper and deeper into the island, one enters the dark coconut groves. Apparently peaceful and homely, they house a great watering hole of tigers.

Near Kalas Island is the Halliday Island. In winter, during full moon as well as new moon, hundreds of sea turtles come to the island to lay their eggs.

Up North, on the right bank of the Matla River, is Netidhopani Ghat. It is uninhabited and dangerous, as the ruins of temples have become dens of tigers.

20 km. off Namkhana lies Lothian Island, on the River Saptamukhi. The absence of tigers in this island is more than made up by the presence of a variety of snakes. The Lothian Mangrove Botanical Garden is nearing completion. There is also the Bhagavatpur Crocodile Project where visitors can see crocodile eggs and observe baby crocodiles. A breeding farm, crocodiles bred here are subsequently let out into their natural habitat. Lothian Island also boasts of the Dhanchi Forest Fishery, a highly scientific shrimp-breeding project. These shrimps, produced in great numbers, are ferried across from island to island.

The islands of Piyali and Goshaba could also be visited. Goshaba offers a choice of facilities for accommodation, but for a night stay at Piyali, one has to arrange for tents.

The Sunderban offer a harsh environment. Cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes have caused many islands to disappear over the years. Erosion is still one of the major problems as far as the island-cluster is concerned. Out of the 100 islands, only 30 are well inhabited. The inhabitants are Bengalis, and speak the language of Bangla or Bengali. The major livelihood of the people are fishing, wood cutting and honey collecting.

For the locals, each day spells danger with the fear of crocodiles in water and of tigers on land. The tiger strikes from behind and likes to take its prey unawares. But the people of Sunderbans have retaliated with a unique device. They wear masks of human faces at the back of their heads. The method is workable but not foolproof, and tiger-attacks still take place with alarming frequency. The hazards of the jungle are such that wives take off their married ornaments when their husbands go out into the forest, assuming widowhood until they return.

The closest airport to the Sunderban National Park is Calcutta. There is limited accommodation in this area, and you should not expect the comforts offered by a normal hotel.

Winter and spring (October - April) are the ideal times to visit the Sunderban. For bird-watchers, however, the best time would be from June to September.

Spiritual Journeys offers tours to Sunderbans, and a typical tour would be:

1st Day: Drive from Kolkata to the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. After we pick you up, we will drive through beautiful countryside and rural bazaars. Around midday you arrive at Gothkhali Jetty where travel by road ends, and embark on your cruiser. We cruise through rivers Gomor and Durgadhwani to enter the Pitchkhali river on banks of which lies Sunderban Tiger Camp overlooking the Sunderban Tiger Reserve. After lunch, observe endemic and migratory birds and wildlife while you cruise through the creeks and canals of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve forest to Sajnekhali Watchtower and Mangrove Interpretation Centre. At sun-down, we return to the resort. Climb on to the watchtower at the resort to observe the birdlife within the resort (Sunderban Tiger Camp houses 64 species of birds to date). Dinner would comprise of locally grown and procured food.

2nd Day: After tea, with chirping birds serenading your presence, on your balcony, embark on a cruise towards Dobanke Watch Tower as we move into the Sunderban Tiger Reserve Forest through creeks and dense forest and numerous rivers, having breakfast onboard. The canopy walk at Dobanke Watch Tower inside the forest sends chills down your spine (experience the life in which caged animals live in, while getting a 360° view of the forest). We visit the spotted deer rehabilitation centre after which we cruise back through Matla Sea Face (the point from where Bay of Bengal can be seen) to Sunderban Tiger Camp. In the afternoon experience the true Sunderbans, walking through the native village of Dayapur. Encounter many wonderful sights as you learn about the lifestyle, local crafts, cuisines, and way of life of the local villagers. Observe their indigenous farming methods and how their houses are completely mud made with small entrances, and pass through the village market.

3rd Day: Embark early on a cruise into the Sunderban Tiger Reserve once again through creeks and rivers heading to the Sudhayakhali Watchtower. Walk through the caged walkways after disembarking towards the watchtower, searching for the elusive tiger. Keep a look at the sweet water pond where you may sight a deer drinking water or a water monitor lizard basking by the sun as well as monkeys and wild boars may be sighted nearby. Breakfast on board as we cruise back to Sunderban Tiger Camp, and after lunch drive back Kolkatta.