A cruise along the glorious Ganges into the heart of West Bengal
As we walked through the village after leaving the temple a little girl approached and shyly handed me a couple of wild flowers she’d picked from the grassy bank. Encouraged by my delighted reaction, it didn’t take long before her friends clustered around and by the time I got back to the boat I had a makeshift posy.
It was one of many delightful surprises on a captivating cruise along the Ganges, personified as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism and a living, sacred artery that flows 1,560 miles from the Himalayan Mountains to the Bay of Bengal in northern India. We set off from Farakka, close to the border of Bangladesh, to Kolkata and each day our downstream journey brought new and often totally unplanned experiences.
With only 10% of travellers to India visiting West Bengal, and just five hotel boats operating on the Ganges, life on board the Varuna couldn’t have been more different from the image normally conjured by ‘cruising’. The colonial-style vessel, with its gleaming teak decks and brass fittings, was a befitting floating home to carry us on a totally authentic voyage of discovery where, aside from Kolkata, we saw no other westerners.
In smaller villages, where there are no roads and the river is the only mode of transport, our arrival triggered scenes akin to the Pied Piper. As our guide led us through the dusty streets, where chickens and goats foraged in lush green undergrowth and oxen rested outside their owners’ homes, a growing number of giggling youngsters would invariably follow in our wake. Men with twinkling eyes and gapped teeth would rest from their labours and wave, whilst women in jewel-coloured saris smiled from the doorways of mud houses thatched with bamboo.
Although the villagers live below the poverty line they exuded a tangible sense of serenity and contentment, driven by the deep spiritualism that runs through India like the Ganges.
Unlike India’s large cities, the children have no concept of begging and we’re told not to give even the smallest gift of a pen. Instead, passengers can talk to the guide about making a single donation to the village ‘headman’ or school, or support G Adventures’ non-profit foundation Planeterra that provides sustainable social and environmental solutions in poor communities.
The Varuna is operated by Assam Bengal Navigation, and in addition to recruiting crew members locally and training them from scratch the vessel is fitted out in locally sourced sustainable wood and decorated with artefacts and materials made by village craftspeople. Similarly, it supports locals and the economy by hiring tuk-tuks for some excursions. In Chinsurah, en route to a peaceful Dutch cemetery and the crumbling yet still grandiose Imambara mosque, our driver weaves through teeming streets. After several days experiencing what seems to be an endless game of ‘chicken’ on Indian roads we realise there is a sense of order beneath the veneer of chaos that’s invariably set against the background of a cacophony of horns. Battered Ambassador cars – the first vehicle made in India and little changed since 1957 – tuk-tuks, motorcycles carrying entire families and cyclists narrowly avoided each other at the last second. Meanwhile, oblivious sacred cows ambled everywhere, presumably relaxed with knowledge of divine protection.
Each night a convivial briefing over cocktails heralded the next day’s itinerary, including visits to temples large and small and a trip to the evocative memorial marking the Plassey battlefield site where Clive of India defeated Siraj-ud Daulah in 1757 and changed the course of Indian history. There was also the delightful French colonial town of Chandannagar where the 18th century Sacred Heart Catholic church is presided over the by the wonderfully and improbably named Father Orsen Welles whose ordination was attended by Mother Teresa. The daily programme is also left in the cabin at night. On the back are historical notes about India, often evocative extracts from 19th books such as First Impressions and Studies from Nature in Hindostan by Thomas Bacon and Travels in India and Kashmir by Baron Erich von Schonberg. They make wonderful bedtime reading.
Our schedule, like the tidal Ganges, ebbs and flows and is open to change. One day the ghats – the steps that run down to the river – are ablaze with colour. A festival is taking place, and our guide obligingly arranges a detour so we can visit. The air is filled with the cloying scent of flowers and incense as we walk falteringly through the throng, our passage impeded as much by us taking photos as it is by groups of young lads brandishing their mobiles to take ‘selfies’ with us.
Another day we visit a market where vendors sit cross-legged between an array of vegetables or glistening fish. Street food sizzles in hot oil, chai wallahs hand out refreshing shots of brew in terracotta cups and for those with the ultimate sweet tooth a man grinds sugar cane on a Heath Robinson contraption that yields a tiny stream of syrupy juice.
Back on board the 24-passenger Varuna, which carries an equal number of crew, the vessel provides air-conditioned respite. We feel totally pampered as the welcoming committee handed out cold towels, reviving drinks and cabin keys, followed by a shoe cleaning service and the next buffet meal featuring an array of dishes from mild to spicy that you’ll never see at your local takeaway.
We spend cruising time on the shaded sun deck, lazing on steamer chairs and watching the timeless panorama of river life. Crammed open-deck wooden ferries criss-cross our path transporting locals and goods between villages, fishermen cast their nets, women wash clothes and families carry out ablutions at the water’s edge. One day we even saw a ritual cremation.
During the week we encountered everything from random acts of kindness by strangers to spectacular man-made wonders. It was the most extraordinary journey, and a trip on the Ganges, the holiest of waterways, is the most authentic way to get to the heart of this mesmerising nation.
G Adventures offers three fully escorted itineraries on the Ganges ranging from 8 to 15 nights, including two National Geographic Journeys that offer greater levels of exploration and insider access. The 8-night Ganges Experience from Farakka to Kolkata, or in reverse, is from £1,249pp cruise only for departures in summer 2018 based on two people sharing a cabin. There are no single supplements for solo travellers who are paired in a cabin with someone else from the group, or they can choose to pay extra for the ‘My Own Room’ option. The fare includes arrival transfers, one-night B&B hotel stay, all meals on the cruise and excursions.
For more information visit www.gadventures.com or call 0344 272 2060.