On the river, with the flow

River tourism is on the rise in India...

Cruising through the Sunderbans

River journeys can be exciting, thrilling, amazing, and sometimes, even adventurous.  Each experience is unique, and the sights, ample. Cruising along rivers and backwaters, you’ll enjoy a window to local life, and still see the traditional way of life practised in some isolated villages. If you are a budget traveller scouting for some options, here are some incredible river journeys across the country to choose from:  

Backwater odyssey on the Pamba

The eight-hour double-decker boat from Kollam, which cruises along the famed waterways of the Pamba river covering the backwaters of the districts of Kollam and Alappuzha (Alleppey), is a memorable experience. From the upper deck, we had uninterrupted views of the majestic cantilevered Chinese fishing nets on the Ashtamudi Lake, soaked in stunning natural beauty, and peered into the simple lives of the villagers going about their daily mundane chores. The boat stopped for a midday lunch and a brief afternoon chai stop at a wayside chaikada (tea stall).  

As the boat chugged through intricate canals at a sedate pace, we saw tiled-roof houses, tiny waterfront temples, churches, textile shops peddling lungis and nighties along the banks. Other common sights along the backwaters are waterside activities like coir-making, copra drying, fishing, rice farming on reclaimed lands below sea level, and artisans fabricating kettuvelloms at the traditional houseboat building yard. We cruised past Mata Amritanandamayi’s ashram, on the water’s edge at Amritapuri, the Kumarakodi Temple, and the black granite Karumadikkuttan Buddha statue at Karumadi.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

The picturesque Kuttanad region, with its stretching paddy fields, heralded a welcome into Alleppey district. What intrigued us was the coir village of Thrikkunnapuzha, where we discovered a locking system below the bridge to separate the freshwater from saltwater. The trip culminated at Punnamada, the hub of houseboats with a spectacular view of the sunset in Vembanad Lake.

Adrift in the Konaseema backwaters

Drifting down the Konaseema backwaters of River Godavari in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh is an amazing experience. In local parlance, ‘Konaseema’ means ‘land’s corner’. The delta, a veritable feast with interesting sights from natural beauty to man-made ones, is Andhra’s best-kept secret.

Mythology, history, religion, scenic beauty, riverside temples — there’s plenty to unravel in these silent emerald waters. As the boat floats down the mighty River Godavari, past lush green paddy fields, coconut groves, mangroves and hamlets, the scenic charm of the magical green land unfolds. Other interesting sights are waterside activities like fishing, shrimp fisheries and rice farming. The delicious cuisine of the Godavari belt complements the scenic beauty of the place.

Drifting down the Konaseema backwaters of River Godavari
Drifting down the Konaseema backwaters of River Godavari

En route, the boat cruises past the Coringa Mangroves lining the banks of Tulya and Athreya, the tributaries of River Godavari, which is acclaimed to be the largest in the country next to the Sunderbans. Lazing in the boat, we watched fish darting in the water and the fascinating birdlife of Konaseema. Antarvedi, where Vashista, one of the tributaries of Godavari, meets the Bay of Bengal, is a customary stop on the river cruise. The place of confluence is called ‘Sapta Sagara Sangam Pradesam’. For beach buffs, there is the Antarvedi Beach, which is one of the best beaches along Andhra’s incredible coastline.

River sojourn to Majuli Island

From Nimmati Ghat Point, a promontory overlooking the mighty Brahmaputra, we boarded the huge ferry bound for Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited riverine island. Bound by the Brahmaputra in the south and the Subansiri and Kherketia in the north, the 886-sq-km island in Assam is remote and isolated, distinctly separated from the mainland. The river sojourn to Majuli with a three-hour ferry ride along the Brahmaputra is an adventurous one carrying aboard a motley crowd of passengers besides animals and vehicles, 
including a tractor and a dredging machine! River dolphins flipping out of the water added to our delight. We soaked in the scenery and watched the regular passengers sitting atop the ferry playing cards and indulging in local gossip. Running thrice a day, up and down from the mainland, it is Majuli’s only link with the outside world, its lifeline.

As intriguing as the biological diversity of this beguiling island is the vibrant culture and colourful tapestry of the Assamese past carefully preserved in the 22 satras (monasteries) dotting the island. A ramble through the winding lanes of the villages gave us an insight into the fascinating tribal lifestyle of Mishings, and a taste of the rich culture and traditions associated with Vaishnavism. We stopped by a Mishing settlement for a customary cup of apong (rice beer), watched villagers fashion symmetrical clay pots using only their hands, and women weave their colourful, distinctive sarong-like wraps.

Through the mangroves in the Sunderbans

Cruising through the largest estuarine delta in the world along the mangrove-lined backwaters of Sunderbans, and communing with nature at its rawest level is a thrilling experience. Though tiger sightings are rare, one can appreciate the immense variety of avian, reptilian and aquatic life, and also discover a rich tribal folklore, if one ventures further. Sonakhali, the starting point of the sojourn, is the gateway to Sunderbans, a swampy delta of the two mighty Indian rivers, Brahmaputra and Ganges.  With an intricate pattern of creeks and narrow channels, open muddy beaches and a densely canopied forest, Sunderbans is the only mangrove tigerland on the globe, harbouring the single largest population of royal Bengal tigers anywhere.

As our launch sped down the Malta river, we passed by several hamlets where women were wading in the shallows trying to net baby shrimp. We had an endless view of the littoral forests where trees jostle for space. The highlight of the tour was when the launch entered the area where five rivers meet the Bay of Bengal. This is a sight one can never forget! As the launch chugs forth, one experiences a sense of timelessness. We stopped by the Bonobibi Shrine and the Sajhnakhali Wildlife Sanctuary, walked across a wire-fenced pathway to see a mangrove forest at close quarters, then clambered up a watchtower and waited in anticipation of sighting a tiger. The tigers here are rarely seen but always sensed.

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On the river, with the flow

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