Village Life and Colonial History on the Ganges

The many faces of India, as seen from our country boat from Varuna to the shore this morning with G Adventures. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Saturday, March 4, 2017

When I first booked this river cruise along India’s Ganges River with G Adventures last summer, I had pictured India as an unending torture chamber of heat; a place where I’d never get respite from the big, hot sun unless I was indoors in air conditioned splendour.

Imagine that: a cool, crisp morning on the Ganges. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Leaving Varuna behind…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and heading ashore on another adventure this morning. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Imagine my surprise when I came on deck this morning for my now-traditional pre-breakfast coffee to find temperatures of 15°C, cold wind, thunder, and rain. Dark grey skies made the farmer’s fields we were anchored near turn a vibrant green colour. The big red orb that is the sun couldn’t poke through the haze this morning; nothing but cloud surrounded the Varuna.

We disembarked at 0830 for a walking tour through the small village known as Baranagar. Lined with dirt roads and well-kept (mostly) brick buildings, Baranagar is home to three magnificently-preserved terracotta temples, each preserved with delicate carvings, symbols and inscriptions.

A stroll through the country…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…through another picturesque village. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Quite frequently, we saw the sides of the building are covered in circular discs that look like mud. This is actually cow dung, and these “cow patties” are used as a fuel source for cooking and heating. They’re made by hand and, unlike your local utility bill, never end up costing more than you’d expect. Baranagar was wired with basic electricity; many small villages in India are not.

Our G Adventures guide, Karan, supplements the knowledge from Vauna’s onboard guide. Together, they can answer any question you can throw at them – and our guests have thrown a lot of questions their way, all of which have been fully answered.

Patties of cow dung line the walls of buildings. These will be used later for fuel. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Local faces. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This morning, we arrived at our first terracotta temple. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Views of the countryside. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Yes, it’s actually raining! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Some of our guests took time to play cricket…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…with the locals. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our country boat, waiting to take us back aboard Varuna…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…for a delicious lunch. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

G Adventures also keeps things flexible. On our morning walk, some of the local village kids clearly wanted to play cricket with the strangers. One of our guests from the UK obliged, and we stood there for about 10 minutes and watched as the ball was thrown back and forth. Some excursions I’ve been on with other lines are so precisely-timed that a diversion like this wouldn’t have been tolerated. G Adventures, on the other hand, maintains a casual flexibility over its itinerary here in India, much like you’d expect on an expedition cruise.

We rejoined Varuna and set sail for an hour, arriving in the city of Murshidabad at 1100. This city of 44,000 inhabitants is located along the banks for the Bhagirathi, one of the many tributaries of the river that our local guides call, Mother Ganges.

Varuna, docked in Murshidabad, West Bengal, India. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The more-opulent Ganges Voyager II, chartered by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, was docked in front of us. Its guests peered out from between the curtains of their suites as we disembarked. No one seemed to be milling about, and no one seemed in a hurry to get off the ship.

Compared with the village we visited this morning, Murshidabad is positively bustling. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our group of 17, on the other hand, strode confidently into town. Murshidabad is no stranger to  tourists: shops selling Coca-Cola, plastic toy guns, knuckle dusters, rice cookers, and other inexplicable gadgetry lined the streets. Compared to our quiet, lazy village visit this morning, we’d arrived in “the big city”, complete with the requisite crowds and traffic.

Locals march on Hazarduari Palace…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…in peaceful protest as we arrive. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

As we approached the canary-yellow Hazarduari Palace Museum, we inadvertently got wrapped up in what initially looked like a protest – except that these men (it’s always men in male-dominated India) carried brooms and slowly swept the street in front of them. Our guides explained that these men were part of the local town committee dedicated to keeping the place clean, and were protesting the dirty state of the town, or that their actions weren’t recognized, or both. Sometimes in India, the exact reason “why” can be very elastic.

