One of the world’s most sacred rivers, the Ganges weaves its way through centuries of history, religion and traditions that lie at the heart of this vibrant and diverse nation. With Mughal ruins, colonial remains, artisan villages, Buddhist sites, Hindu temples and once-in-a-lifetime introductions to life away from the more well-trodden paths, a Ganges River cruise delivers cultural riches galore.
This variety would be near impossible to cover by road, which is why travelling by boat offers comfort, ease, and access to sights and experiences out of reach for those travelling by car. Read on to discover one of the world’s most culturally enriching cruises.
What is the importance of the Ganges River?
One of the most famous rivers in the world, the Ganges flows from the Western Himalayas in Uttarakhand, through the plains of Northern India before ending its journey at the Bay of Bengal. As it winds its way through the country it feeds the fields of the Ganges Basin, creating fertile soil and irrigation for crops including rice, sugarcane, lentils, chillies, mustard, and jute.
This fertility has drawn people to the banks of the Ganges for millenia, creating thriving communities that have in turn created cultural and religious landmarks, from ancient forts and palaces to UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The river is personified as the Goddess Ganga, with Hindus believing her waters can wash away all sins and aid in the attainment of moksha (salvation). For this reason, pilgrimage sites such as Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh draw visitors from around the world, especially during auspicious occasions and festivals.
Travelling by boat invites you into these communities and experiences, where traditional customs and ways of life have been preserved for centuries. It allows access to the more remote architectural and religious wonders, dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In essence, there’s no better way to explore the historic and cultural riches that line the Ganges than by travelling along the mighty river itself.
Travel through history
Ranging from 3 to 15 nights, our Bengal Despatch cruises offer the opportunity to dip your toe into the historic and cultural treasures of the Ganges, or dive in and travel through many diverse regions. Regardless of the length of cruise, history buffs can find something to delight on every sailing. With just three nights onboard the Bengal Despatch 8: Bengal Memories, you’ll step back in time to discover the old Dutch settlement of Chinsura, the Imambara at Hooghly, and the extraordinary terracotta Shiva temple of Kalna with its concentric rings made up of 108 shrinelets. Sailing back downstream you reach Chandernagore, a former French colonial town with an 18th century church and Dupleix Palace. In just a few days, this stretch of the Lower Ganges (Hooghly) unpeels layers of history, from ancient Hindu temples to vestiges of colonial rule.
If time permits, a longer journey along the Ganges opens up a cornucopia of historic marvels. Sailing from West Bengal through Bihar over the course of a week offers a chance to take in the large Mughal fort at Monghyr and explore the stories held by the graves of the East India Company cemetery. In just one day you can travel through 12,000 years of history, from the 6th century Hindu carvings at Bateshwar and the nearby ruins of an 8th century Buddhist stupa, to an elegant 18th century mansion.
During the summer months, the opportunity to travel further along the Ganges offers access to sites that seem to jump, one after the other, from the pages of a history book. From Buxar - famous for the battle of 1764 which laid the foundations of the British Raj - to Sarnath and the Deer Park where the Buddha preached his first sermon, this section of the Ganges is awash with pivotal moments from history.
Cultural highlights of our Ganges river cruises
Of course, the historic jewel in the crown of this route is the oldest inhabited city in the world, Varanasi. Described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together, Varanasi abounds with ancient artefacts, rambling lanes, fervent pilgrims and architecturally astonishing monuments. Wandering along the ghats is akin to stepping into another world; one where religious traditions play out on the river’s edge and tiny candles float out on the water, carrying the hopes and prayers of the worshippers.
It’s a colourful, at times chaotic, cacophony of life in all its guises. From the morning aarti on the Assi Ghat to the evening aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat, the city pulses with an energy that’s entirely unique.
While Varanasi is, without doubt, the best-known religious site on the Ganges, it’s by no means alone in its religious significance. After all, the Ganges is the most sacred river in the world and its religious landmarks are many. The diverse communities attracted to the area, either for the sacred nature of the river or the fertility of the landscape, have given rise to a cultural and religious variety that’s unlike any other.
Just one stretch of the river, from Farakka to Patna, travels past Gaur, the Muslim capital of Eastern India from the 14th to the 16th century, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Nalanda with its Buddhist monastery, the marbled Pawapuri Jain temple, the Sikh Gurdwara at Patna and the 6th century Hindu carvings of Bateshwar. It’s this religious wealth that makes the Ganges one of the world's most culturally enriching cruises.
Experience cultural traditions in artisan villages
The cultural riches of the Ganges aren’t solely found in the monuments and temples of the cities and towns, but in the daily lives and traditions of local people. Travelling by boat is a chance to experience these traditions in off-the-beaten-track settings, beyond the reach of the well-trodden roads.
Visit the silk weaving artisans of Bhagalpur, a centre of silk production, to discover ancient techniques passed down through generations. Meet the villagers of Matiari, known for their brass-working, and let them introduce you to the traditional process of beating out brass water pots. Stroll through an idyllic farming landscape to visit the miniature terracotta temples of Baranagar. Every day on the Ganges holds the promise of encounters with local people and communities who offer a glimpse into the cultural heritage and traditions of the area.
Cultural enrichment on the river
While stepping ashore is your passport to another time, another world, another life, the cultural traditions that play out on the banks of the river are continued onboard. From the Kama Ayurveda toiletries to the local knowledge of the guides, every element of the onboard experience enhances the experience of the river. The ships’ decor showcases the work of local artisans, while the open sundeck allows expansive views of the passing landscapes. A world away from a generic, international hotel, your accommodation is an integral part of the journey that delivers a culturally rich experience, whether ashore or onboard.
A slower, more conscious and considered mode of travel, sailing along the Ganges is the perfect way to see and experience its life, traditions, history and religious sites. Explore the cruise itinerary options for our Ganges cruises here or get in touch to find the perfect cruise for you.