The road from Kolkata to Namkhana and finally to Susni beach is utterly chaotic. It is narrow and crowded like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Murderous buses barrel down the highway with no regard for anything else on the tarmac. They’re ably complimented by suicidal rickshaw drivers plying the city streets. Chaos isn’t the word for this. And yet we somehow feel relaxed in the comfort of the Toyota Corolla Altis that we’re in, having handed over the wheel to assistant ed Aninda. He is after all a son of Bengal and should have a better understanding of this environment.
We then cruise, crawl, cajole and coax our way south to meet the Hooghly. It is the second largest distributary of the Ganga, emptying into the tumultuous Bay of Bengal. However, a lot of our relaxed demeanour has to be attributed to the Corolla Altis we’re in. It’s utterly calm, refined and feels so sophisticated that we stick out like a sore thumb on rural Bengal’s highways.
“At Susni near Bakkhali, the grey-green of the Hooghly silently merges with the blue of the Bay of Bengal”
At Namkhana we realise that the bridge across the creek is still actually work in progress. To get across, you need to be on the lone ferry that will get you across. You also need to know Bengali and patience. Forty minutes of waiting and five minutes of ferrying later, we’re making a dash for Susni. The Corolla’s torquey diesel engine and supple ride help immensely here. The latter too, is very helpful on this road that has strangely been designated a national highway. At Susni, the grey-green of the Hooghly, swollen to a width that obscures the other bank, silently merges with the blue of the sea.
Here, despite the sheer volume of the water, the flow is gentle. There’s a quiet dignity as the Ganga finally merges into the sea after cutting through nearly 2500km of chaotic humanity. It flows without abandon, from the time she touches the first temple at Gangotri till her end here at Susni on the edge of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove. Strange parallel is it not? With the Corolla Altis that had just helped us cut through the chaos of South Bengal and got us here? Interesting thought there.
While what we are doing here is tracing India’s lifelines. Traversing India’s rivers from finish to start and discovering hidden gems that lie along their wake. However, dealing with the Ganga is somewhat different than what we had done with the Narmada a couple of months ago in the Toyota Yaris and then the Kaveri in the Toyota Innova Crysta Touring Sport. You see, geographically speaking, unlike the other two, the Ganga doesn’t have a single mouth that flows into the sea. Instead it empties through a vast network of distributaries. The Padma that flows into Bangladesh from Farakka and the Hooghly that stays in India being the two principal ones, forming one of the largest deltas in the world. This delta also forms the aforementioned Sundarbans, famous for its swimming tigers.
Beyond all that geographic data, the Ganga has tremendous religious, historical and mythical importance. She is the very symbol of holiness and has the power to wash the sins of all who bathe in her waters. The Mahabharat mentions her as the mother of the grand patriarch Devavrat, and more recently the Battle of Plassey, officially recognised as the start of British rule in India, took place in a mango orchard on her banks. She’s a sacred entity, a holy body rich with aquatic life, a benefactor of lives, a friend, a guide and a mother.
The Ganga’s value to the our incredible India is priceless. And it is to explore this priceless artery that supplies much of India’s life blood that we have taken to the road, for the story of the Ganga is the story of those who have for eons past been Driven by A Better Future, like we are. The Ganga however is too long, with too many stories to be told. So, this month we deal with what we have called the Lower Ganga, from the mouth to Allahabad where she meets the Yamuna. In the next part, we will head north to the snowy heights of Gangotri.
Back in Kolkata, where in spite of its metropolitan status the chaos of the roads continues, we head to Flurys. Established in 1927, it’s a must do. Besides we’re scared if we don’t get Alameen, our videographer, to a cup of Viennese coffee he might do something to one of us. Thankfully, we reach in time and while Alameen has calmed down with the iconic black coffee and whipped cream concoction, we gorge on a fabulous array of confectionary. Bloated and tired, we still somehow pack in dinner and hit the sack.
The following day, we headed to the Topsel Toyota dealership to meet Debanca Das, a young advocate and enthusiastic Corolla Altis owner. Following a quick session on better driving with Toyota, Debanca’s Corolla Altis and ours headed off to Fort Radisson at Raichak on the banks of the Hooghly. Essentially an 18th century fort built to monitor illegal trading and piracy, it has now been converted into a five-star hotel and is a popular weekend getaway for people from the City of Joy. We spend a relaxing afternoon with a lovely river walk where we also discover that Debanca himself is just as passionate about rivers as we are.
After a lovely day spent, we head back to Kolkata. Meanwhile the Corolla Altis manages to surprise us with an incredibly impressive 18kmpl from its 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine. For petrolheads there is also a 1.8-litre petrol engine available either with a 6-speed manual or a Super CVT-i with 7-speed sequential shift. While we had the diesel, quite frankly you’d be just as happy in the petrol variant.
