A River Runs Through It.
the frenzied pace of Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world. It
is as much a division of different worlds, as it is a meeting point. By
Driving from the airport to the hotel seems like you have landed in one city and are staying in another--so different are the worlds of the city and the Nadesar grounds that hold the two Taj Hotels, Nadesar Palace--the luxury property and Gateway--the more affordable option. Quiet, green and spread out, the Taj hotels in Varanasi immediately take away the kinks of the journey and I am ready to explore. The first thing to address one's attention to are the huge grounds of the hotel itself, which can take up to one hour, going around the royal gardens in an old-style horse-drawn carriage as your guide tells you about the old trees and shows you the in-house vegetable garden. Inside, the Nadesar Palace is a small haveli, tastefully done with lots of space with nooks to sit and read or enjoy a drink.
Things start early in Varanasi. Or perhaps they never stop. Never one to spring out of bed, I was extremely reluctant to set of in the dark in search of the perfect sunrise. But I had a motivation: I wanted to take away a beautiful image of the Ganga with me. The roads, I found, were neither empty nor dark. Dawn had already broken in Varanasi and groups of men were walking along with our car, which was proceeding slowly, thanks to the ever-present cows on the road. But what were these men doing, walking in a group at this hour
These men, as most men of Varanasi, have a routine, each day wake at the crack of dawn and start walking towards the Ganga. As they walk along, more and more people gather, and little groups of men walk together to the ghats. Once there, they take a dip, pray, some break away for various forms of yoga, and then comes the best part--they then walk to a chaiwalla and sit for a session of what can only be described as addabazi. Gossip from daily life, discussions from the news, cups of tea and laughter follow before they head back home, get ready and leave for work. This contrast of gossip and prayer--adda and ghat--are the two worlds that Varanasi easily adapts to.
I reach Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat where the famous Ganga Aarti is performed at sunset, and ease into a waiting boat. At dawn, the Ganga looks silvery and then, as the sun rises slowly, it turns pink, then golden, then orange. It's a relief to see the river look like a river at last. People are busy using the Ganga like a tap in their garden even at this early hour--some soap themselves, some wash clothes, and some dive into the same water they have just washed clothes in, for a merry swim. We float along for a while; when the boatman asks if I wanted to see the ghat where they light funeral pyres-- a popular spot for foreigners, it seems--but I turn his offer down politely. We go past it anyway as this is where I have to climb off, to get to the Vishwanath Gali to see the famous temple. There are logs and logs of wood on the ghat. Here death is business and death is tourism.
The Vishwanath Gali is a sheer delight to walk through. Narrow bylanes snaking across old structures, houses, with people standing at doorways, some people-watching, reading the papers... I can't help thinking that, if spruced up nicely, this could be any European lane. Walking through the gali gives me another slice of Varanasi life where mornings begin in the open--most of the houses have their doors open at 6 a.m. The temple itself is crowded and I come away without actually stepping in--it's quite a feat!
I come across another essential form of Varanasi life: street food. At 6.30 a.m. it is almost late to buy the roadside kachori-chhole; served out of tin boxes, these kachoris are smaller and rounder than the usual and are a popular pre-breakfast snack. I return to my hotel after eating the those crisp hot kachoris. What a morning--and it's just 7 a.m. I recover from my brush with the city inside the luxury of the Nadesar Palace where I lounge around in the living space outside my suite. In the evening, I'm surprised to find that the famous Ganga Aarti is actually performed on two ghats, and the aarti is played via recorded tapes--but not as surprised as I am when I'm told that the aarti, once a simple daily ritual, was pumped up to be this grand internationally-known affair for the purpose of... tourism. Two unlikely worlds, of spirituality and tourism, combine at the ghats of Varanasi, a city that seems quite used to encompassing different worlds--a consequence, perhaps, of having lived the most number of years in the world.
THE VARANASI TAJ EXPERIENCE Nadesar Palace and Gateway are the two Taj properties in town and both are located in the sprawling and beautiful, life-giving, Nadesar grounds. With mango orchards, flowery gardens, acres of fields, ponds and vegetable gardens, the Nadesar grounds envelop you with greenery and you forget the mad world outside. The Nadesar Palace, where I stayed, is the old maharaja's home and has suites named after the guests it has played host to: I have the Wajid Ali Shah Suite, decorated ornately but spacious in its arrangement. Two big rooms, and a large bathroom; a four-poster bed, high ceilings, cushy sofas... After the brush with reality outside on the streets of Varanasi--where often you push past people, step on dried cow dung, eat standing over nalas, get stuck in traffic jams, and witness the frenzied energy of spirituality--Nadesar Palace is a great and comforting home to return to. Food, however, is best next door, at the Gateway, which has the excellent restaurant Varuna.
This is where I sampled local saatvick cuisine one day, and local Muslim gharana cuisine the other. I had keema in a huge katori made of roomali roti and had the most fragrant and light biryani.
ASSI GHAT If you are looking for the European side of Varanasi, yes there is such a side, the place to go to is Assi Ghat, where you will find the best little bakeries in town and also the best hotels outside of the chain hotels in town. Assi Ghat is the place that foreigners, permanent guests and students, have made their own, and this is where you can get a real spiritual high in all senses of the word.
AT A GLANCE
Getting there: You can fly directly to Varanasi from most major cities.
Stay: Nadesar Palace, Nadesar Palace Grounds; Tel: (0542) 666 0002-06; www.tajhotels.com The Gateway Varanasi, Nadesar Palace Grounds; Tel: (0542) 666 0001; www.thegatewayhotels.com
Eat: Try everything you can off the streets: thandai, chaat, and of course the famous kachori.
See: Sarnath, around 10 km away from the hotel grounds.
Kishan paanwalla on the road near Nadesar Palace! You must try the famous Banarasi paan, and this is a good option. What few people realise is that there is no one specific type of paan. There are different types of leaves that come with every season, and all the paans of Banaras are Banarasi paan!
Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.
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