Holy Hostelry

“Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.” Salman Rushdie could have been speaking for Benares. Legends live in every bylane of this ancient temple town. The legend of Shiva and Parvati, who ‘stood here when time started’; of the Buddha, who delivered his first sermon after enlightenment at Sarnath, just outside the city limits; of the weaver who spins golden tales out of silk; of the Kasi Viswanath temple, considered the centre of the earth in Hindu cosmology; and, most especially, of the Ganga, whose aarti outdoes even the most aggressive SEZs in the FDI it attracts every evening (never mind that this investment is largely emotional).

Benares has long been the home of Sanskrit and Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society. Now it also has the Nadesar Palace to boast of. Truth be told, the last has been around since the early 18th century, when it was built by the East India Company. There’s just been a small course correction. Earlier, it accommodated the guests of Maharaja Ishwari Prabhu Narain Singh, who acquired the property in 1835; now it hosts the guests of the Taj Group of Hotels. Over the years, the royal guest list has been an eclectic one: consider Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, Lord Mountbatten, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II and the Dalai Lama.

Today, most of Nadesar’s guests are still foreigners, drawn in by the spectacle of life and death that plays out on the ghats every day. But, the staff says, now Indian high-fliers have begun to make quick landings as well, as have tradition-bound mothers and daughters, in town for trousseau shopping.

Though called a palace, Nadesar is a magnificent example of an early British colonial bungalow, with the typical pillars, cast iron railings and mouldings of the time. Located next to Taj Ganges, it lay abandoned for years; though its grounds were used for Gateway banquets and large parties. Taj took over the property in 2008 from the current Kashi Naresh (aka Benares maharaja) Dr Anant Narain Singh, and spent a year restoring it.

Nadesar Palace initially opened to the public with four Palace Rooms, four Historical Suites and two Royal Suites. A few more coming soon. Outside, stand landscaped gardens, orchards, the mandatory swimming pool and a mini golf course. The subconscious of the décor is local legend; with marigolds, jasmine and pink lotuses—flowers offered by devotees at the Ganga and the temples—supplying the colour cues in the suites. If one is a rose-coloured spectacle; another is a wonder in gossamer gold. Local weavers provide the textiles that clothe the rooms and oversized bathrooms. The four poster beds lie in the canopied embrace of silk; brocades hold the upholstered furniture hostage; organzas line the doors and windows. Old photographs—taken from the collection of the maharajas and meticulously restored and reframed—occupy the walls. All the old furniture has been retained, as have the clawfoot bathtubs, the original cast iron railings and the louvered timber screens over the verandahs.

Like the rest of Benares, home to two thousand temples, Nadesar is big on ceremony. The goddess Nandeswari (aka the wife of Shiva and an avatar of Durga), whose shrine sits within the property, supplies the name. Priests perform aarti here every evening, at the same time as the sound and light show on the river bank. An antiseptic alternative for those who don’t want to muck about in the mud, you could say.

Since Nadesar takes its palace duties very seriously, all the guests get a ‘Royal Welcome’ experience when they come in, with the aforementioned priests chanting mantras, showering rose petals and blowing conches. Actually, the welcome experience (with apologies to ITC) begins at the airport itself, where a personal butler waits to escort the guest to the car under the protection of his massive umbrella. This butler shadows the guest through the duration of his stay, recommending dishes that pander to his taste, help choose spa treatments that factor in one’s skin type and patience levels, highlight the best sights to see, even help choose from the pillow menu that’s crammed with products designed to induce blissful slumber.

Be warned, however, that though this personal genie for every pleasure is useful and ego-boosting, the constant presence of another can take the edge off your privacy. The other trappings may seem par for the course to guests who regularly trudge the luxury trail, but the Champagne Carriage ride is a Nadesar novelty. Here, you nose the complimentary bubbly as a 135-year-old horse carriage (that was once used by the maharaja) takes you around the 28-acre property. Return to the room to find your bath drawn as per your selection from the bath menu and a Ganesha—ingeniously wrought from towels—sitting at the foot of your bed.

Breakfast is usually laid out on the verandah. Since Nadesar likes all its meals to be different, this is followed by lunch in the dining room, and a barbeque dinner by the poolside (with the ubiquitous Indian musicians in attendance).

The Continental dishes come highly recommended but, in a nod to Benares’ ‘holiness’, the kitchen also puts together a satvik thali, made with seasonal vegetables cooked without onions or garlic. For those who like to keep faith and food separate, the chef replaces the vegetables with kababs, Laknavi lamb biryani and Bengali fish curry.

Since one can’t leave the temple city without doing an abhisheka (ceremony of ablutions), the hotel offers its already-pampered guests with an enhanced version of the one performed at the ghats. Those unwilling to dunk themselves in the river (never mind the promise of a guaranteed knock on heaven’s door) will find this a welcome alternative. It starts with the Jiva Spa therapist pouring lota-loads of warm milk over your body, followed by pastes of sandalwood, ghee, curd, sugar and honey. A warm water bath later, you’re gently led to a bed and given a therapeutic massage.

The story-seekers who swarm into Benares to seek, pray, love their way to Nirvana find the city to be the mother of all myth. The Nadesar Palace is certainly one of the city’s more sophisticated legends — with room service.

Courtesy: India Today Spice (First published in February 2011)

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