I’ve always been a bit squeamish about dying. I’m probably a bit British in that respect. But in Varanasi, one of the oldest and most spiritual living cities in world, and set against the backdrop of the River Ganges, death is deeply ingrained in everyday life.
Locals will tell you the city was founded 5,000 years ago by Shiva, the Hindu god whose role is to destroy, thus balancing out the work of Brahma the creator and Vishnu the maintainer. Hindus from across the sub-continent and beyond have long yearned to be cremated here, out in the open, when their time in this life is up. Leading to the release from the cycle of re-birth and straight to Nirvana, this is the place to exit.
It isn’t all about the end of life however. With more than a million devotees visiting every year to bathe in the holy waters and wash away their sins, the city is a hub of living and one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites worldwide. Deeply revered as a goddess and mother, The Ganges is believed to have descended from the heavens several millennia ago to infuse the earth with goodness, thus making a dip in her waters the way forward.
All things considered, my excitement about visiting Varanasi was tempered by apprehension. I needn’t have worried though; I was to be eased in gently and luxuriously.
Taj Hotel’s Nadesar Palace, which opened in January this year, has raised the bar for luxury hotel offerings in the city. It is a ten-suite wonder set in acres of mango orchards and jasmine fields. Hardly diehard backpacker stuff.
Built in the early 19th Century, the palace was taken over by Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh during his rule between 1889 and 1931 as his city residence. It has since played host to royalty and heads of state including the likes of King George V and The Dalai Lama.
The name Nadesar stems from the Goddess Nadesari, whose shrine sits proudly in the grounds of the hotel; naturally, another spiritual link. On arrival, it was explained to me that the colour scheme throughout is bright, depicting the marigolds, jasmines and pink lotuses offered to the River Ganges. This was good news as flowers remind me of happy things.
The rooms, being just ten of them, are very large. Decorated in part by the Maharaja’s art collection, mine had a four poster bed fit for any princess, a role-top bath, oversized of course, and views to the orchards outside. It felt slightly like I had reached Nirvana already.
Wrapped in a fluffy white bathrobe, I made a pilgrimage of my own to the hotel’s Jiva Spa, to try out their signature treatment, Abhisheka. This is a welcome adaptation to purifying oneself with water from The Ganges – a practice that, spiritual cleanliness aside, is akin to bathing in the filth of the river Thames.
The therapist poured some holy water over my body, then a paste of five of the purest food stuffs was applied (milk, clarified butter, curd, sugar and honey). The experience was completed with a soothing Indian massage – the type that made you feel as if you could float away when finished.
I left the oasis of the palace utterly relaxed – a state of mind at odds with Varanasi proper. This was a city with an unrelenting ability to overload the senses. As I dodged rickshaws, street sellers and even the odd cow, my docile, post-spa self was assaulted by the sounds and smells thousands of people going about their lives. But like many other tourists, this buzz was secondary to what I was visiting the city for; The Ganges.
With the help of my guide, Prakash, I navigated through the medieval labyrinthine layout of the city to the banks of the river. There are over a hundred ghats (steps leading to the water), each with a designated purpose. Some are used for washing, others for yoga and of course some for cremations. My morbid fascination drew me to the latter.
Sitting silently I watched body after body being taken down to the riverside pyres, men wrapped in white and women in red. Here prayers were said and various rituals carried out, including submersing the shrouded figures in the holy water, before they were to be set alight. As flames engulfed the canvases, gradually more flesh was exposed and they were reduced, little by little, to ash. I winced when I saw an arm fall down out of the fire, but after a good half an hour of sitting transfixed, I was surprised at how my usually squeamish self started to feel a little desensitized to the process. This was certainly a bizarre experience.
Further along the river, there was a group of Saddhus (holy men) performing pujas (rituals) in the sun, giving offerings to the Hindu gods and goddesses. But there did not seem to be many mourners; only a gaggle of locals soaping up before dunking their bodies into the river, against the backdrop of housewives beating colourful saris on the ghats and a couple of water buffalos, clearly with not a lot on their minds.
Before heading back to my luxe retreat, I took a boat downriver. As the oars plunged eerily into the water, the evening aarti, a ritual of light and sound, at Dasashvamedha, the main ghat, was underway. While the bells clanged and the fire danced in front of my eyes, the oarsman lent over, mid row, to take a sip of river water; I tried to suppress my horror and asked him politely whether it was a good idea to drink such evidently filthy liquid. He responded that it was holy and clean. The murky brown, river water looked to be neither of these things – but he looked fit and healthy, as did most of the riverside dwellers. There must be something in the power of their belief.
Back at the hotel, lying on my four-poster, I mulled over my Varanasi experience. I had known even before I stepped foot in the city that my attitude towards death was alien here. But not for morbid the reasons I had expected. Understanding India has always been about leaving your comfort zones – always easier from the ultimate comfort zone of the Taj – so to miss out on seeing death in this city is to miss out on ever truly uncovering its rich culture of living.
Cox & Kings offers a six night trip including four nights at the Nadesar Palace Varanasi (www.tajhotels.com) and two nights at the Taj Mahal Delhi from £1,495 per person including international and domestic flights with Jet Airways, private transfers, tours of Delhi, Varanasi and a boat ride on the Ganges. 020 7873 5000 www.coxandkings.co.uk