Slowly up the Ganges

An Indian exploration in two acts.

From Virtuoso Life, Sept/Oct 2016.  Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki.

WE HAVE SEEN EVERYTHING NOW, my husband and I, voyaging up India’s most sacred river. We have seen lead-green water and vivid orange skies. We’ve watched a moonlike sun rise and a funeral pyre burn. We’ve glimpsed a boy gliding past in an inner tube. We’ve watched men and women bathing in the river and blessing themselves in the river and pouring handfuls of river water over their heads.

We’ve seen entire villages brushing  their teeth. 

We’ve witnessed women pounding laundry clean and great flocks of egrets flying. We’ve watched people carrying baskets of soil on their heads – moving riverbanks of it, one bucket at a time. 

But mostly, we’ve seen lots of little kids along the river’s banks, leaping and shouting, frantically trying to get our attention. These kids are like kids from another planet, they’re so excited. When we wave back from the boat, they fall all over themselves. We spend a lot of time waving back.

When the opportunity arose to travel to India and join the first luxury itinerary up the Ganges with river cruise operator Uniworld, I immediately cleared my calendar. I dug out my copy of Eric Newby’s Slowly Down the Ganges. I got a lot of questions.

 “Tell me again why I’d want to do this?” my husband, Jeff, asked, when I began lobbying him to join me. I stumbled. I was  aware that the Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted rivers and that my husband might not enjoy traveling in India. But I’d been two times before and had always dreamed of taking him. “It’s very alive,” I explained. “I mean, you see everything there, and whatever you see, you see more of.”  

I spoke with Mollie Fitzgerald, a Virtuoso travel agency owner and an expert on India. “It’s a destination you experience with all your senses, and in the way that it assaults all your senses, it also awakens your senses,” she said. “The idea of cruising the Ganges is really cool; eastern India is a part of the country very few travelers have seen.”

I suspected Uniworld’s Golden Triangle and Ganges trip would make an ideal introduction to a complex country like India. We’d be staying at beautiful Oberoi hotels the first week, and aboard a brand-new riverboat the second. I pictured a Wes Anderson kind of India: the two of us traveling in style, a floating Darjeeling Limited meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

THE GANGES IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S great rivers. Surprisingly, it isn’t particularly long – only 1,500 miles from its source high in the Himalaya to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal. The Yangtze, Nile, and Amazon are all more than two and a half times its length. 

But the Ganges is great because to millions of Hindus, it is the most sacred river on earth. They worship its waters, paying homage to their ancestors. To bathe in the Ganges is to wash away guilt. To be cremated and have your ashes sprinkled in it is the dream of every Hindu. Along its banks sit some of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. Traveling by river, you have front-row seats to an age-old stage.

I love rivers and have floated many of them: the Amazon (twice), the Yangtze, the Mississippi, the Colorado. I wondered how the Ganges would be. Would we see things in it? Would it smell? 

"IT'S A LITTLE DIFFERENT from Amsterdam!" one of our fellow passengers quips, as a bus ferrying 15 of us to Ganges Voyager II weaves through the back alleys of a Kolkata waterfront slum, where locals line the riverside ghat to bathe and garbage litters the dock. 

Although Uniworld is known for its lavish decor and plush European fleet, the GVII is a simpler, Indian-built affair. With two decks of passenger cabins topped by a white-balconied upper deck, it resembles a three-layer wedding cake, filigree and flags tousling the sky. Our suite has air-conditioning, gold crown molding, and bright-red medallions stenciled on the walls. It has a king-size bed formed by two Regency-style twins, a pair of Raj-inspired mahogany armchairs, and floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open to daily river life passing by.

We find a wooden desk, a minibar, a TV, and a luggage rack. The bathroom is big, with a walk-in shower. But when everyone meets up for the ship’s briefing, they’re sharing jokes about the tiny standing sinks with their inch of counter space. That said, we’re all relieved after a week of touring to unpack and settle in. 

ONE WAY OF THINKING about a trip like this is as an opera in two acts. Act 1, the week before, had been a first-class spin through India’s top hits: Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, the Taj Mahal, and the pink city of Jaipur. India can be overwhelming, and Uniworld does a tremendous job curating it. The 46 of us first meet up at The Oberoi, New Delhi, where we’re divided into smaller groups of 15 or so. Each group has its own guide and full-size bus to spread out in, a nice touch.

“Welcome to the largest democracy in the world!” our guide Rajiv exclaims as we ride through streets teeming with honking cars and beeping motorbikes. “India is a developing country! It remains an assault on all your senses! It requires patience!” 

The Uniworld group turns out to be a well-traveled, mostly 55-plus crowd, and although the description might give an impression of retirees in beige expedition wear, by that night’s welcome party under a rising kumquat moon, the metamorphosis has begun. One of the reasons I love traveling in India is the way its crazy, infuriating aliveness takes hold. 

One of our dinner companions, roguishly handsome in a white Tommy Bahama shirt set off by flowing silver hair, enthralls me with tales of his un-PC early days developing DuPont’s first chemical plants in Asia. And there’s Sherry, a whip-smart retired TV producer traveling with two couples from California, Uniworld cruise veterans.

