Standing on the bow, I glide frictionlessly through a refreshing early morning breeze. Daily life in the countryside is visible on both banks. As the day progresses, small idyllic villages come to life and engage in worship, washing, irrigation and play in connection with the river. We sail through miles of immaculate mango orchards. Endless fields of green burlap stand against a gray sky dotted with white egrets. Scenes of humans and oxen tilling the earth abound. This has been a good monsoon; as far as the eye can see, none of the grounds lie fallow. We are only on the river but for dinghies carrying fish or burlap.
We sail on the Hooghly. The journey started with a 5-hour train journey from Kolkata following the river north to where the rest of the Ganga entered Bangladesh. We are going to spend a whole week covering about the same distance, cruising slowly downriver to Kolkata city. Along the way, we will get a taste of Bengal’s history and culture as we pass through seven districts: Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, Bardhaman, Hooghly, Howrah and Kolkata. We are aboard the Sukapha and in the capable hands of Sumit Bhattacharya, our guide. Sukapha is spacious but feels intimate. Wooden floors and bamboo walls in the huts add to the cosiness. At seven in the evening, Sumit holds a briefing offering a plan for the next day, complete with extensive handouts.
This cerebration is my kind of journey. My fellow travellers, 17 in all, are from Great Britain. At 79, Arnold is the oldest. The average age seems to be around 65. Most are couples. Eric back-toured India in 1963 and is back for the first time with his wife Gretta. This is a well-guided and fearless set. One visitor has a severe disability and one is severely arthritic with a recently replaced hip. Over the course of the week, these feisty men and women dreamily negotiate rickshaws, rickety steps, brain-blasting heat and debilitating humidity. In rural waters We make several rural stops along the way: at Baranagar in Murshidabad, known for its combination of terracotta temples; in Matiari in Nadia, once a thriving copper working center, and in Dutta-fulia in Bardhaman,
We walk along muddy paths bordering rice paddies, past adobe walls tattooed with cowdung patties, and through courtyards where rice is husked. In any case, as we mingle in the village, the children blind me. They sing, dance, recite rhymes and sing tables. I’d like to think I’m special, but more likely it’s the language we share. The children swirl around me in a healthy, happy wave, carrying me to their secret playgrounds. Each time I come back to the ship completely refreshed, even relieved. As long as kids have secret playgrounds, all is well with the world. At sunset, the river weaves its seductive magic into the warring serenity.
A lone fishing boat disappears into a speck of light that flickers on the ripples. Conversations on the upper deck shift from banal chatter to deeper, more torturous terrain: a son’s reluctant service in Iraq, a daughter’s gender reassignment. Maybe this is why we travel. So we can undress for a fleeting moment with strangers we won’t see again. So that we can strengthen the armor so essential ashore. Meeting Nobility In Murshidabad, the sterile grandeur of Hazarduari Palace (circa 1836) is offset by the tomb of the city’s founder, Murshid Quli Khan, in Katra Mosque (circa 1723).
The Hazarduari (Thousand Doors) Palace also doubles as the museum. The palace was designed by the British Sappers Regiment and was built between 1829 and 1837 in Italian marble. It has perhaps 900, ‘real’ doors (including casement windows) and a plethora of false doors. Nawab Nazeem Humayun Jha reportedly spent an unbelievable (for the time) INR 18 lakshs at his residence. Spread over three floors, the palace has about 120 rooms. The walls are covered with old oil portraits. Artifacts include the silver throne of the nawabs, chandeliers and antique furniture. While Sumit is docked in the palace for the night, a surprise springs to mind: on board comes the Chhota Nawab from Murshidabad, descendant of Mir Jafar.
The Nawab, 62, is a centered man at peace with his decimated fortune. While he explores the living room intriguingly, the British visitors jump to their feet. Collectively they dwarf him, but stand until he waves imperiously to sit. This could simply be Britain’s ingrained penchant for royalty, or it could be community in the shared language of ageing. Who can tell? My Bengali once again earns me special access and the Nawab generously shares poems composed like a love-stricken youth. This journey provides an honest sample of the region’s religious architecture. The most beautiful terracotta temples are without a doubt in Bardhaman’s Kalna. The eldest, Lalji (c. 1739), has 25 turrets and is adorned with unique vertical fins adorned with stacks of mythical horsemen being attacked by tigers in full force. The latest, Pratapeshwar (c.1849), built in a curvilinear shikhara style, has a breathtaking arch panel in which Ravana worships Durga in a blazing display of heads and arms.
