India’s vast size and myriad sites can leave even the most seasoned of travellers a little bewildered. Where to start? What to see first? It can be tempting to tick off a long list of ‘must-sees’ but with the distances involved, you may find you spend more time on the road than experiencing each spot. That’s where Indian river cruises come in - making the journey part of the experience and taking you to places you might never have seen, but wouldn’t want to miss! From tiny villages to historic sites, artisan communities to remote wildlife, travelling by boat brings you face-to-face with a world largely untouched by mass tourism.
But once you’ve decided on an Indian river cruise, how do you choose a river? The crumbling colonial mansions that line the Hooghly set the scene for the historic wonders to be found on a Ganges river cruise, while the verdant, almost untouched natural beauty of the course along the Brahmaputra river cruise is a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts. If you’re considering booking an Indian river cruise, read on to discover which river is the one for you.
Ganges river cruises
From the fading colonial vestiges and grand boulevards of Kolkata to the vibrant, infectious energy of Varanasi, the mighty Ganges is home to some of India’s most revered religious and historic sites. A must for all history buffs and culture vultures, a cruise along either the Lower or Upper Ganges is an opportunity to become immersed in the vast history of India, travelling through millennia in just one trip.
A Tapestry of History
An Indian river cruise along the Ganges could bring you to the ancient remains of Bodh Gaya - considered to be the holiest site in Buddhism - where Buddha attained enlightenment. Or see you sailing into the longest continually inhabited city in the world, Varanasi, to join pilgrims and worshippers on the magical ghats for an evening aarti.
Sailing along the Lower Ganges takes you through the history books as you explore the former Dutch settlement of Chinsura, the old Danish colony of Serampore, the French town of Chandernagore and the battlefield of Plassey where Robert Clive defeated the last independent Nawab of Bengal, changing the course of India’s history forever.
Cultural highlights of our Ganges river cruises
Cultural & Religious Wonders
This long and varied history of the Ganges gives rise to a cultural wealth that’s near unrivalled. Travelling by boat allows you into some of the less-visited spots where this cultural beauty plays out in the brass-working or sari-weaving found in riverside villages. Cruising leisurely down the river, G&T in hand, offers unlimited opportunities to watch life unfold on the banks, where fields are still worked by ox-drawn ploughs and neatly dressed children race the boat on their way to school.
From the Buddhist site of Bodh Gaya to Varanasi - one of the holiest sites in Hinduism - travelling along the Ganges is an insight into the varied religious tapestry that makes up India. Explore verses of the Koran on the walls of the Imambara at Hooghly, or take a rickshaw to explore the mesmerising 108 Shiva terracotta temples at Kalna. The religious variety of the Ganges even brings you all the way up to the present day, with the vast new ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple, the headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement.
Cruising along the Lower and Upper Ganges draws you into a world of religious, cultural and historic beauty. This is a land far removed from the daily commute and the minutiae of everyday life. An Indian river cruise along the Ganges transports you back in history while guiding you through a vibrant, intriguing landscape where no two days are the same.
Brahmaputra River Cruises
Talk to the majority of travellers to India and they’ll tell you of the astonishing beauty of the Taj Mahal, the meandering waterways of Kerala, or the soaring wonder of the Himalayas. But chances are, you won’t find many who have travelled East, to the furthest reaches of the country. The northeastern state of Assam, with its lush green tea plantations, rice fields and verdant mountains, is bisected by the mighty Brahmaputra, and in spite of its remoteness, or perhaps because of it, boasts wildlife, artisan villages, vibrant temples, and historic ruins to rival any of the more ‘well-known’ parts of India.
And with so much of the state’s history and culture based around the river, travelling by boat is the perfect way to explore its sites. CNN agreed, rating it one of the top ten most adventurous cruises. So if you choose a river cruise along the Brahmaputra, what can you expect to see?
From the endangered Gangetic river dolphin to wild buffalo and elephants, Assam is home to an exceptionally diverse and rich array of wildlife. It boasts 70% of the world’s population of one-horned rhinos and the highest diversity of birds in India, making it a dream destination for bird spotters and wildlife enthusiasts.
An incredible shot taken by Pri, an ABN family member, while on safari in May 2023
Nov 22 - May 23 was a perfect season for tiger sightings at Kaziranga National Park. Another shot taken by Pri while on safari in May 2023
Kaziranga National Park
With the exception of the Brahmaputra Taster, each of ABN’s Brahmaputra cruises takes in the Kaziranga National Park. Its remote location, varied biodiversity of elephant grass, forest, and swamp is home to a wealth of wildlife, including swamp deer, sambar and wild boar. The park is also home to over a hundred tigers, making it the highest population density of tigers in India, though sightings can be hindered by the lush grasslands.
