How It All Began…
Legend says that it all began in the snowy tops of the Himalayas where Goddess Ganga began her descent from the ash-smeared locks of Lord Shiva as an immense braid of water raging down from the mountains, unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain, until all the braids come undone. Once past that point, the river throws off its bindings and separates into thousands of tangled strands.
At times it is hard to believe that here, interposed between the sea and the plains of Bengal lies an immense archipelago of dense mangrove forest islands stretching for almost 200 miles from the Hoogly River in Bengal to the Meghna in Bangladesh.
The islands appear on a map as the trailing threads of India’s fabric. There are thousands or perhaps even more, of these islands. Some are immense while some only the size of sandbars. Some have lasted through recorded history, while some have just been washed into being a year or two ago. The river spreads across these islands through channels, some vast and wide and some only a hundred feet across. Each of these channels is a river in its own way, with distinct evocative names. The channels meet in clusters of three to six, and the water stretches to the far edges of the land, and the dense mangrove forest echoes back from the horizon.
Here, the borders between fresh and salt, river and the sea vanishes. The tides reach 200 miles or more inland and everyday thousands of acres of forest disappear under the water, only to re-emerge hours later. The strong tidal currents continuously shape the islands, either by throwing up new shelves and banks, or tearing away whole promontories and peninsulas.
Where the tides throws new land, overnight mangrove forests begin to grow and spread.
Some say that the forests are enchanted. Some say that ferocious beasts dwell in it. Others simply fear to enter it.
There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in. Local inhabitants of the islands call it “bhatir desh” the Tide country.
Most of the islands, remote as they are, lie far away from hospitals and other amenities. Farming is at a minimum due to the salt water invading the lands frequently as a result of tidal fluctuations, and cyclones. Local people depend on the forest and the river at great risk. Each year at least dozen people perish in its dense unpassable foliage, killed by tigers, crocodiles and snakes.
Every year, a growing number of farmers are driven out of their fields and into the core mangrove areas to make a living by collecting honey, fishing, or crabbing, thus putting them at great risk for tiger attack.
Amrita-Seattle has been working in the remote Sunderbaans island villages of Tipligheri, Jamespur, and Lauxbagan for the past five years, where many are orphaned from tiger attacks.
What now unfolds is a reflection of Amrita-Seattle’s journey into the Tide Country to provide medical and humanitarian aid for the local inhabitants.
Carrying medicine and other medical supplies