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Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £3999 per person

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  Places Visited: Kolkata, Barrackpore, Kalna, Matiari, Murshidabad, Baranagar, Ajimganj, Mayapur, Chandernagore, Rajbari Bawli

The Pandaw Cruise Company is an old friend of TransIndus, and we absolutely love their ground-breaking cruise along the Lower Ganges in West Bengal. Beginning in the region’s capital, Kolkata (Calcutta), it traces a winding course north along the Hooghly (a tributary of the Ganges) via a string of largely forgotten colonial ports and market towns. Rather than famous landmarks, the itinerary emphasizes authentic rural life, yielding a vivid sense of the varied and fascinating commerce, industries and culture revolving around what was once a thriving trade artery.

Originally a sailing the thousand miles distance from Kolkata to Varanasi, the itinerary now only sails on the great Mother Ganga’s upper stretches as far as Patna, from where guests will travel overland to Gaya for a night and then on to Varanasi for two nights for a complete experience of this historical region.

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Suggested itinerary

Day 1

Fly from the UK to Kolkata via Mumbai or the Middle East

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Day 2

On arrival in the morning, you'll be met by your TransIndus driver and guide and escorted to your hotel for a two-night stay. Spend the remainder of the day recovering from the journey, perhaps venturing out to the College Street Coffee House as an acclimatiser

One of our favourite places to get accustomed to the city's distinctive ambience is the College Street Coffee House on Bankim Chatterjee Street - a popular hangout for Bengali intellectuals and artists. Grab a table under one of the paddle fans, order a dosa and masala chai from one of the turbaned waiters and you'll soon be drawn in to the local 'adda', or chit-chat.

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Day 3

A full day's sightseeing today begins at the Victoria Memorial, the city's most iconic building, and continues with the Indian Museum, New Market, and famous South Park Street Cemetery.

Kolkata, or 'Calcutta' as it was known prior to 2001, is the capital of West Bengal state, and India's third largest city. The former East India Company trading post preserves much of its colonial architecture, from the dilapidated mansions of Chowringhee to the grandiloquent Victoria Memorial, whose white marble domes soar above the banks of the Hooghly River.

A particularly atmospheric throwback to British times is the collection of antiquities, art and botanical specimens housed in the Indian Museum. Most of the items on display here were accumulated in the late-18th and early-19th centuries when high-ranking East India Company officials first began taking an interest in the local history and culture. Highlights include stupa fragments from the Ashokean era of the 2nd century BC and remnants of the Bronze Age ‘Indus Valley Civilization’, including rare terracotta seals.

One of the founders of the museum, the famous philologist and Sanskrit scholar William Jones, is buried in the South Park Street Cemetery, which you’ll visit next. Dating from the 1760s, the burial ground holds some of the oldest European graves in India, many in grand Gothic or Indo-Sarcenic style and covered in moss and creepers. The air of dereliction only adds to the poignancy of the tombs.

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Day 4

Today starts with an early morning visit to the wholesale flower market at Mallick Ghat, followed by a walk over nearby Howrah Bridge for a wonderful view across the city. Afterwards, return to the hotel to meet with the crew of the RV Kalaw Pandaw, then transfer to the awaiting cruiser. You’ll set sail at noon, passing the old Danish colony of Serampore and pausing at Barrackpore for a stroll through the old cantonment before your first evening aboard.

Kolkata is a city where everyday sights often prove the most arresting, and this is particularly true of the flower market at Mallick Ghat, where wholesale vendors gather shortly after first light, piling up huge heaps of marigolds, roses and jasmine blooms on the floor of a large covered market. By the time you’ve finished exploring the bazaar, Howrah Bridge will be jammed with rush hour traffic – a quintessentially Indian river of rickshaws, over-crowded buses, trucks and pedestrians.

One of four spanning the Hooghly at Kolkata, the bridge was built just before Partition during World War II and is among the busiest in the world!

