Sacred water: Uniworld on the Ganges

Sacred water: Uniworld on the Ganges

Sam Ballard takes a trip with Uniworld on the Ganges, pausing to soak up life and lore in India

There we were, balancing on one leg, as the sun rose above the river, lighting up the verdant landscape. We were in the middle of our first sunrise yoga session on board Uniworld’s Ganges Voyager II and I was already enthralled by India.

I had wanted to visit for years. My grandfather was born in India. It was also the country where he met my grandmother after she moved there from Burma (Myanmar). She married him and moved to England – and the rest, as they say, is history. I have grown up hearing the names of much-loved Indian aunts and uncles and learning of their exploits. India has always felt both foreign and familiar.

Our Uniworld adventure would see us leave from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) on a round-trip, visiting small market towns, villages, ancient sites and one extremely large new one. Over the next eight days we would witness the reverence that Indians hold for the Ganges and learn just how intrinsic it is to everyday life – from bathing and washing clothes to hosting cremations. There is a reason why Indians call the Ganges “Mother Ganga”.

Within a few minutes of arriving, and slightly delirious after the long flight, a bindi is daubed on our foreheads, we’re given a garland from the nearby flower market and handed a glass of champagne. Our butler introduces himself and asks us to choose from a tray of handmade soaps. This ship might not have been built by Uniworld, but all of the luxurious touches are there.

The Ganges Voyager II is decked out in exquisite colonial furniture. The well-shaded sun deck has beautifully made sunloungers, rattan armchairs and sofas – and everything is made to the highest quality. More importantly, the attentive crew are always on hand to offer guests a cooling beverage to help aid an afternoon spent reading and watching the world go by.

Every stateroom on board the 56-guest ship is a suite, from the Signature (25 square metres) through to the palatial Maharaja (37 square metres) – one of the biggest suites I’ve ever seen on a river ship. However, every suite on board feels like it is in a five-star hotel. Glass bottles of water are replenished throughout the day, taking plastic out of the supply chain.

We depart from Kolkata without setting foot in the city, but will spend two days here at the end of the trip. Our fellow travellers, a mix of Brits, Australians and Americans, have just finished a tour of the Golden Triangle, visiting Jaipur and the Taj Mahal. We could only do the cruise portion so join them part way through their holiday. All guests safely aboard, we cast off.

In Kalna, our first stop, we board a rickshaw to Shiv Mandir, a temple made up of 108 shrines sat within beautifully manicured gardens. We walk back to the ship through the local market, following our tour leader, Sujoy, through the town’s winding streets. We walk past rows of men scaling fish on large metal hooks and women sitting among piles of exotic fruit and vegetables – and all of the wonderful chaos you associate with a market. The colours, noise and smells are our first real taste of how the country is such an assault on your senses. It is dizzying. Back on board our vessel, we sail gently down the river for the rest of the afternoon. It’s an easy routine to become accustomed to. Shore excursions on the Ganges are rarely longer than a couple of hours – sometimes once a day, sometimes twice – meaning that you’re rarely exhausted from a day of exploring. However, there is always something fascinating to see while on board, whether it’s a herd of buffalo being shepherded into the river to cool off, groups of women doing laundry in brightly coloured saris, or cremation sites with smoke gently drifting out of them.

The food on board is fantastic and every meal is in the East India Restaurant, another nod to the colonial style of the ship. Dishes such as Bengali-style slow cooked lamb and tarka dal are presented with fantastic flourishes next to western dishes that look dull in comparison. We are told we can order what we like, so request some of our favourite Indian dishes – lamb rogan josh and a pile of vegetarian samosas are produced the next night, much to the envy of our fellow diners.

One afternoon we stop off for a couple of hours in Baranagar, where there is a small collection of Hindu temples inlaid with beautiful carvings covering every surface. Many of the crew have come off the ship for a game of cricket: front of house versus kitchen. We watch the guys enjoy some downtime on the village pitch before being invited on and getting a bit of time at the crease – all the while watching out for stray cows wandering onto the field.

Mayapur is by far the most unusual place we visit. The skyline is dominated by a huge temple being built by the Hare Krishnas, which they claim will be bigger than the Vatican and taller than any Hindu temple on Earth. It is being financed by the great-grandson of Henry Ford, who says the faith helped him along the path to redemption. The complex has more than 5,000 people living in it, 1,500 of them foreigners. Our tour guide, an Australian woman who has lived here for 40 years, introduces us to other Hare Krishnas as we tour the area, with one exclaiming proudly: “Welcome to the happiest place on Earth!” We step over worshippers lying prostrate and around crowds of the devoted chanting and listening to their spiritual leaders. It can’t help but feel quite cultish.

Kolkata is pure mayhem. The flower market – the biggest in all of Asia – is heaving. We snake through the crowds, past merchants carrying huge sacks of flowers on their heads, ducking as they swerve past us in both directions. The colours are amazing, especially the fragrant curtains of garlands that are balanced on the shoulders of workers. In the afternoon we visit the Mother House of Missionaries of Charity, where Mother Teresa lived, worked and was laid to rest. Afterwards, the group stops off at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan children’s home. It was the one negative on an otherwise flawless trip – children should not be tourist attractions.

Our Indian adventure comes to an end, and not too soon either. Within a few days of us arriving home, the Indian government stops all inbound travel as the coronavirus pandemic puts the world on lockdown. I’ll never forget my trip to India and hopefully it won’t be too long before I – and you – can explore more of this fascinating country.

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