We boarded a time machine. It was a cruise ship sailing down the great flow of history that is the Ganga.
In the first morning in the saloon of the ship, our fellow voyagers' faces were touched with the gold of dawn on the mist-banks rising around us. We smiled, shook hands, bowed and chatted with Brits, a French couple, a Japanese woman and an Australian. The Aussie first shifted our perspective. He was a scholar, as rugged as the outback, but surprisingly soft-spoken. Over a steaming cup of coffee, he looked out from our anchored vessel, across the river, to the ghats. People offered their libations to the rising sun, bathed, washed their clothes, and then, often in their dripping garments, they worshipped in temples to the sound of bells and the fragrance of incense.
Even here, even at anchor, the incense threw a tenuous noose around us. Our companion took a deep breath and said, "Aah! Incense to worship but also to fumigate and sanitise!" Then, "Personal hygiene has become a religious duty, so they survived pestilences and famines," he rumbled, almost to himself. "And they offer life-giving water to the life-sustaining sun. It's a lifestyle attuned to nature. That is their strength."
Then, ferried to the banks, we hopped onto cycle-rickshaws near a beautiful little shrine, overlooking the Ganga, and visited the incredible, towering terracotta temples of this town. In the absence of wood and stone to shape and carve, the potters of Bengal became inspired architects. They sculpted panels of river clay to capture the intricate tales of their Indic faith, baked them, installed them in their brick-red houses of worship, enthralling worshippers and visitors all through the centuries.
"People need images to sustain their faith," said Peggy in her faint Cockney accent, and then with an unexpected flash of insight, she added, "Even the austere creed of Gautama Buddha had to adapt to the icon-rich Buddhism of Tibet."
We picked up the thread of that idea one morning at breakfast when the chefs had produced a stunning array of dishes, but a quiet couple from Northern Ireland chose boiled eggs, which they scooped fastidiously out of egg cups. "You're Catholic, aren't you?" he asked us.
We smiled and nodded. We'd not mentioned our faith to anyone. "We saw you making the sign of the Cross before you said grace," she explained. Then he said, "Catholicism is rich in images. We all need images to focus our devotion. We overheard what Peggy said about Buddhism."
Buddhism at breakfast: this cruise was beginning to take on another dimension.
Diving into faith
This reasserted itself when we were walking around the great ruins of the Buddhist University of Nalanda. A guide explained: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that Tibetan Buddhism, called Vajrayana, was born here. It uses mystic images, geometric designs and chants to help the mind to break through the veil of illusion and see the reality that lies beyond. It's like a bolt of lightning: a vajra."
Back on board, over lunch, a bluff, jovial engineer from Manchester remarked, quite unexpectedly, "We're all searching for meaning in our lives, aren't we? Is that why Tibetan Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in our century?"
Mentally, we began to reassess our fellow passengers. They may have been allured by the thought of a luxury -hassle-free discovery of an India that they had only heard and read about: the India of Kipling's Kim and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Raj nostalgia. But the voyage was deepening their perceptions. Like kids in a quiz show, they were hungry for information. We were deluged with queries after we visited the magnificent Hazarduari Palace in Bengal's Lalbagh, once the capital of a Mughal province. It captures all the opulent elegance of Mughal culture at its height. But this triggered a barbed response from the starchy Brit couple on board.
Battle of the wits
"Have the descendants of the Mughals been integrated into Indian society?" he asked. We smiled, "Have the descendants of the Saxons and the Normans been integrated into English society?"
She gave a high-pitched laugh and touched him reassuringly on the arm. They rallied briefly after recalling their tour to the superb Patna Sahib. When they heard us speaking glowingly of our visit to the revered birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, and the fact that there are both a Jain temple and a Hindu mandir within its grounds, and a masjid just outside, they asked, seemingly innocuously, "Do you believe that Sikhism is an offshoot, a reformist movement, of Hinduism?"
They had told us that this was their eleventh visit to India and they worked for a multinational. Clearly, they were aware that it was a sensitive topic. But we had answered that question once in Nagaland, and we were prepared. "That depends on your point of view. Do you, as Christians, believe that Christianity is... how did you put it?... an offshoot, a reformist movement, of Judaism?"
They were silent for a while, and then she replied, "That... depends on your point of view." They did not bother us again.
When people of disparate backgrounds and different nationalities are thrown together on a small ship, 24/7, the edges of adjustment can be abrasive. Egos can get bruised. That happened when we stood at the obelisk marking the site of the epochal Battle of Plassey.
There, in 1757, Robert Clive, commanding a small force of England's East India Company troops, had defeated a local army backed by the French. It had established the supremacy of the English in India. Returning on our tender, some of our Brit shipmates openly gloated over that ancient victory, and the elderly French were morose.
They rallied when we visited Chandannagar, once the French colony of Chandernagore. We drove on to the impressive Dupleix Palace. Once the home of a powerful French trader, it is now a museum holding artefacts and information about the former French colony. The French, Dutch, Danes, and Portuguese had colonies on this side of the Hooghly till they were ousted by the aggressive Brits who had settled in Calcutta on the other bank.
We had now come out of the distant past and into the colonial era, and the Ganga had given way to the Hooghly.
We crossed the Hooghly to Barrackpore, upstream from Kolkata. Here, in the first military cantonment established in India, back in 1772, is Flagstaff House built between 1863 and 1865. In its grounds stand 12 statues of Britons who once held the fate of the Indian Empire in their hands. It was a nostalgic tour for many of the Brits. But not for all. Alexandra was an elegant, well-travelled, and twice-divorced woman and, probably, a retired official of the British Foreign Service. She was also very outspoken. She said, "I see you've put them out to pasture." She gazed at George V, who was in his crown and ermine robes. There was a touch of bitterness in her smile. "Very imperious, very lonely, and very overwhelmed by history."
Behind us, the river of time flowed around the vessel, washing historical Kolkata, spreading into the great Bay of Bengal, merging our past with the rest of the ocean-girt world.