By India specialist Sarah
While many of India’s roads are well-trodden, there are vast swathes of the country that remain almost untouched by tourism and some are only accessible by boat. The history, wildlife, and tribal culture in the northeast are unlike any other part of India, and here you’re more likely to meet a one-horned rhino than a hoard of tour buses.
Cruising along the Brahmaputra in Assam
Nestled in-between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, Assam is a long, narrow state, intersected by the mighty Brahmaputra river. This is bordered on either side by farmland and tea plantations stretching out as far as the eye can see until they reach the Himalayan foothills. On a clear day the views are simply beautiful, and the leisurely pace of a river cruise is an ideal way to appreciate fully such a languid landscape. Alongside its natural diversity, Assam is home to a fusion of different cultures and heritages — Chinese, Tibetan, Bangladeshi and Indian.
Kaziranga National Park’s one-horned rhino
Lazing on the boat's sun deck and watching life unfold on the riverbank could be all the sightseeing you need, but to do so would be to miss some of India's finest wildlife in Kaziranga National Park. Despite the park being home to the only one-horned rhino population in India, you may find that your group is one of only a handful. You may also see tigers, whose numbers are on the rise, and excellent birdlife. The boats always have a resident naturalist and back on board you can discuss the day's sightings with guides and fellow guests over a pre-dinner drink in the lounge.
Traditional life on Majuli Island
What Kaziranga offers in terms of wildlife, Majuli Island rivals in cultural interest. The largest river island in the world, Majuli is home to indigenous tribes and, while this means you can't stay on the island, a visit from the boat provides an opportunity to see the traditional way of life still lived in the villages and the mask-making for which they're known.
Experiencing the local way of life
Assam is also known for its textiles and during one cruise I recall disembarking the boat at a tiny village where most of the homes had hand looms outside, operated by women who were amazed that we had come all the way to Assam, let alone to their village, and their homes. The boats will try to stop at different villages on each cruise so the residents may not have welcomed any visitors for a few years and these ladies were quite shy to start, but soon opened up. Our guide translated for us, as we shared stories of our different lives.
A perfect cup of tea
No trip to Assam would be complete without a visit to the tea plantations that surround Dibrugarh. Here, the neat rows of tea bushes, some of them hundreds of years old, are punctuated only by the vibrant saris of the tea workers picking the 'two leaves and a bud' that you can then see made into leaf tea on a visit to a factory. A special way to end a trip through Assam is on the veranda of a plantation bungalow, cup of tea in hand, surrounded by a sea of green.
Cruising options in Assam
There is a variety of cruise options on the Brahmaputra as well as the possibility to combine itineraries for travel from three up to ten nights. You can cruise both up and downstream.
Best time to cruise in Assam
The best time to enjoy a river cruise in Assam is from November to April, when Kaziranga National Park is open, the monsoon rains have gone, and the temperatures are moderate. It's best to avoid Christmas, when the temperatures plummet and the mists are heavy, potentially disrupting the cruise schedules.
Cruise boats on the Brahmaputra
We work with only a couple of boats. The smaller of the two is the Charaidew II, which has only 12 cabins so you can be sure that you will not be in a large group when on shore. The Mahabaahu is larger with more facilities such as a small spa and pool. As the crews are local, you'll find that they're eager to tell you all about their home state. The food also tends to be Assamese, milder than other Indian cuisines and bearing more similarities to the fragrant dishes of Southeast Asia.
Navigating the history of the Hugli in West Bengal
So much of India's rural life depends on the river that settlements tend to congregate around the banks, including the historic, chaotic city of Calcutta. Cruising along the river you'll be able to experience the bustle of the ghats and city industries, as well as farmlands where ploughs are still pulled by ox and local temples honour village deities.
A seven night cruise along the Hugli from Calcutta uncovers the diverse history of India, from one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world to Dutch, French and British colonial settlements and the former capital of the East India Company.
