Ganges river cruises

At 2,500km in length, with a vast delta that spans 70,000km², and so wide at some points that it’s almost impossible to see the opposite bank, the Ganges is one of the world’s mightiest rivers. The Ganges’ importance to Hindus who worship it as the goddess Ganga cannot be overstated: the ashes of thousands of people are scattered on it every day, and those that bathe in it believe their sins to be washed away. Many of India’s capitals were built along its banks, while some 400 million people live close to the river, often drawing their livelihood from it. The Ganges is an ever-flowing, ever-the-same symbol of India itself, as deep as 33m in places but deeper still in spirituality.

Ironically, given how sacred the river is, the Ganges is terribly polluted, and much of the river’s wildlife is at risk of dying out – the Ganges river dolphin and many other species are critically endangered. One cause of that pollution is human remains. Those who die in the holy city of Varanasi consider themselves lucky – they can be cremated on the riverbank, and receive instant salvation, while their ashes are immersed in the water. This is tradition. It’s not a practice many would want, or think possible, to end. But river cruises on the Ganges are a good way of promoting tourism as a source of income that relies on taking better care of the river, while encouraging local communities to keep control of litter on its banks.
None of this is meant to put you off cruising the Ganges of course. If you’re aware of the issues, we feel you’re more likely to appreciate the good stuff as well: this is a magnificent perspective from which to see India and the continent’s most iconic river, the idyllic landscapes and many fascinating landmarks along its banks. It’s also a fantastic way to explore sleepy, welcoming riverside communities that other India vacations may miss, and with operators that take care to support the people that rely on the river such as by contributing to school projects and purchasing from local artisans. The problems that the Ganges faces are difficult to ignore, yet this unmistakably remains one of the world’s great rivers for cruising.

Practicalities

River cruises on the Ganges take you along one of its many distributaries, the Hooghly (Hugly), which flows from Farakka on the main river to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Sail upstream or down, with a return journey by rail, aboard a handsome riverboat with daily excursions led by local guides.

Spacious, en suite cabins with individual climate control have private French balconies, and sliding glass windows that offer panoramic river views. The stylish décor is flecked with colonial elegance and Indian-inspired patterns, while onboard amenities include a spa, and huge sun decks with shaded seating. Evenings are enlivened with delicious meals of mild, Assamese cuisine and performances of traditional song and dance, and, responsible river cruise companies take their relationship with the environment seriously, so plastic use onboard is kept to a minimum, and the operators work with local riverside communities to help them reduce their own usage.
What will I see
There is a wealth of attractions along the river for the history buff, from architecture relating to French, Danish and British India to the famous Plassey battlefield, stunning waterside palaces, charming Bengali terracotta temples and even the all-singing, all-dancing headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement. But what is bound to be a highlight for many travelers is simply the opportunity to stroll through peaceful riverside villages, meeting local people, learning a little about their lives.

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Travel Team
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Powell Ettinger from our expert river cruise operator The Small Ship Cruise Collection, with some more detail on exploring the Ganges by boat:

Ganges cruise highlights

“Some of the most interesting excursions you’re going to get on this cruise are a morning walk through the fields of the delightfully sleepy village of Baranagar to visit its three gorgeous miniature terracotta temples. This is rural India at its most idyllic. This is also the day that the passengers visit the English Tuition Centre that has been built with donations from our cruises. And for many British guests the visit to the battlefield of Plassey is a highpoint, where in 1757 Robert Clive, the Commander-in-Chief of British India, defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and changed the course of Indian history.”

When to go

“The Monsoon lasts from May to August through to September so we avoid most of this period. The ‘coolest’ winter months are November to February, which we recommend as a good time to cruise the Ganges.”

Responsible tourism on the Ganges

“The main responsible travel win of river cruises on the Ganges I think is cultural. We can’t really pretend that our influence will help clean the rivers, and to some extent we shouldn’t try – the Hindu practice of burning the dead and throwing their ashes into the rivers doesn’t lead to clean rivers but that is their tradition. However on a more local level the guides do emphasise to the villages we visit that a village free of rubbish, especially plastic bags, is a major plus on several levels.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: The Small Cruise Ship Collection] [All article images: The Small Cruise Ship Collection]
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