India cruise: Straight to the heartland on a holy highway

A luxury river cruise on a remote part of the Ganges will take you into parts of India that are rarely touched by tourism, says Adrian Mourby

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The Independent Travel

When we left Patna, fires were burning on the shore. As Rajmahal nudged upriver towards the sunset, it became obvious that these were cremations, four of them on the Pathri, Roshan and Gulabi Ghats, their flames matching the redness of the descending sun. No one on the shore seemed to mind the looming presence of our 40-berth river cruiser, but this was the last time before Varanasi that we weren't the focus of huge attention.

The Assam Bengal Navigation Company deployed Rajmahal earlier this year with the specific intention of extending river cruising to Varanasi. The Ganges is broad but shallow and surprisingly empty. Kolkata to Patna has been possible for years, but ours was the first sailing of the 356km route from Patna to Varanasi.

River travel isn't possible at night on this stretch of the Ganges, so our captain made an early start on Day Two. At 6am I woke to feel the whole ship vibrating in a series of slow rumbling surges as we headed west. When I opened the curtains in my cabin it was clear that a faster local boat was gaining on us. The six men in this ancient wooden vessel might have looked like pirates, but as they drew alongside I saw broad smiles. They just wanted to see who was on board this big, unfamiliar cruiser. We all waved at each other and they resumed their fishing.

Daily shore excursions were scheduled, and our first was from Danapur to Maner, where stands the finest piece of Mughal architecture in Bihar province. To transfer to the shore we used the "country boat", a low-draught vessel that is lashed next to the Rajmahal when not in use. Given the lack of quaysides, disembarking was a matter of bamboo gangplank on to muddy riverbank.

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The Raj Mahal (Indraneel Majumdar)

The road to Maner was 22km inland. Although the 17th-century mausoleum of Shah Daulat is magnificent, those kilometres emphasised why travelling by river cruiser is such a good idea in one of India's poorest states.

The road was pitted with potholes and, post-monsoon, awash with mud. Free-ranging black pigs, sacred cows, dogs, goats and horse-drawn carts obstructed our journey. A hobbled donkey stood in the middle of the road complaining loudly and causing a traffic jam.

There were women sitting at the roadside selling live fish from shallow metal dishes, rudimentary barbershops, stalls selling condoms and DayGlo pill boxes, children playing in the mud, and piles of unused bricks and discarded vehicles that were disappearing under weeds. Everyone who wasn't going somewhere on foot, bike, rickshaw, or taxi-bus was standing on the roadside chatting.

Prakesh, our guide from Rajasthan, said it made him sad to see such poverty in his own country. I thought people looked happy. I just wished they weren't being happy in the middle of the road.

An hour later, at the sandstone mausoleum, a lovely isolated piece of highly symmetrical architecture above a large deep tank, I realised how unusual tourists are in this part of India. A school group of teenagers had been brought to the site and they didn't just stare at us, they peered into our faces. Our mainly American party were clearly taller, older and paler than anything they'd encountered before. Soon however they had their phones out and were asking for selfies with us. The Mausoleum of Shah Daulat was forgotten.

Back on the Rajmahal we were given an excellent lunch of mild curries. Apparently Chef Nandu was trying to break us in slowly.

In the afternoon, our ship was nosing its way towards Ballia when, at the confluence with the River Shone, I spotted a sight out of Hollywood. Hundreds of old wooden boats were dredging sand from the bars in the middle of the river and sailing it across to the northern shore. There, men in loincloths were unloading it, using basins perched on their heads. Huge artificial dunes had grown up while the sand awaited lorries to take it to construction sites – like a shot from the building of the pyramids in some Cecil B DeMille Biblical epic. Loud Indian music played from speakers.

"Traditionally people sang when they laboured," observed Prakesh. "But now they don't sing anymore." At that point the men on the sand boats saw us, got out their mobile phones and started waving. Maybe not so Biblical after all.

Each day of our gentle progress to Varanasi brought forth similarly striking images. On Day Three we docked at Buxar, disembarking at a riverside settlement where the entire village turned out to see us.

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Sweeping the ghats (Kate Tadman-Mourby)

We were then taken by car to see the site of the Battle of Buxar, where, in 1764, Major Hector Munro defeated Indian forces opposed to the East India Company. The memorial was an unremarkable site made even less attractive by a modern brick factory built right next to it, but afterwards we were ferried to the British War Cemetery in the centre of the city. This contained the graves of Europeans who had died in Buxar since the 18th century, all brought together in one place in the 1850s, and a fair number of free-range goats. I say "we" but by this stage our group of about 25 tourists had attracted twice as many locals – men and children mainly – who stood among the broken graves, listening to our guides, pushing each other forward to be photographed with us or inviting us home for cups of tea.

When it was time to leave, we took rickshaws to reboard our country boat at the Ram Rekha Ghat. Here a group of about 200 orange-clad young men, filling vessels with Ganges water to take on foot to Varanasi, were so excited to see us that they splashed around in the river to be photographed, cheering loudly.

Ghazipur and the tomb of Lord Cornwallis was our next port of call, an impressive circular Neo-classical structure seen in the company of yet another group of curious young men. Because there were so many Americans aboard the Rajmahal, Subhankar, our guide, had introduced Cornwallis to us as the British general who surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

The plaques surrounding this beautifully kept park, however, explained that his main career was as the architect of British rule in India, hence the memorial.

"Why didn't you tear down this memorial after Independence?" asked one American.

"Because we Indians do not think about our past but only the future and our union with God," answered Subhankar. "But also because many of the older people were very fond of the British and their ways."

By now I had settled into a shipboard routine, getting up early to pick up an espresso from the saloon, watching the crew vacuuming up the insects that had been attracted to our lights overnight, and then breakfasting with other guests, where we exchanged personal histories and discussed "The Real India". Many people had already visited the Golden Triangle and were enjoying sailing to places that are almost inaccessible to landbound tourists – and enjoying the genuine welcome that we received wherever our country boat docked next.

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This was the day we came in sight of Varanasi. It was sad to see so many electricity pylons on concrete plinths sunk into the Ganges. That's no way to treat a sacred river. Soon we were joined by a pilot boat which made sure we kept to the right channel in an ever-shfting current.

Rajmahal has been designed with a draft of just one-and-a-half metres, but even so it can only make this journey after the monsoon when the Ganges is deep enough. Yet the water cannot be too high either, because with raised river levels the ship won't fit under some of the bridges.

In the afternoon, we moored at Rajghat just outside Varanasi and got on minibuses to visit Sarnath where the Buddha preached his first sermon. It was a shame to disembark and be besieged by peddlers selling souvenirs at knockdown prices and people begging for money or inviting us to their brother's silk factory. Hitherto our journey from Patna had been among Indians who were pleased and intruiged to see us, who invited us in for cups of tea, and who wanted nothing from us except perhaps a photo-op.

The next morning we'd take rowing boats to Varanasi itself, but already I was a little regretful to be back on the tourist trail.

Getting there

Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) offers tailor-made trips with seven nights cruising between Patna and Varanasi on Rajmahal. The price of £2,095pp, based on two sharing, applies for departures on 13 August 2015 and includes flights, transfers, and a night at the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi (tajhotels.com)

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