River Cruise Review: The Ganges

Date Posted: 13/12/2017

GLT tries out a G Adventures’ river cruise along the Ganges. 

As we walk through the small village of Matiara we’re met by a cacophony of sounds. Inside dark doorways ancient-looking machinery whirrs and men stoke roaring furnaces heralding the initial stages of the brass smelting process. Further along there are rhythmic bell-like clangs as villagers beat and shape the shining alloy by hand, just as their predecessors have done for hundreds of years.

The end products, sold throughout India, now appeal to both traditional and contemporary tastes and in a tiny shop we find everything from intricately hand-engraved bowels, to tiny replicas of scooters and tuk-tuks spread out on pieces of newspaper. I buy a small horse for the equivalent of a few pounds and on the way back to our ship a shy woman comes up to tie a pom-pom hair braid in my ponytail. I ask our guide what I should give her, but he explains it’s a gift, made by her daughter, to thank me for visiting the brass-working village and she doesn’t want or expect anything in return. 

It was another unforgettable snapshot of life in a week where we experienced random acts of kindness, the giggling curiosity of youngsters who followed us around in Pied Piper fashion and the almost magical glow of “cow dust” time, the evocative name given to the early evening when herdsmen move their cattle from pastures and they kick up earth against the backdrop of the ochre sun dipping below the horizon.  

Ganges

Our journey along the Ganges, the waterway revered as a female goddess and an integral part of Indian culture, took us just over 200 miles from Farakka to Kolkata. It’s only a fraction of the mighty river that rises in the Himalayas and flows 1,560 to the Bay of Bengal, but each day brought an ever-changing kaleidoscope of different sights and experiences.

A river cruise is a wonderful way to explore a hot country that can sometimes be challenging. Varuna, our 24-passenger colonial-style floating home from home, carries the same number of crew and each time we returned to the vessel they were waiting with chilled towels, cooling drinks and omnipresent smiles. Within 15 minutes our shoes had also been cleaned and were back outside the cabin doors.  

Unlike a land tour we only had to unpack and pack once, and itineraries were very flexible. G Adventures’ CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Dushyant would often suggest breaking the day down into a series of smaller excursions, providing time to rest in between on Varuna’s shady teak sun deck.

Northern India, with the allure of the ‘Golden Triangle’ and Taj Mahal, is an obvious draw for visitors. But with 29 states and a population set to overtake China in the next few years, India is a vast country. The more underexposed destinations include West Bengal, which only attracts 10% of travelers. Aside from hectic Kolkata, and with Varuna being one of only five hotels boats on the Ganges, we didn’t see any other tourists during our trip. If your group members have a taste for adventure and an authentic experience, then this cruise won’t disappoint.

Everywhere we went members of the crew came too, forming a human handrail by holding two ends of a bamboo pole as we negotiated the gangplank and helping us up the bank. Along with Dushyant, who dealt with the day-to-day itinerary, we travelled with an indefatigable and erudite guide, conversant with every question we asked about geography, history, architecture, food, religion and more. There was a naturalist too, who spotted a jackal, pointed out huge bats resting in trees in broad daylight and talked about the delightful monkeys we saw raiding aubergine fields and, in the charming French colonial town of Chandannager, sitting like a row of contemplative locals on the benches lining the waterfront. In the various ports of call we were also joined by local guides.  

Ganges at sunset

Other times a minibus would take us further into the interior, visiting temples ranging from tiny terracotta shrines tucked away in villages to Kalna’s Shiva temple complex made up of 108 shrines arranged in two concentric circles and Mayapur’s immense Hare Krishna temple. Other sites included the Plassey battlefield, now an unassuming, quiet tract of land with a memorial but where Major General Robert Clive’s defeat of Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1757 changed the course of Indian history and marked the start of the British East India Company’s rule.

After initial alarm at the vagaries of the Indian road system, which frequently involved overtaking a truck overtaking a spluttering rickshaw overtaking a cyclist laden with baskets overtaking a cow - all accompanied by incessant horns and the inevitable end result of facing a rapidly approaching truck head-on - we managed to stop holding our breath after a couple of days. We soon understood why distances to destinations were measured in approximate time (always with up to an hour leeway) rather than miles. You never see distance markers on road signs as miles are meaningless in nose-to-tail city traffic or rutted rural roads. 

But this allows longer to absorb the sights through the window; jewel-bright lengths of sari material drying in the sun, men washing placid water buffalo in streams, street vendors crushing sugar canes in Heath Robinson contraptions to sell the ultimate sweet drink and, not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of vehicle repair shops and ‘puncture-wallahs’ patching up tyres.   

Back on board we ate well. At each meal a plethora of freshly prepared Indian dishes and breads graced the buffet table. The chef even gave us a lesson on how to make a chicken or vegetarian curry using some of India’s 50-plus spices - no curry powder here - and prepared with the final ingredient of “lots of love”.

On the sun deck we took it in turns to be on “waving duty”, feeling like royalty as we returned the never-ending greetings of adults and children on the riverbank. It was certainly a sad moment when we had to finally wave goodbye to the Varuna and her crew after our wonderful waterborne journey.

BOOK IT

G Adventures offers three fully escorted itineraries on the Ganges ranging from 8 to 15 nights, including two National Geographic Journeys that provide an even greater immersive experience. Private group tours are available and G Adventures’ group specialists can organise every aspect of the trip including air travel and insurance.

www.gadventures.co.uk

Review by Jeannine Williamson

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