Bird watchers may be treated to a spectacular display of Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Great Indian Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, and Jerdon’s Babblers.
But Kaziranga is perhaps best known for being home to two-thirds of the world’s population of one-horned rhinos. This mighty animal has been brought back from the brink of extinction by the careful conservation efforts of the park and you may be lucky enough to spot them lumbering through the grasslands.
Rhino sightings are virtually guaranteed at Kaziranga & Pobitora - also taken by Pri!
Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary
Pobitora, on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, is a smaller biodiverse wildlife haven. From one-horned rhinos to more than 2,000 migratory birds, a visit to Pobitora offers a chance to spot some of the extensive wildlife of Assam. Alongside a good population of Asiatic wild water buffaloes and wild boars, Pobitora is also home to jungle cats, deer, civets, and rhesus macaques and more. This park is at the periphery of the main city of Guwahati.
Just another normal day aboard our Brahmaputra cruises!
Wildlife spotting from the boat
While the bird and animal spotting opportunities are exceptional in the national parks, you don’t have to move far from your sun lounger on the boat to spot riverine beauties such as Dalmatian Pelican, Blythe’s Kingfisher, Ferruginous Duck, Spot-billed Pelican, and waders like Greater Adjutant Stork and Black-necked stork. Otters and Gangetic dolphin can be seen from the boat as you sail on to your next destination, allowing you to experience the diverse beauty of the wildlife at every moment of your trip.
Of course the wildlife isn’t the only attraction on a river cruise along the Brahmaputra. Each of ABN’s itineraries offers a chance to explore the cultural, historic and religious wealth of a region that has seen influences from Southeast Asia, British rulers and tribal communities. Tea plantations dot the hillsides and banks of the river, the lush green dotted with the colourful clothes of the tea pickers plucking the ‘two leaves and a bud’, while stepping ashore offers a taste of rural life far removed from the more well-travelled paths of the country.
Cultural highlights of our Brahmaputra river cruises
You could spend an afternoon exploring the bustling village of Sualkuchi, where the clatter of looms hints at its place as the centre of Assamese silk production. From cocoon to spinning and hand-weaving, this is an opportunity to see the full journey that results in the beautiful mekhela chadars - a two-piece sari traditionally worn by Assamese women.
You might explore local tea gardens and become immersed in the weekly market of Uloni, taking part in lighthearted haggling or being introduced to intriguing fruit and vegetables you’re unlikely to find on supermarket shelves at home. Trips such as this offer a rare opportunity to witness daily life in the rural areas of this remote state and share a smile with villagers and market traders.
One of the highlights of a cruise on the Brahmaputra is a journey ashore on Majuli Island. This extraordinary island is a microcosm of Assamese culture, and a stronghold of the peaceful religion of neo-Vaishnavism. Initiated in the 15th century by the Assamese saint, Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva who had taken refuge on Majuli, many of the Satras or monasteries constructed by the saint remain to this day and showcase the colourful Assamese culture. A visit to Majuli offers a snapshot of life in this little-visited enclave with its unique way of life that includes dancing monks, colourful handmade masks and vibrant festivals.
Ahom Ruins and Hindu Temples
The upper reaches of the Brahmaputra bring you to a cultural melting pot where the 600 year rule of the Ahom kings has created a unique amalgamation of Indian and Southeast Asian influences. These influences are shown in the temples with their stupa-like profiles, and in the architecture of Sibsagar, the former capital of the Ahom dynasty.
Cruising along the Brahmaputra is a chance to absorb the layers of cultural and religious history that have left an indelible mark on Assam. From the 6th century Da Parbatia temple with its exquisitely carved portal to the mediaeval stone carvings of Cole Park, and from the site of Hindu pilgrimage, Aswaklanta temple to the erotic tantric carvings of Madan Kamdev, this is a region rich in cultural interest, alongside its diverse wildlife.
Brahmaputra or Ganges River Cruise?
If you’re choosing an Indian river cruise for your next adventure, both the Brahmaputra and Ganges offer a chance to explore remote temples, spot world-class wildlife, observe local life on the riverbanks, and travel through a vast expanse of historic and cultural influences that have made the region the place it is today. An Indian river cruise offers a rare opportunity to uncover a world away from the everyday, where the journey is part of the experience, and remote areas are within easy reach.
If you’d like to discuss the cruises and different itineraries, get in touch with our team. We’d be delighted to guide you through the various options and find the perfect route for you.