A cruise through the Ganges to understand India
A look into the history and culture of Murshidabad and other cities on the banks of the Ganga
It's early morning in historic Murshidabad, a shabby little town located on the banks of the Ganges, around 300km upstream from Kolkata - the gateway city to eastern India.
While the prayer calls from a nearby mosque fill the air, our floating home for the last few days - the luxury vessel Ganges Voyager 1 - slowly anchors at the jetty in front of Hazarduary - a yellow tinted neoclassical palace said to be fitted with a thousand doors. The white facade of the Imambara also comes in view from the top deck of the boat where enthused travellers from different parts of the world have gathered to capture the settlement that bustled with royal grandeur three centuries ago.
There are reasons for this enthusiasm among the travellers as the tour of this crumbling township is one of the highlights of the eight-day cruise on the holy waters of India from Kolkata to Murshidabad and back.
"Unless you visit Murshidabad, you will not perhaps understand the history of modern India," says our omniscient guide Nilanjana as we begin embarkation. "Here, every brick and stone will narrate stories of conspiracy and greed that changed the fate of our land."
In the early 18th century when India's contribution to the world economy was greater than all of Europe, Murshidabad was the capital of the very prosperous Bengal Province, ruled by the Nawabs under the authority of the Mughal emperors in Delhi.
The British East India Company (established a century ago in Kolkata, then called Calcutta) wanted to capture Murshidabad to digress from their initial mission of trading to ruling. However, their army was negligible compared to that of the Nawabs.
So, British Commander Robert Clive adopted the treacherous means of bribing the Nawab's army through Mir Zafar, one of the senior-most ministers. As a result, the combat on 23 June 1757, referred in history as 'Battle of Plassey', ended in a day without almost any gunshots fired. Defeated, Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula, who was only 27 years old, fled for his life while Mir Zafar ascended the throne as a puppet of the British who then expanded their territory to rule India until 1947.
Immersed in history, we browse a landscape peppered with ruined palaces, mansions, gateways and tombs that draw us an imaginary picture of a place which, during heyday, possibly matched Istanbul or Isfahan in character.
"Mir Zafar has never been forgiven by the people; his name is synonymous with betrayal," says Qasim, a local, when we stop at the gate of his ruined palace, called Nimakharam Deori meaning the gate of betrayal. It's said people spit on Mir Zafar's tomb, even as they light a candle on the tomb of Siraj-Ud-Daula who is recognised as a martyr. This piece of history, perhaps not widely known, makes the visit to Murshidabad more meaningful.
In the limited time we have on the shore, we move swiftly through a few mausoleums, old mosques including the grand Katra Masjid and the British-built Hajarduary Palace - now a museum full of Nawabi and British memorabilia - before getting back to the comforts of our air-conditioned floating home.
Owned and operated by Exotic Heritage Group, Ganges Voyager I is truly an epitome of luxury. Every nook and corner of this multi-deck vessel, including its 28 private suites which can accommodate 56 guests, has been elegantly ornamented and furnished to rival top-end hotels. The overall style brings alive the characters of the bygone British Raj and the Indian royalty.
The beauty of this odyssey is the fitting balance between onboard time and daily off-shore excursions, which includes stops at locations beyond the well-trodden paths to provide a glimpse into the often overlooked history, culture and artistic expressions of the land.
The itinerary includes two nights anchoring at 350-year old Kolkata, the City of Joy, to introduce guests to its sumptuousness. Time spent there includes a panoramic tour of some architecturally astute grand edifices like Governor's House, Town Hall, General Post Office, St Johns Church, the city's oldest Anglican shrine and the famous Victoria Memorial, all of which are reminiscent of over two centuries of British stay in the city. Not to be overlooked is the visit to the home of Mother Teresa, a site of near pilgrimage for any devotee who respects compassion, care and love. The 19th century Jain Temple complex stands tall and is famous for its stunning architectural setting.
"This journey is a peep into the foundation of European colonisation in India," says Arnab Chakravarti, the ship manager, when discussing the finer details of the itinerary during the welcoming reception.
The tour of Kolkata from where the British built their Indian empire qualify his statement, and it becomes more meaningful after we navigate out of Kolkata and sail past few dusty towns like Serampore, Chinsura, Chandannagar, Hooghly and Bandel where once the Europeans - the Danes, Dutch, French and Portuguese lived. India's wealth lured them to settle at these riverside locations, but couldn't score as high as the British in terms of colonisation. Though their legacies now remain more in the pages of history books than in brick and mortar, excursions to see a Portuguese-built church in Bandel or a walk along the Strand in Chandannagar, a riverside promenade flanked by crumbling Indo-French styled buildings, testify to the European flavours of the past and generate an inspiration to know more about the footing of European colonisation in India.
Other shore sorties include visits to the 19th century Imambara in Hooghly, architecturally commanding Hindu temples at Kalna and Baranagar, the sprawling Hare Krishna temple at Mayapur, the global headquarters of ISCON, and Matiari - a typical Bengal village where local artisans make handcrafted brass items.
And when on board there is no time to get bored. Besides cherishing the passing landscape of rural Bengal, time is devoted to interesting lecture programmes like the one on the Ganges River itself, cooking demonstrations, movies, musical soirees and dance programmes - not to discount the morning yoga practice, workout at the gym, a spa therapy and, most importantly, chilling out with newly made friends at the Governor's Lounge, the vessel's most popular social hub at the top deck.
When the journey ends in Kolkata, it's a beginning for many of us, awakened by the looks and lifestyle of a different India.
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