Varanasi, Benares, Banaras, Kashi—whichever name you choose to call it, this city, located 482 miles outside Delhi on the banks of the Ganges river is not only one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (and most likely the oldest city in India), it’s also considered holy by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. There are over 2,000 temples in this city that is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. The faithful believe it was founded by Lord Shiva over 5,000 years ago. Today, it draws over a million visitors each year. Some are tourists, but most are pilgrims who come to bathe in the Ganges, believing it will wash away all one’s sins.
It’s a crowded place that can seem overwhelming to those not used to sharing a dusty road with cars, entire families on motorcycles or bicycles, horse-drawn carts, and the occasional camel. Braving the crowds is a must to see the Aarti or “ceremony of lights” that takes place on the banks of the river every night, or to take a boat out on the river at sunrise to watch pilgrims bathing and cremation fires burning. Those experiences, while must-sees, can be both physically and emotionally intense, and having a peaceful place to retreat and contemplate afterwards is also a must.
Taj’s latest India offering, the Nadesar Palace, is one of those places. A short drive from the Ganges, but a world away, the now 10-room hotel was, in the late 1700s, the residence of the Magistrate of Benares and, later, the city residence of the Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh (who ruled from 1889 to 1931). Guests today can borrow a bicycle and take a ride around the 42 acres here—through mango orchards, fragrant gardens of marigolds, jasmine, and rose bushes and rows of fig trees. There’s also a large garden here, watched over by Chef Sanjeev Chopra, who uses these homegrown vegetables and fruits to create daily menus, including Ayurvedic offerings. The chefs will also prepare spa meals that could include smoothies, vegetable juices, oatmeal, and pancakes made with local buckwheat.
Those meals are taken in the dining room, but one can also ask to have them in the spa, a separate building on property here. There are three treatment rooms, one yoga room, and while small, very well designed. Many of the body treatments offered are based on traditional therapies created for Indian royalty, all oils are blends culled from Ayurvedic texts and made with locally sourced ingredients, and scrubs and wraps use fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs often sourced from the garden here.
What sets Taj apart, however, are the more unusual offerings. Room amenities are by Forest Essentials, all-natural Ayurvedic based products that smell gorgeous. The spa offers a form of meditation called “Trataka,” that involves what they call “steady flame gazing.” There’s also an astrologer at the Nadesar Palace most evenings, and while I didn’t find him very enlightening, my friends found him entertaining. www.tajhotels.com