You know you are on holiday when the effort of rolling over in bed to reach out and flick the curtain aside feels like hard work. I do it, anyway. Some light would give my brain a wake-up call --- 6am is practically midnight for me, though it is daybreak in northeastern India.
A vast swathe of mist greets me. It is a chiaroscuro scene of darker shadows here and there amid a mass of greyness getting gradually lighter. The sun has risen above the Brahmaputra, but its rays cannot make much headway through the winter fog. Even this little light serves as motivation to wiggle the toes under the duvet and coax them to hit the floor.
I am cocooned inside a luxury boat. Muffled sounds from the cabin across the corridor indicate that a hardier breed of traveller is up and about, preparing for yoga in the great outdoors. Our river vessel -- better to call it a ship -- has dropped anchor by a deserted sand bank, and we were told the night before that pranayam on the sand would precede breakfast. Not for me, thank you.
My cabin is one of the two suites located at the prow of MV Mahabaahu, and I intend to commune with nature from inside. The suite comes with a cosy sitting area and a coffee station, all made nicer by a sweeping view of the waters. It is a mystic river, the progeny of none less than the creator of the world, its birth, mid-life and end taking it through Tibet, India, Bangladesh. Even in the dawn gloom of late December, the Brahmaputra holds one spellbound.
It is hard to tell, from where we are, how wide the river is at this stage, not far from the boarding point of Neemati Ghat, near Jorhat town in Assam. 'As an ocean,' is how a friend had described it to me. Spanning 10 kilometres in places, it does seem endless. Placid in this season, the water comes roaring at the shores in the monsoon, washing away settlements. This intense annual activity creates numerous sand banks, some barren, some fertile enough to support little agrarian communities of river nomads until the next flood. During the ship's passage down the Brahmaputra, which is one of the finest examples of a 'braided' river, a traveller sees many of these makeshift worlds, their transience recalling the rise and fall of so many river-fed civilisations.
As I watch from my cabin, small fishing boats appear in the distance and are soon swallowed up by the mist. It is a wrench to leave this peaceful scene, but today's excursion is to Majuli, the largest river island in the world, and we want to get there early. A quick shower -- the well-equipped bathrooms are wonderfully fuss-free, a blessing when time is tight -- and I am ready for breakfast. The buffet is rather lavish, it is unforgivable to peck at the food in a hurry.
Four people at my table display the glow of taking fresh-air exercise at a place where the air really has oxygen. Two others troop in late from their rooms, looking perky nonetheless.
It has been a day-and-a-half on the boat, and we are a jolly little club already. I arrived with an Australian couple the day before, taking a car from Dibrugarh airport to Neemati Ghat. The vehicle was stalled often by typical Indian scenes -- a lumbering bus disgorging passengers in the middle of the road, a vegetable market taking up half the width of the highway cattle, ambling at a relaxed pace. Though the interruptions added about two hours to the journey, with a luxury cruise to look forward to, these were more amusing than annoying.
A tea garden kept us company from the time the car left Jorhat town, running parallel to the road, blocked from view now and then, catching up again, playing hide-and-seek for an hour. It was my first glimpse of Assam tea in many years.
Life here has not been sucked up into the vortex of easy money and shopping malls. The clusters of rural homes by the highway had a look of modest prosperity about them. On some stretches, rows of neat, little English-style cottages stood painted in pastel shades, two wings flanking the main entrance, an architectural influence from British rule.
Shortly after sunset, the vehicle left the highway and turned into a dirt track. Bouncing us gently up and down for about a kilometre, it stopped at last. Shadowy figures hidden behind torchlight beams approached us. This was the welcome team from the Mahabaahu. One of the men shovelled the sand into the shape of makeshift steps, helping us down the slope. Up ahead, the ship radiated light like a horizontal Christmas tree.
Stepping over the deck threshold into the vast dining room, we were in a different world. The décor in white and cream spelled luxury without any overwhelming details. This boat was a beauty, by all appearances brand new. A nice home to have for a week. A scrub in our cabins and a tour of the ship later, we were seated in a semi-circle in the dining room, for the cultural evening that would be our introduction to Assam.
