Away from the hustle and bustle of the popular ghats lies another Varanasi, replete with royal palaces and magnificent mansions. Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor discovers this unexplored side of the sacred city.
The pearly white palace glistens in the golden rays of the setting sun after an unexpected summer shower. A gentle purvai, a breeze from the east, wafts softly into the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh, brings with it the mellow fragrance of the Banarasi langra mango. On my left is an imposing porch with the royal horse carriage, on my right an ancient marble temple; beautifully manicured lawns greet me ahead while a cobbled pathway with huge iron gates stands behind. I had arrived in Varanasi expecting to witness many things but seeing royal palaces was not on the list, and here I am, standing at the helm of a palace in the middle of the city known for its ghats and temples.
The Royal Side of Varanasi
“Banaras or Varanasi is filled with royal homes and palaces. The city was a spiritual diplomatic enclave of the Hindus and a gateway to heaven, so irrespective of their stature, everyone built a home here,” says Navneet Raman, a Varanasi resident who works in the culture and heritage space, and ascends from royal lineage. When the land by the river was exhausted, most palaces moved inwards. Mansions with large gardens, umpteen courtyards and a number of chowks inside them came up. “Most of the palaces today are either dilapidated or have been taken over by ASI (Archeological Survey of India); the few that remain are private,” says Raman. Thankfully, Nadesar Palace, one of the oldest in the city, is open to select guests and I have the privilege to see it first-hand.
Built between 1782 and 1788 by the East India Company, Nadesar Palace was originally made for the Tax Commissioner of Varanasi. Local lore has it that the British were terrified of the Kashi Brahmins, so they built the palace far from the notorious locals but close to Varuna—the river that gives the city its name—where they constructed a small jetty and used it to collect taxes from traders passing by. It was eventually acquired by the Maharaja of Banaras, Ishwari Narain Singh Ji in 1889, who converted it to a royal guest house. A good 120 years later, the family leased it to the Taj group, that now runs it as a luxury property.
Even though there are no maharajas in residence, the palace still follows royal rituals. The temple has a royal priest, the coach is still in attendance with the coachman—whose family has served the palace for generations—and guests are welcomed the royal way, with the blowing of the conch, the chanting of mantras, a sandalwood tilak and a glass of the best Banarasi thandai you’ll ever taste. I am welcomed like royalty and ushered into the compact yet elegant lobby.
It is here that the grandeur truly comes alive— hunting trophies, family portraits, antique watches, crystal chandeliers, vintage fans, all telltales of the legacy of a palace that has played host not just to Indian royalty but also to royal families and heads of states from across the globe. To honour the dignitaries who have stayed here, all 14 suites have been named after them: Jawahar Lal Nehru suite, Wajid Ali Shah suite, Lord Mountbatten suite—the list is impressive. More than their provenance, it is the design of the suites that catches my eye. They offer a peek into the architectural and decor sensibilities of the late19th and early 20th centuries, a period I admire for its elegance and modernism. Art Deco cabinets, four-poster beds, Victorian chairs, hand-cut mirrors, brass faucets, handwoven tapestry and silver- coated Bakelite switches (now a worthy collectible), transport me to a bygone era.
“This is one of the oldest palaces in the city,” Shankar, the young boatman who is rowing us the next morning, tells me, as we pass an imposing structure. “It is the most expensive hotel in Varanasi and guests can only reach by private boat,” he says. BrijRama Palace, built in 1812 by Shridhara Narayana Munshi from Nagpur Estate, and reflecting influences of the Maratha style of architecture, was bought by Maharaja of Darbhanga, Rameshwar Singh Bahadur, who named it after his province. It lay dilapidated for years before it was acquired by Brij Hotels and restored over 18 years to its former glory. The palace, Shankar says, has the city’s oldest hand-drawn elevator that still functions, a private double-decker traditional boat, and a secret stairway only the maharaja had access to.
The boat ride is indeed the best way to spot the city’s royal legacy. The decrepit Man Mahal, a typical Rajputana palace built by Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, which housed a private conservatory and a zenana mahal; Kangan Wali Haveli, commissioned
by Man Singh’s queen for saint Ram Gopal, whose descendants still live here; Amritara Suryauday Haveli at the Shivala Ghat, that no longer permits walk-ins for public; and the iconic Ramnagar Fort itself, where the royal family of Varanasi lives till date. I ache at the sight of some, marvel at the grandeur of others, and wonder what a beauty Banaras of yore would have been with palaces so grand, forts so majestic, and havelis so mystic.
It is evening when I return to Nadesar Palace. I have seen the grandest palaces by the Ganga, walked by crumbling havelis, driven past Art Deco mansions that now house kirana shops, and wondered why we do not take better care of our heritage. “The coach is ready for you ma’am,” says the cheerful young manager, Rupak, when I arrive. I had forgotten that the customary coach ride awaits me.
“Huzoor, kya aap pehli dafa Banaras aaiyen hain?” (Have you come to Varanasi for the first time, ma’am), Naseem, the coachman, asks me. Naseem must be in his 60s, and has served the maharaja ever since he can remember. It is the same for Munna, the shiny, white horse. Naseem takes me around the sprawling estate, pointing out the unique flora and fauna, the coveted doodhiya langra mango orchards, telling me how the Maharaja of Banaras had donated land to create Benaras Hindu University, how common folk still visit the palace temple and fort, and how aristocratic families continue to patronise the arts. As I hear his stories, I realise that royalty in Varanasi may have faded but it has not died; even if there are a few people keeping the royal heritage alive, there is hope.
Getting to Varanasi
Taj Nadesar Palace is set amidst mango orchards and jasmine fields and offers suites and rooms with artwork from the Maharaja’s own collection and authentic furniture. Doubles from INR 54,999