I was puzzled. After an hour-long car ride from the airport my driver pulled over at Bhaisasur Ghat and asked me to alight. He deposited my luggage in a boat, where a uniformed man was waiting for me, and told me to hop on. I later understood why BrijRama Palace, the latest luxe address in this ancient city, had sent a private motorboat for me. Varanasi’s narrow lanes make it difficult to reach the property by car. Cycle rickshaws are the obvious option, but when you’re arriving at a royal address, why not do it in style? The original structure of the BrijRama Palace, built as a fort by a Maratha minister, dates back to 1812 and is one of Varanasi’s oldest buildings.
An elevator (I’m told South Asia’s first was installed here back in the early 20th century) ride up to the lobby from the ghats leads to a traditional welcome and a chilled glass of thandai.
A walk around the hotel’s royal interiors exposes one to a mishmash of architectural styles, reflecting the change of hands over the years. While the lined pillars, semicircular bastions and floral motifs are all Maratha elements, the Greco-Roman statuettes and carvings of Ganges river dolphins were effected by the Maharaja of Darbhanga (in modern-day Bihar), who acquired the structure in 1915. The current owners, 1589 Hotels, have kept all of it and spent 18 years restoring the property. The results are evident in the handpainted frescoes, thekari artwork and wooden-blade ceiling fans, a design element from the ’40s. The heritage hotel has32 rooms and suites, many of which overlook the Ganga. Mine was a Vasundhara Room, one of the highest categories, made up of a living area, bedroom and white-marble bathroom with a stand-alone tub, shower and Kama Ayurveda toiletries.
However, if it’s the view you’re after, aim for the 300sq ft Varuna Burj Room, which offers a 180° panorama of the Ganga’s crescent route. Given that this property is located bang on the sacred ghats, you’re not going to get any meat or alcohol (although eggs can be made to order for breakfast). But you won’t mind going vegetarian when you feast on the Banarasi thali at the multicuisine Darbhanga restaurant. The rich affair consists of nine hearty dishes, including Banarasi dum aloo, matar nimona (mashed-pea curry) and ghughuri (Bengal-gram curry), along with crispy, colourful sago papads and your choice of bread.
Don’t let this big fat meal weigh you down; included in your tariff is a boat ride to the famed (and much-lnstagrammed) evening Ganga aarti, on the nearby Dashashwamedh Ghat. Another of the city’s major pilgrimage attractions, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, is a mere 600m away. If you’re up for it, rise at 6am (or 5, depending on the season) for a complimentary session of yoga on the terrace. You could also book a private meal on board a boat and sail down the river. And to complete the Banarasi experience, you’re even handed an abridged copy of the Bhagavad Gita on checkout. A timeless souvenir of your stay in this timeless city.