At a signal from the cruise director, four teenage boys in local costume stepped forward with their percussion instruments, dhol and nagara, and the Assamese version of a horn, pepa. Their English was halting, their manner shy, but once they warmed up, their energy was like a tidal wave washing over the guests -- these schoolboys were consummate artistes. A dance performance followed, featuring young girls, representing the Seven Sisters, the seven states of northeastern India.
Afterwards, the dinner table discussion centred around what it might be like to see the boat sail in the first light. No can do, the guests were told the fog would not allow the boat to lift anchor that soon, and besides, we were to visit the Ahom monuments in Sivasagar, wrapping up the excursion with lunch at the Haroocharai tea estate.
The Ahom kings reigned in this part of the world for six centuries from CE 1261, having migrated from the present-day Yunnan province of China. Some of their marvellous structures survive in a well-conserved state, the red bricks bonded with rice paste and egg white, an ancient builder's glue. Sivasagar, the first seat of Ahom rule, has the stunning Rang Ghar, a two-storeyed, richly designed pleasure palace where the royals watched buffalo fights and such like. Dragons carved on its walls speak of an exotic dynasty. In comparison, the multi-storeyed Talatal Ghar is a spacious yet unassuming residential structure, whose lower levels sank into the ground over the ages.
Our last stop was at Siva Dol, a massive temple humming with the buzz of devotees praying, moving, lighting lamps, getting their palms read. In the reformist Vaishnav state of Assam, a temple complex is essentially a nam ghar (a house where one takes god's name, guided by the scriptures). Idolatry is not in vogue, though the famed Kamakhya temple near Guwahati has a stone yoni, symbolic of the part of Sati that fell here once Vishnu, the preserver, cut up her lifeless body into 51 pieces, ending the tandava dance of her enraged husband, Shiva, the destroyer.
Majuli is the showcase for the neo-Vaishnavism propagated by Sankardev, the 15th-century savant who broke away from the rigid Hindu chaturvarna caste system. Within the island's many satras --- some for celibate monks, some for families --- the faithful live simply, offering their worship through gayan-bayan (songs and musical instruments) and readings. Scenes from the Ramayana and the stories of Dashavatara (the 10 avatars of Vishnu) are enacted in elaborately costumed and masked theatrical productions.
The island is bigger than I expected, a busy town in the middle of it. Majuli waxes and wanes with the moods of the Brahmaputra, the land blurring into the water. It is a mesmerising eco-sphere, attracting people from faraway nations. Our local guide points to a bamboo cottage on stilts, bankrolled by a French tourist, he spends a few months a year on Majuli, letting the landowner-farmer use the hut at other times. A Danish visitor has the same arrangement.
As the car winds its way down the dusty road, the huge open hood of a snake rears up above the trees. Another Shiva temple, and with a canny purpose. Smoking marijuana publicly is illegal, the guide tells us, so Majuli's cannabis community has built a temple to the god who is never without a chillum, getting holy sanction for their mild high.
The joys of cannabis or rice beer alone do not explain the happy faces that surround us everywhere. On a visit to a Mishing village, children of the tribe turn up in droves with huge grins, female weavers flash winning smiles from their looms, the men cheer on the foreigners brave enough to try the state's harvest dance, bihu. At Bishwanath Ghat, a pretty promenade, it takes hardly a minute to persuade some local women to give an impromptu bihu performance, as a tea shack owner obligingly changes the radio music from techno-rap to traditional. Assam seems ever ready to make friends.
The welcome continues at the Kaziranga National Park, the one shore excursion we have been talking about for days. Declared a tiger reserve in 2006, the park supports an estimated 110 of the big cats. However, sightings are rare. The star of the show here is the one-horned Indian rhinoceros. Unless defending a calf, it patiently bears the presence of humans on elephants cramping its style.
At the safari riding point for the Kohora range of Kaziranga, a year-old elephant says hello to the visitors, its trunk extended to receive a few pats or perhaps sniffing for a banana. The working elephants of the park are followed around by their babies, who stay close to their mothers during the safari, learning their way around the grasslands and marshes.
Heavy fog has descended again, delaying the elephants returning from their second trip of the morning. We are booked on the third and last ride, already an hour behind schedule. By the time they show up as huge ghostly shapes, anticipation has reached fever pitch. Names are called out quickly, tourists and their assigned mounts, and we are off the main path, moving into the squelching, grassy tracts.