Welcome to the crumbling but beautiful ruins of Katra Mosque. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

No cameras were allowed inside the Palace, nor were backpacks or cell phones. No matter: we left everything in the care of the ship’s security staff, presided over by a friendly man we all just call Baba as a respectful term. Baba watched over our backpacks (there had to be 10 to 12 of them) and even kept them clean by hanging them from the branches of a nearby tree.

Construction on the Palace began in 1829, for Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah. The Nawabs were the rulers of Bengal and Murshidabad between 1717 and, effectively, 1947, when India declared independence.

The Palace was turned over to the authorities in 1985, and a major restoration programme was embarked on.

Damaged by an earthquake in 1897, much of Katra Mosque is now in ruins. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Visitors, however, still flock to the Mosque. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I’m glad we saw Hazarduari Palace, as it was very interesting, but we were crushed inside there. It seems every person in the town came to the Museum today, though whether it was to see the exhibits or to gawk at the sunburned Western tourists is debatable.

After lunch back onboard the Varuna, we visited three historic sites: the Katra Mosque; Katgola Palace and Nashipara Palace.

Built in 1723, the Katra Mosque is the mosque and tomb of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan. Flanked by two massive towers (one of which was under restoration during our visit), the Mosque still displays much of its former grandeur, despite having been seriously damaged in an earthquake in 1897.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Ironically, it is this destruction that gives the Mosque much of its current beauty. Collapsed domes and archways reveal nothing but open sky, and the inner sanctum of the Mosque is now exposed to the elements. Like much of India, the elegance of times gone by isn’t difficult to imagine.

Katgola Palace was my favorite stop of the afternoon. Half museum, half ruins, restoration work here is slowly beginning. I’d seen photos on the internet shot in 2009 that showcase a crumbling façade with weather-faded paint, but saw none of that on my visit. Watch out for the absolutely gigantic wasp’s nest that’s formed above the museum entrance doorway, though!

Katgola Palace: half museum, half ruins. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

This was easily my favorite stop today. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The ruins are so picturesque…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and hint at the grandeur of a bygone time. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Nashipara Palace, on the other hand, is perfectly preserved. It was our last stop this afternoon, under brooding evening skies that seemingly threatened to turn into rain at any moment, but never did. Photos aren’t allowed inside the building, but more than a hint of Victorian Colonialism is present within.

Nashipara Palace’s reflecting pool…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

..and exquisite Jain temple. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, our evening briefing and cocktail hour was held on the Sun Deck, where we enjoyed an outdoor barbecue with Indian delicacies and a magic show put on by two local boys from Murshidabad. Both are self-taught, learning their tricks off YouTube videos. A few months ago, they came down to the dock and showed some of their magic tricks to Hotel Manager Barun, who gave them the chance to come onboard and perform for the guests. They were a hit, and the ship has been having them onboard during its calls on Murshidabad ever since.

Even more special, two of our fellow guests celebrated their 50th anniversary. A shipboard bash was thrown, complete with cake and “trick” candles that proved to be tough to extinguish!

Evening magic. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Afterwards, we left our dock and relocated further downstream, near the floodlit façade of the Palace. It was the best view I could have imagined; the Indian equivalent of seeing the Hungarian Parliament lit up from the Danube on a visit to Budapest. And it was not lost on our guests that passengers on the far more expensive Ganges Voyager II didn’t get this experience. Their ship remained docked down at the pier, where horns continued to honk and blare from passing motorists well into the night.

Hazarduari Palace, at night. Goodnight from the Ganges! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report aboard G Adventures’ Varuna along the Ganges continues tomorrow as we visit Murshidabad, India! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

On the Ganges with G Adventures

March 1, 2017Arrival in Kolkata, India
March 2Train to Farakka and embarkation of Varuna
March 3Guar, West Bengal
March 4Barangar & Murshidabad, West Bengal
March 5Plassey, West Bengal
March 6Matiari & Mayapur, West Bengal
March 7Kalna & Chinsura, West Bengal
March 8Barakpur, West Bengal
March 9, 2017Disembarkation in Kolkata

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