Standing at the bow I glide frictionless through a refreshing early morning breeze. Rural everyday life is visible on both shores. As the day progresses tiny idyllic villages come to life and engage with the river in worship, washing, irrigation and play. We sail by miles of impeccable mango orchards. Endless fields of verdant jute are set against a grey sky flecked with white egrets. Scenes of men and oxen tilling the earth abound. This has been a good monsoon; as far as the eye can see none of the land lies fallow. We are alone on the river but for dinghies out fishing or carrying jute.
We are cruising the Hooghly. The trip began with a 5-hr train journey from Kolkata that followed the river north to where the rest of the Ganga spills into Bangladesh. We are going to be spending an entire week covering roughly the same distance, sailing slowly downstream back to Kolkata city . En route, we will sample Bengal’s history and culture while passing through seven districts: Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, Bardhaman, Hooghly, Howrah and Kolkata. We are aboard the Sukapha and in the able hands of Sumit Bhattacharya, our tour guide. Sukapha is spacious but feels intimate. Wooden floors and bamboo walls in the cabins add to the cosiness. At 7 pm every evening, Sumit conducts a briefing during which he provides a plan for the following day, complete with copious handouts. At bed-turnover each evening, I find an excerpt from a Raj-era travelogue relevant to the plans next day.
This cerebration is my kind of travel. My co-travellers, 17 in all, are from Britain. At 79, Arnold is the oldest. The average age appears to be around 65. Most are couples. Eric backpacked through India in 1963 and is back for the first time with his wife Gretta. This is a welltravelled and intrepid set. One visitor has a serious disability and one is severely arthritic with a recently replaced hip. Over the course of the week, these spirited men and women gamely negotiate rickshaws, rickety steps, brain-curdling heat and debilitating humidity. In rural waters We make several rural stops along the way: at Baranagar in Murshidabad, known for its clutch of terracotta temples; at Matiari in Nadia, once a thriving brass working centre, and at Dutta-fulia in Bardhaman, known for its saris and dhotis.
We walk on mud paths bordering rice fields, past adobe walls tattooed with cowdung patties, and through inner courtyards where rice is being husked. In each case, as we mingle with the village, the children dazzle me. They sing, dance, recite rhymes and chant tables. I’d like to think I am special, but more likely it’s the language we share. The children swirl around me in a healthy, happy tide and carry me to their secret playgrounds. Each time, I come back to the ship completely refreshed, even relieved. As long as children have secret playgrounds, all is well with the world. At sunset, the river weaves its seductive magic in the congealing serenity.
A lone fishing boat fades into a dot of light flickering on the ripples. Conversation on the top deck turns from banal chitchat to deeper, more torturous terrain: a son’s reluctant service in Iraq, a daughter’s sex change. Perhaps this is why we travel. So we can strip for a fleeting moment with strangers we won’t see again. So we can fortify the armour so essential ashore. An encounter with nobility In Murshidabad, the sterile grandeur of Hazarduari Palace (c. 1836) is offset by the soil-topped grave of the city’s founder, Murshid Quli Khan, at Katra mosque (c. 1723).
The Hazarduari (Thousand Doors) Palace also doubles up as the museum. Designed by the British Sappers Regiment, the palace was constructed in Italian marble between 1829 and 1837. It has perhaps 900 ‘real’ doors (including French windows) as well as a plethora of false doors. Nawab Nazeem Humayun Jha is reputed to have spent an unbelievable (for that time) INR 18 lakhs on his residence. Spread over three floors, the palace has some 120 rooms. The walls are lined with old oil portraits. Artefacts include the silver throne of the nawabs, chandeliers and antique furniture. While docked at the palace for the night, Sumit springs a surprise: coming aboard is the Chhota Nawab of Murshidabad, descendant of Mir Jafar.
The Nawab, 62, is a centred man at peace with his decimated fortune. As he walks into the lounge, startlingly diminutive, the British visitors spring to their feet. Collectively they dwarf him, but stand until he imperiously waves them to sit. This could simply be Britain’s ingrained fondness for royalty, or it could be a communion in the shared language of obsolescence. Who can tell? My Bengali earns me special access yet again and the Nawab generously shares poems composed as a love-stricken youth. This trip provides a fair sampling of the religious architecture of the region. The finest terracotta temples are unquestionably in Bardhaman’s Kalna. The oldest, Lalji (c. 1739), has 25 turrets and is adorned with unique vertical fins festooned with stacks of mythical horsemen being attacked by tigers in full flow. The newest, 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 maintaining Persian flourish. It has exquisite calligraphy and stained glass in its inner chamber, and its clock tower offers expansive views of Bandel nestling in a bend in the river. We enter Nadia as the sun sets and moor near Katwa where the moody rainfed Ajoy joins the Hooghly. A local troupe of Bauls, the insouciant bards of rural Bengal, comes 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 paean to Krishna and his colour, but considering the present company it’s a cheeky choice.
