Standing on the makeshift dock at Matiari, the world looks sepia-toned, with slow golden ripples that spread across the river beneath the smoky morning light. Long wooden boats ferry workers to shore by the dozen. One by one, the men and women step onto the riverbank carrying loaded baskets of metal ore, heaped upon their backs.
In a single file, they scramble uphill and march into Matiari—a low-lying village that spreads along this flat and muddy stretch of the Ganges River, a few days’ cruising north of Kolkata.
This is not some well-traveled cruise ship destination. I can feel it the minute I enter town—there are no souvenir shops, no big signs, no hustlers, or crowds of vendors rushing towards me. Instead, shy kids poke their heads out windows or from behind doorways, smiling sheepishly and then disappearing back into the darkness. Our presence is unusual—exclusive even—and the people here hold as much curiosity towards us as we do to them. I am surprised that here in the most populated nation on Earth, in this 21st century, there exists such a simple and unassuming—untouched—village.
Our Uniworld guide leads us through streets so narrow I can touch both sides of the walls with my hands outstretched. She knows the way, greeting villagers as we pass, pointing out the everyday objects hanging from peoples’ homes. It feels almost as if we’re touring her own neighborhood. The smoke and roaring noise of the fiery furnace metalworks confirms our arrival to an ancient workshop still in service today.
No matter the humid heat of the day—the open-walled factory feels even hotter. Busy shirtless men work over open fits of fire, hammering molten red-hot mix into gigantic sheets of shiny soft metal. The flame burns a beautiful emerald green from the copper ore used to create brass by mixing it with zinc. The artisans of this village have worked like this for centuries, over open fire pits and huge bellows. Their methods remain virtually unchanged from the time of the Maharaja and long before. I think about what this really means—that before my own country even existed, Bengali artisans were fashioning brass over fires like this one in Matiari.
From the factory our Uniworld group continues through the village before entering the home of a local craftsmen. Like so many trades in India, brass-working is a family business for so many here. I greet the family with a bow and a soft “Namaste” then watch closely as the artist picks up the rough raw metal and begins to work it with his hands. Using a press, he fashions a platter, then instantly begins applying delicate decorations with a hammer and mallet. Tap, tap, tap. The bare metal turns to shiny and springs to life. Inch by inch, the design is completed until I recognize the depiction of Ganesha—the Hindu deity of knowledge and learning, represented with the head of an elephant. He is known as the remover of obstacles and a very popular god in the Hindu pantheon.
We carefully peruse the craftsman’s work—there is not a single object here that you could find online or buy back home. This is all original work, and the objects are timeless—each one has been created using the same ancient traditions and techniques from generations past. Before leaving, I buy a small brass canister with a matching, fitted brass lid, decorated with Vishnu’s hand.
The rest of the morning, we roam freely through the village. I watch as a woman crouches down next to a hand-pumped well, filling every possible spare bottle with water. Wooden carts trundle past us, piled high with vegetables. We walk past donkeys and goats, cows and chickens. A young girl steps out of a doorway and says hello, then asks me her name. Her English is precise. She learned it at school, she says. We talk. I am the first foreigner she has ever spoken English with and she beams when I understand her. Above all, it is the unfiltered, untouched nature of this village that sets my experience apart from so many other tourists.
For all the travelers who have been to the Taj Mahal or the great palaces of Rajasthan, none of them have seen this—a simple, unassuming village, on the banks of the Ganges, on a weekday morning, busy with life and following the same daily drama that has played out since the earliest civilizations on this river. Less than a thousand people visit this villages every year--less than three a day. We leave as quietly as we entered, drifting away from the shore where the metal workers are still busy, turning baskets of stone into beautiful art, as they have done here for almost as long as humans have been making brass.
This is what makes Uniworld different. Committed to low impact tourism, Uniworld takes great precautions not disrupt such a sensitive place, nor do they exploit the poor; rather, Uniworld invites us to enter their world, to respect the lives and culture here, and to take part, if only for a few hours. It’s this amazing and real access that makes this river cruise like no other. This is what makes Uniworld unique.