Cruising the Brahmaputra River, India

The vast, perilous Brahmaputra was thought virtually unnavigable – but, a brave new boat journey has just opened up Assam’s remote, wildlife-rich, culturally unique riverbanks

5 mins
The Brahmaputra is like life itself,” declared Pamkaj Kumar Das, skipper of the MV Mahabaahu. “There are perils at every twist and turn, streams flow in from many sources, they separate and re-join, and reach the finality of the ocean in so many channels that we cannot say that any is the true path.”

Blimey. I had climbed to the wheelhouse to ask questions about navigation, dredging and depth of draft. But this was India, so really I should not have been surprised by a sudden elevation of the prosaic to the mystical. “Yes, this is a mystic river,” chuckled Mr Das, uncannily reading my thoughts as he steered a careful course between driftwood and sandbanks under the eye of a marigold-garlanded Ganesh, the elephant god revered as a mover of obstacles.

Photo: Martin Symington
The survey vessel helps to navigate Mahabaahu towards the sunset

Perhaps the real miracle was that this understatedly plush, 23-cabin river vessel – OK, let’s call it a cruise ship – was sailing these waters at all. Brahmaputra means ‘son of Brahma’, making it not only a rare example of a male river, but the offspring of none less than the creator of the universe. His lifespan begins in the glacial womb of Mount Kailash on the Tibetan plateau and ends in the Ganges delta on the Bay of Bengal. In between, the Brahmaputra hurtles through the Himalaya before spilling on to the broad plains of Assam where, come monsoon time, he turns savage. There are frequent reports of villagers drowned in writhing torrents, and every year this season leaves behind an altered riverscape: islands changed in size and shape; unfamiliar currents surging through unseen depths and shallows.

“You could say we have taken a leap of faith,” said Sanjay Vasu, the Delhi-based mountaineer-turned-entrepreneur who has pioneered the Brahmaputra’s first cruising route. Sanjay had the Mahabaahu (meaning ‘mighty arms’, as a synonym for the river) purpose-built in Kolkata; in 2012 he sailed her up through Bangladesh to Assam. Here he persuaded the government to dredge and maintain a 2.5m-deep navigational channel, in return for a stake in the project. Now, during the placid period between October and April, the Mahabaahu cruises the Brahmaputra, providing a completely new way to experience the cut-off, far north-eastern state. There is not, nor has there ever been, a river journey remotely similar anywhere in India.

The wide pink yonder

My February journey began with a flight from Kolkata to the little airport at Jorhat in eastern Assam. From here the Neemati Ghat boarding point was 20 minutes away via a dusty jeep track through dun-coloured fields of harvested rice stubble. The five-deck, 55m-long Mahabaahu looked a bit out of place, roped and bridged by a gangplank to a crunchy sand spit in the middle of nowhere.

My fellow passengers on the week-long downstream journey to Guwahati, Assam’s biggest city, were an affable bunch of Australians, Americans and Europeans. Sanjay was aboard too, because he still felt the need to keep a close eye on his new venture. So were ebullient young Payal Mehta from Mumbai, a professional naturalist hired to help us with the wildlife, and her erudite Keralan colleague Shatzil Khan in the role of cultural interpreter.

At the first chink of dawn we sailed off into the wide pink yonder. I found it tricky getting my head around the vastness of the Brahmaputra, 14km wide in places, and ‘braided’ – it splinters into streams that meet again, forming islands. Our first stop, Majuli, gives some idea of the staggering scale. The island has more than 200 villages, a population of around 50,000 and can be up to 70km long. I say can be, because it waxes and wanes; every monsoon flood leaves behind a fresh puzzle of banks and sandbars.

The people of Majuli are of the Mishing tribe. Nobody knows for sure what their ethnic origins are, but they are thought to have come from the mountains of what is now Tibet and northern Burma, and are famed as followers of a bewildering Vaishnavite sect that broke away from Hinduism in the 15th century, rejecting the strictures of the caste system. They bury their dead, speak a scriptless language, and worship the blue-faced, multi-armed god Vishnu at strange satra (monasteries) – some for celibate monks, others for whole families.

Photo: Martin Symington
Bishwanath Ghat, at low tide

“I am as much a foreigner here as you are,” whispered Shatzil as we sat in the arcaded courtyard of Kamalabari Satra while priests in white robes staged a Matia Khora devotional performance, frenetically pirouetting while pounding goat hide drums with tamarind sticks. Next, Shatzil did his best to navigate us through the cultural minefield of a satra where we were welcomed by young, mischievous-looking monks who grow their hair long, wear lipstick and dress as girls. At a third satra, whose temple is fashioned as a giant rearing cobra, monks pay obeisance to the deity by smoking cannabis (though not in front of tourists).

Life on the riverbank

Back afloat, I slipped into a more languid mode, watching river life unfold as we sailed downstream. At times it felt as if we were on a tea-coloured sea, so wide was the river, but more often the buoy-marked navigation channel weaved between sandbars or stayed close to the banks. Ours was not the only craft on the water: permanently ahead was the tug-like, government-operated survey vessel with sonar and GPS, checking that the channel was safely dredged; near the bank, fishermen flung nets from naukas, wooden canoes that look like dugouts, but are actually made of joined planks.

The floodplain was brown and the horizon blurred by haze at this time of year, in contrast with the autumn when expanses of green rice paddy unfurl northwards towards snowcapped Himalayan peaks. “It is prettier then, but the wildlife is at its best right now,” Payal enthused as she trained her binoculars on an arrowhead of ruddy shelducks winging over the surface. Earlier, we had watched long-limbed adjutant storks standing metre-high and majestic between dips of their beaks into glistening mud.

