“Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Mark Twain’s words echoed in my mind as I stepped off the flight into Varanasi’s decidedly modern and swishy airport. As we drove from the airport towards the city, the oldest living city in the world, Twain’s words began to ring true. It was our first visit to Varanasi, and I had heard wildly different opinions on it; it seems people either love it or hate it, and I had to see for myself to decide which camp I’d fall into. Our drive from the airport to Suryauday Haveli was slightly over an hour long. We stopped on the main Godolia Road from where two hotel porters arrived to carry our bags and guide us to the haveli.
Suryauday Haveli is more than a hundred years old, and was built by the Royal Family of Nepal as a retreat for the elderly. Built in the early 20th century, the haveli fell into disrepair after the royal family left the city, and was later painstakingly restored into a heritage hotel. The biggest selling point of Suryauday Haveli is its location. In Varanasi all the action is on the ghats and the river, whether it’s the evening Ganga aarti, or temple visits, or the boats gliding by, or just watching the gentle flow of the river. The haveli is located on Shivala Ghat, near the famed Asi Ghat. Next to the haveli is a small Shiva temple (one of the 3,000 Shiva temples dotting the city), and adjacent to it are the steps of the ghat, leading down to the river.The haveli is accessible by the river as well as by a maze of narrow alleys (lined with colourful houses, some with intricate paintings at the door) that connect to the main road.
Stepping inside the haveli, we were immediately struck by its calm atmosphere. The pale beige and sandstone walls, the intricately carved balconies, the immaculate, tree-shaded inner courtyard (with a little tulsi plant and bowls of marigolds) – all of these added a luxurious yet intimate feel to the haveli. We were welcomed with a traditional sandalwood tikka and the offering of a sheer silk scarf – white for my husband, and a pale gold one for me. While we were checking in, we were offered a cooling guava juice, which was more than welcome after the long drive from the airport.
We had the corner room on the ground floor, which came with two windows looking out over the river. I loved the beautiful drapes with vermillion and gold designs, as well as the amber accented upholstery. The room itself was spacious and well appointed, with a large bed (decorated with a ‘family’ of towel swans) facing one of the windows. There was a writing desk and an almirah (with bathrobes, bathroom slippers and a safe in it), as well as a mini fridge and a tea and coffee service. The bedside table had a bowl of fresh flowers and a beautiful, hardbound, gold-edged copy of the Bhagvad Gita translated into English, which I thought was a lovely touch. A small coffee table, a couple of chairs, and a wall-mounted flat screen TV completed the room. The bathroom was also spacious and clean, with a separate enclosed shower section (good quality, high pressure shower). I particularly liked the aromatic, herbal amenities and the handmade soap provided by the hotel. Basic amenities are provided, including a hairdryer.
Staying ‘on the ghat’ offers stunning views of the river as well as the daily life of pilgrims, devotees and sadhus as they take a dip in the river. I woke up every day at sunrise to the chirping of mynahs and parrots, which excitedly welcomed the new day. The haveli has a long balcony (called lower terrace) on the ground floor, which skirts the entire side facing the river, and is a lovely place to catch the sunrise (or for that matter spend any time of the day!). There’s a small sit-out in the centre – a coffee table and couple of chairs, which is the perfect spot for a morning cup of coffee. I also spent some time reading out there, with the background score of chirping birds, boatmen calling out to each other, and temple bells pealing somewhere along the ghat. For an even better view (and a relatively quieter time), I would head up to the rooftop terrace, which has a covered gazebo along with a large table and four chairs. There are a couple of sunbeds as well if you want to get a nice tan! The terrace gives a better view of the ghat and the river, as well as of the neighbouring houses and temples. I also saw a small troop of mischievous monkeys clambering over the rooftops of our neighbours.
The haveli’s restaurant is located on the ground floor and is accessible through the inner courtyard; there are a couple of additional tables in the courtyard itself for an al fresco dining experience. Breakfast was a leisurely affair at the haveli; there was a mix of cereals, egg dishes, and Indian breakfast items (paranthas, idli-upma etc.) on offer, along with a selection of fine teas and coffee. The highlight of breakfast was the special Banarasi lassi, which came decorated with smileys made with red syrup – what a lovely start to the day! The restaurant serves a variety of Indian and continental dishes, all of them vegetarian – in keeping with the holy environs. We dined on a sumptuous thali for one meal, which was prepared fresh and comprised an array of Indian delicacies. The local specialties included Dum Aloo Banarasi (potato stuffed with a rich mix of paneer, khoya and dry fruits), Motiya Paneer (small paneer balls deep fried and served in a slightly sweet, creamy curry), and Bhindi Masala (a ginger laced fried preparation of okra).
