Day 11: 29th June 2015 – Varanasi

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Surprisingly we are all up early, I honestly thought we would feel exhausted and opt out of going today. It must be about four in the morning, I didn’t need an alarm to wake us up either because our room is obviously located near a mosque so we were woken up by the mosque call to prayer. It is too early to have breakfast; the restaurant opens for breakfast at about 6am and will serve till 10:30am. Hopefully we will be back from the tour in time to grab breakfast.

In the lobby we call for Guddu (our driver) to meet us and take us back to our meeting point where we started our tour from the night before, this is where we will meet with Anoop our guide from the previous day.

Today our tour includes a very early morning boat tour, we are starting from the main ghat Dashashwamedh, we will then sail along the river and see the remaining famous ghats that we were unable to see yesterday evening. Anoop is already at the meeting point (assuming he went home and hasn’t spent the night here). On the way to the ghat we stop at one of the stalls to purchase a few empty bottles so that we can bring some of the rivers Holy water back with us. The water is used in prayers by families to bless various different things so both Dipali and I want to bring some back to the UK. The water is one of the oldest and holiest rivers so the water carries a lot of meaning for Hindu’s, there are many religious stories about the river which you can definitely learn about in Varanasi.

We reach the main ghat and hire one of the many boats that are lined up waiting for your business. It is now 5am in the morning so I had it in my mind that it will be a lot quieter, well I am completely wrong, it isn’t as crowded as the night before but the bottom of the steps is filled with people bathing in the cool river. The weather this morning is cooler and quite fresh so I would assume the river is cold. We find a boat and as I step in I take a look at all the people bathing at the riverbank and notice how everyone takes their dip differently, some are just a quick dunk and straight back out, some are having a full on swim whilst some are gathering water and facing towards the sun and praying.

As we sail away I very carefully add my empty bottle to the water and fill up, the water touches my hand and I notice that it is quite chilly so the 5am swimmers are very dedicated in this temperature.

The purpose of starting the boat tour at this time is so that you see the famous sights along the river clearly, but there is a beautiful sunrise light breaking through, in addition to the sun starting to come up, the cool air is creating a foggy mist along the top of the river which creates such a beautiful and peaceful setting. In seeing this I waste no time in getting my camera out and snap away. Anoop is pointing out all the historical sites along the river and telling us all the ancient religious mythical stories. Moving further down the river the noise from the main ghat starts to fade away and it becomes quieter and quieter, I am not sure what has happened to the three of us, we have all become quiet as well, we look around taking everything in and all you can hear is the oars dipping in and out of the water or the odd shutter sound from one of our cameras.

Each ghat has something to see as we drift along; some of the steps have small mandirs (Hindu temples) on the top, I notice on the next step 3 sadhus (religious men) sat next to one another, dressed in orange robes and praying. In fact, one has his hands up by his ears, the other almost has his hands over his mouth so I really want to ask the third one to cover his eyes to complete the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, I am sure this is not the pose they were trying to do but it was just a funny coincidence.

Moving on gets better, there is another sadhu sat on his own on the next set of steps and he is roaring with laughter, he has a full hearty laugh which has now infected me to join him in laughter, I have no idea why he is so amused but I am enjoying this laughter fit with him.

The swimming, and praying is not all that the river is used for, as we sail on I see quite a few people doing their laundry in the river, they soak the clothes and wash it with soap then beat the clothes against a rock to get the excess water out before hanging it to dry. The Ganga River really is the main hub of everything, Religion, spirituality, funerals and apparently laundry. The river goes on for miles, the people watching is great fun, after 40 minutes we start to turn around towards the main ghat and grab our last few photos, there are more and more boats appearing so I am really pleased we started early.

In reaching the main ghat, we disembark and head back to the meeting point to meet Guddu. The next part of our tour is to visit the Banaras Hindu university, on the way to the university I tell Anoop that we haven’t stopped and had chai (tea) from a local chai wallah (tea maker). Tea in India is fantastic but for a full experience you have to visit a local tea stall for a street side chai. Hygiene aside you should be ok (I hope) as they boil the water and milk many times over making it rather difficult for germs or bugs to survive. The tea is then served in a small clay pot (similar to the little one I bought in Mumbai). Anoop jumps out and orders us all tea from a chai wallah, he returns with our round of drinks we all say cheers and drink it like a shot of tequila (no turning back now). The tea lives up to the reputation of being strong and delicious, the perfect remedy after our boat ride as we are all a bit soaked from the on/off rain, combined with the cool air this morning.

