In the glaring white heat of the plains, it’s easy to hallucinate. I see the ghats of
In the glaring white heat of the plains, it’s easy to hallucinate. I see the ghats ofVaranasi long before we reach them; Varanasi (or Banaras) always takes me by surprise, emerging in ramshackle, dusty bits and pieces from a grey winter or the blank ferocious heat of summer, one of the oldest living cities in the world stumbling out at you absently, ambushing unwary tourists and jaded pilgrims with equal impartiality.
“As we burrowed more deeply into the city,” Geoff Dyer writes in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, “the nature of the journey changed again, taking on the quality and dimensions of a procession… Everything was piled up. Everything was excessive. Everything was brightly coloured and loud, so everything had to be even more brighter and louder than everything else. So everything blared.”
It does, and in the brief drive from airport to city, a heat migraine sets in, adding its throbbing to the insane hara-kiri dives of the traffic. This is an insulated drive: the Nadesar Palace has sent the requisite air-conditioned cocoon — so necessary not just to the comfort but the sanity of the well-heeled first-time visitor to India, the cold, sandalwood- or rose-scented towels doing service as a security blanket for adults. If you’re not a citizen, you’re here as either seeker, tourist, mourner, dying or corpse. Try tourist. It’s bland, but it beats corpse.
In the monsoons and the winter, the 40 acres of greenery that surround the Nadesar Palace must be a haven to the travel-weary; even at the height of summer, there’s a sense of disappearing into peace as we turn off from the Taj Ganges through the gates of its sister property.
Dyer left the Taj Ganges after a few days; it was too anodyne for him, too far away from the city and the daily commute through traffic began to grind at his nerves. He settled instead into the Ganges View guesthouse, on the rim of the ghats of Banaras, letting the city flow over him instead of escaping it. But though my share of traveller’s woes is just a mundane headache, I find myself grateful for the modern sanctum sanctorum of the heritage hotel. And the Nadesar Palace, unlike its sister hotel, is not a cookie-cutter five-star; with just ten rooms, it’s billed as Varanasi’s first exclusive luxury property.
I’m expecting the traditional hotel welcome: garlands, the refreshing glass of juice, that sort of thing. I’m not expecting a line of priests — no, they’re genuine, the Nadesar Palace has a tiny on-site temple — ululations, chants, the sandalwood paste tika and the beating of gongs. The glass of juice on offer is bel sharbat, so fresh from the massive tree on the back lawns and so thick that it sets into bel jelly if you let it rest for a minute. Step inside, and just as the gates blocked out the city streets, the hotel blocks out the dark side of Banaras, the heat and dust and skeletal dogs, the local wrestlers and pehelwans, the pushy priests, the dead and the dying, the widows and the doms.
The Nadesar Palace was never a palace proper, as its architecture (from the Koi-Hai Bungalow school) announces. Built by the East India Company, it was acquired by the then Maharaja of Banaras, Prabhu Narayan Singh. H.H. stayed on the good side of the British, and as paintings scattered around the salon downstairs demonstrate, did his fair share of pigsticking, rhino-hunting and other princely pursuits.
The interiors are cool, the verandas massive, the palace suites generously proportioned and well appointed, down to the personalised stationery that bears each guest’s name in the rooms. My plans to visit the city dwindle; the luxury and the heat are equally sapping. There’s a four-poster bed, classic Banarasi embroidery on delicate silk curtains, a claw-footed pink bathtub, and gigantic — if out-of-period — Venetian mirrors. In the comfortable drawing room upstairs, there’s a library of books, handsomely bound in red vellum and leather, on subjects ranging from textiles to stepwells to Indian mythology. My inner sybarite and inner explorer have a brief tussle, but it’s a predictable victory.
In the evening, as resident musicians who come from the city’s old gharanas play thumris, and strains of Raga Peelu float through the air, I count the peacocks and watch two families of seven babblers square off — an ownership dispute over the swimming pool, settled finally by an amiable hawk who claims bathing rights in the nearby baroque fountain. And at night, in one of the many little touches that make up for the ugliness of the uncovered steel air-conditioners on the walls, I retire to find that the housekeeper has left pedas, instead of pillow mints, and a beautifully folded towel in the shape of a swan at the foot of the bed. The towel animals are apparently a Nadesar Palace tradition: swans, deer and peacocks are popular.
Tea is served in lovely kullarhs instead of the traditional silver service or the Royal Doulton china; one of the attempts by Chef Sanjeev Chopra to bring street food in suitably sanitised form to tender-stomached travellers. (Breakfast will feature a tiny tray of miniature green pea samosas, kachoris and gulab jamuns.)