Varanasi is as chaotic and lively as you have read about. The streets are choc-a-bloc with cars, rickshaws (both cycle and motor), handcarts and people, not to mention the cows and stray dogs that seem to rule over the city. From the haveli, you can take a boat to go to the most important ghat of all – Dashashwamedh Ghat (where the evening Ganga aarti takes place). Alternatively, you can take a rickshaw from the main Godolia Road (5 min walk from the haveli). The most interesting way to get to the ghat is by walking down the labyrinthine streets (that run more or less parallel to the main road) that take you past homes, colourful shops, markets, cafes, lassi vendors, tea stalls – and the humdrum of daily life in Varanasi. The Ganga aarti takes place on Dashashwamedh Ghat every evening around sunset, so time your visit accordingly. During the monsoon when the ghat is flooded, the aarti shifts to a private terrace nearby, but you can still watch it in all its glory.
From Dashashwamedh Ghat make your way to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and one of the twelve Jyotirlingas (the holiest of all Shiva temples). The temple has been in existence for centuries, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The current temple dates to 1780 and is known for its gleaming gold-plated domes. The temple complex houses five temples in all, and is under a heavy security cover. Avoid taking handbags, mobile phones, cameras etc., else you will need to stow all your belongings in the government provided lockers or those at one of the numerous flower vendors around the temple.
Varanasi is known for its street food and the area around the temple has several shops and makeshift street vendors selling all sorts of chaat, kachori-sabzi, lassi and more. Head to Kachori Gali for a breakfast of Kachori-Sabzi-Jalebi; try Ram Bhandar or Babu Lal Kachori Wala (at the beginning of this lane) for some of the best kachoris in the city. Wash it down with lassi from Raja Ramji’s Lassi shop in Thateri Gali. Kashi Chaat Bhandar and Deena Chaat Bhandar on Ramapura Luxa Road are excellent places to sample the local specialty of tamatar chaat. Shri Raj Bandhu in Kachori Gali is the best place to pick up mithais, especially the Varanasi favourite lal pedha.
The highs & lows
- The location of the hotel was the biggest highlight of my visit – right on the ghat, yet easily connected to the markets and the city centre. The haveli itself is an oasis of calm in a chaotic city, away from the bustle and noise of Varanasi.
- Another highlight was our corner room on the ground floor, which had two large windows overlooking the ghat and the river.
- The beautiful inner courtyard, the lower terrace sit-out and the gazebo on the rooftop terrace were my favourite spaces to lounge about in, reading a book or sipping coffee.
- Chef Sanjay’s deft touch in the kitchen ensured that our meals were absolutely delectable.
- The haveli’s designated guide (also named Sanjay) was a pleasant youth who took us around the city.
- Our only low was the Wi-Fi connectivity, which was erratic at best. This was most likely due to the repair works happening around the haveli, which had disrupted connectivity.
Good to know
- Varanasi’s international airport is in Babatpur, about 30 km from Suryauday Haveli. Allow at least an hour to get from the airport to the hotel. The hotel can arrange your airport pick-up and drop (at a charge of Rs. 1,600 one way).
- Varanasi railway station is 6 km away (15 min drive).
- The last leg of the journey (whether you arrive by rail or air) is a scenic boat ride right up to the steps of Shivala Ghat where the haveli is located. The boat ride is not available during the monsoons when the river is flooded and the ghat is inaccessible.
- The best time to visit Varanasi is from October to March. The period around Diwali is especially recommended; the Ganga aarti on Dev Diwali (the full moon night after Diwali) is an incredible experience.
- The hotel has 16 rooms, many of which face the river and give a spectacular view especially at sunrise.
- The hotel’s restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, snacks (chaat and the likes between 3 pm and 6 pm) and dinner, including several local delicacies.
- Suryauday Haveli offers guided city excursions (including temple visits), walks along the ghats and through the old city, and boat rides on the river.
- Trained instructors offer yoga lessons on the roof terrace every morning.
- Bring comfortable footwear (preferably closed) for walking around the city. Modest attire is recommended for temple visits.
For reservations, find out more here.
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