Of the Islamic structures, the most impressive is the Hooghly Imambara (c. 1836), built under colonial influence while retaining Persian flourishes. It has beautiful calligraphy and stained glass in its interior chamber, and its bell tower offers expansive views of Bandel nestled in a bend in the river. We enter Nadia as the sun sets and dock at Katwa, where moody, rainy Ajoy joins the Hooghly. A local party of Bauls, the insouciant bards of rural Bengal, come aboard the ship. The lead singer, Shanti Haldar, exemplifies his genre when in a gravelly growl he sings, “forsha ronge nai bhorsha” – can’t trust fair skin. The song evolves into a song of praise to Krishna and his color,
Sumit makes a valiant effort to translate the songs for the visitors, while Shanti goes on a lilting rant. Baull songs often advocate renunciation, reflected in the saffron robes worn by the bards. This leads to an interesting exchange over dinner. One visitor asks another, “How can they talk about giving up if they haven’t really had anything?” To which another replies, “They would have had more if we siphoned off less.” The first shoots back, “That’s just not true!” And so on back and forth. The river has heard it all before and holds her tongue. The Sacred Path A few hours’ boat ride downriver is Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya and the Bhakti movement he founded in the early 16th century.
At Porama-tolla, an old banyan tree has taken over two adjacent Shiva and Kali temples. The intricate web of roots usefully forms a scaffold for the structures it destroys. How old? No one knows for sure, but it is easy to tell stories of Chaitanya holding ecstatic kirtans with his cohorts under this tree. The main trunk is long gone; in place is a spectacular braided column of secondary roots nearly 6 ft in diameter. About halfway through my tour, the tree embraces me. I try to resist, but the tree is certain. Dark and imposing, adorned with countless strings attached to unfulfilled wishes, the tree reaches out with fresh roots still damp.
Most days are a nice mix of a little sailing and one or two shore excursions. Day 4, purely a sailing day, is a well-planned break in the middle of the week. Aboard the moving ship, the body is pampered with food, drink, fresh air and serene settings. During the shore excursions, the spirit of history, culture and immersive contact with Bengali pastures smothers. The resulting balance is stimulating and rare. Lounging on the top deck, marveling at how much I’m getting from this trip, I get another unexpected surprise: a gangetic river dolphin. A large adult, nearly 7 ft tall, right by us. Many more emerge further downstream.
An attractive water monitor, about 4 ft long, briefly glides on the surface parallel to the ship before submerging below. The river seems full of health. Whatever the microscope reveals, no garbage is visible to the naked eye. The cruise manager assures me we’re not adding anything to the river. As night falls, the scene around us is of priceless tranquility. A brisk breeze hugs the swirling water in dreadlocks that trap the light of Bandel’s Portuguese Church (ca. 1599). A train crawls across the bridge and looms to the north, casting an indistinct chiaroscuro onto the river. This is the Hooghly Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1887 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s coronation. The colonial stretch of the river is facing us. The last day of the cruise is a blur of colonial glimpses: arrogant buildings and sad epitaphs. By the end of the afternoon we approach Kolkata.
All visitors and most of the crew are on the foredeck for grand access to the city. Kolkata casts its spell with its disarming ghats and dilapidated mansions. I can see it in the way everyone stumbles for the top spot on the bow. Ahead is Howrah Bridge, the oldest and largest of the three bridges across the river at Kolkata. A crowd of pedestrians has gathered on the bridge to see us through. Wild mutual cheering takes place as we go under. We dock just south of Howrah Bridge at dusk, just as promised. Bound at home In the end, it is clear that the predominant memory that the visitors will carry home is that of the children. Not of the intricate terracotta in Kalna,
While the cruise management is to be commended for not diluting the experience, absorbing it all may require homework. The children all along the river, on the other hand, freely gave their songs and smiles. What makes this river cruise such a success is the unparalleled access to the pristine hinterland with little inconvenience. The icing is a river with virtually no traffic. It seems inevitable that this success will produce more, which in turn will affect the resource. As the cruise comes to an end, I see everyone lying on the shore.
This is the last cruise of the season for the crew. As he steers us to the final berth, Pankaj Das, the ship’s master, breaks into a grin as wide as the Hooghly. Fifty days on board without contact with family. Not v. No AC in crew quarters. For others, last night’s drinks are steeped in nostalgia for a vacation spent and thoughts of pent-up work. Gretta remembers an approaching deadline. Arnold expresses relief that Monday is a public holiday in Britain. But for now, the Sukapha is moored on moon-studded waters held by the Howrah and the second Hooghly bridges. There is a strong breeze. The bridges, resplendent in colored lights, shamelessly frisk with the river. The upstaged river city waits patiently in the night. All will come ashore in the morning.