River cruising has emerged as a popular style of holidaying for luxury travellers. In Europe, cruising the Danube or Rhine has been popular for quite some time while journeying along other key rivers of the world, from the Nile and Amazon to the Yangtze, Irrawaddy and the Mekong are also gaining momentum. Indian river cruising is in its infancy. On a river cruise in India, you can cruise the Ganges and backwaters of Kerala in luxury ships. But of all the Indian river cruises, the spotlight is on a Brahmaputra River cruise in northeast India aboard luxury vessel MV Mahabaahu.
Why cruise the Brahmaputra River?
Originating from a glacier in the Himalayas in Tibet, the 2900 km Brahmaputra River drifts through northeast India.
The river passes through the valleys of Assam before emptying into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.
Assam is a state of India famous for its unspoilt natural beauty, friendly people of Tibeto-Burman origin, colourful culture and wildlife.
Assam black tea has placed the region on the world map.
The eight-day Brahmaputra River cruise between Guwahati to Jorhat introduces you to all of these delights in a relaxing and comfortable way.
Brahmaputra River Cruise Ship
Sandip Hor: MV Mahabaahu is a 55m five-deck boutique ship with 23 staterooms (fortunately air conditioned!).
The cruise ship’s elegant décor reflects the flavours of Assam.
Rooms have everything a luxury traveller would need, from a well-stocked minibar to satellite television to an in-room safe.
Beds are very comfortable and decked out with luxurious linen and there are nice touches like slippers, hair dryer and quality toiletries in the ensuite.
Recreational facilities include a library, spa and outdoor swimming pool.
On the menu are local and international delicacies. And the well-stocked bar is always busy with guests socialising over a cocktail or chilled Kingfisher beer.
Regular lecture programs held before the shore excursions prepare guests with information about the history and culture of Assam.
Maria Visconti:570km of cruising over seven days gives you the opportunity to enjoy life on board: cocktails on uninhabited giant sandbars; delicious lunch and dinners in the tastefully decorated and air conditioned dining room; informative lectures by the resident Naturalist; early morning yoga sessions on sandbars where our only companions are birds and the odd turtle and cooking demonstrations fill the gaps in between outings.
The MV Mahabaahu has the atmosphere of a private yacht. With a maximum capacity of 40 guests it never feels crowded.
The five decks, spacious Spa with two Jacuzzis and a sauna, a seven metre long outdoor pool and top observation deck with bar seem to absorb guests in the periods when we are all on board.
However, we seem to be on excursion mode most of the time, boarding tenders to reach the shores and climbing onto convoys of 4x4s that take us to remote locations.
The MV Mahabaahu accommodation surpassed my expectations. Cabins are spacious, well appointed, air-conditioned and have great bathrooms with powerful showers.
Balconies and panoramic windows let you watch the river at close range. I feel I can trail my fingers over the water from my bed and watch a magnificent thunderstorm while safely tucked under my quilt.
Love Goddesses, wild rhinos, tea plantations and drumming monks…Yes, this is an amazing river cruise in incredible India…
MV Mahaabahu Shore Excursions
Sandip Hor: Shore excursions to villages and towns along the river bank offer fascinating insights into Assam’s rich heritage and lifestyle.
History and culture become our constant companions when exploring the ancient town of Sibasagar, which has well-preserved monuments and temples of the Ahom Kings.
The Ahom Dynasty ruled the region for 600 years during the medieval period, until Assam was annexed to British India in 1826.
Another destination in Assam is Majuli, which was once the world’s largest river island and the cultural soul of Assam. Some call it India’s disappearing island.
We rub shoulders with Mishing tribal people and visit satras (or monasteries) of the Neo-Vaishnavite cult. And our shore excursions offer us a glimpse of centuries-old cultural traditions through exotic Assam dance performances.
Maria Visconti: On Majuli Island we are treated to an outdoor mini performance of the Ramayana with spectacular costumes and live music.
A visit to the Kamalabary Satra (monastery) turns from a quiet and sedate mystical experience to a booming drum show-stopper. These men have toured the world with their sacred dances and drumming.
At Sivsagar, one of the most important temple complexes in India I look over the black waters of the man-made lake and spot a crescent orange moon, only that the night before it had been a full moon looking over our cocktails on a sandbar.
It takes me a few seconds to compute, but yes, this is a blood moon and a lunar eclipse all at the same time. Our convoy of cars stops, we all get out and take the magic in.
Brahmaputra River Cruise wildlife safari
Sandip Hor: Another highlight this Indian river cruise odyssey is the visit to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kaziranga National Park.
Kaziranga National Park has over 2000 one-horned rhinoceros as well as Asian elephants, Royal Bengal tigers, water buffalos, swamp deer and a huge variety of avian species.
Our itinerary includes an early morning elephant safari followed by a jeep expedition where we ride through the tall-grass laden forest to spot wildlife.
Because of their abundance, it’s easy to track the rhinos but tiger sightings are not as common.