After a short drive we enter the grounds of a stunning building, this is the grounds of the university. The university is in an enclosed section that has its own community within it. There is everything from science institutes to technology or medical centres, it goes on for miles. The area of the university that we are visiting is the Vishwanath Temple which is a relatively new temple. The famous temple in Varanasi is the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Anoop advises us that it will be really crowded at the temple at this time and that we won’t be able to get in and see it properly, he feels it will ruin our experience so suggested we come to this one. I am pleased with this suggestion as we are pretty soaked and definitely don’t want to be surrounded by large crowds of people.

The new Vishwanath temple is fantastic, the architecture is stunning. In any temple or holy sites in India, before entering, you are required to remove your shoes. We all remove our shoes, leaving them in the designated area before we enter the temple grounds. We are in time to witness the morning Aarti (prayers) which we stay and watch. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva, you will learn about Lord Shiva as you walk around the temple and see all the stories about him. One of the stories about Lord Shiva tells you about his trusted Bull named Nandi. Nandi served and protected Lord Shiva and his family. Nandi holds a lot of importance in the Hindu religion; you will see a large statue of Nandi in the temple surrounded by many devotees.

It feels like we have had a long day already because of our early start, I look at the clock expecting it to be mid-day but we are not even half way through the morning yet. I also notice we still have plenty of time for breakfast so we decide to finish up our tour and head back to the hotel. We thank Anoop for showing us Varanasi and then drop him back at the meeting point.

Once we arrive at the hotel and enjoy a well-deserved breakfast we all talk about the tour. Even though it has more or less rained the whole time it hasn’t ruined any part of the tour for us. While we are enjoying breakfast I look outside at the grey sky and rain, I then hear a large crackling sound which immediately makes me turn towards a rail line outside the hotel; the noise seems to be coming from this area. The rail line has water bucketing down on it so it starts sparking and raining down with electric fire looking sparks, there is a fire work noise as this happens and the shock and fear must be apparent on my face as one of the waiters smiles at me and says “don’t worry Ma’am”, I return a nervous smile, but in my mind I am thinking “why should I not worry? The start of an electric storm is happening right outside your hotel, shouldn’t we run for cover?” The electrocuting deadly storm continues on while everyone calmly eats their egg on toast, I pretend not to care but I don’t think I hide it too well. Once breakfast is finished we have a few hours to relax and hopefully make ourselves look presentable for the Nadesar Palace which we are visiting and having lunch at this afternoon. We currently look as though we haven’t washed for a month because of the amount of rain that has soaked our hair, not a good look for a Palace.

A few hours later in a much cleaner and fresher state, we meet in the lobby. Guddu arrives to meet us and takes us straight to the hotel; we reach the gates of Nadesar and Taj Gateway. Both hotels are within the same grounds, we head to the Taj Gateway first. The Taj Gateway is a lovely hotel and because it shares the same grounds as the Nadesar it is in a beautiful setting. The Taj Gateway is a good value five-star hotel in Varanasi with very reasonable prices; the hotel has a wide range of facilities for a relaxing and comfortable stay. At the entrance of the hotel we meet the hotel sales manager who is in charge of showing us the Gateway. The hotel is quite large and we see the main areas of the hotel first. There is a main restaurant serving a mixed choice of cuisines, you have a signature restaurant called Varuna that is open for lunch and dinner, serving Indian food, then there is a bar area which also offers snacks. We move onto the rooms; the main room we see is the executive room which offers access to the executive lounge. This is their highest room category before it moves up to a suite.

Our tour of the Taj Gateway is a brief one just to get a feel for the hotel, the jewel in the crown of Varanasi would be the Nadesar but for a well-priced five- star as an alternative option then Taj Gateway is perfect. Even though the Taj Gateway is located in the same grounds, the facilities at the Nadesar Palace is exclusive to the guests, Taj Gateway guests will not be allowed access.

