India’s Brahmaputra river cruises come of age

Boat trips showcase Assam’s rich aquatic life and communities living on banks of river in big boost to tourism.

These cruises are often adventurous tours to inaccessible areas along the valley [Anis Ul Haque/Al Jazeera]

Assam, India – Brian and Vereen Marcer from Norwich, UK, wanted to do something special for their ruby wedding anniversary so they chose to take this once in a lifetime cruise on the river Brahmaputra in India’s northeastern state of Assam. And they have no regrets.

“We enjoyed it all – the birds and mammals, the temples and culture, the wonderful meals,” Brian said. “The most exciting were the 96 sightings of birds in 10 nights onboard.”

A decade ago, they would not have thought of Assam on their travel itinerary.

Years of violent insurgency which Assam faced had left its scars on its social and economic life leading to a slow growth of infrastructure and a communication network. This, coupled with a fear factor, deterred many foreign tourists from visiting this part of the country.

Most of the tourism in Assam is nature-based and a cruise along the Brahmaputra has a tremendous potential to attract tourists from all over the world.

Among all the rivers in the world, the mighty Brahmaputra, one of Asia’s major rivers at 2,900km long, continues to remain an enigma for many. Singer Bhupen Hazarika, a local icon, once wrote the song “Mahabahu Brahmaputra, Mahamilanar Tirtha” (The Brahmaputra with its huge arms is a pilgrim spot for a great gathering).

With its origin in the Angsi Glacier, on the northern side of the Himalayas in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo River, it flows through the Assam valley as Brahmaputra and south through Bangladesh as the Jamuna before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

Compared to the Ganges, it is one of the least talked about Indian rivers though it drains through the entire eastern Himalayas. Apart from being considered a sacred river, the Ganges has also been important historically, with many former provincial or imperial capitals (such as Pataliputra, Kannauj, Allahabad, Murshidabad and Kolkata) located on its banks.

“There is some documentation of its [Brahmaputra] rich biodiversity but not collated in an organised form,” Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist in Assam, said.

Indeed, very little is known about the entire Brahmaputra valley which hosts a number of endemic species such as the Ganges river dolphin.

Regular erosion and the unstable river banks is not only affecting the people living by the river, but also the rich bio-diversity of the protected areas such as the world-famous Kaziranga National Park, Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Park and Manas National Park.

Recently, several organisations opposed the state-run Oil India Limited’s bid to carry out seismic survey on the Brahmaputra river bed to search for oil and natural gas, fearing that this would affect the area’s ecosystem by endangering aquatic life.

Adventure cruising

Ashish Phookan, the managing director of Assam Bengal Navigation Company, and his team have been working relentlessly for the past 10 years on a novel bid to introduce this mighty river to the outside world. When Phookan, a tea planter, launched this cruise with his British partner Andrew Brock on the river Brahmaputra and the Ganges in 2003, he knew he was taking a big risk.

They have come a long way since. The Brahmaputra cruise has been ranked sixth most adventurous among global cruises including those in the Amazon, the Antarctica, the North Pole, Australia and Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

“It’s a big achievement for us,” Phookan told Al Jazeera. “It’s a big honour that we have been listed among the best [adventurous] cruises in the world.”

Following in their footsteps is Brahmaputra Cruise Private Limited (BCPL). Today, BCPL, with its fleet of vessels is dedicated to share its vast knowledge of the river with the world. Another venture, MV Mahabaahu Brahmaputra river cruise has also been a big draw among tourists.

These cruises are often adventurous, taking people to inaccessible areas, even to places without electricity.

“This is an India very few people have seen,” Nirmalya Choudhury, manager of operations at Assam Bengal Navigation Company, said. “More importantly, the pleasure of meeting local people who welcome foreigners with an open smile cannot be explained in words.”

Choudhury said that they also try to visit cooperatives that are run by women who produce handloom and handicraft goods. 

“We have regular sessions with them almost every evening where we talk about the course of the river and the life around the entire Brahmaputra river system,” he said.

“We talk about religion, culture, migration patterns, mythological aspects and even the economy revolving around the river. We make sure that they can go back and talk knowledgeably about the Brahmaputra and life around it.”

Dhruba Hazarika of Assam’s tourism department, said that river tourism was “one of the five pillars of tourism” in the state.

“The others are golf, rural, wildlife and religious tourism. The government can only facilitate and the onus is on the private operators. An international-class river cruise on the Brahmaputra will be the major thrust of tourism promotion in Assam in the coming years.”

The Brahmaputra cruises also include a visit to a riverside village where the locals will be as fascinated by the visitors. Where they can’t moor alongside, they take a boat to explore temples, towns, and tea gardens; sometimes rising early to go on tiger-tracking jeep safaris or rhino-spotting elephant safaris.

“Not only the planned excursions, but also all the little unexpected extras – walking on the sand banks, finding turtle eggs, visiting a village school, lunch in a lovely family house and garden at a tea estate – everything was breathtaking and new,” Peter Stonestreet from Hampshire, UK, who took this trip with his wife, said.

Anyone who has travelled by train or plane through India, or who has been driven on Indian roads, will be amazed to learn that there is actually a way to travel through the country in total serenity and comfort. It is, in fact, possible to cruise for some 2,816km on the rivers and inland waterways of India.

Brigitt Pajarole of Connecticut, US, sums up the journey on the Brahmaputra: “Loved the slow pace without any connection with the rest of the world.”

Follow Teresa Rehman on Twitter: @teresa_rehman