For me, the Gangetic dolphins were more of a marvel. According to Payal, because the water level is lowest at this time of year, they congregate for protection – which is why we encountered so many schools (or possibly the same schools repeatedly) that they almost ceased to be a novelty. Frequently we’d see just a few grey backs arcing in a series of ripples, but sometimes I was close enough to glimpse a barracuda-like beak with tiny teeth and dots for eyes. About two metres long, they are almost entirely blind and hunt by echo-location.

Further west the dusty flatness of the floodplain gave way to green tangles of jungle and the glossy red leaves of silk cotton trees. This was the cue for the Mahabaahu to anchor and groups of us to putter along the bank in the ship’s two motorised tenders. Once we got excitingly close to a family of small-clawed river otters whose holts were hidden among the exposed roots where the bank had been undermined. Another reward for travelling in the low water season.

Star attraction

By this time we were sailing along the southern fringes of Kaziranga, one of India’s great national parks and by far Assam’s most popular tourist destination. Our morning in the park was the most eagerly anticipated shore excursions, and faithfully delivered the highlights for which this vast swathe of grassland, marshes and forest is famed.

Photo: Martin Symington
Spotting rare Indian one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park

An early-morning convoy of elephants was waiting for us. We clambered on, two of us per mount, and swayed off into the dawn mist. In cahoots with their mahouts, they seemed to know exactly where to find the star attractions, Indian one-horned rhinos. So critically endangered are these creatures that the 2,300 or so in Kaziranga make up about 70% of the world population. The elephants’ practised senses picked out with ease a flank of grey armour here or a horn pointing out of a thicket there, and we would amble up to within a few metres of them.

Next, on a jeep safari, we looked out for wild buffalo (tick), swamp deer (tick) and boar (tick), all the while hoping against probability for a flash of tiger (no tick). I am thrilled to have been to Kaziranga, but in truth this was no more than a taste. I promised myself I’d come back one day and immerse myself properly in this exquisite park.

The ways of the water

In between cultural and wildlife-spotting sorties, life on board was supremely relaxing. The Mahabaahu is beautifully appointed with luxurious cabins, a sauna and even a small outdoor pool. And thankfully, it is run with none of the stiffness sometimes associated with cruises. Meals, for example, were easy-going, sociable buffets where guests mingled with staff such as Payal, Shatzil and cruise director Neena Morada, a raconteuse to be reckoned with as well as being Sanjay’s sister-in-law.

I found that I could spend ages attuning to the changing moods of the river from the top deck, or watching the continuous opening of folds of water at the bow. Evenings were especially magical. Because our direction was westwards, the setting sun seemed to guide us downstream, marking the way with a slender golden path on which the survey vessel ahead burned like a huge floating ember.

Photo: Martin Symington
Tea bushes at the Kaliabor estate

The whims of silt and currents made progress unpredictable, so some overnight spots were not pre-ordained. Instead, the skipper would choose a bank or island where we would moor and come ashore, sometimes for a barbecue and beers round a campfire. After a night on sandy Luitmuch Island, I walked through scrub spiked with acacia bushes and fields worked by yoked bullocks, to a remote Mishing settlement of stilted, thatched huts protected by wooden stockades. To say that somewhere feels untouched by the modern world sounds like the hoariest of travel clichés. Here (give or take a few solar panels) it was true.

I was beginning to appreciate just how remote from officialdom much of Assam is, which is much as it was in the time of the Raj. The British were latecomers, not arriving till the mid-19th century after it was discovered that conditions here were perfect for growing the Camellia sinensis shrub whose fragrant infusions were becoming wildly popular worldwide. They helped themselves to swathes of the fertile Brahmaputra valley and soon Assam was under British rule and virtually synonymous with Indian tea. However, in contrast with much of India at the time, the remoter reaches of Assam remained beyond their influence.

The era of planters and their milky memsahibs on verandas tinkling with G&Ts was easy to conjure at the Kaliabor tea estate near our penultimate stop, Silghat town. I ambled through neat rows of tea bushes cropped short – at this time of year – like little porcupines. Nowadays the plantation belongs to an absentee Indian landlord in Delhi and the colonial bungalow is no longer a home, but the walls are still decorated with framed photos of the Eyton-Jones family who left in the 1960s: lawn tennis in long skirts; sailor-suited rides on a baby elephant for a child’s birthday party.

Back to real life

Guwahati, where the Mahabaahu dropped final anchor, plonked us abruptly back into the sensory overload of contemporary India: buzzing auto-rickshaws and merchants yelling behind fairy-lit stalls; smells of sandalwood and holy cow dung; a dapper young man at the counter of his Mother Teresa Computer Shop.

The main attraction in this city of more than a million is the Kamakhya temple where I joined throngs worshipping the tantric power of goddess Sati. The gory spectacle of a sacrificial goat being beheaded with a sword on a blood-crusted stone altar was a disquieting final image after the tranquility of my river journey.

Starting my long trip home, I reflected that on the entire journey down the Brahmaputra we had seen no other passenger boat nor, except in Kaziranga, a single tourist. One day this river might become like the Nile, but for the moment the mighty arms of Brahma’s son embrace few indeed.

Photo: Martin Symington
A holy man in Guwahati

Make it happen...

The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms, which offers the week-long up or downstream sailing between Neemati Ghat (near Jorhat) and Guwahati from October to April. An 11-day tailormade itinerary including stays in Kolkata (Calcutta) before and after the cruise also includes all meals (not drinks) on board, excursions, internal flights and transfers. The Brahmaputra cruise also forms part of Mountain Kingdoms’ 17-day group itineraries in March and November; these include, variously, Darjeeling, Bhutan and the Golden Triangle.

All images: Martin Symington

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