27 April 2016 by Krishna Ghosh
Having travelled extensively across the subcontinent, the mysteries of India’s remote northeast have long been high on my list of places to visit. Set among imposing mountain ranges, vast floodplains and dense forests its seven ‘Sister States’ border the secrets of Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh and are the longhouse home of unique, tribal cultures. And, with begrudging thanks to this inhospitable geography and poor infrastructure, it’s one of the hardest places in India to reach. That is, unless, you take to its waters.
The 1,800 mile long Brahmaputra River – a glacial Himalayan leak – wends its way from the very northeast of the country, braiding itself into interweaving channels before spilling into a Bangladeshi delta and the Bay of Bengal. And, this March, I was fortunate enough to spend a week sailing down its central Assam stretch. Passing through national parks, home to wild elephants and tigers, I stopped at riverside temples, tea plantations, tribal villages and monasteries on my way to the city of Guwahati.
My journey started in Nimati, towards the river’s northeastern source, where I boarded my river-ship home for the next seven nights. I was especially taken with its chic, balconied cabins and oversized sun-deck. Of course, a Jacuzzi never goes amiss. However, the real attractions were the destinations themselves. Our first stop was a visit to the ancient city of Sibsagar, the once mighty seat of the Ahom Kingdom. Today, you can still walk through its ruins and visit the Shiva Temple; constructed in 1734, it’s thought to be the country’s highest Hindu temple. Next, was possibly the highlight of my trip – the world’s largest river island – Majuli.
On it, 15th century monasteries are home to Vaishnavite priests who performed a mesmerising dance for us to the complex rhythms of drums and cymbals. In the evening, there was also an onboard cooking demonstration on local techniques. We also visited a Mishing village, home to a tribe famed for their skilful weaving. I spent a happy hour interacting with them – they even sang an impromptu melody – before purchasing a few of their colourful wares. It was a truly humbling experience to see the villagers living a life so untouched by the modern world.
The visits to the region’s tea plantations were also particularly fascinating. Walking among the verdant rows – at once perfectly terraced but clinging to a landscape that curved precipitously – I spent an enjoyable afternoon walking among them, listening to the chatter of the workers’ sheers. Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been complete without sampling the local brew with a talk on making the perfect cup.
And, while I was treated to an abundance of birdlife along the route, the best wildlife spotting came at Kaziranga National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site, its flood plains are home to nearly 200 types of mammals that range from wild elephants and tigers to deer and bison. However, its prized possession is the one-horned Indian rhinoceros. Although I didn’t manage to sight any of the larger species, a safari on the back of an Indian elephant was a delight in itself and – on the jeep expedition – I was able to spot plenty of deer.
The one-horned Indian rhinoceros evaded me, but their numbers have swelled from 600 in 1975 to over 3,000 today, thanks to some excellent conservation work across India and Nepal
In all, I would highly recommend this cruise to anybody looking to experience the real India along with its people, its culture and an area so untouched. This is off the beaten track at its luxury best; along the way, we met locals that were charming, fascinating and genuinely happy to meet us. My only regret is that I didn’t catch a glimpse of the elusive gangetic dolphin.
Guwahati is home to a 16th Century Hindu Kamakhya Temple, still used and in excellent condition