Naming of Sunderbans

Gautam Kumar Das

The nomenclature of the Sunderbans is a very recent phenomenon of more or less than 200 years with respect to other equal important popular places of the lower Gangetic delta region. Even it is a matter of great surprise to the lovers of Sunderbans that there is not a single evidence or existence of the Sunderbans by name in any old records available at the office of the then Sunderbans Commissioner before the publication of the first scientifically prepared map of the Gangetic plain by Major Rennell in 1776. The area of the present Sunderbans was once very much populous during the reign of one of the most veteran 'Baaro Bhuniyas' namely Pratapaditya covered with brick-built houses, temples, port, pastures, agricultural lands and economically stable villages. But after the fall of Pratapaditya, this vast zone gradually turns to void left by the departure of local inhabitants as a result of regular intrusive presence and tyranny of the Arakanese 'Maghs' and 'Portuguese' pirates. The entire area becomes dense forest as the tidal waters spill over from the network of the tidal courses and inlets that carries the seeds of the mangroves of different species upon the non-protected villages without trace of embankment. Ultimately the once wealthy and enriched kingdom of Pratapaditya, dearth of a single human being, has been converted into a dense jungle within a span of near about one and a half century. Nobody lived within the jungle or surrounding this jungle of 'Vati' area i.e. lower Gangetic deltaic plain. Naturally there was no local name of the forest or nobody named this newly grown up dense mangroves jungle.

The British first noticed the vast low-lying forest area and they immediately resolved to reclaim this forest-land in order to collect the revenue by the introduction of agriculture on that mangrove habitat zone. Mr Claude Russel (1770), the Collector General of 24 Parganas district first took initiatives followed by Tilman Henckell (1781), the Judge and Magistrate of the Jessore district. Both of these Company people worked hard for the reclamation of the forest area, but hardly any record and documents bear the name of the jungle as Sunderbans during their progress of work. 'Sunderbunds' exists only in the map of James Rennell (1776) followed by a report published in the Calcutta Gazette on the 24th April, 1788—"It is a fact that the conduct of Mr Henckell in the Sunderbunds had been so exemplary and mild towards the poor Molungees, or salt manufacturers, that to express their gratitude they have made a representation of his figure or image, which they worship amongst themselves."

The use of the name of the Sunderbans in black and white has perhaps been started in any time between 1788 and 1793, the year of permanent settlement where the name of the Sunderbans is clearly indicated for the collection of revenue. And here the question arises—how the 'Sunder-bunds' has been simplified to such a beautiful name 'Sunderbans' and what are the possible sources for naming this estuarine forest-land as 'Sunderbans'. The possible sources are considered to select name of the world's largest mangrove forest as Sunderbans as following—i) 'Sundari'-ban i.e. forest of the Sundari tree, ii) 'Sundri' (sindur)-ban i.e. the reddish colour of the Sundari tree's wood is as beautiful as vermilion, iii) 'Sudurer-ban i.e. forest of long distance, iv) 'Sundar-ban i.e. beautiful forest, v) 'Samuddurer'-ban i.e. forest adjacent to the ocean, vi) 'Sundar'-ban (Sundar is the nick name of the Royal Bengal Tiger), vii) 'Chandradwip'-ban i.e. the forest located within the Chandradvip, an old Pargana existed even in the British period, viii) 'Chandabhandas' (an old tribal race who were engaged in making of salt) > Shandabhancas > Soonderbunds > Sunderbunds > Sunderbans. Conversion of the land of 'Chandabhandas' into Sunderbans might be simply connected with the non-habituated pronunciation of the Bengali terms by the European people who were then the field managers and were engaged in the progress of reclamation. This probable possibility might be considered as the relevant source for the nomenclature of the Sunderbans as the British people gradually have been adopting the forest of 'Chandabhandas' with their changing vocabulary as 'Sunderbunds' in their time. The first evidence of Chandabhandas is occurred in a copperplate inscription discovered at Edilpur of the Bakarganj district written in Sanskrit and in Ganda characters, dated 1136 Samvat or 1079 AD. W W Hunter describes the copperplate inscription that records the grant of three villages by Madhava Sena, King of Bengal, to a Brahman, who, with landlord rights, receives the power of punishing the Chandabhandas, or Shandabhandas, a race that lived in the forest. Considering all of these factors, the naming of Sunderbans has been derived and related with the name of the tribal race, Chandabhandas. And out of all possible sources for the nomenclature of the Sunderbans including nature, forest beauty, distance of the ocean, vermilion colour of the Sundari wood etc, the most acceptable and relevant source of naming is left under consideration, namely 'Chandabhandas'. Thus, the tribal race 'Chandabhandas' brought glory to the name of the Sunderbans.

Vol. 48, No. 50, Jun 19 - 25, 2016