Location: Brijrama Palace, Darbhanga Ghat, Dashashwamedh, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001
Varanasi has been the ultimate destination city for Hindus for thousands of years. This sacred maze of narrow lanes lining a sweeping curve of the River Ganga is perpetually packed full. Full of temples, full of gods and their various manifestations especially Shiva to whom it is dedicated, and full of people worshipping, selling, buying, chanting, studying, eating, singing, welcoming the sun, celebrating the sunset, taking a dip in the sacred cleansing waters, or just hanging out.
In the midst of this purposeful muddle soars Brijrama Palace hotel, serene and ordered. A monumental stone palace exquisitely brought back to life from dilapidation by craftsmen in an 18-year-long project, it faces out over the calm, slow-flowing Ganga, oblivious to the ancient city behind.
Like many of Varanasi’s riverside palaces whose wealthy Hindu builders were based in other areas of India, Brijrama was built to be the pilgrimage home of the minister of Nagpur state, Shridhara Narayana Munshi, and incorporates his homeland’s Maratha styles and few classical European details. From its completion in 1810 it would have hosted generations of visiting family with their cohort of dependents and servants. Then, in 1915, it was sold to the Brahman ruler of Darbhanga who added the second floor and an elevator – the first to be built in Asia, still working today.
Brijrama deftly blends material comfort and spiritual peace. Rooms are comfortable, not deluxe - apart from the 300 square foot Varuna Burj suite. I especially like the smaller Dhanurdhara rooms that open on to the wide top floor terrace overlooking the Ganga, mesmerising views, tempting not to budge all day. Dinner at Brijrama is a great opportunity: enjoy the best and most authentic Varanasi cuisine in town, perhaps in India; just discuss with Chef who can give dishes a modern twist, or not. As the hotel is inside the sacred city all food is vegetarian and no alcohol is served.
Then, perhaps an evening stroll along the ghats. The sacred city never sleeps.
Must-do wellness experience: gazing out over the Ganga from the top terrace.
Brijrama buzz phrase: How was your sunrise today?
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Brijrama Palace
Arrival at Brijrama is by bajra (local wooden boat) from the nearest lane wide enough for a car to reach the river bank. As you approach the palace, the greyish-pink stone façade fills your view.
Sacred and non-sacred art is scattered through the building, complemented by modern frescoes, mirror-work murals and wood-blade ceiling fans. Explore the top terrace for views, the courtyard for music and dance, and Kaashi Wellness spa to help you feel as good as possible!
India's finest brocade is woven here, usually by Muslim craftsmen for Hindu dealers, commissioned by Buddhist monks' for their Himalayan temples. Seek it out at silk stores, with persistence! It was at Sarnath, a 30-min drive out of town, that the enlightened Buddha gave his first speech. Take an evocative walk through the great monastery-university remains; don't miss the tip top sculptures in the on-site museum.
Take a morning boat ride up to Tulsi Ghat to observe yoga-wrestling at a traditional akhada, which includes demanding exercises and puja to Hanuman. Beside it, visit the fascinating home of Tulsidas (1532-63) who translated the Ramayana into the vernacular, vastly widening its readership.
As you wander lanes and ghats (river steps), glide up and down the river by boat, or watch the Bollywood-style evening puja at Dashashwamedh Ghat, there is always time to pause for a steaming chai (vigorously boiled milky sweet tea) drunk from a newly made terracotta cup which you then throw away, very hygienic.
Episode 19: Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
It really is time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience for 2022!
How shall we want to travel?
We are emerging into a more cautious world, one where we perhaps want to move more slowly, be in control of our interaction with other people, avoid crowds, be outside as much as possible. I am here to help you achieve this in the Himalaya, on the Deccan Plateau, along the coast, in forests, desert and villages.
If you have not traveled with me in a group before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to off-beat places. We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs. In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
I work with you to create your tailor-made trip to any corner of India, to any budget, for all interests and special needs, for families and parties of friends, for business groups and for honeymoon couples - India is ideal for everyone!