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Like many forest communities, the residents of the Sundarbans have a complex relationship with their habitat. The mangroves provide them with livelihoods and protection from weather events like cyclones, but they are also a source of fear and danger in their lives. Amidst the labyrinth of the Sundarbans, dense with root and foliage, and inhabited by predators big and small, the afterlife feels closer than ever.

This is especially true for honey collectors in the region, who enter the intertidal forests between the months of April and June when fishing is prohibited. In addition to navigating the maze-like mangroves, they must leave the safety of their boats, harvest honey from beehives, and make their way back home — knowing fully well that they are in prime tiger territory.

The Sundarbans is an archipelago of estuarine islands between the River Hooghly in West Bengal and the River Meghna in Bangladesh. It includes the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve, which spans roughly 10,000 sq km across both countries, and holds the largest contiguous mangrove forest on Earth. According to the WWF India, the Sundarbans is the only mangrove forest in the world where tigers are found. The biosphere is also home to over four million people that live in villages in the region.

In addition to the enigmatic Panthera tigris, this thriving ecosystem is also inhabited by crocodiles (Crocodilus porosus), water monitor lizards (Varanus salvator), king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah), Gangetic dolphins (Platinista gangetica), and olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).

These photos were taken in the Sundarbans Wildlife Sanctuary, a part of the larger biosphere, by wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, who made numerous visits to region over the years. “From a naturalist’s perspective, it has an amazing diversity of mangrove species,” he says, “And the landscape is always changing because of the tides, but the thing that really gives the Sundarbans a different feeling are the tigers. Every single person in the area has a tiger story to tell.” And because of the nature of their jobs, few people have a more intimate knowledge of this forest — and its reigning king — than the honey gatherers.

There are two popular theories for the origins of the name, Sundarbans. One suggests that it is derived from the words, sundar, meaning beautiful, and ban, meaning forest. The other proposes that the region is named after an abundant mangrove species called Heritiera fomes, commonly called the sundari tree. The Sundarbans is a vault of biodiversity that hosts innumerable species of plants, terrestrial animals, and marine life. It is also a valued resource among forest communities that rely on the habitat for food, timber, firewood, traditional medicine, and means of livelihood such as fishing, crab-catching, and honey collection.

There are two popular theories for the origins of the name, Sundarbans. One suggests that it is derived from the words, sundar, meaning beautiful, and ban, meaning forest. The other proposes that the region is named after an abundant mangrove species called Heritiera fomes, commonly called the sundari tree. The Sundarbans is a vault of biodiversity that hosts innumerable species of plants, terrestrial animals, and marine life. It is also a valued resource among forest communities that rely on the habitat for food, timber, firewood, traditional medicine, and means of livelihood such as fishing, crab-catching, and honey collection.

All honey gatherers — locally called mouli or moule — must get permits from the forest department before venturing into the forest to collect. Each group has 5 to 10 men, according to Dr Namrata Kothari in a paper titled, The Plight of Honey Collectors in the Sundarbans.  “And [the] group leader is either senior most or most experienced in this profession.” For the duration of the expedition, the moulis eat and sleep on their boats, which are stocked with food, fuel, water, vessels, mosquito nets, basic medicines, and tools required for collection.

All honey gatherers — locally called mouli or moule — must get permits from the forest department before venturing into the forest to collect. Each group has 5 to 10 men, according to Dr Namrata Kothari in a paper titled, The Plight of Honey Collectors in the Sundarbans. “And [the] group leader is either senior most or most experienced in this profession.” For the duration of the expedition, the moulis eat and sleep on their boats, which are stocked with food, fuel, water, vessels, mosquito nets, basic medicines, and tools required for collection.

The Sundarbans is in a constant state of flux, being continually moulded and remoulded by the movements of the ocean. During high tide, many of its islands are submerged under brackish water, which is a double-edged sword for honey gatherers. “The moulis are quite comfortable with water up to chest height,” explains Anil Mistry, a resident-conservationist from the region who is working to protect the ecosystem and its inhabitants. “Because it reduces the chances of being attacked by tigers.” However, the water also covers the spiky, aerial roots of the mangroves, also known as pneumatophores, which heightens the chance of injury.

The Sundarbans is in a constant state of flux, being continually moulded and remoulded by the movements of the ocean. During high tide, many of its islands are submerged under brackish water, which is a double-edged sword for honey gatherers. “The moulis are quite comfortable with water up to chest height,” explains Anil Mistry, a resident-conservationist from the region who is working to protect the ecosystem and its inhabitants. “Because it reduces the chances of being attacked by tigers.” However, the water also covers the spiky, aerial roots of the mangroves, also known as pneumatophores, which heightens the chance of injury.

While the men are away, the wives of the moulis maintain certain practices, in the belief that it helps protect their loved ones from harm. “Traditionally, they dress in the mourning clothes, eat vegetarian foods only, do not comb their hairs, and do not shut their doors (sic),” writes Dr Namrata Kothari. An article in BARICK (Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge) adds that the women cook food only early in the morning and during the evening. They do not light fires during the day, as they believe it could harm both the forest and beehives.

