Why hadn’t anyone thought of Banaras Privé before? Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest town, requires a spiritual immersion for the full experience and Banaras Privé provides that immersive experience for the high-end, discerning traveller. It’s an idea long overdue: my spouse, for instance, has never visited Varanasi because she is frightened of crowds and a notion of squalor. True, there are luxury alternatives already in Varanasi: The Taj Nadesar Palace (expanding its number of rooms at a furious rate) and the Brijrama Palace at Darbhanga Ghat (also expanding) are the two best-known examples. But then do such luxury stays ever let you out of the bubble—which is the whole point of spiritual rejuvenation at Varanasi? What’s the point of having a thandai in a luxury kitchen when the whole idea of Varanasi is to go to the Chowk and have a glass of thick, nutty thandai (with bhaang, if you like, for that is the local culture)?
Banaras Privé keeps you in a bubble of comfort but also thrusts you into the most intense ways to experience Varanasi. It was launched this spring as the brainchild of Gaurav Kapoor, who is armed with a background in textiles and carpet-manufacturing (both of which Varanasi and the adjoining districts are famous for). Gaurav is perhaps one of the very few who can pull off such a fine calibration between the bubble and the immersion. His family, originally from Lahore, has been in Banaras since 1868. His dad, Ashok Kapoor, and he are fixtures in Varanasi’s social, cultural and entertainment life. The senior Kapoor runs Varanasi’s Kala Parishad, and Gaurav himself launched Banaras Utsav. He organises about eight events in a year, and he recently celebrated the legendary Hindi littérateur Munshi Premchand’s birth anniversary in a big way, starting a renovation of the writer’s residence in Banaras.
To absorb the local flavour of the town, an interaction with the sadhus, or holy men, is a must. Photo by Amith Nag Photography/ Moment / Getty Images.
Varanasi is such a place that many pilgrims come to visit for an overnight stay, or perhaps a two-night stay, and therefore don’t fully enjoy what makes this town Hinduism’s mecca and acropolis rolled into one. It is not just the Kashi Vishwanath and other handful of important temples; it’s not just the heritage Ramnagar Fort and Museum; it’s not just Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon; it’s not just the food, including the famous lassi, thandai, kachoris, and chaats; and it’s not just the classical music, for which Varanasi is the most important centre in north India—even foreigners spend years in this town learning thumri, among other things. With so much on offer, only those people who know Varanasi like the back of their hands can offer you a sampling of what suits your palate: tourism à la carte is what Banaras Privé specialises in.
This can mean a personalised version of the traditional dusk-time boat-ride down the Ganga—a musical accompaniment of flautist and tabla on your boat, and I cannot convey to you how much more lilting an evening raga is, when soundwaves and a river’s waves synchronise. (The thandai helps.) You can’t not visit the temples in Varanasi, but who wants to navigate the teeming masses, and this is where Banaras Privé is well-armed: with UP government licensed guides who effortlessly glide you into the sanctum sanctorum of each temple—even Kashi Vishawanath.
But Banaras Privé and Gaurav are so thoroughly woven into Varanasi that they can get you a Shastriji to take you on a heritage walk, explaining whatever aspect of the town you would like to hear about. If you want to experience something not on the usual menu, then Banaras Privé can arrange something different–I asked for a glance into the tantric life of the town, and I received another UP government-licensed guide, Kunal, who I just cannot rave enough about. He was a banker who chucked up the corporate life to tell people stories of his town; he is a treasure who can expose you to hidden treasures of Varanasi.
The Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat is quite the spectacle, one which people cannot resist capturing. Photo by Kaushik Ghosh/ Moment Open/ Getty Images.
Banaras Privé gives you both the street and the mansion: one morning Gaurav took me for kachori-jalebi at a streetside eatery that didn’t even have a sign-board, in Kamchchha; one evening he took me to the Haveli his family restored on the outskirts of town, where we listened to a vocal performance, and where I was treated to a chokhi-mutton dinner followed by two Banaras specialty sweets. Of course it’s too much, but then as Gaurav said: “When you come to Banaras, you’ve got to put on a couple of kilos.”
How did Gaurav get the idea for Banaras Privé? “I was inspired by the kind of personalised high-end tourism that you see in Rajasthan,” he admits. Divine inspiration in service of a divine town. In any case, because he is so networked, friends and friends-of-friends had been asking him to arrange visits for them over the past few years: he was fixing up accommodation because he knew all the hoteliers and haveli-owners. “A friend of mine who is a big Shiva bhakt wanted to bring 30 of her friends and celebrate her birthday here,” Gaurav recalls. “I ended up even fixing the menus for their meals.” Naturally, he was also arranging their local ins-and-arounds.
“I thought, I was making arrangements for so many people, why not make a business of it?” he says, and over the course of two years, Banaras Privé was born. It is equipped with a team of four, led by Gaurav, to handle even groups of 30, so that everybody gets the personalised attention and experience that Varanasi has to offer: from the traditional welcome at the airport—garland, samosa, mithai—to the goodbye hamper of Varanasi sweets and wooden toys, and of course, the intense experiences in between. Last but not least, Banaras Privé documents your entire experience in an embarrassing number of photos and movies – a paparazzi had apparently followed me around the whole time! “Here’s your pen drive,” Gaurav said, as I bade farewell to Banaras. I would be back.
Banaras Privé offers two packages; the Banaras Privé Package starts at Rs. 1.50 lakhs for a couple, and Rs 1 lakh for a single traveller. The Privé Premium package starts at Rs. 4.50 lakhs for a couple. (Prices do not include taxes.) These packages are for two nights and three days, and will include meals, stay in a luxurious 5-star, heritage luxury or ghat-front property, a taxi that picks you from and drops you at the airport, staying with you for your trip, guides, personalised boat rides for the evening aarti, heritage walks, morning foot massage, basic yoga classes and more.
Call: +91-91408-14004; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tweet: @BanarasPrive
is the author of The CEO Who Lost His Head (2017), Death of Dreams: A Terrorist’s Tale (2000); Farooq Abdullah: Kashmir’s Prodigal Son (1995). He is a regular columnist for Mid-Day, Khaleej Times, and Provoke magazine. He is currently working on a memoir set in lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School in the late 1970s.
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