India ~ Ganges

23 February 2020

Typical scene of people bathing and washing colorful clothes along the Ganges as viewed from our ship on a trip up the river.

After my two-week cruise in Assam going up the Brahmaputra River and a few days in Kolkata, I joined a one-week trip up the Ganges that proved to be every bit as good, and in some ways even better.

I was afraid the second river trip would be anti-climactic but it was wonderful.

Life along the Ganges often focuses on cleaning — clothes, kids, and here water buffalo. A farmer herds more buffalo beside the field of coriander.

Unlike the Brahmaputra's eroding sand banks, the riverbanks of the Ganges are more solid so its villages are not as much at risk.

Some villages had a concrete jetty that allowed ferries to dock.

Friendly Indians amused by the novelty of seeing us cruise by usually waved happily.

Avalon's handsome Ganges Voyager ship was a great way to see rural areas and small towns of India's state of West Bengal.

India has the best breads on earth but people in eastern India prefer rice and we passed many rice paddies along the river.

The tranquil Ganges;
watermelon barge;
packed ferry.

Speaking of rice and watermelons, here is part of the market in Matiari. And it was not uncommon to see hammer-and-sickle graffiti on walls in some towns. Until ousted in 2011, the Communist Party ran West Bengal for 34 years, the longest truly elected communist rule ever on the planet.

These boys in Kalna were playing cricket, which of course is wildly popular in India.

On two evenings, Avalon arranged for local dancers to perform a variety of intricate, traditional Indian dances on board the ship.

Our guide surprised this family who welcomed us when we wondered in off a street in Guptipara and asked to see their modest place and farm animals. Visitors from Chicago seemed never to have seen dairy cattle and had to take hundreds of photos of cows. Seriously.

From one extreme to another: In Azimganj, a dilapidated old mansion of a wealthy Bengali merchant has recently been amazingly renovated and turned into an extraordinary place — the Bari Kothi Heritage Hotel.
Village visits usually included meeting with people in various crafts and jobs, including muslin weaving, cooking sweets, saree weaving, pottery making, idol building, silk weaving, and making brass and bronze products.

Melting scrap metals to create bronze and brass to make into all kinds of products.

Making one hundred clay bowls an hour.

A family putting together plastic flower petals.

Kalna was home to some beautiful and revered Hindu temples from centuries past. Top: Some of the 108 Nava Kailash Temples constructed in two circles. Bottom L-R: the Pratapeswar Temple, the Ras Mancha, and the Gopalbari Temple.

The massive complex near the Ganges in Mayapur is the global headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement (officially the "International Society of Krishna Consciousness" aka ISKCON). When completed soon — thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars from Henry Ford's great grandson — it will be the largest temple in the world.

A memorial to Srila Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement.

Left: With great tour leader Deep in front of Srila Prabhupada's Samadhi Mandir.
Right: With expert guide Champa, in front of the ISKCON world HQ.
Both cruises were good but which was better —
this one, Avalon's Ganges cruise, or
Noble Caledonia's Brahmaputra cruise?

● Ship? The Ganges Voyager was more elegant and spacious. Food was delicious but too tame on both ships.

● Exceptional sites: The Ganges trip included the remarkable Hare Krishna complex and the renovated Bari Kothi Heritage Hotel.

● Riverbank scenery? Ganges wins with consistently fascinating views along the river, while the Brahmaputra had long expanses of dull sandbars.

● Weather? Ganges weather was perfect in February. Unfortunately, it was often cold in Assam in January and February; March would have been better up there.

● Riverside village walks? The Brahmaputra's villages and shrines were smaller and more charming, although we saw more crafts in the Ganges towns.

● Animals? The Brahmaputra trip offered rhinos, wild water buffalo, and elephants, plus lots and lots of bird watching, but required hours of bumpy transport to get to and from the national parks.

● Guides? Tied. Guides and naturalists were equally good.

● Guests? Tied. Noble Caledonia drew nice, fairly posh Brits, plus this one Yank. Avalon garnered friendly Canadians and Americans, plus two Brits.

● Cost? Tied per day. While costs can vary if you find special offers, in general the cost per day (for two people sharing a cabin) was roughly the same.

● Length? The Ganges trip was five days on the river plus one day touring Kolkata. The Brahmaputra trip included 13 days on the river, plus two touring Kolkata, and half days for flights to and from Assam.

➤ Verdict: It's a close contest but overall...
If you are a true birder and have two leisurely weeks to explore rural India, take the Brahmaputra cruise. If you want to get a shorter glimpse of Indian towns and countryside (from a more stylish ship), go with Avalon's Ganges cruise. Double check climate records to optimize the weather. Bon voyage!