The surrounds of Kolkata's Hooghly River contain all of the follies of the British raj.
Calcutta was a fishing village on a river when first settled by the British in 1690. The river was the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges that pours south through a fertile delta to the Bay of Bengal. It became the trade route for vast quantities of silks and muslin, chintz and cottons, indigo and jute on their way to Europe - and opium to China. The fortunes made here were spectacular. The Hooghly was a river of gold. The village became a city, the "city of palaces", the capital of British India.
The remains of the old imperial city can still be found within a kilometre or so of the Maidan, a vast swathe of green originally cleared to give the cannon in Fort William a clean line of fire in the event of a siege. Capacious avenues were lined with mansions, counting houses and splendid administrative buildings, the architecture referencing European grandiosity at every turn, "as if Regency Bath had been transplanted to the Hooghly", wrote author William Dalrymple.
We tour the remains of empire in the central district - the India Museum, the Asiatic Society, the Victoria Memorial, St John's Church and the Black Hole of Calcutta monument, Raj Bhavan, Dalhousie Square, the Writers' Building, the Armenian church and the Jewish synagogue where the caretaker is a Muslim.
The old city is embedded in the new. You cannot explore one without getting to know the other - and we are surprised at every turn, for Kolkata is nothing like its irksome reputation (thank you, Mother Teresa), a reputation that drives Bengalis to distraction. True, it is overcrowded, noisy and poor, the legacy of colonial plunder, war and famine.
But this metropolis is a vibrant, sociable and cerebral place, a post-colonial city reconciled with its past and loaded with theatres, schools, universities, bookshops, literary cafes, temples, markets, museums and, of course, history at every turn.
Calcutta's history hinges on the river, and I'm here to cruise along it.
Our seven-day cruise up the Hooghly will cover 400 nautical kilometres to its confluence with the Ganges. We are on the MV Sukapha, a 12-cabin riverboat run by the Assam-Bengal Navigation Company.
The interiors are bamboo panelled, air-conditioned and roomy with en suite bathrooms, a spa, a saloon with a good little library, an excellent chef, a dining room with floor to ceiling windows to port and starboard, and a covered roof deck with cane lounges and a bar that keeps long hours.
We cruise north, crisscrossing the river to visit the colonial remnants - the old courts and forts, barracks, churches, the missionary colleges and the governors' mansions, now busily incorporated into the daily life of post-colonial India.
Each evening we have a 50-minute lecture on board starting appropriately with Europeans in Bengal in the 17th and 18th century. Our resident expert is Dr Anna-Maria Misra from Oxford. The lectures provide us with context for the sites we see and some grasp of the symbolic world we need to read the architecture and iconography we encounter.
The Europeans were merely the last of a long line of invaders and conquerors in Bengal. Misra's lectures take us back to the nomadic Aryans who came from the Caucasus in the 12th century BC and carry forward to the coming of Buddhism and Hinduism; the Mughals from central Asia and the Maratha raiders from the north-west. We are reminded of how crucial is history for intelligent and enjoyable tourism.
History allows us to understand the convergence and the demise of dynasties and cultures; it enables us to see the past in the present, to recognise the legacy of lost worlds in everything we see.
We are cruising into the agricultural heart of Bengal, five knots, nice breeze on the roof-deck. The river flats are an intensely farmed chequerboard of greens and yellows. The straw has been harvested, the wheat is almost ready and the sugar cane awaits the monsoon rains. There are bananas and bamboo, and stately lines of coconut palms. There is dust too and smoke from brickworks and charcoal fires. There are mango and lychee orchards, mustard and lentil fields and acres of marigolds and hamlets of mud and thatch and tin and tile.
We cruise past ploughmen behind oxen, fishermen casting nets, bathers in the shallows, children at play, thatchers on hay-stacks, bamboo cutters bent low, sand miners carving the riverbank; a bike cart loaded with produce and tiny ponies pulling gigantic loads of straw. The sense of abundance and fertility is all around.
Life here is hard but sustainable. Kids go to school, literacy levels are surprisingly high, everyone is busy and we, it seems, are an oddity and a most welcome diversion. Next day we land at the country town of Kalna, which boasts several magnificent terracotta temples. The facades are composed of intricate miniatures depicting scenes from the Hindu epics, each scene set in a small tile - gods killing demons, invaders on the march, warriors defending a city, troubadours in full swing, dancers, fertility stories, courtship rituals, erotic play.