One of the most popular cruises begins in Calcutta, where you spend a few days exploring this frenetic city and its colonial past, before cruising out into the countryside, leaving behind the crumbling warehouses and mansions that line the river for a more verdant landscape and relaxed pace.
The boat will stop off each day so you can explore small towns that chart the cultural and religious history of the area and your guide will bring to life the extraordinary history of West Bengal, weaving tales around the statues of former viceroys and the portraits of elegant ladies and gentlemen of the Raj.
As you cruise further from the main cities, the villages become smaller and more infrequent, and your boat will cause ever greater excitement in the children who run along the banks, attempting to practise their English on you from a distance.
A few days into the cruise you reach Kalna, a personal favourite of mine as the temple complex here is unlike any other I've seen on my travels around India. The Nava Kailash, built in 1809, is made up of more than 108 Shiv Mandirs (small shrine temples home to deity statues). They are constructed in two circles: 74 in the outer, 34 creating the inner circle. Although too small and sacred to enter, the clever design means all deities can be seen and worshipped from the centre of the temple complex.
Cruising options in West Bengal
As in Assam, we work with only a small number of boats, and the dates of your travel will largely dictate the choice of boat. The Sukapha has only 12 cabins in comparison to the larger and newer 22 cabin Rajmahal. The cruises start at seven nights and can be easily combined to create a 14-day trip. The most popular cruise departs from Calcutta and travels up through the colonial settlements of Serampore, Chandernagore, Barrackpore and Kalna.
Best time to cruise in West Bengal
I would suggest travelling from October to April, when the temperatures are pleasant. Unlike Assam, this area is not usually affected by fog so it's possible to travel over the Christmas period.
Cruising the Ganges
Before the mighty river Ganges forks into Bangladesh and becomes the Hugli in West Bengal, it flows down through India from the Himalaya. For Hindus, the Ganges is incredibly sacred, especially in holy cities such as Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh.
Cruising India's most spiritual river is a rewarding cultural experience and allows you to see many sites that aren't easily accessible by road. Mughal ruins of palaces and forts litter the area and cruise itineraries offer the opportunity to see Buddhist monasteries in Vikramshila, 6th century rock carvings in Bateshwar and silk markets in Bhagalpur. Some guests are even treated to the sight of Gangetic dolphins.
Experience an evening aarti in Varanasi
Arriving into Varanasi by river is just one of the highlights of a Ganges cruise. Leaving behind the sparsely populated countryside and sailing into one of the most populated parts of India is a very special introduction to one of the country’s most sacred cities. Take a small boat from the bathing ghats to experience the evening aarti from the river and you'll be immersed in the smell of the incense, the clang of bells and the lights of the numerous candles floating on the water.
Cruising options on the Ganges
Cruises along the Ganges last between six and eight nights. The only boat we currently work with on the Ganges is the 22 cabin Rajmahal, which has air-conditioned cabins, spacious sun decks, sociable dining rooms and lounges as well as attentive and friendly service. The Rajmahal is specifically designed for the varying water levels of the Ganges. As with the cruises on the Brahmaputra and Hugli, you can travel either up or downstream.
Best time to visit Varanasi and cruise on the Ganges
Visiting Varanasi and cruising on the northern parts of the Ganges is only possible in August and September when the water levels are high. As this is toward the end of the monsoon, the weather may not be perfect but the lush beauty of the revived green landscape will more than compensate.
Exploring beyond the river
Exploring Assam and West Bengal by boat combines well with a number of other parts of North India. You could choose to fly into India's capital city, Delhi, and begin your travels with a trip around the Golden Triangle, taking in the Taj Mahal in Agra and the 'pink city' of Jaipur before flying onto Calcutta or Varanasi.
Or if mountains and tranquillity appeal more than the dusty plains, it's only a short flight from Calcutta up to the Himalaya to experience Darjeeling, and the mountain kingdom of Sikkim.
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