From pre-Independence days, the Nadesar Palace has been a resting halt for the men and women who ruled India and for celebrities. Jigme Wangchuk, G.B. Pant, a score of Supreme Court judges, politicians and senior IAS officials, and Jawaharlal Nehru have all spent a few days or a few weeks here. Haile Selassie stayed here, one of the two guests at Nadesar Palace who have been regarded as God incarnate, the other being the Dalai Lama. Nehru’s signature is found embedded on various pages of the guest book, as is Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s. His daughter’s black, firm, sprawling signature appears several times too, but it takes up an entire page: Indira Gandhi — who some would argue was the third guest here to see herself as God incarnate — clearly liked her space. It comes as no surprise that the photographer Raghubir Singh stayed here too, and it’s a pity that the photographs of Banaras on the wall are unremarkable, blurred postcard-prints.
Dinner is perfect. For couples in search of the romantic ideal, the Nadesar Palace will set your table in the lawns, at a distance from the masses, strew your path with rose and marigold petals, have mood lighting and discreet musicians. But for the last two years, Chef Chopra’s been researching the royal kitchen and the local food of Varanasi, and he pulls out all the stops. The standard menu is predictable — grilled chicken, pastas, rogan josh, salads and sandwiches. Ask for the special sattvic menu, or the cuisine from the royal kitchen of Kashi Naresh, the current maharaja. This is home food: jackfruit kofta curries, an incredibly good poori stuffed with green peas, an in-season pumpkin curry and a plain yellow dal spiked with hing — and it’s delicious.
It takes me a day or two to realise why guests at the Nadesar Palace, from Goldie Hawn (she said she’d be back) to Mrs Gordon Sumner (she said she’d be back with Sting) love the place. It’s not the service — always helpful, and great at shimmering invisibly into the background. It’s not the décor, which is comfortable but which lacks the perfect eye of the Aman interiors or the quirkiness of some of the better Neemrana properties. It’s not even Panditji, the in-house astrologer who prophesies for me good health (excellent), many friends (awesome) and untold riches (my belief in his accuracy is suddenly shaken).
It’s not the old-fashioned buggy rides, or the fact that you can cycle around the palace, or that it has its own miniature version of the grand Kashi Vishwanath aarti in the evening. It’s not even the blessedly famous Jiva spa, where the therapists surprise you with what one guest has called their “maternal fingers”. Whether you’re doing the signature Abhishekha treatment — purified Ganges water, a Panch-amruta massage to Vedic chants — or a humble facial, the therapists work a kind of serenity into the time you spend with them.
It happens when you step into the city. You might find yourself jostling hustlers, Israeli yoga practitioners and the corpse-du-jour on Banaras’s crowded streets. You might be eating your way through the city, starting with the lassi at the pehelwan’s corner, ending with the pedas and the famed paan. You might grin at the kids who carry on the tradition Sunny Singh — a Varanasiwaali — writes about, where the daily presence of death encourages urchins to return the ancient cry of “Ram naam satya hai!” with “Murda saala khush hai!”
Or you might take an early morning boat ride down the polluted, shrunken Ganges, letting the ghats go past, from the women’s bathing ghat to the one for Muslims only, from the laundry ghat to Manikarnika, just firing up the pyres for fresh bodies, cleaning out the detritus of the previous day’s souls. You might find yourself weaving to the insistent, trance-inducing rhythms of the 4am aarti at Kashi Vishwanath, or consulting one of the city’s scores of astrologers, or bumping into a filmmaker or artist friend here because, well, everyone comes to Kashi, don’t they?
Summer keeps the crowds down to some extent — it’s 44 degrees and, as one of Dyer’s characters in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi says so presciently, the eat is getting otter. But Banaras is in-your-face all the same, with the hymns and the prayers, the music and the curses, the practised pitches of the sari-sellers and the patter of the touts, selling everything from ganja to young girls to a guaranteed birth in heaven.
And this is the real USP of the Nadesar Palace. As a prime luxury property, it’s evolving into what it could be — offering comfort and relaxation rather than absolute wonder. But what it does, out on the outskirts of the city, is to create a tiny, self-contained place in Banaras that has nothing to do with Banaras. In its 40 acres, among the mango orchards, you can leave Banaras behind for long enough to allow you to go out and deal with Varanasi again. It’s a way to be in Kashi while being Elsewhere, an escape from the city — guilty, expensive, seductive and, for a certain kind of traveller, absolutely necessary.
By air: There are daily flights to Varanasi’s Babatpur airport from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
By train: Several trains run daily from Delhi to Varanasi, including the Shiv Ganga Express; from Mumbai – Kamayani, Mahanagari and Gorakhpur Express; and from Kolkata – Jammu Tawi Express. There are frequent trains to other major cities too.
Nadesar Palace: The property offers 10 suites in a restored colonial-era mansion. Facilities Spa, pool, guided tours, Royal Buggy ride, guided walk with a botanist, yoga classes, excursions, etc .Tariff from Rs 14,500 on double occupancy. Meals and taxes extra. Contact 0542-2503001, www.tajhotels.com