Now streaming in India: The world’s longest river cruise

Updated on Sep 17, 2022 04:57 PM IST

The Ganga Vilas will float 4,000 km, from Varanasi across to West Bengal, the Sundarbans, then Dhaka in Bangladesh, sailing into the Brahmaputra and Assam before returning to Varanasi.

The lounge and deck of the 18-cabin Ganga Vilas. ‘Our mission is to regenerate our riparian routes, forgotten since the advent of the railways and thereafter the roadways,’ says Raj Singh, chairman of Antara cruises. PREMIUM
The lounge and deck of the 18-cabin Ganga Vilas. ‘Our mission is to regenerate our riparian routes, forgotten since the advent of the railways and thereafter the roadways,’ says Raj Singh, chairman of Antara cruises.

As milestones go, this one sets a high watermark. In December, an Indian company is set to launch the world’s longest river cruise, a 51-day voyage down the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. The 18-cabin Ganga Vilas will float 4,000 km, from Varanasi down through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and into the Sundarbans. Then the riverboat steers off to Dhaka and Jamuna in Bangladesh, returning to India at Dhubri and entering the Brahmaputra for the Assam leg of the journey, before returning to Varanasi along the same route. Along the way are ancient cultural hotspots, Unesco world heritage sites, mangroves, and areas of wild, natural beauty.

It’s a trip five years in the making, says Raj Singh, chairman of Antara Luxury River Cruises, which built the Ganga Vilas and has operated luxury river cruises on the Ganga since 2009. “To do this journey you just have to know the rivers very well – their capacities, the amount of water and the character of each river.”

The river is only half the challenge. The other half, Singh says, is “to have the right kind of ship which can sail through these long journeys at varying water levels”.

The Ganga Vilas is purpose-built. “It will be able to sail in as little as 5 ft of water,” Singh says. The vessel’s height has been capped at 8 metres, so it can fit beneath low-hanging bridges such as the Howrah during high tide. “The only way we won’t be able to sail is if our rivers dry up.”

River cruises in India are luxurious and ambitious. They typically run from three to 14 days, with prime locations being West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. The target customers are generally international tourists with time, money and an interest in a coastline-view of India. The Ganga Vilas trip, for instance, costs 50,000 per person per night, a total of about 25.5 lakh if one opts for the entire 51 days.

But this new route comes at a time when river cruises worldwide are in trouble. Rivers have rapidly changed character amid the climate crisis. Some of Europe’s mightiest, including the Loire, Danube and Rhine, have shrunk, some reduced to a trickle in places, forcing many cruise-management companies and passengers into last-minute itinerary changes, long bus rides, missed excursions.

“What has changed here,” Singh says, “is the flow of water because of changing monsoon patterns.” So what is the aim with this service? “Our mission is to regenerate our riparian routes, forgotten since the advent of the railways and thereafter the roadways,” Singh says. A trip down two rivers, then, and also back in time.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022
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