Barrackpore, 15 miles north of Kolkata and the first place you’ll pause for sightseeing on your cruise, served as the region’s principal military base in colonial times. In the Indian imagination it is most closely associated with the sepoy Mangal Pandey, who attacked officers of his regiment in 1857, sparking what would become the Mutiny or ‘First War of Independence’.

Reviled as a murderous traitor by the British, Pandey is today something of a folk hero in India and the subject of a hit movie starting one of the country’s top film stars, Aamir Khan. The town retains a crop of largely forgotten colonial monuments, including the weed-choked former residence of India’s Governor Generals, once regarded as a ‘Pearl of Empire’ but now smothered in jungle.

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Day 5

After breakfast, the RV Kalaw will sail upstream to the country town of Kalna, 81km/50miles north of Kolkata, where you’ll disembark for a cycle-rickshaw tour of the local terracotta temples, which rank among the most ornate in Bengal.

Kalna is more popularly known as ‘Ambika Kalna’, after a popular local deity, ‘Maa Ambika’, a manifestation of Kali. Its most famous monument is an early-19th-century temple holding 108 Shiva shrines, arrayed in two concentric circles.

Nearby stands the richly ornamented Rajbari Palace complex, where you’ll see some of the finest surviving terracotta sculpture in the region, including many fascinating vignettes from daily life 150 years ago.

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Day 6

Today’s shore visit will be to the brass-working village of Matiari, followed by a cruise upriver to Murshidabad via the battlefield at Plassey, 150km/93 miles north of Kolkata, where Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757. The RV Kalaw will moor close to Murshidabad for the night.

Brass plates are still in demand in West Bengal for carrying religious offerings, and in Matiari you can see them being made by hand in one of only two workshops where this craft survives. The highly polished plates are decorated with lovely floral motifs, created by hours of careful hammering.

Plassey became famous in the annals of empire after Clive’s unexpected defeat of the Nawab of Bengal. In one fateful blow, the East India Company, against formidable odds, found itself in possession of untold riches – the de facto ruler of a vast swath of northern India. The victory was critical to the company’s defeat of its French rivals and ultimately to the establishment of British rule.

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Day 7

A memorable day’s sightseeing today begins with a visit to the tomb of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the local ruler Clive defeated at Plassey, followed by the great Hazarduari Palace at Murshidabad and its neighbouring monuments.

A peaceful, Mughal-style garden encloses the tombs of Siraj-ud-Daulah - the last independent Nawab of Bengal - and his family. Executed at the behest of the British East India Company in the wake of the Battle of Plassey, the Nawab was buried at this inconspicuous spot on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, where his mausoleum was tended by his widow, Luft-un-Nisa, until her death in 1786. It is said that 108 varieties of roses bloomed here.

Dominating the waterfront a short way further upriver is the magnificent Hazarduari Palace, a vast Neoclassical pile built by the Scottish architect and military engineer, Duncan Macleod, for the local Nawab in 1837. Displayed in some of its 114 rooms is an extensive collection of paintings, porcelain, weapons, costumes, palanquins, Persian manuscripts and votive objects – all evocative of the wealth generated by trade in the region during the 19th century.

Hazaduari formed part of an older complex comprising the splendid Katra Mosque and Nashipara Palace, which you’ll visit before driving out to see one final royal residence, the Katgola Palace, where the Bengali general, Mir Jafar, plotted with the British before betraying his ruler at Plassey. It’s another grand mansion in high Neoclassical style, complete with a soaring, pillared façade.


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Day 8

The RV Kalaw continues its cruise north up the Bagirathi today as the river twists between banks lined with mustard fields and mango orchards. Enjoy a morning walk to the sleepy village of Baranagar to visit four gorgeous miniature terracotta temples. Later, you’ll pause to see the Jain shrines and Bari Kothi palace at Azimganj.

Baranagar was originally founded by the Portuguese as a trading post on the Lower Ganges in the 17th century; it later became an important anchorage for the Dutch before being ceded to the British in 1795.

