Very soon, the Sundarbans will not be what it was even a decade ago. Its tiger population is down to one-fourth. Its main food, the spotted deer, has declined too. Like the rhinos Babur had described, the big cats may one day be found only in fables
This past week, I was walking through a village in Haringhata. A very primitive village with homes made of corrugated tin, woods, Golpata and reeds.
A village such as this must have existed for ages, for millenniums. If not here, somewhere else in eternity's passageway.
A hard-crusted dirt road runs by the shanty village. It is actually an embankment to ward off the sea. Beside the village runs a creek that swells up with the tide and then dries up with the ebb. In front of almost every house was a fishing boat tied to the bank or beached for repair.
Across the creek is a dense forest – the Sundarbans.
And here I met an old man. His son had gone fishing in the bay with others from the village. The old man stayed back, maybe too weak to endure the choppy sea any longer. He would rather keep doing the endless errands one usually have around the home. Today he was returning from the field after collecting some coriander leaves.
I posed a very simple question to him: "Do you think this forest has a purpose?"
"What do you mean?" the man looked shocked. Or even offended. And then to my big surprise he came up with his own explanation.
"The forest gives us oxygen. We can go fishing, the whole village, because of the forest. And when the wind blows, we are not swept away because the trees shield us. Why do you ask this question?"
Oxygen! I was rather taken aback by his use of the word. Nobody had taught him the words. No NGOs, no green activists. He just knew them from his years living off the forest.
And he knew that had the forest not been here, this place on the edge of the Bay of Bengal would not have spawned and offered the bounty of fish that he and thousands of his ancestors have been living on.
This is the beauty of this land that has been created from the siltation of two mighty rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra two million years ago, from where rose up the great swamp forest. It was not where it is today. It began from as far away a land like Lucknow in present day India to the North Bengal and Assam.
But as the great Himalaya wore off from rain and constant freezing and unfreezing of glaciers, the water that came down the sides of the mountain carried the crusts of the denuded mountain.
Once, on a cold afternoon, I was walking on the lonely Tibetan range close to the Himalayan base camp. From here climbers attempt to summit the Everest from the Chinese side of the mountain. There I witnessed the birth of the mighty Brahmaputra.
A narrow stream, hardly ten feet wide, came guttering at full speed from the Himalayas. Our guide collected its water in a plastic bottle, took a sip and offered me the bottle. To him it was holy water. I saw crumbs of the mountain - the silt that is flowing down the stream across China and India into the delta that is Bangladesh.
So the shoreline of this delta was tucked much back into the north and it slowly expanded to the present line with silts piling up.
When Chinese traveler Huen-Tsang visited India between 629 and 645 AD, he found the deep forests of the Sundarbans in Pundrabardhana (Pabna or Rangpur) and mentioned the country was wet, fertile, and prosperous.
Emperor Babur first mentioned a specific animal of the Sundarbans -- the lesser rhinoceros that was found in the Bengal Sundarbans.
A very unique ecosystem developed here with the play of the 'hungry tides', silts and brackish water that is neither too saline nor sweet.
The trees that grew, the Sundari, Goran, Genwa, Keora and Kankra, Passur, Bain and Golpata, were tough survivors. They developed breathing soots to get oxygen.
And here among the difficult prickly, inhospitable land, started roaming tigers and rhinos.
But in this difficult terrain came human settlements too. Raja Pratapaditya in the 17th century set up outposts deep inside the Sundarbans to guard against the Portuguese pirates and Arakanese armada.
One monsoon morning I took a perilous trek through mud and dog-faced snakes to see the remains of the Shibsha temple. Banyan trees have grown through the wafer-thin bricks of the temple. Some 450 years ago, the Kaguji or papermakers and molongi, the salt producers, would find sanctuary and spirituality in the shadows of the temple where tigers now rest, as I found out.
And in the time of Emperor Akbar, Raja Basant Rai, the King of the state of Raigarh, had taken refuge in this calamitous land to escape the onrushing army of Akbar.
But the dismemberment of this great forest had already begun. Even before the Mughals came, local kings had started leasing out the Sundarbans for farming.
Then in 1686, Job Charnock, an East India Company employee from Lancashire, came to a thickly forested place called Sutanuti by the Hooghly River to establish a factory, a trading outpost. From here sprang a great city called Calcutta, later to be renamed Kolkata.
The latest massive encroachment on the Sundarbans was the setting up of a township called Salt Lake in Kolkata, which was an extension of the Sundarbans.
And today, only the sad remnants of the great forest remains confined to 10,000 square kilometres – 60 percent of which falls in Bangladesh and 40 percent in India.
One clear winter morning, as I cruised along the Poshur River on my way to the Sundarbans, I was overwhelmed by the sight of all kinds of commercial activities being unleashed beside this river so close to the forest.
Work on the Rampal coal power plant is in full swing despite protests at home and abroad about the possible adverse impacts from pollution. Highly flammable LPG plants have sprung up all around and the environment ministry has scratched off the LPG industry from the red list of dangerous businesses. Cement factories are loading and unloading clinkers, spreading a fine layer of cement and dusts on the river.
Plot after plot along the river all the way to the forest are being readied for industries. You can see patches of iridescent oil leaked from the hundreds of ships floating by as you travel up and down the river.
At the same time the onslaught of climate change is severe. A recent study has shown the health of the trees has declined over the last 30 years because of salinity.
Very soon, the Sundarbans will not be what it was even a decade ago. Its tiger population has come down to one-fourth of what it was ten years ago because of poaching. The tiger's main prey, the spotted deer, has gone down in number too. Like the rhinos Babur had described, the big cats may one day be found only in fables.
I saw the pressure of human population on the forest everywhere. New areas are being cleared for habitation. This will increase many times over when there will be no fear of the tigers.
And only then we shall see the complete destruction of the great and unique mangrove forest of the world.