A Himalayan river odyssey with Assam Bengal Navigation

The line designs interiors that reflect communities living along the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers

A Himalayan river odyssey with Assam Bengal Navigation
ABN Charaidew II has been designed to reflect the Assam Tea Plantation lifestyle of the colonial times whilst being contemporary

By Antara Phookan |

Located in Assam in North East India, Assam Bengal Navigation is an Indo-British, family business owned and managed by the Phookans and Brocks. It was founded on strong principles of delivering conscious luxury travel since 2003. We focus on bringing together our expertise in tourism with our experience of operating in global markets and our in-depth knowledge of North East India to create compelling cruises on the Ganges and the Brahmaputra Rivers in India. 

Our geographical location plays a pivotal role in our company’s story. Assam is our home and we feel strongly connected to the region, its people, their culture and the environment. The region offers many highlights, such as the seven national parks and 18 wildlife sanctuaries along the Brahmaputra River, yet not many people in the world are aware of this unique geographical location. Consequently, we aim to invite guests to experience it for themselves onboard our river boats, which are designed to reflect our company heritage and celebrate the region’s distinct culture. 

We are also consciously seeking to achieve a relationship with the river and the local environment so that we can offer our guests an authentic, wholesome experience. Our vessels showcase our company’s strong familial ties to the region and our deep connection with the two Himalayan River valleys and their indigenous communities. So, Assam Bengal Navigation’s eco-chic interior style is inspired by the vernacular aesthetic of the region and showcases locally made arts, handicrafts and textiles. Personally, I love that our vessels reflect our local culture because it completes the travel experience – it almost feels like you are lounging in the region’s personality. I also feel that in the fast-developing homogenous society that consumes global design trends, it is important to differentiate, yet take inspiration from, the distinct beauty in the aesthetic of our unique cultures. 

Back in 2003, we started our river cruising journey with ABN Charaidew I, a heritage vessel from the 1970s that was completely renovated with bamboo-panelled walls to mirror the rustic style of Assam. In 2007 when we built ABN Sukapha in West Bengal, we continued to use bamboo-panelled walls to create a charming interior and as part of a conscious effort to use a sustainable material that was available locally in abundance. 

When we built our third ship, ABN Rajmahal, in 2014, a local shipyard in Kolkata incorporated more contemporary design elements into the ship with the inclusion of a removable sundeck roof. The boutique ship, which operates on the Ganges River, is inspired by the region’s distinct Bengal heritage, as well as a dash of the colonial style. The saloon lounge is a mix of traditional Bengali antique, colonial-style and wicker furniture alongside colourful block-printed pure cotton textiles adorned in Bengali motifs. Each nook is decorated with artwork, antique pieces, handicrafts, paintings, terracotta and brass works of folk art from various regions of West Bengal that my mother and I have collected over the years. It is maximalist in its design approach, but it will remind guests of walking into an eclectic Bengali home. 

Finally, our newest vessel ABN Charaidew II, which was built in 2019, has been designed to reflect the Assam Tea Plantation lifestyle of the colonial times whilst also being contemporary and minimalist. The saloon onboard is adorned with bell metal work typical to Assam, bamboo and cane crafts that represent the tools used locally, and cane and teakwood furniture that is clad with handwoven cushions with very distinct Assamese-style motifs.  

When designing each ship, I have taken inspiration from everything that I see around me but particularly from the old homes of friends and family members in Assam and Bengal. I have collected many of the antiques, artworks and materials from the antique markets and artisanal village markets in Assam and Bengal that I have been visiting from a young age. 

We use a lot of wicker in our furniture because it has a timeless style that has been inherited from our colonial history. In addition, it is a sustainable material that grows in abundance in India and it helps support the many rural communities that sustain their livelihoods through wicker-weaving. 

Through our ships, we have developed our own design synergy between our local culture, aesthetic, communities and artisans who we have worked with over the years. In fact, as a result of our partnerships, we have created a small boutique in the city of Guwahati in Assam, a small rural weaving centre in Kaziranga NP and we are currently working to create a small e-commerce platform, all to support artisans in North East India. 

As inspiring as it is to see design trends and material development on cruise and river boats, it is not practical to implement it in the relatively remote regions that we operate in. Instead, we focus on creating spaces that feel like you are walking into a floating home endowed with the style and stories of the places that guests are visiting. And, in creating an ambience that is reflective of our culture whilst supporting the local artisans, we have been able to develop vessels that are cherished by both our guests and local crew members.

Antara Phookan is director of design and business development at Assam Bengal Navigation  

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