The cry of the samosa sellers outside Rajghat, the northernmost ghat along the Ganga, is drowned by children playing hopscotch, the moment I step out of the car. Barely a stone’s throw away, the double-decker Malviya Bridge spans the holy river, the only visibly metallic structure that cuts across the wide riverscape.
“During full moon nights, it shines like Shiva’s Trishul,” the driver says while escorting us to the boat that would ferry us to BrijRama Palace. “In many ways, it ties the soul of Benaras together.”
It is hard to square this visual against the sun beating mercilessly on our faces but I try. Our destination is the Darbhanga Ghat but we have to pass by other iconic ghats along the way to get there. As is the wont the first time you’re in Varanasi, the boat slows down whenever we approached a new ghat, allowing us to learn everything we have to know within ten crisp seconds.
The silences between two consecutive ghats is then filled by the endless stream of seagulls flitting about. In the boat adjacent to ours, a newly married couple poses against the flights of the birds, only to hunker down when we pass the Manikarnika Ghat—one of the holiest cremation grounds in Hinduism.
In the evenings, with the thrum of the Ganga aartis encasing it, BrijRama Palace stands out in all its golden-hued glory.
The palace was built in 1812 by Shridhara Narayana Munshi, the then-minister for the estate of Nagpur. In 1915, King Rameshwar Singh Bahadur of Darbhanga (Bihar) acquired the palace, giving the ghat its name. Post 1915, the second floor of the palace was constructed and an elevator, one of the first in Asia, was added to the palace.
While we take in the deeply embellished interiors, replete with corbelled columns and elaborate mirror work, the first order of the day is to dissolve in the calm of Kaashi Wellness — the spa, located on the topmost floor of the palace and fronted by an open roof terrace providing a panoramic view of the Ganga.
We are requested to take a warm shower and bath, and brush our teeth before the Ayurvedic spa therapy begins. I am assigned the Rejuvenator—which lasts for more than two hours and involves a gentle exfoliation using organic oils, a warm compress, a full-body massage that instantly puts me at ease, and a calming moisturiser that seals all the nutrients in.
“As part of the therapy, a singing bowl will be placed near your root chakra that will help nurture a refreshed state of mind,” the therapist explains while placing the singing bowl at the base of my spine, the root chakra.
The quiet quarters of Kaashi Wellness prove to be a beautiful contrast against the din of mechanical boats ferrying devotees and tourists across Ganga, or the music of the lone sage outside the palace from his finely tuned two-headed drum.
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For any establishment located along the banks of Ganga, non-vegetarian food is off limits. For dinner, in the multi-cuisine Darbhanga restaurant, an assortment of banarasi nimona (pea curry), Darbhanga dal, the elaborate Banarasi thali and palak tikkis, awaits us. As we near the end of this rather sumptuous meal, the Bada Angan outside the restaurant (in the palace itself) is being set up for a kathak performance—one of the highlights of the trip.
A troupe of three artists, with the tabla, harmonium (also the singer) and veena, plays their hearts out, while a young kathak dancer gracefully matches the beats:
Paavan mai ban gayi, Kanhaiya,
Paavan mai ban gayi, tore mann mai reh gayi
(O Krishna, your presence has sanctified me,
While I remain entombed in your soul)
The Buddhist figurines and the elaborately lit, multi-tier diyas help illuminate the performance all the more as it continues for the better part of the hour. Such was the force of the kathak dancer, particularly during the more intense bits of the performance, that even the cranky child next to us had to sit up and take notice.
Soon after, we are ferried to the majestic Ganga aarti being held only a few ghats away at the Dashashwamedh Ghat—the place Brahma is said to have created to welcome Shiva, and also the ghat where Brahma sacrificed ten horses during the Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna.
“Are you journalists?” the priest asks us, stepping in our boat with the aarti thali. “Close your eyes and travel across the seven heavens, let Ganga Ma take you across the world.”
We interpret this as having the priest’s sacred approval to go globetrotting, even as the world limps back to normalcy. For some reason, the devotees around us seem to be mirroring our thoughts, praying harder than ever before.
For our final day at the palace, we wake up early to make the most of the day, led by Shashank Shrivastava, our guide. From tasting the malaiyo at a roadside stall to having black tea in the heart of a lane dominated by the Chinese and Bengalis, coming upon the Tulsi Akhara and its iconic mud-lathered wrestlers always surrounded by photographers, to getting lost in the maze that is the Banaras Hindu University—it is an overwhelming visual cornucopia but we are not complaining.
The BrijRama palace offers a myriad range of experiences simply by virtue of its location in one of the most central ghats along the Ganges.
One hardly needs a reason to visit the city on good days but as Aatish, an Aghori baba who often camps outside the palace tells us: “It’s only when you come to Banaras on the good days that the bad days seem a bit easy.”