A JOURNEY UPSTREAM ON THE RIVER GANGES IS QUITE A MOMENTOUS OCCASION, SINCE ALMOST NO TOURISTS HAVE TAKEN THIS ROUTE SINCE THE 1940S. PETRA O’NEILL TAKES US ALONG FOR THE RIDE AS SHE LOSES HERSELF IN THE BEAUTY OF INDIA.
I had been travelling upstream for some days on the river Ganges when the captain cast anchor by an island. It was a large sandbank that may well be subsumed during the monsoon but, being the dry season, the crew were able to set up a lavish barbeque on it. Iwalked along the edges of the sand bank, looking at the waves lapping at the shoreline and beyond, to the boats where fishermen were casting their nets. When I returned, we ate, and the dinner was magnificent.
As we sat around a large open fire my travelling companions urged me to sing a song: “something Australian” they said. I couldn’t remember anything; my head
was spinning with that gyrating Bollywood dance music we heard periodically as we cruised past small villages and towns.
Martin, our naturalist guide, hadn’t impressed me greatly until then. He had slept during most of our train journey from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to Farakka, and he had provided me with only brief responses to the many questions I’d asked, but I saw him differently from that night forward. “I know a song,” he said. Then, with considerable pathos, he sang a traditional song full of loss and nostalgia so beautifully that we all had tears welling in our eyes. It was one of those travel moments where you find yourself so totally immersed in the journey, so overwhelmed, that you lose yourself within it.
TAKING TO THE WATER
My journey had begun in the decaying, chaotic city of endless fascination that is Kolkata. I stayed a night at the splendid Oberoi Grand Hotel before venturing out to Howrah Station, where we were met by the sight of a small girl painted orange, the endless procession of people boarding their trains, and a two-hour delay. By the time our train reached Farakka, it was late and cold.
Our river journey began just beyond the Farakka Lock Gate and we sailed out into a river so wide and vast that the banks were not visible. We rounded a bend in the river and beyond it were fields of mustard. Women wearing brightly coloured sarees stopped working to gaze at us and, against such a brilliance of green, it made for an amazing sight.
For most of its course, the river Ganges, rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, is a wide and sluggish stream. The plain of northern India across which it flows is one of the most fertile and densely populated regions on earth. The Hooghly and Ganges run through the heartland of West Bengal to Kolkata and beyond, to the Bay of Bengal. This is a trade route that once brought ships from Europe upstream to Patna, then onto Agra, Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow.
The river Ganges has seen successive civilizations from the Mauryan Dynasty (c. 321-185 BC) to the Mughal Empire, the latter founded in the 16th century. While elephants, buffalo, bison, rhinoceroses, lions, and tigers once roamed freely here, wild animals are now few, with the exception of deer, wolves, and foxes.
STOPPING FOR THE SIGHTS
We arrived at Rajmahal, once known as Akbarnagar, which was founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as his eastern capital in 1592. It is the place where Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal, spent much of his youth and there are remains of palaces, forts, and mosques to explore. Past the confluence with the Kosi – the river that comes down from Nepal – we moored at Batuksathan and travelled by Jeep to the ruins of the 8th-century Buddhist University of Vikramshila.
We visited the island shrine at Colganj to see both Buddhist and Hindu cave temples, and travelled along a stretch of the river where Gangetic dolphins, otters, turtles, and a large variety of water birds could be seen.
We sailed on to Sultanganj where thousands of pilgrims had gathered to take rest after having walked for several hundred kilometres. I talked with one who had a broad smile and a perfect Oxbridge accent, his head piled high with dreadlocks.
Monghyr, also spelt Munger, was yet another stop, and we found it in possession of a fine Mughal fort, colonial bungalows, and a British cemetery dating back to when it was a settlement for the East India Company.
On the next day, a long bus ride took us to visit the Jain and Buddhist monuments at Rajgir, where Buddha lived for many years. Then we went on to the Buddhist monasteries at Nalanda: perhaps the oldest seat of learning in India with extraordinary ruins believed to have been established in the 5th century by the Gupta Kings. Next we ventured on to Boddhgaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, to visit the Mahabodhi temple and Bodhi tree under which he sat, one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.
TIME TO REFLECT
During the cruise up the Ganges, tourists can also continue onto Varanasi to be overwhelmed by the din of traffic, funeral pyres, and crowded Ghats. Alternatively, one can end the week-long cruise in Patna, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places, at a berth close to the old East India Company opium warehouses. Visits to the extraordinary 18th-century Gola Ghar granary, the great Sikh temple, and the impressive State Museum are great ways to round up your trip.
A leisurely cruise on the river Ganges offers a chance to experience the rhythm of daily life and appreciate the rich cultural heritage to be found during visits to villages and riverside towns, and the opportunity to enjoy the passing scenery from the observation deck. At sunset, when the sky turns brilliant shades of pink and orange, you may find yourself reflecting on the profound religious significance of the Ganges as the holy river for Hindus. Witness along its shores the gatherings for cremation ceremonies, and watch those who come to be cleansed by its waters bathing in the evening glow. It is a journey unlike any other.
Assam Bengal Navigation operates cruises from Kolkata to Farakka on the Hooghly, and from Farakka to Patna on the Ganges. The cruises may be taken separately or combined.
The Sukapha is a 40m-long boat and can accommodate a maximum of 24 guests in spacious cabins with a lounge, dining room, and observation deck.
Getting there: AirAsia flies to Kolkata, while Jet Airways has a comprehensive network for travel within India.
For further information, visit www.incredibleindia.org.
Source: The Expat May 2012 Issue
This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com
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