Towards the end of the half-hour drive from Varanasi airport to the Tree of Life Resort and Spa in the Kazi Sera area, the car tackles an unpaved road parallel to gleaming paddy fields. We pull into the driveway, and a refreshing cooler and cold towel later, I walk towards my room, never leaving sight of that calm, green stretch.
“We can go explore the village, if you’d like,” offers the hotel’s executive chef, Ashwin, as if reading my thoughts. I’d love that in the evening, I respond, entering my suite. A massive depiction of the Ardhanarishwara adorns the wall above my bed. The hotel takes ‘local touch’ to another level: each suite has its own unique artwork, hand-painted by Fulbright scholar and Benares Hindu University (BHU) fine arts professor, Dr. Nair, and three of his students. The hotel also has an Art Room, dedicated to the paintings done by BHU art students and alumni. They showcase and sell their work to guests here for free, a great initiative to promote the creativity of a city known for its rich culture of arts, literature, music and craft.
Settling in with my cup of jasmine tea, I start noticing the attention to detail and how Varanasi’s earthiness is weaved into the plush comforts of the room. There’s carved teak furniture, curtains in subtle pastels, an uneven natural texture to the concrete ceiling, and a gorgeous leaf-shaped brass sink in the bathroom. I wander into my large private sit-out overlooking the gardens, and the ‘Ganga Kund’, an artificial pond at the far end where a priest performs early-morning arti and lights lamps every evening. What is remarkable is how seamlessly spots like this and a courtyard dotted with multiple shivlings blend in seamlessly into modern regulars like the pool and spa at this boutique hotel. I’ve had a bite of my cheese-laden risotto that I ordered in, and am ready to burn it so I leave with Ashwin for the Bhatoli hamlet around. Led by Basanta, the resident gardener, I walk into a Benaras I have never seen before—mud and brick houses, buffaloes fanning themselves with their tails, children playing barefoot in the pavements and the elderly stretched out languorously on handwoven charpoys, watching the world go by in the glow of golden dusk and the bright eyes of their grandchildren.
Basanta takes us into his house to show the loom on which his family has been spinning silk for generations. Many things on this trip are turning out to be a first, including seeing the humble origins of those grandiose Benarasi silk saris displayed proudly in showrooms. I continue to wander, and stop briefly to try my hand at an iron fodder spinner that separates wheat from chaff, much to the amusement of a feisty, colourful gaggle of women. At the outer end of the village, a tall chimney emanates black smoke while bricks are churned out in the kiln at its bottom, red as the sinking sun. I make my way back to the hotel, where grilled fish paired with a glass of red wine awaits me at the restaurant, Annapurna. Its cynosure is a stained-glass installation at the centre. The dinner is rewarding, but it is the breakfast the following morning that bowls me over.
Outside, by a litchi tree, I am served a signature Benarasi meal of moong chila with freshly ground chutney on a leaf plate tucked neatly into crockery. Much like the morsel of savoury crepe in my mouth, I melt with the serene notes of a flautist sitting cross-legged on the grassy patch across and playing his wooden flute. I hate to leave this tranquility behind to enter the chaos of Benaras, but today is a day to brace myself and dive into the narrow gritty lanes and dodge touts stalking you for special prasad and selfies, my bravado culminating in a sunset boat ride down the Ganges as the ghats prep for the evening arti. I do all of it, without forgetting a pit stop at my favourite spot, the charming and peaceful Nepali Kathwala temple on Lalita ghat, a slice of Kathmandu in Benares. After the sunset ride, I alight on the grimy banks where the once-simple arti is now a full-fledged routine to pander to Stage One spirituality seekers. I had thought of staying back for it, but as the crowds begin to fill up the wide steps, I find myself on a discreet retreat to my cocoon for more of the greener and calmer side of Benares. Meanwhile, the arti waits until the next time, when I’m less of an escapist.