Home to one of the largest concentrations of Royal Bengal tigers on the planet, the 2585-sq-km Sundarbans Tiger Reserve is a network of channels and semi-submerged mangroves that forms the world’s largest river delta. The ecosystem here is contiguous with the Sundarbans delta in Bangladesh, which lies eastward across the international border along the same shoreline.
Tigers (officially estimated to number a few more than 100) lurk in the impenetrable depths of the mangrove forests, and also swim the delta’s innumerable channels. Although they do sometimes prey on livestock, tigers are typically shy and sightings are rare. Nevertheless, cruising the broad waterways through the world’s biggest mangrove sanctuary (now a Unesco World Heritage Site) and watching wildlife, whether it is gangetic dolphins, water monitors, 5m-long saltwater crocodiles or luminescent kingfishers, is a world away from Kolkata’s chaos.
Top Sights and activities:
Mangrove Interpretation Centre- This tree-shaded complex located at the entrance of the reserve is looked after by the forest department, and has some useful information on the local ecosystem, a small turtle and crocodile hatchery, a museum of wildlife and a blackboard where the date of the last tiger-spotting is routinely updated.
India Beacons- Motorboats and guides are available for hire in Godkhali, en route to Sajnekhali. India Beacons has a good selection of boats for cruising the waterways deep in the Sundarbans.
Organised tours are the best way to navigate this tricky and harsh landscape, not least because all your permits, paperwork, guiding duties and logistical problems are taken care of. Tour prices vary widely. Do check what is and isn’t included.
About 180km south of Kolkata, the sleepy fishing village of Mandarmani sports a heavenly beach stretching nearly 15km. It remains one of the many unpolluted beaches in the country, and supports countless colonies of sand bubbler crabs. The beaches see some additional action at dawn, when fishing boats drop anchor and disgorge their catches of marine goodies.
Adventure Zone conducts parasailing on the beaches, and offers an adventure-sports package that includes kayaking, zip-lining, rock climbing and rappelling.
According to Hindu legend, Sagar Island – at the confluence of the Ganges – was where King Sagar’s 60,000 sons were brought back to life by the flowing river after they had been reduced to ashes by a sage named Kapil Muni. Each year in January, the Ganga Sagar Mela is held here near the Kapil Muni Temple, honouring the legend. The best way to see the festival is the two-day, one-night boat tour operated from Kolkata by West Bengal Tourism, with accommodation on-board. The island hibernates for the rest of the year.