We are escorted over to the Nadesar Palace and as we arrive we are greeted by the onsite Pandit blowing a shankh (conch shell) and showering petals on us to welcome. The hotel has arranged for us to have the full experience that the guests receive; we are being taken on a horse drawn cart around the grounds. When you do this tour, you will get an insight into the heritage and history of the hotel, this tour is offered to all guests. The carriage driver has been at the hotel for years taking guests on the tour and looking after the horses so he knows all the history of the Palace. When we arrive back at the entrance of the hotel the Nadesar sales manager, Mr Inderpal Singh Bedi is waiting to meet us with a welcome mango drink. The tour has had a good start so far weather wise, it has suddenly turned out to be hot and sunny afternoon. We greet the sales manager who takes us through to the lobby.

The Nadesar Palace is a boutique property housing ten luxury suites. Being the best and most luxurious in Varanasi, the hotel books up extremely quickly so it is very advisable to book in advance to avoid disappointment. The lobby doesn’t feel like a hotel, you would think it is someone’s large living room with a through dining area, the whole layout of the hotel is made to feel like a Royal home. The manager tells us the history of the hotel which was one of the residences of Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh. This is also where the Maharaja would host many royal guests including King George V. The hotel feels like a museum tour because of the all the Royal members that have lived or stayed here, the furniture and décor around the hotel are original with paintings hanging throughout completing the historical stories. The first suite we see is the Palace suite which overlooks the gardens, there is a lot of space in the room and a huge king bedroom. The next category of room to this is a historical suite which is similar to the Palace but a little more space with views of either the garden or the pool. The hotel isn’t a high rise building there are only two floors, some of the suites are located on the ground floor by the lobby or you have a few suites on the second floor. I would personally recommend the upper floor as this appears to be the quietest rooms; I prefer the views on the upper floor suites as well. The biggest room you can opt for is the Royal suite, this offers a separate bedroom and living room. All the suites are individually named after some of the famous royal residents. We took a quick look at the signature Taj Spa Jiva before finishing up.

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We are guided back to the lobby of the hotel where the dining area has now been set up for our lunch. We thank our host for the tour who in my opinion has been the best sales manager so far, his knowledge of the hotel and its history has been so informative. The lunch at Nadesar is exquisite; each and every dish is delicious and we stuff ourselves to the maximum. The head chef comes out to greet us and we find out the lunch was selected especially for us to sample their best signature dishes. With lunch over, we are all at the point of explosion with the amount we have eaten; we call Guddu to collect us.

Guddu gets us back to our hotel in record time however we decide to get out by the shopping mall. There is no rush to get to the hotel as we know this will be a quiet night in. With all our tours completed there isn’t too much more to do, if we didn’t have the hotel to see then we all would have departed today as one night in Varanasi is more than enough and quite honestly I am eager to return to a bit of city life. The mall near the hotel is very small with a few restaurants, including the famous McDonalds along with a few fast food restaurants and coffee shops. Shop wise there are perhaps 2 clothes stores and one religious artefact and souvenir shop, the souvenir shop is the one we decide to enter. Now, in most stores in India a shop keeper will pounce on you to buy something but as the mall is quiet I am guessing they have had a long and slow day. The salesman in the store doesn’t leave his seat, he looks up at us briefly with a grunt of acknowledgement, the hours of boredom is apparent on his face, having three customers in his store does not offer any further excitement to his day so he continues to read. Sadly, we can’t even make a pity purchase as he is selling items that we already purchased by the river, we decide not to add to his pain and move on to the other stores.

After half an hour wandering around the mall we decide to make a slow walk back to the hotel. I didn’t realise that this is an exciting invitation for every rickshaw driver in Varanasi; we have not even taken two paces from the mall before a gang of rickshaw drivers surround us, almost blocking our onward path. They all scream and shout prices and offers to take us back to the hotel (which I must point out won’t even be a 1-minute walk), we advise that we are very close and it would be pretty pathetic of us to hire a vehicle to take us on a ten second ride. This doesn’t sway any of them, they then offer to take us on a tour and start shouting more prices, there was even a point where they looked as if they were going to fight one another for our business. We continue to walk with all the drivers following us. Unfortunately, as irritating as this is you cannot be too offended by the rickshaw stalking; you are their bread and butter, especially being a tourist, they can smell you from a mile off! Varanasi can be a little smelly (especially during monsoons) so the fact that they can sniff out a tourist over these smells is impressive (or we just smell worst).

Once we are back at the hotel we decide to relax and have a movie night, we have our “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” movie from the Rajvilas. We order a few snacks from the room service menu, chuck on our pyjamas and slippers and watch our movie. I am really pleased to be heading to Delhi the next morning but this is also setting in a sad realisation that our trip is nearly over.

 

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