Michelle Baran is on the Bengal Ganga, cruising the Ganges River in India. Her first dispatch follows.
KOLKATA, India — History is in the remaking here in East India, which has witnessed the quiet return of the Ganges River as a navigable inland waterway, suitable for overnight passenger cruising, for the first time in 200 years.
That this vast and legendary river, the longest in India, has been dormant to passenger and cargo traffic for centuries seems unimaginable. But the collapse of the profitable opium trade in the 1800s and the rise of a more efficient and effective rail system had rendered the Ganges and its tributaries ineffectual.
That is until 10 years ago, when Raj Singh, director of Indian company Heritage Cruises, began plotting a river route from Kolkata to Varanasi with the help of government surveillance vessels.
When he realized the wealth of nature, history and culture along the banks of the Upper and Lower Ganges, from Neolithic relics to famous British battlefields to intricate spiritual structures, Heritage Cruises purchased a Burmese river cruiser from Pandaw Expeditions in 2009 and began offering cruises up and down the Ganges that same year.
Since then, the 56-passenger Bengal Ganga has been taking passengers through the rich waters of West Bengal, along the Ganges and its tributaries, the Hugli and Bhagirathi rivers, on a journey few foreign visitors will ever have the chance to experience, as there is all but no tourism infrastructure in this part of the world.
In January 2015, the Bengal Ganga will be joined by the 56-passenger Ganges Voyager, a luxury river cruise vessel being launched by Breckenridge, Colo.-based Haimark in partnership with Singh, and being targeted to the more mainstream Western river cruise market.
Currently, a small group of investors, shipbuilders, river cruise executives looking to charter the ship, and members of the Haimark staff are onboard the Bengal Ganga sailing an inspection cruise as a preview of the forthcoming Ganges Voyager itinerary.
What they are finding is that as the honking horns of bustling Kolkata fade off into the distance, the rivers of West Bengal begin to weave through an intricate and relatively untouched story of this culturally rich region of India.
Two days into the river journey, those of us on this unique scouting expedition have stopped in riverside villages and sites void of tourists and their corresponding trinket-hawking economies.
The first stop after Kolkata was Bandel, where the 19th century Hooghly Imambara rises majestically above the river’s banks for a glimpse into India’s Islamic past. Beyond that was Kalna, home to an intricate Hindu temple complex dating back to 1809.
And what we’ll find next is as much a wonderful mystery to the passengers as it was to Singh a decade back, navigating these waters anew, rediscovering the treasures along its shores.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.