From Kolkata we head straight to Palashi. You may have read the British name for it a little while ago, Plassey. It was the site of the 1757 battle where Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, lost to Lord Robert Clive of the East India Company, when his courtier Mir Jafar betrayed him. What followed was 190 years of the Raj. The only reminder of this tragic battle today is the Plassey War Memorial, at the very mango orchard on the banks of the river. From there it’s a short drive over a badly surfaced road to the Hazardwari Palace (Palace of a Thousand Doors) in Murshidabad that was Siraj’s capital.
The Italian style mansion completed in 1837 at a cost of 16 lakh Swarn Mudra or gold coins, is known for its 1000 doors, built to trick the enemy from reaching the Nawab. A hundred of the doors are fake while others are either traps or access gates. The palace was built during the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah and houses Siraj ud-Daulah’s prized possessions from the Battle of Plassey. Walking past the fine swords, shields, multi-barrel guns and also rare marble, porcelain, manuscripts and palanquins, truly felt like time-travel through colonial history.
From the 18th century we travel back in time as we head to Patna the following day. Known to the ancients as Pataliputra, Patna is the seat of the Bihar government today and as thriving a city as it must have been in the days of Kautilya.
“As it was a super hot day, we cooled off in the Corolla Altis’s excellent climate control”
Although I’m forced to admit, it is neither as powerful nor as glamorous as Chandragupta Maurya’s city must have been. An important tourist spot in Patna is the Golghar. Built in 1786, the townspeople created this beehive- shaped as insurance against droughts and famines. The other place worth visiting when in Patna are the ruins of the ancient Nalanda University. As it was a super hot day, we cooled off in the Corolla Altis’s excellent climate control. As we continued towards Varanasi, the brilliant reclining seats in the Corolla Altis meant that snoozing in the back comes easy as we relax when we’re not driving.
The six-hour drive over NH31 turned out to be super chaotic, second only to our drive to Namkhana. Traffic snarls on the highway and incessant honking were the order of the day. Thankfully, the Corolla’s well insulated cabin lets in minimal noise while the large windows offer a sense of roominess. We entered the ancient city over the British built double-decker Malviya Bridge that carries a rail track on the lower deck and a road on the upper deck. It offers a phenomenal view of Varanasi’s 87 ghats on the Ganga.
In spite of all the romance of Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it is congested with thousands of electric and bicycle rickshaws, probably an effort at employment generation by the powers that be, jamming up the streets, catering to hordes of tourists from across the globe. The following morning, we met another group of happy Corolla Altis owners. We asked them what they thought of the river.
“Ganga is the life and soul of India. All the villages on the banks of the Ganga are entirely dependent on it. Due to industrialisation, the river water has been much polluted. Though, on a more positive note, the water in Varanasi is quite clean. This is thanks to the efforts taken by the authorities. I dream about the day when the Ganga will be clean right from Gangotri to where it meets the sea,” says Keshav Kumar Tiwari Jr. It’s incredible how Debanca and Keshav, separated by nearly 800km, echo the same sentiment about the Ganga. Such is her power of uniting people.
After another Better Driving session with Toyota, we along with the Corolla Altis customer troupe, headed to one of the principal attractions of Varanasi, the ghats. What we saw at the Manmandir ghat was absolutely enchanting. Dozens of colourful boats, pujaris(priests) going about their rituals and in the middle of all this riot, the calm and serene river. Here we also got the chance to see how much fauna the Ganga supports when we fed some migratory birds, some that had travelled all the way from Siberia.
In the evening, we attended the Ganga aarti, the largest of which takes place at the Dashaswamedh ghat. The aarti starts at 6pm. However, tourists occupy boats, ghats and terraces of buildings nearby a couple of hours in advance. Performed by eight similarly attired priests, it’s magnificent.
The last and final leg of our Lower Ganga drive took us to Allahabad. A majority of the NH19 leading to Allahabad traces the course of the Ganga. It was disheartening to witness large scale sand mining destroy vegetation, leading to the river changing her course. With darkness closing in, we were thankful for the Corolla Altis’ bi-beam LEDs that offer ample illumination ensuring safety and good visibility. Upon reaching, we headed straight to the Triveni Sangam. It is the meeting point of the Ganga, Yamuna and the subterranean and invisible Saraswati.
Massive corruption and endless delays in the setting up of treatment plants has affectedd the Clean Ganga Project. Hopefully that will change and we will finally learn to value what the Ganga brings to India. Be it large scale fishing around the Hooghly for the Hilsa that Bengalis die for, the royal monuments built on the banks of the river or chasing eternal purity and cleansing of the soul from our sins in Varanasi, it goes without saying that the Ganga is to India what the jugular is to our bodies. To create a better future, it’s vital for every Indian to protect India’s lifelines, at the helm of which is the Ganga.