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4 River Cruises in India That Will Wow You

Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of, a guide to small-ship cruising.

India is a spectacular destination, but it can also be a challenging and overwhelming place to travel.

A river cruise mitigates some of the tough parts so you can focus on the amazing stuff—ornate Hindu temples and Mughul-era mosques and citadels, colorful markets, and towns teeming with life. And after you experience all of that on excursions, your comfortable riverboat awaits with fragrant hand towels and a refreshing drink at the gangway.

I recently spent a fascinating week cruising on India’s Hooghly River aboard the 40-passenger Rajmahal, one of several riverboats operated by Assam Bengal Navigation (ABN). We toured sites along a 250-mile stretch of the river downstream to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), setting out each morning and afternoon on excellent guided tours highlighting India’s rich heritage and culture, led by guides who sail along on the cruise with you.

Riverboats in India have sun decks for relaxing while watching the scenery float by, dining rooms that serve delicious regional fare—think curries and all manner of vegetables, with Western choices always available too—and air-conditioned en suite cabins. Rooms aboard ABN’s Rajmahal are quite luxurious, with sliding glass doors for river views as well as mini fridges and a coffee/tea setup including a jar of tasty homemade cookies.

Before or after dinner, passengers can attend talks on the next day’s excursions as well as film screenings about the region and performances by folk dancers and singers.

Many travelers combine a weeklong cruise with a longer stay in the country to explore the cities of embarkation or fly to other intriguing destinations, such as the beaches of Goa or the historic cities of the Golden Triangle—Delhi, Jaipur, and the Taj Mahal’s hometown of Agra. 

(ABN Rajmahal river cruise ship in India | Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise)

Seeing India by Riverboat: Timing, Weather, Fitness Level

India’s winter months are the prime season for cruising the country’s waterways; that’s when temperatures hit the 60s and 70s by day and 40s and 50s at night and early mornings. (Broadly speaking, river cruising season lasts from September through April or May, but there are variations. The Ganges season tends to be shorter, for example, while the Kerala season lasts a bit longer.)

Daily temperature fluctuations at this time of year necessitate dressing in layers, so you can add on and peel off as needed.

A reasonable degree of fitness and resilience is required to negotiate the walking tours, skiff rides (to and from shore as boats often anchor midriver), and rides in auto rickshaws. Not to mention the heat and dust you may encounter. 

(Kaziranga National Park in India | Credit: David Evison / Shutterstock)


Brahmaputra River

Cruises on one of India’s most revered rivers cover a 250-mile section across the northeastern state of Assam, known for its tea gardens and wildlife. I spent a week cruising the Brahmaputra aboard Far Horizon Tours’ quirky 46-passenger Mahabaahu and loved it for two big reasons: the chance to see one-horned rhinos in the wild in Kaziranga National Park and to take in the vast sandy landscape.

With its source high in the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra gathers an enormous amount of sediment on its way down to the Bay of Bengal, so in places the river is braided with islands of sand. 

Excursion highlights: Jeep safaris to see one-horned rhinos, Asian elephants, Asiatic water buffalo, and migratory birds; Hindu temples; walks (and yoga!) on the river’s sandbars

Companies that cruise here: Far Horizon ToursAssam Bengal Navigation, PandawAntara Cruises

(Yoga during a river cruise in Assam, India | Credit: Noni Chawla)


Hooghly River

Also known as the Lower Ganges, the Hooghly is a short, twisting distributary of the Ganges River that flows into the Bay of Bengal east of India. Hooghly cruises sail upstream or downstream between Kolkata and points north, around Farakka. Cruise fares usually include a one-way train ticket.

Excursion highlights: Gour, the medieval walled capital city of Bengal, with its centuries-old Indo-Islamic ruins; the beautiful Shiva temple in Kalna, designed in concentric circles; the turmeric-colored 19th-centry Kathgola Palace and gardens; village walks and visits to traditional makers of brass and textiles

Companies that cruise here: Assam Bengal Navigation, Pandaw, Antara Cruises

(L–R: Kalna temple and Kathgola Palace in northeastern India | Credit: Shutterstock / Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise)

Ganges River

The most famous of India’s rivers, the Ganges starts high up in the Himalayas, wending its way down into the plains of India past venerated cities such as Varanasi (pictured at the top of this page) before eventually reaching the Bay of Bengal. 

Cruises on the Upper Ganges are offered at the end of the summer monsoon season, with itineraries featuring various combinations between Kolkata and Varanasi.

Excursion highlights: Visiting the holy ghats of Varanasi and Buddhist sites; exploring remote villages; touring Indo-Islamic 16th–18th-century mosques and temples

Companies that cruise here: Assam Bengal Navigation, Pandaw, Antara Cruises

(Vaikundam riverboat in the Kerala backwaters of southwest India | Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise)

Kerala Backwaters

The long thin southwestern state of Kerala has hundreds of miles of tropical shoreline along the Arabian Sea. The region’s coastal maze of canals, rivers, and lakes gives way, farther inland to tea, coffee, and spice plantations thriving in the hills. 

Kerala’s waterways, often called its backwaters, are popular for 1- and 2-night houseboat cruises aboard traditional wood and thatched rice boats. I greatly enjoyed a week aboard the rustic 18-passenger Vaikundam, one of the few options for longer cruises. 

Excursion highlights: Seeing a traditional Chinese fishing net; navigating narrow canals under a canopy of palms; taking village walks; bird-watching; dinner in a local home; traditional dance performances

Companies that cruise here: Far Horizon Tours