All land life originated billions of years ago in the swampy margins between land and sea in places like the Sunderban. Best known as the home of the Royal Bengal tiger, this mangrove wilderness, harbours at least one creature that still possesses an original tool that allowed water dwellers to move to land. This is the mud skipper, a fish that walks on land and even climbs trees!
Moving south into the district of 24 Parganas of West Bengal, you enter a diverse ecological habitat. The river Hooghly decants itself into these swamps before it proceeds to meet the Bay of Bengal. The melting snows of the Himalayan and Tibetan ecosystems and the monsoon run-off flow into this delta, which is fringed by the largest mangrove tiger habitat in the world. The mighty Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers empty here. Almost 60 per cent of the total mangrove acreage in India is to be found in the Sunderban. It is a land of opposites. Snakes, sharks, crocodiles, crustaceans, deer and pig have adapted perfectly to the hostile terrain but the tiger has claimed the land as its own. The Sunderban National Park is one of India's best protected reserves.
The Sunderban outlines the gigantic fertile delta that is the meeting point of the three mighty rivers mentioned earlier. The smaller Vidya Malta river, divides the region into the western Namkhana Range and the eastern Bashirhat Range. The swamps lie at the feet of the Himalayas in the north, the Rajmahal hills in the west and the Meghalaya plateau and Chittagong hills in the east. The notified forest area, supports dense mangrove forests, several rivers, creeks and estuaries but most of the area is inaccessible swamps. Sajnekhali, Lothian Island and Halliday Island form the three most important island areas of the reserve.
The Sunderban comprises the Chhotahardi, Mayadwip, Chamta, Matla, Goshaba, Gona and Baghmara forests. The soil texture resembles sticky clay and flooding is a daily feature when two-thirds of the land gets submerged. Water logging is an obvious fall-out of the hydrology of the area.
In 200-300 AD the merchants of Chaand Saudagar built a city in the Baghmara forest area, the ruins of which still stand today. The Sunderban offered safe sanctuary to Raja Basand Rai and his nephew who faced a threat from the Mughal Emperor Akbar's army. Netidhopani still contains evidence of the protective structures built by them. Pirates and salt smugglers flourished here in the 17th century AD and used the swamps and ancient ruins to their advantage. The Sunderban are an integral part of the Bengali ethos and culture and has been featured prominently in Bengali literature and art. The novel Kapal Kundla by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the 60s film Ganga are only an indication of the inspiration they have provided to writers, poets and film-makers over several years. The hilsa fish that spawns in the Sunderban is the pride of Bengali cuisine.
The Sunderban is believed to have once been a part of the sea for it is the heavy silt deposits that have created the delta. The rich, isolated 10,000 sq km swamp of the Bengal Sunderbans were first in the public eye when 4,262 sq km of delta came under the protection of Project Tiger. The rest of the delta lies in Bangladesh. Of this area, 2525 sq km was demarcated as the Sunderban Tiger Reserve under the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1973, and it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1977. A core area of 1,330 sq km was accorded the status of a National Park on May 4, 1984. The park was eventually recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Many people have lost their lives to the tigers in Sunderban. Locals wear bright coloured facemasks behind their heads (to fend of rear attacks) when they venture into the jungle, in the hope that such ploys may keep them safe from the tiger. They worship Banbibi (the forest goddess) and Dakshin Ray (a demon that is said to assume the avataar of a tiger) for protection from the tigers. Narayani, Maklukhan, Sa Jungli and Gazi Saheb are the other deities propitiated in return for safety.