Sumit makes a valiant attempt at translating the songs for the visitors, scribbling furiously as Shanti sings. Baul songs often advocate renunciation, reflected in the saffron robes the bards wear. This leads to an interesting exchange at dinner. One visitor asks another, “How can they talk of renunciation when they haven’t really had anything?” To which another replies, “They would’ve had more had we siphoned off less.” The first shoots back, “That’s simply not true!” And so on back and forth. The river has heard it all before and holds her tongue. The sacred trail A few hours sail downstream is Nabadwip, birthplace of Chaitanya and the Bhakti movement he founded in the early 16th century.
At Porama-tolla, an ancient banyan tree has taken over two adjoining Shiva and Kali temples. Its intricate web of roots helpfully creates a scaffold for the structures it is destroying. How ancient? No one knows for sure, but it is easy to spin stories of Chaitanya holding ecstatic kirtans with his cohorts underneath this tree. The main trunk is long gone; in its place is a spectacular braided column of secondary roots nearly 6 ft in diameter. About halfway through my walk around it, the tree embraces me. I try to resist, but the tree is sure. Dark and imposing, adorned with myriad strings attached to unfulfilled wishes, the tree reaches out with fresh roots still moist.
Most days are a nice mix of a bit of sailing and one or two excursions on shore. Day 4, purely a sailing day, is a well-planned break mid-week. Aboard the moving ship, the body is pampered with food, drink, fresh air and serene settings. On the excursions ashore, the mind feasts on history, culture and immersive contact with rural Bengal. The resulting balance is invigorating and rare. Lounging on the top deck, as I marvel at how much I am getting out of this trip, I get yet another unexpected treat: a Gangetic river dolphin. A large adult, nearly 7 ft long, surfaces near us. Many more show up further downstream.
An attractive water monitor, about 4 ft in length, slithers on the surface parallel to the ship for a bit before dipping under. The river seems full of health. Whatever the microscope may reveal, no trash is visible to the naked eye. The cruise manager assures me that we are not adding any to the river. As night falls, the scene around us is one of priceless serenity. A rising breeze cinches the swirling waters into dreadlocks trapping the light off Bandel’s Portuguese church (c. 1599). A train creeps across the bridge looming just to our north casting a slurred chiaroscuro on 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 upon us. The final cruising day is a blur of colonial glimpses: arrogant edifices and sad epitaphs. By late afternoon we are approaching Kolkata.
All the visitors and most of the crew are on the front deck for a grand entrance into the city. Kolkata casts its spell with its disarming ghats and derelict mansions. I can see it in the way everyone jostles for the top spot at the bow. Looming ahead is Howrah Bridge, the oldest and grandest of the three bridges set across the river at Kolkata. A crowd of pedestrians has gathered on the bridge to see us through. Wild mutual cheering ensues as we pass under. We moor just south of Howrah Bridge at dusk, exactly as promised. Homeward bound In the end it is clear that the predominant memory the visitors will carry home is that of the children. Not of the intricate terracotta at Kalna, not of Nawabi Murshidabad, and certainly not of the colonial detritus strewn along the shores from Bandel to Kolkata.
While the cruise management is to be commended for not diluting the experience, absorbing all of this can require homework. The children all along the river, on the other hand, gave freely of their songs and smiles. What makes this river cruise a roaring success is its unparalleled access to untouched hinterland with little discomfort. The icing is a river in spate with virtually no traffic. It seems inevitable that this success will beget more, which in turn will impact its source. As the cruise draws to a close I can see everyone putting on their shore faces.
For the crew, this is the last cruise of the season. As he steers us to final moorage, Pankaj Das, the ship’s master, breaks into a grin as wide as the Hooghly. Fifty days on board with no contact with family. No TV. No AC in the crew quarters either. For others, the last evening’s drinks are laced with wistfulness for a spent vacation and thoughts of pent-up work. Gretta remembers an upcoming deadline. Arnold expresses relief that Monday is a bank holiday in Britain. But for now, the Sukapha is moored on moon-flecked waters bracketed by the Howrah and second Hooghly bridges. A brisk breeze is up. The bridges, resplendent in coloured lights, are flirting shamelessly with the river. The upstaged river-city waits patiently in the night. All will come ashore in the morning.
By Rimli Sengupta
Rimli Sengupta is a Kolkata-based writer and regular contributor to Outlook Traveler magazine.