The artistry is intricate and endlessly fascinating. You can spend hours searching for meanings.
We are chaperoned into the Nava Kalish, 108 Shiva shrinelets venerating the destroyer god and set in two concentric circles, each one representing a bead in a rosary and the walls depicting episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The outer circle portrays the material world while the inner circle symbolises the world of pure thoughts attained by offering prayers to Lord Shiva.
Lord Shiva figures mightily in the foundation myths of the Delta for he was the creator. It was Lord Vishnu who tapped the water source in some divine sphere when he pierced a hole in the universe with his big toe and the waters burst through and washed his lotus feet and were made holy. But the waters flowed in such quantity as to threaten to flood the entire earth upon arrival, so they settled in a nether-world where Lord Shiva held them in his dreadlocks and from his dreadlocks spread the waters in the form of the mighty Ganges Delta.
In the grip of the fantastic, we retreat to the boat for lunch and another lecture - Hinduism in Bengal. In the afternoon we cruise to Nabadwip, stepping ashore at the crowded ghat where hundreds of Holi celebrants are washing coloured powder from their clothes and their skin. Holi is the joyous festival of spring.
At the top of the steps we encounter pandemonium. People dance and sing and hurl the colours and smear them on arms and cheeks. There are parades and speeches; a temple guarded by monumental lions is packed out. The gutters are running with dye.
We rickshaw to an ancient temple entwined in the roots of a gigantic banyan tree in the middle of a bazaar. In the centre, amid the stone and the banyan and surrounded by stalls selling everything from jewellery to icons to garlands of marigolds, pilgrims worship at the Shiva shrine. The bazaar surrounds the shrine; everyday life enfolds faith, and faith, in turn, infuses everyday life.
So does politics. In the villages we see the fading hammer and sickle on painted mud walls, a reminder of decades of agitation for land reform through the provincial parliament.
At Matiari we wander through an abandoned mansion, once the home of a zamindar (tax collector) who grew rich under British rule.
The British exercised a monopoly right of revenue collection over the peasantry. The zamindars shared in the spoils. The hammer and sickle and the abandoned mansion complement each other, referencing the struggles that have transformed Bengal, mostly for the better. They remind us that fabulous stories from hindu mythology are hardly more wondrous and rewarding than the tales of transformation in post-colonial India.
We cruise on to Murshidabad, the old Muslim capital of Bengal. Here we find the Mughal legacy side by side with the grandiosity of the Raj. Our mooring is near the Hazarduari Palace, a mustard-yellow pile built by a Scotsman for a nawab in 1837. It has 1000 doors, 900 of which are real. In the time of the Raj, Durbahs were held here, great processional gatherings depicting an imperial dynasty comfortably embedded in an ancient culture.
Today the palace is a museum with a vast collection of art and objects from the Mughal and Indo-British culture, and grand paintings of dashing nawabs in ermine and British officers in full kit. The evening lecture is "Islam in Bengal: Saints, Sufis and Sultans", good grounding for a trip to the Mushidibad, next day.
Then on to the terracotta temples at Baranagar followed by a cruise to Farakka where we glimpse the vastness of the Ganges and complete the river tour with a jeep ride to the ancient ruins of Gaur. The connections are endless - St John's in Kolkata was built with stone plundered from the ruins of this ancient capital and shipped, of course, down the river.
Travel in India can be frenetic, confronting and sometimes overwhelming. This river cruise offers the rewards with little of the hassle. The riverboat is a haven of fine food and conversation, inspired by the sights and sounds and the lectures and the talk that link them.
On the banks of the river people watch and wave, and we wave back. The welcomes continue all the way to the Ganges.
The writer travelled as a guest of Martin Randall Travel.
Bengal by River is operated by British-based Martin Randall Travel. Tours start at $7850 (flights not included) and include five nights' accommodation in a five-star centrally located Kolkata hotel and seven nights on the MV Sukapha. The cost also includes private coach travel, most meals with drinks, admissions, tips, taxes and the services of a lecturer. See martinrandall.com.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.