As I stood on the sun deck, the Ganges Voyager gliding past the ghat steps leading down to the Hooghly, the ghosts of jute mills, the smoke stacks of brick kilns, the endless greenery, the spires and domes of temples and mosques, and the multi-storeyed apartment blocks that were created for the sole purpose of exterminating beauty, I could swear I heard the silky smooth notes of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing ‘Up a Lazy River’ in my ear.
The Ganges Voyager is a big ship, 56.5 metres long and 12.5 metres wide. On the topmost deck, I was 13 metres above the water level. Below me lay 28 suites spread between the main deck at the lowest level and the upper deck. It was a perfect morning to start our cruise, without a hint of the fog that usually obscures the sun around mid-February. The brightness was infectious, and even the South Korean guests could not resist its charm. The countless bathers–men, women and children–waved and called out to us, and the guests waved back enthusiastically.
Seven days later, when the ice had broken between us and we were waiting patiently for the ship to return to the jetty in Howrah, I chatted with Se Joon Park, who retired as CEO of Amway Korea. A much-travelled man and an enthusiastic photographer, he admitted that the ship had been like a time machine that had transported him back to when his country was still poor. “Sixty years ago, we would not see any foreigners, except Americans, and we would wave to them. I feel nostalgic about the good old days,” he said, smiling.
The ship is a floating boutique hotel. The smorgasbord of cuisine on offer in the dining hall, the Ayurvedic unguents and cleansers in every spacious bathroom that could make rhino hide feel like satin, and the warm smiles of the staff made it feel like one. My suite, like all the others, had a floor-to-ceiling picture window commanding an excellent view of the river. It was the kind of luxury that zamindars of yore would have enjoyed on their barges.
On the evening before our journey started, the ship remained anchored at Shibpur, opposite the neglected Hooghly dockyard. The sun deck glowed with lights. Padding about barefoot was a tall, big-boned, moustachioed man, who turned out to be Raj Singh, managing director of the Exotic Heritage Group.
Singh started Heritage River Journeys in 2009 with one teakwood vessel made in Yangon. Now, he has two more vessels, Ganges Voyager and Ganges Voyager II, both made at Ghusuri in Howrah. “I am trying to tap a new market. I am bringing people who would not normally come here. In March, a group from Japan and not Europe will be here with us. We are doing pretty well. Sometimes we are fully booked, [at least] 60 to 70 per cent otherwise. We have bookings till 2019,” he said. In March they have plans to extend the trip to Dhaka.
The distinguishing feature of the cruise is that it dares to stray from the well-trodden paths. We reached Bandel after crossing Jubilee Bridge late in the afternoon. The ship was anchored in the middle of the river and a smaller boat took us to the ghat of the Hooghly Imambara. Its high walls and elegant minarets are visible from afar. The grand gateway soars beyond the magnificent hall and the even larger courtyard around which galleries are constructed several storeys above the busy road in front of it. The structure is intricately ornamented with geometric designs, though time has extinguished its polychrome opulence. The imambara is the biggest in West Bengal, constructed with the enormous fortune bequeathed by the illustrious Haji Muhammad Mohsin to charity. Starting in August 1845, it took 20 years to be completed. It is embellished with gem-hued glass in the lunettes above the doors of the hall, and hundreds of lamps hanging in the galleries, and chandeliers. Verses of the Quran are inscribed on the wall, so is the will of Haji Mohsin in English.
Even though conservation work was undertaken by the trustees seven years ago to prevent the imambara from falling to pieces, I doubt it will be able to restore it to its former splendour. Not even with skilled masons from Murshidabad.
Dinner was at 6.30 pm; the Koreans preferred to dine early, plus we had a crack-of-dawn visit to Kalna scheduled. This small town is crowded with temples, some of the most beautiful in Bengal. Rickshaws took us to the Naba Kailash complex that boasts 108 Shiva temples, corresponding to the number of beads in a rosary. Built in 1809, they are arranged in two perfect concentric circles, 34 inside and 74 outside.
