A voyage through Assam: cruising along India's Brahmaputra River

A voyage through Assam on the tempestuous Brahmaputra River provides an indelible experience of India, although a sense of adventure and an open mind are essential for navigating the cruise’s twists and turns.Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Brahmaputra carves a course through the green-gold landscape of hilly Assam in India’s far north east — a world of lush tea plantations, ancient temples and exotic wildlife. It offers an enticing blend of culture, scenery and adventure. Perfect, in theory, for river cruising. But this is no ordinary river.

The Brahmaputra — its name translated from Sanskrit as ‘son of Brahma’, the creator of the universe — is a moody beast. Swollen every year by monsoon rains and Himalayan meltwater, it reaches an unimaginable 18 miles wide in the wet season, June to October, creating a vast, monochrome landscape threaded with sandbanks around which dangerous currents swirl. 

As such, river cruising in Assam is a relatively new phenomenon, with just a handful of boats able to sail here, and only then in the short dry season, November to February, when the waterway is a mere five miles wide. When Indian tour operator Far Horizon started operating cruises on the river aboard the MV Mahabaahu, a channel had to be dredged, because charting this shape-shifting waterway is impossible and nobody wants to run aground. Even with this measure in place, a pilot boat escorts each voyage. This is river cruising with an edge.

Cruises operate between Jorhat and Guwahati, an hour and 20 minutes by air from Kolkata and a river journey of around 200 miles. There’s a dreamy emptiness and a blissful silence to much of the voyage; Assam is a far cry from the bustle and tourist trails of the Golden Triangle and Kerala. 

There’s little infrastructure visible from the river — just two bridges and no roads. Villages are wisely built away from the banks, and on bamboo stilts, as insurance against the rising water levels. Locals make for higher ground when the rains come, returning when the waters recede to an altered landscape. 

Yet travel here is deeply rewarding. Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, stretching along the southern bank, is the state’s star attraction; it’s here that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge enjoyed a safari on their official visit in 2016. But there’s much more, from working tea plantations to monasteries, Hindu temples and dazzling birdlife. Unexpected bonuses include sightings of Ganges river dolphins and, if the clouds part and there’s no sand in the air, a line of snow-capped Himalayan peaks on the horizon.

Go with the flow

Life on the banks of the Brahmaputra happens at its own pace, swayed by the movements of the tide as much as the rhythms of local culture

A festival is in full swing at Sivasagar’s Shiva Dol temple, the grounds crammed with stalls selling marigold garlands, oil burners, incense and snacks to offer to the gods. The cave-like interior is smoky and dark, incense thick in the air as devotees chant and wail. Entire Indian families — the women in exquisite, jewel-toned saris — shyly ask me to be in their snapshots. It’s a happy welcome to Assamese culture, and an authentic one, it seems, as there’s not another Westerner in sight. 

My week sailing the Brahmaputra on the stately MS Mahabaahu is a river cruise like no other. For a start, I can’t really see where water fades to sky. In parts, the river is five miles wide, with a dreamy, almost hypnotic quality, the rushing, silvery grey water threaded with bleached sandbanks. 

We stop at Majuli. At 340sq miles, it’s the world’s biggest river island, although this title may not last, thanks to the greedy Brahmaputra, which bites chunks off it every monsoon. Its 200,000-odd inhabitants live in stilted houses, backed by a carpet of bright green paddy fields and the main street is a bustling throng of stalls selling piles of exotic fruit, crumbling shops offering ‘photocopy’ and motorbike parts amid the inevitable melee of cows, goats, dogs and chickens. 

On the river, we spend hours watching stumpy-nosed Ganges river dolphins, or trying to identify the dozens of species of migratory bird that follow the waterway, as well as owls, eagles, kingfishers and vultures. Human activity is sparse, but fascinating. We spot the occasional ferry, overloaded with cars, motorbikes and people. Fishermen dunk their nets and Bangladeshi nomads grow lentils on the sandbanks before the rising water forces them to higher ground. But there’s no cargo traffic and the sense of space and peace is reviving for the soul, especially at sunset, when the hazy light of the day gives way to burnt orange skies and the river becomes a shimmering mass of burnished gold.

My travelling companions are from Britain, the USA, Australia and India. Friendships are quickly struck, with tales of the day’s adventures swapped over the magnificent Indian feasts prepared in the tiny galley. One night, the crew builds a blazing bonfire on a sandbank. We float little oil lamps on bamboo rafts in a procession along the dark river, making a wish as we send them into the blackness. In the distance, I can hear the rustle of wind in the trees and the hooting of owls, but otherwise the silence is like a blanket. Magical.  

Brahmaputra highlights

Kaziranga National Park
With more than 100 Bengal tigers, 2,200 Indian one-horned rhinos — two-thirds of the world’s entire population — and the last surviving population of eastern swamp deer, Kaziranga’s marshy, wooded landscape is understandably heavily protected. The park stretches across the Golaghat, Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts of Assam, covering 170sq miles, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tigers hide in the rippling grass and a sighting is a rare thrill, but there’s an excellent chance of seeing deer, rhinos, wild elephants and buffalos on a four-wheel-drive safari.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati
This colourful pilgrimage site is dedicated to Kamakhya Devi, the ‘Bleeding Goddess’, and celebrates menstruation and womanhood; the inner sanctum is believed to house the genitalia of the Hindu goddess Sati. You’ll see ‘menstruating’ statues and offerings of red hibiscus flowers, as devotees arrive to be purged of black magic by tantric rituals. The whole place has a carefree, festival vibe, but the sensitive should steer clear of the hall where animal sacrifices (mainly goats) take place.

Silghat Jute Mill
A visit to a factory producing jute sacks might seem like an odd excursion — especially as face masks and ear plugs are dished out — but the mill at Silghat catapults you straight back to the Industrial Revolution. The rattling din of Victorian-era factory equipment is deafening, shards of light beaming in through the roof and dusty windows adding to the Dickensian vibe. While the workers here are paid a reasonable wage, it’s a sobering picture of manual labour in India and the reality of daily life for many.

Cruise features

On board the Mahabaahu
The 46-passenger Mahabaahu is comfortable rather than luxurious, with a bar, a dining room with communal tables, deck loungers and a small pool. The decor includes silk hangings and polished wood, while 11 of the 23 cabins come with a small balcony. 

Ayurvedic treatments
There’s a room on one of the Mahabaahu’s lower decks (calling this a spa is stretching it) where ayurvedic treatments are offered using handmade pastes and potions. Ayurveda is a spiritual, healing therapy but you’ll need to cast modesty to the wind. Forget about candles and scented burners; you’ll be stripped down, doused in plenty of oil and hosed down at the end. 

Yoga on the sand
The Mahabaahu usually moors on an uninhabited, sandy river island for the night, presenting the perfect opportunity for pre-breakfast yoga on the sand at sunrise, under vast skies. There’s a wonderful sense of space and freedom; birdwatching walks are on offer, with a chance to paddle about in the shallows as the sun’s heat intensifies. 

ESSENTIALS

Rivers of the World has a seven-night cruise on the RV Mahabaahu, with two nights in Kolkata beforehand, for £3,252, departing 8 March 2020. Includes all excursions and full board on the ship. International flights to Kolkata not included.

Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Cruise guide 2019

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