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India's Lower Ganges River onboard the RV Kalaw Pandaw

By Jennifer Dunbar
First appeared in (

India, renowned for its vibrant culture, bustling streets, and diverse landscapes, has long been a magnet for travellers. While many opt for organised tours to explore its cities and landmarks that cover all the predictable stops, few venture deep into country's core, where the Ganges River winds its way past charming villages and ancient temples.

While the prospect of venturing off the standard tourist track can perhaps seem a bit daunting, my experience on the 7-night Pandaw Lower Ganges River excursion was anything but that. Comfortable and hassle free, it was a languid and relaxed exploration into the soul and history of India's historically significant and culturally rich region of West Bengal.

The Ganges River, stretching over 2,500 kilometres and traversing India and Bangladesh, holds immense cultural and spiritual significance for millions of people. Originating in the majestic Himalayas in Uttarakhand, India, it meanders through the Gangetic Plain before merging with the Bay of Bengal. Along its banks lie centuries-old villages, ancient terracotta temples, majestic colonial architecture, forgotten religious monuments and a wealth of wildlife, waiting to be discovered.

RV Kalaw front of ship sundeck
RV Kalaw front of ship sundeck
RV Kalaw main sundeck
RV Kalaw main sundeck

All aboard to cruise the Ganges River

Boarding the Kalaw Pandaw in Kolkata brought back memories of my previous cruise up the Mekong River more than 17 years ago. The colonial elegance of the ship, with its polished teak and brass interiors, comfortable staterooms, and expansive open-air promenade decks perfect for socialising and soaking in the passing scenery was familiar and welcoming. With a remarkable crew to guest ratio on our vessel with only 18 cabins, the service was personal and attentive, making us feel much like guests on a private motor yacht.

Pandaw river expeditions across, India, Vietnam & Cambodia, Laos, Borneo and until recently Myanmar, are particularly popular with senior travellers who like the laid back, immersive approach to travelling. Happy to be only connected to the modern world through Wi-fi, without distractions of in-room television, round-the-clock entertainment, gyms, casinos or swimming pools.

Our entertainment was seeing the rich cultural significance of The Ganges River unfolding before our eyes. Waving to villagers and cheering children as we sailed by, we became observers of daily life on the riverbanks. Straight out of an Amitav Ghosh novel, each scene came alive with children playing happily in the water, families performing their daily bathing rituals and laundry being washed on the banks with rhythmic diligence. We also witnessed ceremonies honouring the dead which brought a sense of reverence and cultural depth to our journey. A different glimpse of life with each bend of the river.

Scenes along the Ganges River 1
Scenes along the Ganges River
Scenes along the Ganges River 2
Scenes along the Ganges River

Scenes along the Ganges River

Daily excursions, in the morning and afternoon, brought us through picturesque villages and ancient temple grounds. It is impossible not to be struck by the vibrancy of village life. Women in beautiful sarees, fresh produce, pungent spices and colourful facades, a kaleidoscope of colours, sights, sounds and smells. It was a totally immersive experience of rural India, devoid of the brash face of modern-day commercialism. Refreshing and endearing was the absence of aggressive sales pitches and begging, typical of the big cities. Just curious and engaging people, who communicated with such openness through their wide eyes, shy smiles and generous gestures of warmth that spoke volumes.

Touring the sites along the Ganges River

Hopping on to rickshaws we explored Bengal's most attractive terracotta temples in the country town of Kalna and marvelled at the unique Shiva temple with concentric rings made up of 108 lesser shrines showcasing the intricate craftsmanship and ancient religious artistry.

Up the Hooghly River, the scenery transformed into a charming waterway flanked by the lifeline of the farming river communities. We sailed past mustard fields and mango orchards, lush plantations of rice, wheat, and jute, where families tended their crops under the sweltering sun. The brass-working village of Matiari was another fascinating stop, where we witnessed the primitive process of beating out brass water pots and vessels.

In Mayapur we were captivated by the newly constructed Hare Krishnan temple, a majestical landmark of the Ganges, with its imposing turquoise dome. Comparable in size to the Vatican we were surprised to learn that it was partially funded by Alfred B. Ford, great grandson of American industrialist Henry Ford. By walking through its expansive grounds and soaking in the spiritually charged temple atmosphere, we gained a bit of an insight into the devotion to worship and spiritual practices of the millions of international Krishna followers.

The excursion to the imposing Bara Imambara at Hooghly offered a glimpse into the rich Islamic history of Bengal. A magnificent monument with walls adorned with intricately carved verses from the Quran serves as a poignant reminder of the profound effect of partition era, which reshaped the geo-political destiny of the region and the country.

We also delved into the legacy of India's colonial heritage during our visits to the historic Dutch, French and British settlements of Chinsura, Serampore and Barrackpore.

Scenes along the Ganges River 5
Scenes along the Ganges River
Scenes along the Ganges River 6
Scenes along the Ganges River

Convivial travelling companions

What makes Pandaw excursions appealing is its shared camaraderie and spirit of joie de vivre. Every discovery made during the journey sparked lively conversations shared over refreshing post excursion juices, mid-day cardamon infused chai, exotic pre-dinner cocktails and indulgent after-dinner drinks. Onboard dining is an all-inclusive culinary journey featuring four course menus that showcase local ingredients and Bengali flavours, with a choice of non-Indian and vegetarian options. These were served in a communal setting, frequently on the open deck allowing us to admire the passing scenery while dining.

Service was exceptional, always attentive and very engaging, onboard as well as during the excursions. Other than the very knowledgeable guide, there was always a dedicated excursion team walking with us. They provided steadying hands for assistance during the walks, kept a watchful eye on straying photographers searching for the perfect shot, and provided discreet companionship for guests who needed to explore at a slower pace. Their on-the-spot translations were invaluable in our conversations with the villagers and in securing the best bargains for our purchases.

In a journey that seamlessly blended relaxation with exploration, I was amazed about how much I learnt about India through life on the Ganges. By experiencing it first hand, up close and very personal, I was able to get a deeper appreciation of this fascinating country.



River Cruise itinerary for The Lower Ganges River

The Lower Ganges River

Kolkata - Baranagar - Kolkata

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

7 nights

from US$4,050

River Cruise itinerary for The Lower Ganges River
River Cruise itinerary for The Lower Ganges & Brahmaputra River

The Lower Ganges & Brahmaputra River

Kolkata - Guwahati - Silghat - Guwahati

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

14 nights

from US$4,725

River Cruise itinerary for The Lower Ganges & Brahmaputra River


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Kate And Joe Hodge posted in May 2023

Wonderful reading... have been on 3 amazing Pandaw cruises... Mekong... Cambodia... Myanmar.

Made us think about India now. Thank you for all the personnel views.