As the honking horns and crushing crowds of Kolkata fade into the distance, a warm breeze blows over the ship’s top deck like a deep breath of relief. That we will be the only tourists in sight for the next week seems almost unimaginable – cruises have long been scarce in India’s West Bengal along the Ganges and its tributaries, which flow well off the beaten track.
It has been 200 years since this legendary waterway saw any significant traffic, as travellers and cargo moved on to railways. We sail through the areas where Europeans established their East India trading companies, leaving behind remnants of their 17th to 19th century settlements. Also standing grandly on the riverbanks are old temples and mosques, which provide a glimpse of the religions that so strongly permeate the country’s past and present.
We’re on Heritage Cruises’ Bengal Ganga, a replica British colonial-style steamer with shining polished teak and brass, an open-air top deck, indoor bar and dining room. The intimate ship comes with just 28 cabins and, although the bathrooms are small, there’s a shared balcony where you can while away hours soaking up the view.
At our first stop, the one-time Portuguese town of Bandel, is the Hooghly Imambara, an impressive mosque-cum-congregation hall with a tall clock tower and walls engraved with texts from the Koran. In Kalna, we visit a Hindu complex surrounded by impeccably manicured gardens.
The most memorable site is a huge Hare Krishna commune, which is the only place we see Westerners, who are living there; praying, singing and lining up for blessings.
The opulent Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, which will represent the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is due to open in 2016. Around the construction site, billboards advertise for donations. In the artist’s rendition, it looks like a cross between the Taj Mahal and the White House.
At the old fort of Murshidabad, we spend several fascinating hours at the Hazarduari Palace Museum, a faded yellow, grand British colonial building that houses artworks and antiques from the collection of former Nawab rulers. Taking pride of place is the world’s second-largest chandelier (after the one in Buckingham Palace), gifted by Queen Victoria.river living
Perhaps the most striking scenes we encounter, though, are the colourful gatherings of locals who come down daily to the ghats (steps down to the river) to wash and collect water. Women wear orange, lipstick pink and turquoise saris, while the men favour bright white cotton. Their kids play in the river, showing off their best dives when the Bengal Ganga arrives.
In these remote areas, the crew tells us, people rarely see “an Englishman” (any white person), so we are a novelty to them as much as they are interesting to us.
Word spreads that a ship is on the way and dozens of locals rush down to wave and shout hello.
In between the sights are hours spent relaxing on board, gazing at the lush green landscape of rice fields, spice crops and orchards. Aside from some littered villages, the reality of these areas is far removed from the perception that the Ganges is polluted. From what I can observe, it’s a perfectly pleasant and peaceful stretch of water – and surprisingly scenic.
After disembarking we take a short flight to Varanasi, home of the holiest stretch of the Ganges, where it’s back to the beeping horns of a million mopeds, cars and buses, while cows cause chaos in the middle of it all.
Transported by rickshaw, Ganga passengers are taken to a riverside sunset ceremony performed in synchronisation by four priests, and then to an outdoor cremation, observed from a respectful distance on a rowboat.
Silhouettes of men carrying bodies on stretchers are visible against the glowing fire. We can barely believe our eyes.
In the morning, after a night in a local hotel, we return to the river to see thousands of Hindu pilgrims worshipping in the water: gurus give blessings, homeless people beg. The scene is epic – and it’s like this every day.
Suddenly, our peaceful week of cruising seems so far away and we realise it was only the beginning of experiencing the legend of the Ganges.