The young Sikkimese woman dipped her finger in a brass bowl filled with red powder, then lightly touched my forehead. Another draped me in a thick, heavy, neon orange marigold garland. This was not a religious ceremony, but the start of a weeklong upstream journey on India’s sacred Ganges River aboard RV Bengal Ganga, a 200-foot, 28-stateroom, four-deck, shallow draft ship.
Wanting to see temples and villages along the Ganges in areas with limited infrastructure, boating made the most sense. In Kolkata I boarded the ship with 30 French travelers at Belur Math Jetty, home to Ramakrishna Mission’s international headquarters.
After settling into my gleaming teak stateroom, I explored the Mission grounds with my ship guide Sumit. Founded by Swami Vivekananda, principal disciple of Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, the Mission’s main building was consecrated in 1938.
Precisely as Vivekananda espoused religious unity, the enormous structure unifies religions — architecturally speaking — combining Buddhist Ajanta-styled entry with Hindu features, a church style main hall, Doric columns and Mughal window features. Colorful sari-clad women and families meandered about. Perhaps since blondes are rare here, several people politely asked to take selfies with me.
Returning to the boat’s top deck, I marveled at the daily afternoon riverbank events: bathing, tooth brushing and laundry washing in the muddy brown Ganges. I’d see these same activities repeated at every village we stopped at or passed.
Life along the Ganges
While some made it to 6:30 a.m. yoga, I made it to coffee drinking. So fueled we arrived at Channdanagar. Established in 1673 as a French colony with permission of Bengal’s Nawab to facilitate trading, Channdanagar became a free city following Indian independence and officially part of India on May 2, 1950.
A walk though its main market is like much of India, sensory overload — explosive colors, scents and scurrying crowds pursuing sustenance and commerce.
Still, some French architectural vestiges remain. One is the now neon yellow Sacred Heart Church established in 1875. Another is former Gov. Joseph Francois Dupleix’s home, now a small museum containing old manuscripts, furnishings, Mughal paintings and old regional textiles. An entire room is devoted to Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Indian to win the prestigious award.
Like elsewhere in Indian towns and villages, bovines, goats, sheep and dogs freely mill about often making driving or walking challenging. Indian drivers, though, are accustomed, and only once in nearly three weeks in India did I witness a car and cow collide. Happily, both survived.
Magical mornings, relaxed afternoons
Morning risings came courtesy of villages’ Islamic calls to prayer. At first startling, ultimately I welcomed them and had coffee on the top deck with the Ganges’ ethereal displays of mist, fog and haze. Though given what I had seen float by during the week, including several conflated cows, I suppressed notions of what lay below.
Docking at Kalna, named after Goddess Kali, Sumit and I rode a rickshaw — a buggy with attached motorcycle engine — to Rajbari Temple Complex, a highlight of the journey. Built by Maharaja Teja Chandra in 1809, the Shiva Temple has 108 shrines, like a rosary, in two concentric arcs. The outer ring has 74 alternating black and white shrines, the inner circle 34 white ones. It’s a masterpiece of symmetry and precision.
In a walled complex across the way, terra cotta ornamental plaques depicting Hindu epics and mythical life cover the single-arched entrance of Pratapeshwar Temple and the massive, hilltop 25-spired Lalji Temple.
Sailing by Mayapur village, a 600,000-square foot phoenix rose as the blue and gold-domed ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) temple and world headquarters of Hare Krishnas. Although it originally was slated for 2020 completion, I was told 2025 was more realistic. The majority of this spiritual behemoth’s funding comes personally from Henry Ford’s great-grandson, Alfred, and through his fundraising.
In the brass making village of Matiari, barefoot workers manually ply metals and artisans decorate bowls, statues and trinkets sold as far as Kolkata. I bought a small Lakshmi — Goddess of Wealth — for my husband toiling at work stateside, figuring it couldn’t hurt.
Baranagar village’s impressive 250-year-old, four-structure Char Bangla Temple was built in Shiva’s honor by Rani Bhavani the local nawab’s tax collector. Intricately carved terra cotta tiles feature Mother Ganges lying on a makara — a mythical half-crocodile, half-fish.
Walking a narrow dirt lane, we were invited into a kind villager’s home. The outdoor kitchen had a rare water pump while the family’s prized motorcycle had its own bedroom.
After 215 miles, the ship slowly turned around. In Murshidabad, a tonga — horse cart — drove us to Katra Mosque built in 1723 by Murshid Quli Khan, Bengal’s first nawab. At the rectangular shaped structure’s corners are fort-like towers. Khan’s unadorned tomb lies beneath the main staircase.
At Murshidabad’s Hazarduari Palace Museum, originally completed in 1837 as a residence for eighth Nawab Humayun Jah by architect Duncan McLeod, 900 of the 1,000 ornamental gateway “doors” are false. Today it houses weapons from the 1757 Battle of Plassey, massive European oil paintings, and most extraordinary, its monumental silver throne, immense silver dressing table and ivory palanquin.
Alighting in Hooghly, an auto rickshaw took us to nearby Bandel Basilica, built by the Portuguese in 1599 and rebuilt in 1660. On the rooftop, the statue and patron saint, Blessed Lady of Happy Voyage received my heartfelt tribute.
Places visited during the voyage were most meaningful; Sumit was a wealth of knowledge and his comments were buttressed by onboard lectures on Hinduism, yoga history and Indian spices. Most evenings guests watched relevant films (“The Lion,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Devi”), read or went to the small onboard spa. Also memorable were delicious Indian and Western meals prepared by chef Rizwam and the terrific staff hailing from West Bengal, Rajasthan and Sikkim.
Charming, chaotic Kolkata
Kolkata, with its mélange of colonial buildings, Mughal architecture, wide boulevards and shopping street stalls, had plenty to explore. Though often appearing as a crowded dance of humanity, livestock, commerce and cricket, it was interesting beyond measure.
Mother Teresa’s first home near Kalighat Temple, where its free hospice still tends to the sick and dying of all religions, is a living testament to this Nobel laureate’s indomitable spirit. At Mother House three miles away rests her tomb, preserved bedroom and archives. A sermon delivered by a Vietnamese priest in French-accented English attended by two-dozen nuns in their order’s traditional white blue-rimmed robes next to an equal number of travelers moved me to tears.
Kolkata’s Shree Sitalnath Jain Temple was a blast of color with marble and tile floors, several ornate Murano glass chandeliers and mirrored geometric wall tiles inlaid with precious stones and crystals. Content stray dogs the Jains fed roamed the grounds.
Rounding out religions, I ended my sojourn at the magnificent Magen David Synagogue, home to a once vibrant Jewish community, and dedicated in 1884 and beautifully restored. I was led through the main sanctuary and small museum by a yarmulke-clad Bengali. Without being asked, he explained through my interpreter that he was ‘[a]n Indian and devout Muslim, but while working proudly wore the yarmulke as he deeply respected all heritages that contributed to the makeup of the world’s largest democracy” — beautiful words that summed up the fantastic experience that was my West Bengal adventure.
If you go
From Kolkata, Exotic Heritage Group has three ships, the Bengal Ganga, Ganges Voyager I and Ganges Voyager II that sail up and down stream from seven to 12 days, operating from September through March. https://www.exoticheritagegroup.com/
Pre- or post-cruise Kolkata, The Taj Bengal, 34B Belvedere Road, 866-969-1825, tajhotels.com. It has an expansive lobby with grand public spaces and oasis-like pool a short drive from sites. Rooms are comfortable and the hotel has a good indoor gym and spa. The lobby-located Khazana shop is beautifully curated with artisans’ creations.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
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