The Rajbari complex is just across the street, and both are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). All of the temples were constructed by the various maharajas of Burdwan and their wives at different periods. The Pratapeswar temple built in 1849; the remnants of the ancient Rasmancha, where the Krishna images were displayed during festivals; the oldest Lalji temple with 25 pinnacles dating back to 1739; the Giri Gobardhan temple with a roof resembling a hillock; and the tall Krishnachandra temple of 1751 vintage–all testify to the aesthetic sensibility of Bengal in those times. Thousands of delicate terracotta panels on the temple faÃ§ades bring alive episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, scriptures, various avatars of gods and goddesses, exploits of Krishna, and battles of Durga and Kali against the forces of evil. Processions of soldiers with horses, elephants and camels too find a place in this inclusive representation of life.
As the vessel breasted the Hooghly on its upstream journey past Nabadwip, the humongous, ungainly domes of the new Mayapur temples heaved into sight. This journey was a rare opportunity to appreciate the abstraction of Islamic art and the diversity of Hindu artistic expression. In Mayapur we experience a travesty of both and a glorification of the grotesque. I wonder why it was included in an otherwise well-thought-out itinerary.
Early next morning, we gathered on the banks of the river for our trip to the bell metal, brass and copper foundries of sleepy Matiari, where artisans make utensils for rituals and everyday use. Fashioning utensils of various alloys is a major source of employment here, irrespective of caste and religion. Some artisan families displayed their wares on their porch–plates and tumblers, buckets and spoons and ladles, and tiny knick-knacks.
We left the battlefield of Palashi behind. Biplab Majumdar, who helmed the vessel, said it was several kilometres away from the river. Our next stop was at Khoshbag where Siraj-ud-Daulah is buried amid a pretty garden. His grave is approached by a smooth metalled path leading directly from the river through mango groves and paddy fields. Tranquillity prevailed in the village–quite a novelty for the South Korean guests.
As evening fell, the horizon turned dark, wiping out nature’s colours. The lights inside the wheelhouse and around the ship were switched off. In the darkness, the river turned into a dull grey mirror. Navigating entirely by the charts provided by the Inland Waters Authority of India, the ship hardly made any ripples as it glided forward and the phantoms of Hazarduari Palace and the grand Nizamat Imambara floated into view.
Baranagar in the Azimganj area of Murshidabad district lay right across the river. The Hooghly, which turns into the turbulent Bhagirathi beyond Nabadwip, eats into the embankment in this region, threatening the temples located a few yards away. Illegal brick kilns along the river have done serious damage to the banks, and entire villages having been swallowed by the waters.
The Char Bangla Shiva temples of Azimganj, with gable-shaped roofs modelled on thatched huts, are rare specimens of Bengal temple art. They were constructed in the mid-18th century by Rani Bhabani of Natore. The surfaces of these brick structures are animated by exquisite terracotta panels depicting deities like Durga and Kali vanquishing demons. Each temple is like a perfectly made jewel box, and the ruins of a large arched brick structure stand next to them. Though supposedly protected by the ASI, there is little evidence of care.
Baranagar is a quiet village. The huts have granaries made of bamboo strips. In the midst of a field stands the superb Bhabanisvara temple with an inverted lotus on top. Rani Bhabani’s derelict palace is also located here.
Next, we stopped at the jetty in front of Hazardurai Palace, where tongas were waiting to take us to the grand but stark Katra Mosque, once a great seminary of learning. I opted for an electric rickshaw, locally known as a toto. Nawab Murshid Quli Khan constructed this brick mosque in his old age, and is buried under the entrance staircase. Its most striking features are its two tall corner towers with loopholes along the top.
The sprawling Hazarduari Palace on the riverfront was constructed between 1829 and 1837 during the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah when he was under the thumb of the East India Company. No wonder it was designed by a European, Duncan McLeod, and was modelled on Raj Bhavan in Kolkata. It is called Hazarduari because of its thousand doors, of which only 100 are real, the rest being architectural illusions. The only objects of interest inside are the oil paintings of various rulers of Murshidabad. They are poorly restored, though, with overlays of paint. Siraj-ud-Daulah’s portrait hangs in one obscure corner. Ten years after the palace was built, the nawab himself constructed the enormous imambara to its north.
So what is the luxury quotient of the trip? Haim Shuster, CEO of the upmarket Geographical Tours based in Tel-Aviv, got it right when he said: “You don’t sell the boat out of the context of India. Within the context of India, it is a luxury experience.”
Exotic Heritage Group’s 7N Ganges Voyager heritage cruises run from September to March, while the Life of the Ganges cruises are available from March to May; $2,258, twin sharing; [email protected], gangesvoyager.net.in