WORDS: FABIOLA MONTEIRO
PHOTOGRAPHS: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
GO FROM: New Delhi
GO FOR: A relaxing do-nothing break
In a city as storied and sacred as Varanasi, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. This is, after all, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, where Shiva, the Hindu god of death and destruction, is believed to reside. The serpentine alleyways of the old city are a jumble of hole-in-the-wall shops and ancient ashrams, where pilgrims and passers-by jostle for space, and holy lingams spring from buildings on the wayside. There’s a lot that’s constantly calling for your attention in Varanasi, and it can be hard to make sense of it all when you’re in the centre of it.
Step away then to calmer environs outside the city, at the Tree of Life Resort & Spa. Sited about 45 minutes away from the old city this newly-opened boutique property provides a break from all the hustle and bustle. And yet, you’re never too far from remembering Shiva’s bond with Varanasi: you’ll be greeted by a dozen lingams of varying sizes when you step into the courtyard. In your room, you’ll find an eye-catching mural of Shiva over the bed. These murals – all 18 rooms at the resort have these – were hand-painted by Suresh Nair, an artist and professor at Benares Hindu University’s department of fine arts. But, even if you’re not familiar with Hindu mythology, it’s okay – the attention to detail goes beyond just the decor at the resort.
The food, for instance, is reason enough to plan your trip. Dig into platefuls of Awadhi murgh tikka or one of the resort’s specialties, Benarasi gosht. If you’re vegetarian, ask for paneer kaleji (there’s no liver, don’t worry) – it’s apparently a dish that was created for the local vegetarian community so that they could get a taste of what mutton liver, texture-wise at least, was like. In fact, you could learn how to make it yourself – the property offers a cooking class with executive chef Avanish Goswami that’s interactive and insightful.
If you feel a calorie-guilt creeping in, book a yoga class with a local pandit. The kund in the resort is a peaceful place by which to find your balance. Or, make your way to the old city, which is best explored on foot. City-based Experience Varanasi offers a range of tours, like the Bengali Tola Walk, which takes you through the ins and outs of the community, and gives you a closer glimpse at local life. But, if there’s one experience you must have in the city, it’s the evening boat ride on the Ganga. Because Shiva resides here, it’s believed that dying (or cremation) in Varanasi breaks the cycle of reincarnation and liberates the soul. The boat ride can get you up close to Manikarnika Ghat, the busier of the two cremation ghats in the city on the river. While it can seem fairly unnerving, watching dozens of bodies burn is also fascinating – the centuries-old rituals are strict, and the firm faith that the believers gather with provides fodder for thought about the place of religion in today’s world. Plus, the boat ride gets you front-row seats to the evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, which finds its way onto every visitor’s must-see list, and for good reason – it’s a synchronised spectacle that’s hard to tear your eyes away from.
At the end of your day though, it’s always best to have a hearty dinner and a cosy bed to tuck into. Tree of Life provides a fitting balance of relaxation and discoveries in the city, while also allowing enough time for rejuvenation. So take that time off to take it easy. It’s time.