Few things will get me up before dawn, but waking up with gentle yoga aboard a Ganges river cruise is one of them.
As the rising sun burns the morning mist off the river, I see temples slowly being unveiled as worshippers intone recite calls to prayer via loudspeaker from either bank. Transitioning from downward dog to warrior one, I look forward to seeing local villagers meandering to the river down stone ghats (steps) to perform their morning ablutions along its banks.
The Ganges flows 1,569 miles from Himalayan Mountains, meandering through India’s northeast until it reaches the Bay of Bengal. It’s the second greatest discharge of water in the world, after the Amazon, and the most heavily populated river basin in the world, although many of its backwater towns and villages are hard to get to by road.
A handful of operators cruise from Kolkata from September through March when its Hooghly, Jalangi, and the Bhagirathi tributary waters are high enough to traverse. Being able to eat and sleep aboard provides comfort without lengthy bus journeys to overnight stops; on my ship, Uniworld’s Ganges Voyager II, all 26 accommodations are fronted by a private breezy balcony where you can watch the Bengali countryside roll by at a leisurely pace.
One stop is a village by the Baranagar Rajbari which is barely connected to the surrounding settlements by dirt tracks and where visitors–especially Western–are still a novelty.
A woman shyly shows me how she hand-makes cigarettes, tying the most potent with ash-colored strings, to sell to local shops. Curious children take time off from scattering dessert rice to dry on woven mats to trail our small group to a the spectacular mid-18th century Char Bangla, four temples built around a square courtyard so that its builder Rani (Queen) Bhavani could always worship with the attention of the sun—just one of myriad temples in the region built and clad in terracotta tiles depicting finely detailed Hindu epics and durga images.
When we visit destinations which are easily accessible by road–such as Murshidibad, a popular destination for day tripping groups from Kolkata who drive six hours to picnic on the green spaces between its mosques and whitewashed, colonial-era architectural gems—the ship moors before first light so that we have time to explore before the tour buses begin to roll up.
We wander 18th century Katra Mosque, deemed unsuitable for residence and daily worship once it began to list, before stepping into the cavernous spaces and hallways of 19th century ochre-hued Hazaduari Palace, designed by Scottish Architect McLeod Duncan in the Greek Doric style. Its extensive collection of dusty, colonial-era weapons, artworks, manuscripts, furnishings and palanquins lavishly decorated in ivory and silver makes it a popular location for films and TV shows – we have to skirt around a crew setting up lights and marks for a period drama shoot – and for couples taking wedding photos.
As we exit to wander along the riverbank towards the market, local traffic is starting to pick up, and as I weave through trishaw drivers lugging gallon tins of cooking oil and women in saris with vermillion-dusted hair, I pass by some ruined battle elephant stables, a grandiose terracotta structure with high archways now used as informal warehousing and loading bays for traders operating in front.
Compared with its historical sites, Murshidibad’s wet market—like all in India—is a visceral, almost claustrophobic, kaleidoscope of life and death. Fishers sell live seafood and vibrant fruits, vegetables and spices—bananas, coconuts, coriander, and bright yellow cumin and turmeric—from multihued bowls and baskets. On the fringes, goats are led inside to slaughter at open kiosks and live chickens stacked in wire baskets await purchase and the hatchet.
It’s a reminder that traveling in India can be challenging, even for travelers with the strongest of stomachs, literally and metaphorically. The Voyager II’s staff is on top of both: they offer thorough evening briefings on the following day’s experiences, maintain a steady supply of hand sanitizer and diligently disinfect shoes every time we step aboard. They also foster organic interaction with locals while helping guests to navigate the problematic interaction of Western wealth and rural poverty.
At a corporate level, Uniworld runs a number of social responsibility and sustainability through its corporate-run TreadRight Foundation and spearheads the Sustainable River Cruising project with UK Charity The Travel Foundation. On the ground, this seven-day Ganges sailing is packaged with an extended land tour of India's Golden Triangle cities Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur with ME to WE—a social enterprise founded in 2009 to provide sustainable livelihoods in village communities through trips and artisanal and Fairtrade products.
Our guide Asif was a treasure trove of information on local customs and pop culture. He introduced us to mothers who lined their baby’s eyes in black kohl, which they explained made the infant uglier and less of a target for jealous spirits. After I’d taken yet another selfie with a group of young Indian men dressed in matching, ripped jeans festooned with random English phrases, bandanas and oversized aviator sunglasses, we talked about how their sartorial choices were inspired by a recent Bollywood movie which roughly translated to 'Five Go Mad in Goa.'
India’s traditions of wellness and spirituality are also a core component of the trip. Yogi Seema Sondhi kept us limber and energized each day with dawn and dusk stretching sessions on the deck. Along with learning about the traditions of saris and dhotis, cooking classes, and applications of mahendi (henna), onboard enrichment included talks on India’s tradition of yoga and meditation, popularized in the West in part by The Beatles following their short stay at Chaurasi Kutia ashram along a more northern part of the Ganges in 1968.
In Mayapur, we tour the home of the Krishna Consciousness Movement (ISKCON), where Krishna reincarnate Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is said to have been born in 1846 and where devotees maintain the iconic Hare Krishna chant 24 hours a day.
Australian devotee Atita Guna tells me that when she arrived 38 years ago, the complex was home to 50 people; now its population is closer to 5,000 and within the sprawling grounds, a large colossal temple rivaling the size of the Vatican is under construction. Originally scheduled for the faith’s jubilee year in 2016 but delayed until 2022, it will hold 10,000 people beneath a 340-foot-high Ayervedic planetarium, which Atita tells me will be the "eighth wonder of the world."
The campus teems with elements that seem incongruous with its Bengali backwater setting. Mahaprabhu’s Prasadam food kiosk advertises Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Indian dishes alongside mocktails. Atita tells me the pizza is made by a devotee from Napoli, who’s also in a rock and roll band.
The area is peaceful and inviting, and feels a world away from our final stop: Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Originally developed by the British East India Company, the city remained the center of the Indian Empire until 1911, when the capital was relocated to Delhi.
Fans of colonial history can visit the Anglican St Andrews church, completed in 1818, and the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta–a small dungeon measuring 16 square feet where 123 of 146 British prisoners of war imprisoned there by the nawab allegedly died overnight in 1756–now occupied by the post office.
Another popular draw: the Missionary of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa in 1952, its associated museum to her life and work—including her modest bedroom and her grave – and Sishu Bhavan, the orphanage she founded.
Kolkata is also known as “City of Processions” and “City of Joy” and I’m lucky that my visit coincides with a festival for the first days of spring. Disembarking our mooring close to the Howrah Bridge, a holy man in a saffron-colored loincloth, his face and body covered with ash and surrounded by marigolds, sits close to his fire in the morning chill as worshippers stream to and from the nearby flower market, already heaving with industrious vendors crafting arrangements and heavy garlands of blooms.
Like the other stops on this trip, it’s an experience deeply connected to the river and the people who depend on it.