Our convoy of taxis stopped at the top of the muddy river- bank, a few steps from a creaking bamboo gangway’ that connected us with our home for the week, the 46-passenger Mahabaahu. Not sleek like Europe’s riverboats, this one was appealingly quirky with its stubby funnel and red cargo davits poking out from the stem, and a hull cluttered with a necklace of tires. I loved it already.
The 2011-built boat, owned and operated by India-based Adventure Resorts & Cruises, a subsidiary of tour operator Far Horizon Tours, was moored below us along the Brahmaputra River, one of India’s most important inland waterways. Named after the son of Lord Brahma, it is India’s only “male” river, and the Mahabaahu is one of only a few tourist riverboats sailing on it.
Our upstream journey began in Guwahati and ended 232 miles later in Jorhat, both in the state of Assam. Neither city is particularly attractive, but what’s in between them is magical.
From its glacial source in southwestern Tibet on the slopes of the Himalayan Mountains, the 1,800-mile-long river surges east, cutting through deep canyons and gorges before making a sharp U-tum and entering the northeastern corner of India. It continues into the Assam Valley en route to the confluence with the Ganges River and empties into Bangladesh’s flood-prone Bay of Bengal. In Assam the Brahmaputra widens greatly- some five miles at its broadest-and redistributes an enormous amount of sediment collected along the way, resulting in a river system braided with islands of sand.
Before we got to those serene expanses of sand, we’d get a dose of India in overdrive. Our first excursion, en route to the Mahabaahu from the airport, was a visit to the 17th century Kamakhya Temple complex, with its traditional beehive domes, practice of animal sacrifice and association with the teachings of sacred sex. We removed our shoes as required at the entrance and tried not to think about what we might step in as we waded through the throngs behind Venky, our guide and naturalist for the week. Dedicated to the goddess of desire, Kamakhya Devi, and her various avatars, stone reliefs of female deities along the outside of the temples, were smeared in blood-red paint and kumkuma powder to symbolize fertility.
At this Hindu pilgrimage site, important especially for newlyweds wanting to start families, we watched devotees swipe bits of the red powder from the statues’ groins and apply a dash to their own foreheads for good luck. Stepping around nosy goats spared from the knife, we walked around the bustling compound, fascinated by the bare-chested sadhus (holy men) with their dreadlocks and wild eyes.