A Uniworld India cruise from Kolkata combined with a land stay in Jaipur stirs the senses and leaves an indelible impression, discovers Liz Jarvis

May 27,2018. Kolkata, India.Silhouette of Howrah Bridge at the time of Sunrise. People taking holy bath and making rituals in the River Ganges.

Three boys caked in mud are sitting on the water’s edge, talking and laughing as they soak up the hazy sunshine. Nearby, a group of women wearing vermillion, jade and gold-coloured saris are washing clothes in the river while two puppies play and yelp on the bank. This is life on the Ganges.

My introduction to India began in Jaipur, in the northern state of Rajasthan. At the airport I stumble into the path of a Bollywood film crew, the first of many I will encounter during my time in India, and I watch in fascination, trying to work out the plot (it involves a couple in elaborate costume saying a tearful goodbye).

That evening I join my fellow travellers on our Uniworld India cruise tour for a candlelit buffet under the stars at the magnificent Oberoi Rajvilas hotel. Mostly Canadian, the tourists have already been to Delhi and Agra, and seen the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise, when it is arguably at its most romantic, bathed in a rosy glow. 

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur (India)

The following morning we head into Jaipur’s ancient pink city. We drive past the flower market with seemingly endless stalls and carts of boxes, bags and saris filled with marigolds to be strung into garlands for weddings, or as decorations for temples and shrines (the saffron colour symbolises renunciation, but marigolds are also useful for keeping insects at bay). 

As we admire the terracotta sandstone bricks of the Hawa Mahal palace, I’m shocked to be confronted by a snake charmer. I’m desperately sorry for the little black snake, which has had its fangs removed, and it feels as though we’ve wandered into a different time.

At the spectacular City Palace with its intricate frescoes, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of another film set. Some young extras from the UK, who were backpacking their way around India, now dressed as 18th-century soldiers, tell me they’re making a historical drama for ITV. We’re told to be quiet on the set and we wait patiently until a procession of soldiers on horseback has passed by and we’re allowed to continue exploring. Already I’m realising that nothing in India is predictable.

An early-morning flight transports us from Jaipur to Kolkata in West Bengal, where we’re taken to the ‘Mother House’; the sign on the door says that Mother Teresa is always in. We see the simple room where she slept, and also visit a nearby orphanage, which is an unexpectedly uplifting experience, as the children seem so well cared for and happy. 

Kolkata is a revelation; it still has much of its original Colonial architecture, as well as some splendid Art Deco and it’s also surprisingly cosmopolitan. Everywhere we go people are incredibly friendly. At the Victoria Memorial, expiring from the rather overwhelming heat, I sit on a bench and a whole family decides to adopt me. The father is keen to practise his English and we spend a while conversing. I’m introduced to his wife, children and mother, before being mobbed by people trying to take my photo, all the while hoping to be rescued by the Uniworld guides.

Throughout the Uniworld India cruise tour, we’re joined by lively, entertaining guides, including our eloquent Tour Manager Vishal and his colleague Partha. Although I’m used to travelling independently, this is my first time in India and it’s reassuring to be chaperoned by experts with such impressive knowledge of the local culture, history, art and politics. 

The ship for our Uniworld India cruise, Ganges Voyager II is spacious and serene, a traditional-style ship with a big open teak deck and all mod cons, including free wifi and, most importantly, air conditioning. I’m in the Viceroy suite. It has a laid-back elegance without being too over the top, which would feel wrong given where we’re sailing. As this is a Uniworld cruise, it’s fully all-inclusive. My butler plies me with delicacies such as apricots and nuts, and stocks the fridge with my favourite drinks. 

The Indian food on board is delicious; I become addicted to Chef Zaved’s naan bread, and it becomes difficult not to have curry at lunch and dinner because it’s so good, as is the fresh fish. Western dishes are on offer, but we are on the Ganges, so I opt for local flavours and hot and spicy every time. There are even Indian cooking classes on the ship and the chef gives us all printed recipes at the end of our cruise to make at home.

Sailing on the Ganges is gentle and incredibly soothing. There is sunset and sunrise yoga on board, as well as daily lectures and entertainment, including movies and a captivating performance by a local Bengal dance troupe. There is also a tiny onboard spa, which has two therapists and where the best treatment by far is the Indian head massage, which unblocks my chakras (or something) and makes me feel rejuvenated. Every night we gather to hear a port talk from Vishal, so we know exactly what we’ll be doing the next day, and what time we’ll need to get out of our incredibly comfortable beds.  

As we sail through West Bengal, past paddy fields and villages, we learn more about life on the Ganges, or Mother Ganga as it’s known. We regularly see people washing clothes or washing themselves in it. Hindus consider the water to be very pure, although, of course, it’s actually the opposite: despite efforts to clean the river, it’s incredibly polluted and arsenic poisoning is an issue in some areas. Still, life along the riverbank is enthralling, and everyone waves as we pass by.

There are daily excursions, often with sampan and tuk-tuk transfers, though I seize every opportunity to walk. At Kalna, we explore the Nava Kailasam temples, 108 terracotta buildings, all ornamented and dating back to the 18th century. They are fascinating, and afterwards we stroll through the local market.

My favourite ports of call include the village of Matiari, where we have the opportunity to walk around, meet the villagers and watch artisan craftsmen creating engraved brass pots, platters and even snakes. Everywhere you look, there seems to be sleeping dogs and goats, enjoying the heat of the mid-morning sun. 

I have tried not to romanticise India; there is devastating poverty, more marked and shocking than anywhere else I’ve been in the developing world, in every city and village we visit. What stops it from being bleak is the beauty of the landscapes and the people, the colours and vibrancy everywhere you go. 

On our final night on board Ganges Voyager II, there are fireworks and our crew arranges for floating lanterns to glide along the river; standing on the deck in the balmy night air, watching the lights glimmer in the inky blackness is enchanting. This Uniworld India cruise tour has been an incredibly special experience, full of culture and wonder, an uplifting feast for all the senses. 

GETTING THERE

A 13-day Uniworld India cruise tour, India’s Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges, from New Delhi to Kolkata, starts at £6,895pp, two sharing. Includes international flights, river-view stateroom on Ganges Voyager II and stays in luxury hotels in New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, all meals and drinks on board, excursions and transfers. Discounts on this itinerary to 31 March, on selected departures, from £5,495pp (uniworld.com).

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