The cities, forts, temples, mosques and markets that flourished remain surprisingly intact and vigorous even if largely ignored by motor-borne tourists clinging to highways that skirt the floodplains of the river. The Hooghly (Hugli) and Ganges cruises are the most wonderful way to explore and experience hidden India.
Here you will find the historic European colonies, great palaces and forts as in Murshidabad and Chunar, jaw-droppingly beautiful terracotta temples; mighty mosques; rainbow hued local bazaars; sudden explosions of colour that mark a local festival; great battlefields like Plassey; idyllic villages buried in lush green fields sheltered by towering bamboo groves and the endlessly fascinating life on the river.
Cruises on the Ganges and Hugli rivers have many highlights but they’re also about sudden spontaneous encounters only possible when you travel slowly in small groups. These are easily some of my favourite experiences in India.
For example, before boarding the ship we did an early morning walk through the Middle City of Calcutta. What a fantastic revelation this was. There are the grand buildings of British India and the great mansions of the ‘Bhadralok’ – the Tagores and their ilk – in ‘Black Town’.
But here in the middle ground are the huge mélange of national and sub-national groups that occupied the mercantile and professional space between these two groups – Canton Chinese, Bihari Muslims, Anglo-Indians, Portuguese, Jews – many from Iraq.
For me the most surprising discovery was the scale and antiquity of the Armenian presence in Calcutta. In the Armenian church cemetery (the church itself built in 1707) is the gravestone with the words “This is the Tomb of Rezebeebeh, Wife of the Late Charitable Sookias, who departed from this world to the Life Eternal on 11th July 1630”. 1630!
That’s 60 years before Charnock set up his headquarters in the place he called Calcutta. Another intriguing little story in this city of a million stories.
We wandered through the glittery, colourful lane of shops selling exaggeratedly decorative rachis. We then boarded a launch which transported us safely under the bridge to board the Sukapha anchored beyond.
The Sukapha is a delight! Every time you board you are greeted with cold towels and a fresh lime or similar and wonderful, smiling faces.
The ship’s manager – Kunal Singh and Udit, the ship guide are both enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The dining room is a large glass enclosed air-conditioned room with several tables and is wonderfully light offering excellent views of the countryside you pass through.
When you board, a ‘light’ lunch is served – delicious club sandwiches with the usual assortment of drinks. Filter coffee and excellent Assam and Darjeeling teas are available. In the meantime the boat has weighed anchor and begins to sail towards Barrackpore.
On the main deck is a spa and Ayurvedic massage room, and then a short flight of steps takes you up the middle deck. When you return from the various excursions you are asked to remove your shoes before going up to the middle deck. The shoes are then beautifully cleaned and placed outside your cabins! What a luxury!
The middle deck is where the guest cabins are. There are 12 of them - 6 on each side of the passageway. The cabins are wood veneer paneled and two large windows give you a good view of the river and countryside.
The front of the middle deck is occupied by the lounge, a lovely, large and comfortable air-conditioned room which runs across the width of the boat with a huge picture window looking over the bow. The sliding doors open to a small balcony.
This room has the bar, a good library of reference and fiction books and multi-media, as well as a selection of DVDs. The top deck of the boat is the viewing deck and well supplied with reclining chairs and tables.
The day starts with tea and coffee served in the lounge (or the viewing deck) early. Breakfast is a pretty sumptuous affair with a mix of English and Indian breakfast including dosa or curried potato and vegetables. Eggs are to order – including masala omelettes and Indian style scrambled eggs.
For all sightseeing you transfer onto the ship’s tender, and is guided by the on-board guide. Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you just walk or are transported by cycle-rikshaw.
On occasion the sightseeing is split. You sail in the morning; then anchor mid-morning for your sightseeing, before returning and sailing to the next location. And of course you can take time off and not join an excursion!
On one of the afternoons we had a group of bauls play their wonderful music dressed in their typical saffron and motley clothing. It was just lovely sailing through the lush Bengali country-side listening to these iconic musicians who are such an integral part of that country-side.
Each night before dinner we gathered in the lounge for a briefing from the guide and manager regarding the following day’s programme. This often developed into a fascinating Q&A session about the history and culture of the following day’s sightseeing.
This is particularly true the evening before we visited the site of the Battle of Plassey, where Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal and from which point British rule in India is measured.
My favourite stop was when we spent two days and one night in Murshidabad and visited the imposing Katra mosque. I really loved the slightly ramshackle, tattered dignity of this place. The palaces add an imposing outline to the skyline which dominates the view from the ship.
For all the decay that has overtaken what must have been a fine-looking town in its princely hey-day, the atmosphere is one of confident cheerfulness, with no signs of abject poverty at all.
I loved the chai shop hanging over the river by two shaky struts where we drank delicious tea, listened to ‘live’ music and watched a game of chess.
In the evening we had a really fun dance performance by a local troupe. It was terrific– against the backdrop of the floodlit Murshidabad Palace, it all looked pretty dramatic.
The normal cruise ends at Farakka. On the last day when moored at here, a visit to Gaur is highly recommended. This is the medieval pre-Mughal capital of Bengal which takes almost the whole day to get there and back with a lunch stop.
There are some splendid remains of the medieval Muslim capital of Gaur with its great mosque, ruined palaces, and a lovely little decorated tomb of one of the Sultans.
The return to Kolkata from Farakka is by train and is one of the most enjoyable elements of this trip. What makes it fantastic is the non-stop stream of licensed vendors who walk up and down the train.
You get fantastic black-lemon tea, savory Indian snacks, newspapers and magazines, books and a huge variety of souvenirs in violently colourful shades! It is such a great spectacle! It keeps one entertained for the entire 6-hour journey.
This is not the only possible itinerary and there are two other ships operating. One can continue the cruise further upstream on the river Ganges through the state of Bihar, or take the upstream-journey as a standalone cruise.
There is also the opportunity to travel on the Brahmaputra from Kolkata down towards the ocean and then cruise the mangroves of the Sundarbans with the possibility of spotting the Bengal tiger.
All in all the Hugli Cruise is an absolute eye-openingly wonderful glimpse into historic and rural Bengal that provides one with some ideas of the sheer productive wealth of this province that was the treasury of Mughal and British empires. I highly recommend this – especially for anyone wanting to travel at a slower pace and get a true insight into parts of India not on the regular tourist trail! For more information you can contact me here.
Images kindly supplied courtesy of Assam Bengal Navigation