The Brahmaputra is one of the longest rivers in the world and, in some places, one of the widest. The cruise on the MV Mahabaahu up the river, from Guwahati to Jorhat, lasts seven days and enables you to enjoy Assamese culture, traditions, dance and music, the famous tea estates and the wildlife of the Kaziranga National Park (as seen from the back of an elephant, a jeep safari and on a small boat along the banks of the river).
We began by visiting the Kamakhya Temple high up on a hill on the outskirts of Guwahati. Devoted to the Goddess of Desire, Kama Khya, it is dedicated to the eternal feminine. We joined crowds of devotees who were praying in supplication to the goddess. It had an enchanting feel to it and many of us felt that we had received blessings for our voyage.
We came down the hill and approached the Brahmaputra. We turned a corner and there before us was the vessel we were about to travel on up river. We were greeted with garlands and a cool fruit drink as soon as we boarded the boat. It is not a cruise ship, but a river boat that can take about 30 passengers. All the public areas on board are used for multiple purposes. The dining room is also where we had lectures and briefings, the library is also the bar area and, at times, provides a dance floor too. There is a small outdoor swimming pool and relaxation area on an upper deck and the top deck is also for relaxation and early morning yoga classes.
The majority of the passengers were over 60 and they all managed very well on board and on our many excursions. Fortunately, they were all fairly mobile. With all the climbing of stairs, getting on and off the boat onto the two tenders that took us to shore, the climbing off these small boats and walking through villages and through farmland and countryside and our various other adventures, this trip could not be recommended to anyone who is physically challenged. For those who can get around pretty well, this is a holiday that can be recommended.
Overall the food was good, although in the evenings they had a penchant for conjuring up strange ‘European type’ dishes in an unnecessary attempt at fine dining. It was a little pretentious, I felt! Their Indian cuisine, on the other hand was far more successful. Lunches, which were buffet style and offered a wide choice of Indian dishes, were very good and the buffet breakfasts were extremely satisfying. Tea, coffee and biscuits were freely available at any time of the day.
The river at this point in its course from the heights of the Himalayan Mountains on its way to the Brahmaputra-Ganges Delta, the largest delta in the world, meanders through very flat land depositing alluvial soil on one side and washing away embankments on the other. You get to witness the massive width and huge power of this great river, but not the magnificence of the craggy hillsides and green jungle found further north of this region. I found the similarity of scenery on both sides of the river day after day became rather too repetitive – sandbank upon sandbank and looking beyond, sandy flatlands reaching far into the distance. A number of sandstorms cut down visibility and sometimes the vessel had to come to a standstill. The depth of the waters around had to be constantly tested to ensure they were deep enough to pass through.
We saw very few other vessels on the river, so there was not a lot to break the monotony of the sandbanks. Some interesting wildlife could be seen from time to time – mainly birds, buffalo and the occasional sighting of a river dolphin. On one occasion we had the thrill of seeing a family of otters in the river bank. Along the banks of the Kaziranga National Park we also saw elephant and deer.
One morning we had to arise at 2.30am and leave the ship at 3am, so that we could be driven deep into the Kaziranga Reserve where we climbed aboard elephants that lumbered through the park, enabling us to come up close to rhinoceroses, buffalo and deer that are found there. It was a fascinating experience but all over far to fast. Many of us would have liked to spend longer on the elephant safari and gone deeper into the park. It was obvious that it was very commercialised as the next group to be taken out were already lined up as soon as we reached the drop off point. We saw the remains of what we were told was a tiger kill, but unfortunately, no tigers. We also went on a jeep safari and saw more rhinos and buffaloes, as well as lots of different birds. The guide on our jeep kept lending me his splendid new pair of Nikon binoculars that really made it possible to see the wildlife up close.
Every day there were trips to places of interest including different ethnic villages – Bangla, Assamese and Mishin. They were all most interesting people, especially the children who found us great fun! We witnessed all kinds of agricultural activities, weaving of local cloth and other small enterprises. We went to two tea estates and saw how tea is plucked and processed. At one location a group of girls performed a series of dances for us in a clearing amidst the tea bushes. We also visited a jute mill and saw how they produced the eco-friendly material that gunny bags are made of. The conditions inside were reminiscent of the 19th century factories Dickens and others have described – noisy, dusty, dirty, hot and rather miserable. But this was not a sweatshop but a co-operative mill, where every worker was a co-owner – at least they all shared in the profits.
Some of our final visits were to the island of Majuli, which has been claimed to be the largest river island in the world. However with the effects of the erosion caused by the mighty Brahmaputra, the island is gradually being eaten away, Nonetheless, it still remains large. We were entertained by dancers and performers who enthusiastically depicted scenes from the Ramayana. We also visited a Vaishnavite temple where we witnessed the priests holding large double-headed drums, dancing a mesmerising, evocative and deeply spiritual dance that greatly moved our spirits. These priests are unworldly in their practices yet are known internationally for their performances, indeed they have appeared at festivals and put on dance performances all over the world.
On the last day we visited Sibsagar and the palace of the Ahom Kings who ruled much of this region for 600 years. We also went to the Shiva Dol, the highest Shiva temple in India.
Throughout the voyage we were treated well by all the crew, including the cruise director who was always around to see we had all we needed and who gave us the daily briefing on our next outing. She was also the early morning yoga instructor who instructed us kindly and with understanding of our senior bodies. The guide and naturalist was outstanding in his knowledge of every location we visited. His in-depth understanding of the different peoples, the cultures, traditions, religious backgrounds and the history of the area was truly amazing. Added to that he was a keen lover of nature, well-informed on all the species we saw and, using a long telephoto lens, took some fantastic shots which he would put up on the screen each day.
These days if you have a smartphone you can take some excellent pictures without lumbering around a huge camera. There was Internet access on board. Please take a sunhat, mine was a broad brimmed, lightweight hat that was ideal for the trip. We were all silver travellers, but I’m sure families with teenage children would enjoy much of it too. It was definitely an active holiday, not a relaxing one, but one to remember. I can certainly recommend it to those who are reasonably fit and in good health, who enjoy finding out about other people’s cultures and who have a sense of adventure too. I will remember it for a long time.
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