From Mughal Imambaras to Sikh Gurdwaras, Jain temples to the biggest Hare Krishna’s Head Quarters yet to be built, Bengal and Bihar are two Indian states rich in history and culture. The river Ganges was central to the development of civilisations hence a Ganges river cruise makes perfect sense to discover treasures otherwise difficult to access.
It is often said that there is no better way to see a country than from the river.
In the case of the ABN Raj Mahal, this is doubly true. Not only because the shore excursions to selected places of historical and cultural significance are superb, but also because the facilities on board are first class.
ABN Raj Mahal – The cabins
The cabins are huge and have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to let in all those sunrises and panoramic views.
There are also a few single cabins – just a tad smaller but also with floor-to-ceiling panoramic sliding doors – that do not attract single’s supplement.
These are welcome news for all solo travellers and are in high demand. The shared facilities and Spa are spacious and tastefully decorated.
Ganges River Cruise aboard ABN Raj Mahal
The Raj Mahal is only two years old and has the best of everything. Passengers on this Ganges River cruise go ashore twice or more a day and talented local artists come on board to entertain.
The Bawls of Bengal put on a vibrant show during a bright afternoon with their Sufi-inspired songs and dance.
A troupe of young dancers from a Drama College in Kolkata performs an evening of magic dance, mixing ancient with contemporary.
Near Patna, a troupe of talented musicians regales the audience with a lively performance of classical Hindustani music.
A Tandoor barbecue on a huge sandbar is an unexpected bonus during Diwali. The evening is balmy and passengers gather in a big circle around a fire. The meat and the breads coming out of the tandoor oven are exceptionally good.
To top it all, the crew lights up the sky with fireworks to celebrate the festival of lights.
Festivals in India
Travellers can almost be guaranteed to encounter a festival or two while in India.
This time the ABN Raj Mahal sailed from the end of the Durga Puja in Kolkata (the major festival of this city) through Diwali (the festival of lights) and an unusual – and exclusive to Bihar and Nepal – Chhath Festival, honouring Surya, the life-giving Sun.
Mother Ganga is a river of life: wide, serene and surprisingly lacking in commercial traffic.
The views from the observation top deck (or your own cabin) are rural and changing with the seasons.
Whether its mustard fields blanketing the land in vivid yellow or expanses of lentil and sugarcane, the feeling is rural.
But while life is slow and contemplative for the passengers, a Ganges River cruise is intense for the crew.
We need a pilot at all times to navigate the sandbanks shifting underneath the currents like clouds in the sky both in the Hooghly and the Ganges proper.
Rudyard Kipling wrote about these elite men in his An Unqualified Pilot:
“ALMOST any pilot will tell you that his work is much more difficult than you imagine; but the Pilots of the Hugli know that they have one hundred miles of the most dangerous river on earth running through their hands. Their service is picked and sifted as carefully as the bench of the Supreme Court, for a judge can only hang the wrong man, or pass a bad law; but a careless pilot can lose a ten-thousand-ton ship with crew and cargo in less time than it takes to reverse her engines.”
Aziz, the vessel’s pilot, is a quiet man, trained to read rivers from his childhood on the Brahmaputra River, in his native Assam.
His eyes can read the slightest change in the water indicating a sandbar ahead.
Invariably at 5pm sharp, he comes to the observation deck, salutes the flag and takes it reverentially down for the night.
Cruising the Hooghly
From Kolkata to the Farraka Barrage colonial cartographers named the river the Hooghly based on an early Portuguese map. But for all practical purposes, the Hooghly is the Ganges.
Pleasure cruising on the Hooghly started in the 19th century when Calcutta was the Imperial capital of British India.
European residents entertained their guests by hiring pleasure craft to go downstream from the Governor-General’s summer village located in Barrackpoor – if they were British – or from Chandernagore if they were French.
British, French and Portuguese Influences
Walking the quiet leafy lanes of Barrackpoor, named after the extensive Barracks the British had onsite, the spirit of Mangal Pandey literally hangs in the air.
He was the one who triggered the first war of Independence in 1857 (an event otherwise known as the Mutiny) against the British East India Company. Mangal Pandey was summarily hanged here.
Chandenagore is charming with French colonial buildings. The French, the Portuguese, the British and the Dutch came and went leaving behind not only buildings but also their own bodily remains.
Snippets of Life on a Ganges River Cruise
Once past the Farraka Barrage (through a most interesting of locks, an engineering feat) the Ganges proper becomes very wide and sparsely populated with the odd dead tree full of crows, a concentration of egrets, river dolphins and the ever-present human throng of water gatherers.
Life by the river is very public and you’ll get a good view while on a Ganges River cruise.
People bathe in the Ganges River, laundry gets done, buffaloes toil, goats bleat, and funeral pyres burn while cows watch procedures with their unique bovine equanimity.
Paradoxically, the mixture of funereal smoke and dust – caused by deforestation of the area – create those uniquely Indian sunsets.
Bengali terracotta ancient temples, lovingly restored and kept; Shiva’s most unusual circle temple with 108 Shiva lingams; ISKON (Hare Krishna) new gigantic HQ; Bihari roofless mosques and Imambaras built by Mughal emperors; Nalanda, the oldest University in the world; festivals and museums; villages and rickshaws; cottage industries and Patna’s Sikh Gurdwaras welcoming all, life on the Ganges is mesmerisingly rich.
Oh yes, a Ganges River cruise is one of those bucket list experiences I would highly recommend.
Maria Visconti was a guest of the Assam Bengal Navigation Company.