The first patch of short grass reveals some hog deer, foraging solo, barely curious about the massive animals passing by. Whispers of excitement ripple through the air at the sight of a pale back and a horn in the grass, now growing much taller. This rhino is bored or shy or both; it burrows deeper into the vegetation. Another one is spotted nearby, half-hidden in a marsh. Our mahout keeps a safe distance. Not a good idea bothering a 2,000-kilo behemoth that can outsprint Usain Bolt.
We are now reaching a clearing, and its occupants are the biggest herd of spotted deer I have ever seen. Completely used to human presence, they sit calmly or nibble at the grass, partly shrouded by the mist that stubbornly persists even at 9am. All the elephants gather for a pitstop, the babies snuggling up to their mothers.
The safari does not feel complete, though no close encounter with the star attraction yet. Our luck changes as the elephants turn back towards the riding point. Ten minutes into the return trail, the mahout points at something --- it is an adult rhinoceros, standing almost still in the short grass, evidently in a good mood as it barely reacts when our elephant, Mohan, gets to within a few yards of it. It is a gorgeous animal, and our day is made.
Wildlife and culture are the two gifts of the Brahmaputra to Assam. The floods that rush in every year form large waterbodies inside Kaziranga, inviting migratory birds, sustaining the animals. The river's changing moods have also kept at bay the onslaught of hyper-modernity, preserving the state's character.
On the penultimate day of the cruise, the boat sails until dark towards Guwahati. Despite the grey sky and the cold, some of us steal a nap on the top deck loungers, then get up to watch the sun throw its last golden rays on the water. The next afternoon, we shall be on flights to various cities, but now, there are sundowners at the boat's lounge bar and a toast to the river.
Getting There: The MV Mahabaahu sails from Guwahati to Jorhat or the other way round, depending on whether the cruise is upstream or downstream. Guwahati is well-connected by flights from most Indian cities. Getting to Jorhat is easiest from Kolkata; visitors from other cities may have to take a hopping flight. If you cannot reach Jorhat directly, the cruise company can arrange for a car from Dibrugarh at no extra charge. The drive takes four hours.
The cruise boat has three cabin categories -- with balcony, without balcony and suites. All have great river views. Rates start from INR 1.57 lakh per person on a twin-sharing basis for the seven-night eight-day cruise. There are shorter three-night and four-night cruises. Night stay is always on the boat, which is designed like a very well-appointed luxury hotel with a fine dining menu, library, pool, spa, sauna, jacuzzi, a small outdoor gym and a sun deck lounging area.
Other than the very early starts necessitated by the sailing schedule, the shore excursions are paced well, so that the day never gets too tiring and there is enough time to spend on the boat itself.
On the downstream cruise, the shore excursions start on the second day (after the previous evening's arrival on the boat) with a visit to Sivasagar for the Ahom monuments and the Siva Dol temple complex, followed by lunch at the Haroocharai tea estate, where owners Rajib and Indrani Barooah play hosts at a magnificent planter's bungalow.
The third day is spent on Majuli, a massive river island and the seat of neo-Vaishnavism. The fourth day takes visitors to a village in Luitmukh, populated by the Mishing tribe, a major local group in Assam. The fifth day has outings to Bishwanath Ghat, a popular picnic spot, and to Koliabor tea estate in Silghat, where guests walk through the tea gardens and visit the factory.
The sixth day is for the Kaziranga National Park. All permits and transport arrangements for this safari --- on elephants and then in open-top jeeps --- are included in the cruise package. On the seventh day, guests are at leisure to admire the boat, swim, get a massage, and so on. The last day ends with a visit to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati on the way to the airport.
One of the on-board highlights of the cruise is an evening of wearing the Assamese dress of mekhala-chadar and dhoti-kurta. Guests of all nationalities are encouraged to participate enthusiastically --- most do, overcoming their initial hesitation.
Local handicrafts such as masks and bamboo décor items are available for purchase on the Mahabaahu. The Mishings sell their brightly coloured fabrics woven with tribal patterns to tourists. At Haroocharai, Indrani Barooah has a collection of beautiful Assam silk scarves in modern graphic prints. The mekhala-chadar and dhoti-kurta sets are for sale, should a guest want to keep them after the evening's entertainment.