India’s main centre for the production of jute ‘gunny sacks’ during the colonial era, the village is today best known for its quartet of pretty Bengali-style temples. All are adorned with intricate brickwork and sculpture illustrating scenes from Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Azimganj is another town on the Bagirathi that thrived on the back of colonial trade in silk, muslin and ivory. Profits from this water-borne commerce funded the construction of Bari Kothi palace, a wonderfully ostentatious hotpotch of European and Indian styles overlooking the river.

Among the communities drawn to the area from other regions by its wealth in previous centuries were Jains from Western India. They made their fortune mainly as bankers, celebrating their success with the inauguration of no less than fourteen temples in the town, designed in a quirky hybrid of Mughal, Bengali and British styles. 


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Day 9

On the ninth day of your trip you’ll visit Mayapur, headquarters of the ‘Hare Krishna’ ISKCON movement, where donations by Alfred B. Ford, great grandson of car maker Henry Ford, have part-funded the creation of a new shrine comparable in size to the Vatican!

The great shrine, or ‘Samadhi’, to the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, Srila Prabhupada Pushpa, dominates the town of Mayapur on the banks of the Bagiratha tributary of the Ganges, where the spiritual teacher was born in 1896. During his lifetime, the Swami promulgated with great success his brand of Vaishnava theology in the West.

Mayapur is today the movement’s spiritual nerve centre and attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Principal focus of their worship is the extraordinary Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, a marble edifice capped with a massive blue and gold dome, part paid for by a $25-million donation by Alfred B Ford.

The structure is envisaged as the first part of a Disney-style campus intended to celebrate the life of Swami Prabhupada.

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Day 10

The penultimate day of your cruise features a visit to the former French colony of Chandernagore, followed by tour of the splendid Hooghly Imambara at Chinsura. Afterwards, the RV Kalaw will sail through the night to a mooring near Kalna.

Chandernagore’s  heyday was in the 1750s under the flamboyant governorship of François Dupleix, whose business flair and near Napoleonic ambition transformed the hitherto scruffy trading post into fully fledged “haut bourgeois” town. Dupleix’s goal was to establish a French empire in India, with himself as viceroy and his half-Portuguese, half-Indian wife, Johanna Begum, as Vicerenne.

He nearly succeeded. In the end, however, Governor Dupleix underestimated the guile and courage of his British adversary, Robert Clive, and following a string of disastrous defeats on the battlefield was recalled to Paris in disgrace. The Neoclassical mansion he built in Chandernagore still stands on the banks of the Hooghly, where it now houses a small collection of French-era antiques.

Chinsura, your second landfall of the day, was the focus of Dutch East India Company trade in the 18th century before its forces were routed by Clive’s under Colonel Forde in 1759. The city’s most noteworthy monument, however, was erected a century later by a Shia Muslim philanthropist. Standing proud on the right bank of the river, the Hooghly Imamabara is a large congregation hall famed for the ornate Koranic inscriptions on its walls.

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Day 11

After breakfast, bid farewell to the Kalaw’s crew and transfer to the beautiful heritage property of Rajbari Bawari for a two-night stay deep in the countryside south of Kolkata.

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Day 12

Spend your final full day on Indian soil relaxing by the hotel pool, or exploring the surrounding area with your hosts.

A lovely pool awaits in the garden at Rajbari, should you wish to while away a day soaking up the heat and tropical atmosphere of this tranquil spot on the Hooghly. But for those looking to experience something of the local culture, the hotel offers a smorgasbord of tempting experiences, from guided village walks to cookery classes.

However you fill your time, be sure not to miss the sunset boat ride, for which the hotel recruits a troupe of ‘Baul’ folk musicians to regale guests – an unforgettable conclusion to this river-dominated holiday!

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Day 13

Shortly after breakfast, transfer to the airport for your return flight to the UK

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Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £3999 per person

What's included

  • International flights from London
  • 11 nights accommodation
  • All internal transportation and transfers
  • English-speaking guides
  • Breakfast daily
  • Full board for 7 nights on the MV Kalaw Pandaw
  • Entrance fees to sites and monuments listed in the tour itinerary

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