While the men are away, the wives of the moulis maintain certain practices, in the belief that it helps protect their loved ones from harm. “Traditionally, they dress in the mourning clothes, eat vegetarian foods only, do not comb their hairs, and do not shut their doors (sic),” writes Dr Namrata Kothari. An article in BARICK (Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge) adds that the women cook food only early in the morning and during the evening. They do not light fires during the day, as they believe it could harm both the forest and beehives.

The men have their own rituals. Before entering the forest, every mouli seeks the blessings of Bonbibi, the revered jungle deity of the Sundarbans, to protect them from the tiger. Cultural studies suggest Bonbibi is originally a Muslim deity, sent by Allah to protect all beings of the Sundarbans, including humans, but she is worshipped by people of all faiths. “The prayer to Bonbibi is very serious,” says photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, “and one can feel the tension in the air when witnessing it.” In some ways, it is that point in the expedition when the moulis come face to face with their fear of the tiger. A makeshift shrine is conducted, offerings are made, and after a few minutes of fevered prayer, the group sets off into the forest.

The men have their own rituals. Before entering the forest, every mouli seeks the blessings of Bonbibi, the revered jungle deity of the Sundarbans, to protect them from the tiger. Cultural studies suggest Bonbibi is originally a Muslim deity, sent by Allah to protect all beings of the Sundarbans, including humans, but she is worshipped by people of all faiths. “The prayer to Bonbibi is very serious,” says photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, “and one can feel the tension in the air when witnessing it.” In some ways, it is that point in the expedition when the moulis come face to face with their fear of the tiger. A makeshift shrine is conducted, offerings are made, and after a few minutes of fevered prayer, the group sets off into the forest.

Finding the beehives (above right) isn’t easy. According to BARICK, “There are three kinds of bees in the Sundarbans and among them, the Apis dorsata type of bee comparatively makes more hives and honey.” Honeybees tend to favour trees that are deep in the forest, with horizontal branches that are a few feet above high tide water levels. Finding them amidst the dense foliage of these forests takes experienced eyes and ears, as the moulis use the sound of bees to locate the hive. The best honey from the Sundarbans is believed to come from bees that have gathered nectar from the khalsi flower (Aegiceras corniculatum) (above left).

When the group finds a suitable spot, they cover their faces with gamchas, or thin, coarse cotton towels. Then they prepare the bullen, which is a bundle of dried and green leaves of the Phoenix paludosa plant, aka mangrove date palm. The bullen is lit and used to smoke out the hive to disorient the bees and reduce the chance of getting stung.

When the group finds a suitable spot, they cover their faces with gamchas, or thin, coarse cotton towels. Then they prepare the bullen, which is a bundle of dried and green leaves of the Phoenix paludosa plant, aka mangrove date palm. The bullen is lit and used to smoke out the hive to disorient the bees and reduce the chance of getting stung.

Harvesting honey from a hive requires a high level of skill. Combs are cut without hurting the parts of the colony that contain the queen bee and larvae, thereby facilitating faster recovery for the colony. Later they are squeezed to extract the honey, which is carefully preserved until sold. If done correctly, harvesters can extract up to ten kilos of honey from each hive. The combs are melted down to make beeswax. Both are sold in the market for relatively low prices, considering the risks involved.

Harvesting honey from a hive requires a high level of skill. Combs are cut without hurting the parts of the colony that contain the queen bee and larvae, thereby facilitating faster recovery for the colony. Later they are squeezed to extract the honey, which is carefully preserved until sold. If done correctly, harvesters can extract up to ten kilos of honey from each hive. The combs are melted down to make beeswax. Both are sold in the market for relatively low prices, considering the risks involved.

Moulis must repeat this process several times over the course of each honey-gathering expedition, until they have enough for the entire group. Sometimes, they return with hundreds of kilos of honey, and the satisfaction that their families will have money to tide them over the next few months. On other occasions, moulis could return with as little as a single barrel.

Moulis must repeat this process several times over the course of each honey-gathering expedition, until they have enough for the entire group. Sometimes, they return with hundreds of kilos of honey, and the satisfaction that their families will have money to tide them over the next few months. On other occasions, moulis could return with as little as a single barrel.

Conservationists are on the fence about the honey-gathering activities of the moulis. Some believe it is an extension of the community’s deep relationship with their habitat, one that should be cherished, and efforts should be made to fetch them a fair price for their labour. Others feel the moulis should be encouraged to practice apiculture, so they have a reliable means of livelihood without any risk to their lives. For now, they continue their practice of gathering wild honey, with the grace and protection of Bonbibi.

Conservationists are on the fence about the honey-gathering activities of the moulis. Some believe it is an extension of the community’s deep relationship with their habitat, one that should be cherished, and efforts should be made to fetch them a fair price for their labour. Others feel the moulis should be encouraged to practice apiculture, so they have a reliable means of livelihood without any risk to their lives. For now, they continue their practice of gathering wild honey, with the grace and protection of Bonbibi.

Sustain Team
Sustain Team

We are a driven group of people from diverse backgrounds, bound by an abiding love for India’s natural world.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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