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.
Guwahati is not a destination you will find on most India itineraries but I happen to be here on a Brahmaputra river cruise that includes a visit to this very special place.
Originating in the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra River deposits its waters in the Bay of Bengal after coursing through the whole of Assam.
Moving from one point of interest to the other in this state – better known for the production of tea – is easy by following this waterway.
There are no worries about hiring cars, driving, catching planes, traffic jams or polluted air on this river cruise in India.
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 masala dose are 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.
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.
Heart of Kazaringa
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.
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.
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 showstopper. 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.
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.
River cruise in India
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…
To watch the video:
If you’re keen on a river cruise in India, check out the MV Mahabaahu was built in 2012 in Kolkata.
Length: 55m / 10m
Draught: 1.65m / 1.85m