“This is where Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa lived most of her life,” tells omniscient guide Nilanjana as we peep inside a small room of a modest suburban house in Kolkata, the gateway city to Eastern India.
The room, just big enough to fit a single bed and a desk is nothing extraordinary, telling the person who lived there led a very simple life. While standing there I sense a kind of holiness in the air. So does Anna, a visitor from Belgium. “It touches my soul,” she says.
Worldwide, many compare Mother Teresa with Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta), where she arrived from Macedonia in 1929 at the age of 18 and never went back. She dedicated the rest of her life caring for the poor and homeless of this former colonial city where she founded the Missionaries of Charity, now a global institution.
She was canonised as a saint in 2016, 19 years after her death in 1997. Her tomb rests in a small chapel in the house that became a site of pilgrimage for devotees.
This excursion is the first of many we undertake as a part of the eight-day river odyssey from Kolkata to historic Murshidabad and back, aboard the luxury vessel Ganges Voyager I along the River Ganges, one of the world’s most revered waterways since mythical times.
Owned and operated by Exotic Heritage Group in India, the vessel is a 2015-built floating abode where the decor, ambience, facilities and guest services can easily rival any top-end luxury hotel. Every nook and corner of the vessel is carefully painted and adorned with elegant furnishing that brings to life the bygone British colonial character.
There are 28 tastefully decorated suites where every guest can feel like an Indian Maharaja or an English Viceroy. Featuring a French balcony with panoramic views of the passing landscape, all suites include a large double bed with a generous pillow selection, bedside drawers, writing desk, two lounge chairs with a centre table plus all modern amenities like iPod docks and a flat screen television.
Overall, the accommodation is relatively larger in size than any other river ships I cruised earlier. The private bathroom features a rain shower, hairdryer and premium bath amenities.
“You are at some 13m above water,” tells the ship’s manager Arnab Chakraborty when standing at the top floor for an almost 360° vista of the river and its bankside surroundings. This level features the sun deck fitted with comfortable seating, the gym and the spa and the Governor’s Lounge – a popular hub for the guests not because of its well-stocked bar but also being the usual venue for lectures, after dinner movies and making new friends. Sumptuous meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner, all of which can be summarised as a tribute to incredibly tasty cuisine of India and Europe, are served on the main deck.
Many describe this voyage as time travel since what we see and experience are much different from modern India. “The riverside panorama reminds us of Korea in the 1950s, we go back to our childhood,” tells fellow traveller Jiong, a retired business executive from South Korea.
As the boat navigates out of hazy Kolkata, we sail past ghosts of jute mills, active brick kilns, and series of crumbling ghats or flight of steps leading down to the river and a string of dusty domains where once the Europeans lived until the mystic landscape of rural Bengal greets us.
Breathing fresh air, we continue sailing past small villages and towns where men are working in the fields, cattle grazing, women doing their washing at the ghats, children making noise while swimming in the river and the aged sitting in the shade of a large riverside banyan tree, smoking “bidi” and leisurely waiving at us.
Television antennas and mobile towers don’t block our views of the slow-moving vista imaging pictures of a simple and laidback life where time seems to have stopped. This repeating panorama from dawn to dusk reminds me of Somerset Maugham once saying “river travelling is monotonous and soothing” .
“It’s a big change for us,” says John and Mary a couple from Britain.
Daily shore excursions introduce us to the land’s history, culture and spirituality.
Besides Mother Teresa’s home, in Kolkata we embark on an early morning city tour featuring a glimpse of some architecturally astute grand edifices – 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 era in India. Later during the journey, we visit a Portuguese church in Bandel and a French-built one in Chandannagar, both former European settlements located around 50km upstream from Kolkata.
For the historically minded, highlight of the shore excursions is Murshidabad, a shabby little town about 300km from Kolkata, where according to some historians India was sold to the British just over 250 years ago.
Early 18th century when it was the bustling capital of Bengal Province – a wealthy kingdom ruled by Muslim rulers called Nawabs, the settling British colony in Kolkata wanted to acquire it. However, compared to the Nawab’s army, the British force was tiny. So British Commander Robert Clive adopted the treacherous means of bribing the Nawab’s army through Mir Zafar, a senior minister. As a result, the combat on June 23, 1757, referred in history as Battle of Plassey, ended in a day without almost any gunshots fired.
Defeated Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daula fled for his life while Mir Zafar ascended the throne as a puppet of the British who since then expanded their territory to rule India until 1947.
Mir Zafar has never been forgiven by the Indians. His name today remains as another word for “betrayal”. The gate of his ruined palace is called Nimakharam Deori, meaning gate of betrayal.
As expected every stone in Murshidabad has a story of conspiracy, power and greed to narrate. We sink in history when visiting some of them like the graveyards of Siraj and Mir Zafar, a neoclassical palace called Hazarduary and Katra Masjid, a large mosque built in 1723.
Similarly, we immerse in devotion when visiting the Hare Krishna Temple in Mayapur where Krishna followers from around the globe land to offer their prayers and admire the wonderful architecture. We soak in art when browse the architectural expressions of 19th century Hindu temples in Kalna and Baranagar and of an Islamic shrine in Hooghly.
The cruise delivers a good balance between the shore sorties and on-board time to relax, socialise and enjoy. By the time the voyage ends, we feel our batteries recharged, knowledge on the incredible Ganges enriched and digital cards filled with memories of a journey of a lifetime. The cruise runs from September until March. For more information, go to www.exoticheritagegroup.com.