Inland Cruising in India
Much of my life has been spent on water, even now. Professional, competitive and leisure activities involving water occupy my list of favourites. Thus, it has been a great pleasure to see the growth of serious tourism on rivers and backwaters over recent years.
First it was the Houseboats in Srinagar, then when trouble caused the tourism wave to dry up, an enterprising person developed the Kerala rice barge into a self-contained cruise boat on the backwaters of Kerala. These boats are known as Kettuvallum, which roughly translates to ‘Boat tied together’, since no nails are used in the hull construction. These rapidly gained a favourable reputation amongst tourists and more boats were built so that one or two nights on a houseboat became a central facet of promotion of the State of Kerala tourism.
Gradually the idea caught on so that there are several companies running excellent services in areas where the river conditions allow. In a country that receives tons of rainwater every Monsoon, river tours are restricted by either too much or too little water.However, there are cruises for up to 10 days on the Hugli River that run by Kolkata during the ‘off’ season, as well as cruises to the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps and islands transited by channels of the Ganges delta. This is also a home to many tigers that easily swim between islands in search of prey.
There were early attempts at cruising, but the set-ups and itineraries did not fit into tourism routes. Several companies have now built boats that make the most of the waters available, so that areas in the East of India can benefit from tourism. Since Calcutta was the capital city for the East India Company, many beautiful reminders of their time can easily be included in day tours out from the boat.
There are several departures from Kolkata of 2 or 3 hour trips to see some of the sights from the water, and to take short excursions ashore. These trips are in slightly smaller cruise boats.
The main cruise boat for foreign tourists has a capacity of 80 people, with 18 luxury air-conditioned en-suite cabins. These are 3, 5 or 6 night cruises, either upstream on the Hooghly River or downstream and through the Sunderbans.
Upstream on the Hooghly River, there are predominantly Colonial reminiscences from the pulsating city of Kolkata to the historic town of Malda, and then further on the ancient and Medieval Saga, discovering historical sights dating from the 5th or 6th centuries BC to the East India Company, from the town of Malda to Mokameh.
Kolkata (Calcutta) is a great hub for tours of interest. Going south is the State of Odisha (Orissa), which is full of ancient history, as well as the great Similipal National Park, the Temple to the Sun God in Karnak, an exquisite stone-carved monument, Puri, home to the God Lord Jaganath, whose great chariot is towed by thousands once a year around the district. Incidentally, that is where we get the term ‘Juggernaught’ for extra-large road vehicles.The Bay of Bengal has an amazing coastline and inland Tribal villages tucked away in the forest. After visiting the capital Bhubaneswar and the other sights, including Lake Chilika with a wealth of bird life, relax in the quaintly-named Gopalpur-on-Sea, which has some excellent hotels on the Palm Beach.
Going north from Kolkata are West Bengal, Sikkim and Darjeeling, as well as the entry towards the north-eastern states. So, although the lengths of the river tours are not as they are elsewhere, they make a very interesting component of a tour in India. For those who must see the Taj Mahal, that can be arranged either before or after a cruise. Whatever the choice, there is a wealth of sights not seen on land travel, with village potteries, silk production, metalwork and so much more.
I can have no favourites, since each region has so much to offer and I have had some great trips on the boats. They also open up possibilities for further interesting discoveries.