The Sundarbans is a region of mangrove forests spread across many islands. It straddles the border between India and Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal. In earlier times, it was a civilized place, a flourishing port region. Archaeologists recently discovered a walled city, built in the fourth century, that covered two and a half square miles (6.47 sq. km). Ruins are scattered throughout the jungle, including temples and monasteries. In 1586, a European visitor reported seeing fertile land and sturdy, storm-resistant houses.
Over the last 600 years, the land has experienced big changes. Beneath the Bengal Basin, the geologic structures have tipped, and the course of the Ganges has shifted to the east. The flow of the Ganges no longer enters the Sundarbans. Explosive population growth upstream has loaded streams with eroded silt. Today, little fresh water enters the Sundarbans, and the forest has become too salty for farming in many places.
There are large quantities of valuable timber in the Sundarbans, but there is little logging, because entering the forest is fairly suicidal. Even poachers stay away. The sharks and crocodiles take great delight in having humans for lunch. Venomous vipers plunge from trees onto your head, or crawl into bed with you at night (don’t roll over!). Sea snakes are ten to forty times more poisonous than cobras.
The primary man-eaters are the tigers. In the dense, swampy, tangled forest, you never feel safe for a minute — and guns and numbers provide no protection. Hundreds are killed every year. One hundred years ago, during a six-year period, 4,218 people were eaten by tigers in the Sundarbans. Tigers think twice before attacking a boar, because they are strong and have sharp tusks. But humans are slow, weak, sitting ducks (and they taste a lot like monkeys).
Tigers can weigh up to 500 pounds (226 kg), and grow up to nine feet long (2.7 m). They almost always attack from behind, and instantly kill their victims by crushing their necks. They can leap onto a boat, without rocking it, snatch a person, and disappear into the forest before anyone realizes what happened. They often do this at 11 PM, when everyone is asleep, and they are said to prefer the fattest. There are many stories of flying tigers. They can leap 20 feet with a dead human in their jaws.
Tigers may sit patiently in the brush for hours, waiting for the ideal moment to pounce and snatch. They can move across the land without making a sound, materialize anywhere, and hide behind a blade of grass. Tigers are rarely seen, and they always see you first. Scientists know almost nothing about them, because there is no way to observe them without becoming cat food.
Sy Montgomery discussed the healthy relationship between humans, tigers, and forests in her book Spell of the Tiger. Modern folks suffer from immense spiritual pain because we don’t remember who we are. Somewhere down the line, we got confused, and began to hallucinate that we were the lords and masters of the universe. The folks of the Sundarbans have never forgotten that humans, like everything else that breathes, are meat. They are kept humble by the powerful spell of the tiger. We are all simply members of the family of life, where everyone is meat, and nobody is special.
Montgomery once met an unlucky shaman. “His father, his brother, and his favorite son were all killed by tigers. His wife was eaten by a crocodile. His daughter drowned in the river. His house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.” He did not hate tigers. “No matter how many men are killed, no matter how deeply the man-eaters are feared, the tiger is not hated. Almost everyone agrees on this point.” They are sacred creatures that are worshipped, but not loved. Likewise, the snakes are honored and loved, despite the fact that they kill thousands of Indians every year.
Hindus and Sufi Muslims live together in the Sundarbans, and they are tolerant and respectful of each other (unlike in urban areas). Hindus worship local Muslim deities, and vice versa. Every year, villages hold sacred celebrations to honor Bonobibi, the forest goddess, and Daksin Ray, the tiger god. Unlike Western people, they have a spiritual connection to place.
In the Sundarbans, the Forest Service allows people to enter the forest to fish, collect dry firewood, or gather honey. No groups are given a permit unless their party includes a reputable shaman to speak the sacred mantras, appease the forest deities, and provide the illusion of spiritual protection.
In the Indus Valley, archaeologists have discovered a series of five clay panels at the site of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to 3000 BC: (1) tiger and forest, (2) person chasing tiger, (3) a god begging the tiger, (4) loggers clear-cutting, (5) god gone, tiger gone, forest gone. Moral: agriculture destroys everything sacred. It echoes the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The tigers do a great job of slowing the destruction of the Sundarbans. If the forest were destroyed, the land would be swept into the sea. In 1984, a portion of the Sundarbans was turned into a national park. India is a world leader in protecting tigers, but the tigers will never be safe until the human herd returns to sustainable levels — the sooner the better.
We are now living in the Kali Yuga, the last of four world ages, according to the Hindus. In their scriptures, this is an era when human integrity hits bottom: “Property becomes rank, wealth the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union, falsehood the source of success.” Some believe that the end of the world is not far off.
In any case, climate change and rising sea levels seem certain to devastate the low-lying Sundarbans, along with its mangroves and tigers. Over the last 125 years, the rate of severe storms has been increasing. Some associate this with deforestation. In the Bay of Bengal, storm-driven tidal waves can grow to 250 feet high.
I will never forget this book, because it presents humans in normal, traditional way. It’s a powerful message that reaches ancient places. It provides a healthy contrast to Western society, where every predator is a problem that needs to be killed.
Montgomery, Sy, Spell of the Tiger, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1995.