Exploring India in comfort on a Lower Ganges river cruise: Travel Weekly

Our colorful convoy of auto rickshaws had just arrived at the marigold-orange, 19th-century Kathgola Palace, which was beautifully reflected in a pond out front. I stood awed by the imposing four-story, Palladian-inspired mansion built by wealthy local merchants in Murshidabad, India.

Adding to the moment, the crew from our riverboat had arrived before us to offer snacks under the shade of a tree, fortifying us with small cups of delicious Indian chai and cookies before our guides led us around the estate.

There were many excursions that wowed me like this on our weeklong, 250-mile cruise from the town of Farakka to Kolkata on the snaking Hooghly River (also known as the Lower Ganges). Our conveyance was the very comfortable, 40-passenger Raj Mahal, one of several riverboats owned and operated by Assam Bengal Navigation (ABN), an Indo-British, family-owned joint venture that also operates cruises on the Brahmaputra and the Upper Ganges.

While an incredibly fascinating travel destination, India can also be an overwhelming place to visit. I’ve visited many times, exploring by train, car and plane as well as by boat, and have found that river cruising mitigates many of the challenges, making touring India convenient, safe and luxurious.

On this cruise, two daily tours were typically planned, one before lunch and one after, led by a pair of excellent Indian guides who cruised along with us for the week. 

Lunch buffet offerings onboard the Raj Mahal.

Lunch buffet offerings onboard the Raj Mahal. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise

Excursion highlights included a visit to a 200-year-old Hindu temple in Kalna, beautifully designed with 108 shrines to Shiva in two concentric circles. Another was a morning exploring the Indo-Islamic ruins of the ancient citadel of Gaur, hidden in plain sight on the edge of a quiet village; it was once one of India’s greatest cities.

We walked through farmland, one day passing a handful of women in brightly colored saris harvesting rice, pausing their work to giggle at us taking photos of them. We strolled through medieval towns sharing narrow streets with bicycle- and bullock-pulled carts piled high with vegetables, herders moving along their goats and cattle and uniformed students cycling home.

Dickensian workshops still plying traditional trades like brass- and glassmaking were also on the agenda. We visited several impressive 16th- and 17th-century mosques and also colorful markets.

The British passengers were especially interested in visiting the small monument at the site of the Battle of Plassey, where in 1757 the British defeated the local ruler, changing the course of Indian history. I was surprised to hear, even many decades after India’s independence, that many of the British guests on our trip believed that British rule had been largely beneficial for India.

Raj Mahal's Sun Deck offered ample space for viewing life on the river and along riverbanks.

Raj Mahal’s Sun Deck offered ample space for viewing life on the river and along riverbanks. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise

The onboard experience

After these enlightening tours, there was nothing like coming back to our luxurious ship to smiling crew members handing out fragrant hand towels and refreshing drinks — and cleaning our shoes before the next tour.

The 2014-built Raj Mahal has 18 roomy doubles and four single-occupancy cabins. All are air-conditioned and feature floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors as well as amenities such as a coffee and tea set-up (real tea, not tea bags!) and a jar of delicious cookies that are replenished daily. The tasteful cabins feature hardwoods and Indian hand-block print fabrics in soothing colors. The bathroom, closets and storage were generous.

Like most European riverboats, the Raj Mahal has a sweeping sun deck lined with seating offering views of life along the river. Below decks, the windowed dining room offers buffet-style breakfast and lunches and a dinner service. The delicious food focused on Indian curries, breads and vegetables. Western options were also available at every meal, and the service was excellent.

Before and after dinner, there were either films, talks by the guides or, on several evenings, traditional performances by local dancers and singers in the comfortable lounge, which also features a bar (drinks aren’t included in the fare). There was also a sari-, dhoti- and turban-tying demo and a chicken curry cooking class (with samples!). A small spa offers massages.

The 19th-century Kathgola Palace.

The 19th-century Kathgola Palace. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise

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Some important facts to keep in mind:

As most folks fly in and out of Kolkata, a four-hour train ride is needed at one end of the cruise to get to or from Farakka. This is handled by ABN and is included in the cruise fare. 

Also included in the fare: all shore excursions, meals, English-speaking guides and transfers to and from hotels and the train station. 

All water onboard is bottled and safe to drink; ecofriendly glass bottles are refilled in cabins daily and likewise for tin bottles used for excursions.

For additional info, visit the ABN website. 

A cruise along India’s Lower Ganges


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