Tigers are shy and easily camouflaged by the dry yellow grass. There are a few types of tigers and India is the home of the Bengal tiger, which is an endangered species.
Maria Visconti: A pre-dawn safari at Kaziranga National Park, is for me the wildlife highlight of the trip.
While it felt crazy to get up at 3am, the comfort of a masala chai the chilliest part of the day makes up for it.
When we get to the Park’s Lodge, breakfast is in full swing. I make a beeline for the area where the masala dose is being prepared.
A hot plate manned by two chefs is covered with paper-thin rounds of batter, which cook in an instant.
Daintily lifting the rounds off the hot plate, the chefs place a mound of spicy potato mix in the middle and roll the 25cm diaphanous and crispy pancake into a cigar shape.
It is the most delicious masala dose I have ever tried and I am a bit of a connoisseur, having pursued them from Malaysia to Nepal and now India, their home.
Washed down with more masala chai I am truly in Masala Heaven, but abandon it, we must to meet instead the dozen pachyderms patiently waiting for us.
Silently and softly we start for the heart of Kazaringa, the long grass plains.
Mist rises from the ground while the horizon is just getting some colour, a suffusing pink light that cuts the greyness of the predawn light.
The plains are vast and soon we lose track of the other elephants.
I have my eyes fixed on the horizon and finally a fiery disk slowly pushes the greyness away, little by little. It is a true Indian sunrise.
Hazy, smokey, blood red and exhilarating and just then, as the sky turns pink our mahout points in the distance.
Now all eyes are on a patch of tall, dewy grass. In the middle of it and a mere four metres away from us, we spot a mother and baby rhino munching away.
Their hides are spectacular and much more elaborate than the African rhinos. They looked like armour, rivets, articulated plates and all.
Half of the world’s existing rhinos (over 2000 of them) are in Kazaringa sharing space with 15 other endangered species of mammals.
In the afternoon – and this time from a jeep safari – we get a chance to spot deer, wild hog and a great variety of birds including the spectacular sighting of a giant hornbill who just flies so close over our heads, we could have almost touch him.
Brahmaputra River special moments
Sandip Hor: No visit to Assam is complete without visiting a lush green tea estate.
During our visit, we see how the green leaves are picked. We also enjoy learning about the process of turning them into drinkable tea.
The best part is sipping a hot cup of Assam tea in the estate manager’s bungalow.
British planters built these bungalows when they ran tea farms in Assam in the early 19th century.
Maria Visconti: Are you a culture vulture? Well, cultural highlights are aplenty on this cruise.
From the famous tea plantations of Assam to the uniqueness of the biggest river island in the world (Majuli Island) where the inhabitants follow a form of Vishnu worship, the experiences come fast and thick.
There is a temple in Guwahati, Assam, dedicated to the Goddess of Desire.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva and Sati used this place – now named Kamakhya – for their encounters (kama means lovemaking in Sanskrit).
In this Hindu temple, a natural spring flows through a yoni – shaped cleft in the rock, resembling the female genitalia.
Childless couples come here to seek favour to conceive. The atmosphere in the interior chamber is humid, dark and mysterious.
This is one of the delights of a river cruise in India.
Life on Board MV Mahaabahu
Sandip Hor: Life on board is super cool. There’s plenty of time to relax, socialise and chill out with other fellow passengers on this Indian river cruise.
Our days start with yoga sessions, on a deserted sandy island or wherever the ship is moored overnight.
In between shore excursions, bar time and meals, we attend informative talks about Assam and its treasures.
Shopaholics are not disappointed, as the reception area turns into a boutique store offering plenty of Asam silk fashions.
Assam silk is famous and highly sought after. One of the services offered on this river cruise is an on-board dressmaker, who can skillfully turn a piece of Assam silk into an adorable dress within a day.
Getting to Assam
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon fly daily from Australia via Hong Kong to Kolkata from where there are regular flights to Guwahati and Jorhat with Jet Airways, one of India’s top domestic carrier.
If you’re flying Business Class, you’ll be impressed with the Pier Business Class lounge. After an almost year-long makeover, it’s now the largest lounge in the Cathay Pacific network.
Brahmaputra River cruise detail
MV Mahabaahu operates from October to March. See Far Horizon Tours Pvt Ltd for bookings and other travel arrangements in India.
Before or after your Brahmaputra River cruise, it’s worth spending a few days in vibrant Kolkata. Here are some things to do in Kolkata. Kolkata the ‘Second City of the Empire” when it was the nation’s capital during British Raj era.
The best place to stay there is at the plush Taj Bengal Hotel from where iconic sights such as the National Library, Victoria Memorial, National Museum, New Market and the Flower Market are close by.
Sandip Hor travelled as a guest of MV Mahabaahu. Maria Visconti travelled on a self-funded cruise.
Looking for the best of India? Stay at these Indian palace hotels. Other amazing places to visit are Udaipur but if you love colour here are some things to do in Jaipur and more things to see in Jodhpur.