When we check into The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra a day later, the drama heightens. Paprika-turbaned men, resplendent in crisp, hand-blocked cotton tunics, pass trays of cool pink watermelon juice upon our arrival. Our rooms are oases of civility, with dark hardwood floors and French doors that open onto terraces overlooking lantern-lit pools. In the distance, the Taj Mahal’s domes float above the trees. We learn how the monument is a combination of Indian and Muslim styles, and that the rulers of the Mughal dynasty were Sunni Muslim. I’m still thinking about this when we visit the Taj Mahal at sunset. Although it’s a tomb, the World Heritage site is a riot of life: parrots chattering in the trees, ladies in brightly colored silks of turquoise and saffron and cantaloupe drifting past, and fervent young men trying to pose many family members for photos.

“How much he must have loved her,” Rajiv says, as several Uniworld couples sit for portraits. “The kind of relationship they shared, that kind of romantic love, was unparalleled during those times!” I know he’s probably said this to hundreds of other groups, but it still gets me, seeing the purity of all that translucent white marble against the blue sky.

ACT TWO.  OUR BOAT IS AFLOAT on a river the color of dry leaves. We wake early and pad upstairs for yoga on the top deck. A soft mist clings to the water, and buttery dawn light warms the day. We stretch in gentle seated poses to the pop-pop-pop of sampan ferries’ four-cycle engines. Even at this hour, they are packed with people and cows and bikes headed to villages upstream.

This section of the Ganges is a world away from the cities’ jostling crowds, honking vehicles, and crazy chaos. The river turns a liquid green-brown. Coconut palms peer into the water, and white egrets meditate in the fields.

An hour later, outside the window of the boat’s breakfast buffet, I watch a man chest-deep in the Ganges face the rising sun. He offers palmfuls of river water toward it, then bows his head in prayer. I can see the sun glinting off the top of his skull, while around me knives and forks clatter.

“In our Hindu belief, there are different ways to reach God,” Rajiv had said. “Penance plays a very important part. In the West you choose the comfortable way. But in Hindu India, hardship counts.”

I can’t even imagine skipping coffee, let alone breakfast, to stand in the river and pray, but as we sampan ashore later and ride cycle rickshaws to the ancient terra-cotta temples of Ambika Kalna, the spirit of India feels closer. It’s delightful bouncing through these Hindustani towns’ narrow streets with the wind in our hair. 

There’s the creaking of wheels, the ringing of bike bells, the clop-clop of horses’ hooves. We stroll the Naba Kailash temples, two concentric circles separated by a peaceful garden. We explore Pratapeshwar Temple, covered in terra-cotta plaques depicting themes from Hindu epics. We walk emerald-lit, mango-fringed roads bordered by ancient sites and lush green fields. We see many things we’ve never seen before. 

Like everything else floating down the river, the days of our cruise slip by. After lunch we recline in cane chairs on the sundeck. It’s hot, but not too hot, just lovely bare-feet weather in the low 80s. The afternoon breeze has a feathery touch. We  open our books, but it’s hard to concentrate with kingfishers swooping and little kids sprinting along the riverbanks, shouting and laughing.

Someone says, “Look! There must be 50 people riding on top of that truck.” And a few minutes later, from the balcony where we’re now standing and waving, “I keep thinking these guys bathing in the Ganges are poor local villagers, but they’re taking pictures of us with their iPhones.”  

West Bengal has never promoted itself for tourism, and if you have the rare feeling floating along the Ganges that you’re way off the map here – you are. When I look up the region in my guidebook, there isn’t even a chapter, which makes the trip feel authentic and exciting.

“In a rapidly urbanizing country such as India, visiting local villages that were once centers of world trade can be quite meaningful,” CEO Guy Young tells me later, when asked why Uniworld is venturing up the Ganges. And, it goes without saying, witnessing the world’s different ways of  life – and how spirituality infuses so much of it here – makes an impact on us.

ONE NIGHT AT DINNER we meet Joan and Anne, two friends from Missouri and Florida traveling together. Over our first glasses of Indian-grown Sula sauvignon blanc, they tell us straight up that both of their husbands are dead. Anne’s had a heart attack in his sleep 20 months ago. He was 64. 

Until then I’d been obsessing over the dining room’s too-bright lights, but as so often happens on this kind of journey, the essential truths sneak up when you least expect them. “All my friends think I’m crazy coming here,” Joan says brightly over our Bengali chicken curry and salmon meunière. “Believe me, no one where I live  goes anywhere.” 

When Anne heard about Uniworld launching the first luxury cruise up the  Ganges, she said to Joan, “We should do that!” 

And so they did. They were a riot. They’d been so worried about getting sick, they’d purchased water-filter straws from REI. Happily, they hadn’t had to unwrap them yet. The pair had taken river cruises in Europe but agreed this was one of their favorite trips so far – even though their husbands weren’t here to share it. 

“What do you like most about it?” I  ask Anne.

“The peacefulness,” she says. 

After dinner that night, the crew sets hundreds of lantern-lit leaf boats adrift down the Ganges. We all stand in the darkness and watch: It’s like a river of stars. Above us, the black night sky is also sequined with stars as far as we can see, and before us, the river curves away until it meets the sky. 

It’s as if the spirit of India has floated down the river and reached us, I think, grateful to be on the Ganges.

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.