The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a real place and her name is the Scindhia Guest House. We couldn’t say enough about the wonderful graciousness of its proprietor, Kush who had owned the hotel for the past eighteen years. By the time we left, we became friends with Kush and Kush became friends with us. We were truly brothers; at least that’s what he kept referring to us as. (We’d find out that many Indians called us that; but it in no way felt disingenuous, unless of course they were trying to sell us something, in which case it only made us laugh. “My friend” and “my brother” were used early and often.) Extremely knowledgeable, he would guide us to where we needed to go and what to do (and not to do).
We had arrived there just after gettin by doused in the alleyways leading to Scindhia with paint during the last vestiges of the Holi celebration. Once registration (by temporarily handing over our passports) was complete, walking up the steep set of stairs to get into our room on the second floor proved a little taxing on my knees and lower back, not to mention the steps were for the width of a small child. My Red Wing boots needed to walk up side-stepping; otherwise, I’d fall backwards. Once up to our floor, we would get occasional views of monkeys milling about. I did not have to look back very hard into my memories to realize this place reminded me of my rooftop home in New Delhi when I was but a wee lad.
Our view was simply spectacular. The room – clean and sparse with three beds jutted against each other and the wall – led directly to the balcony we would share with the visitor next door, opening to the east where we knew the moon would soon rise and the sunrise awaited the next day. We were happy to rest from the travels earlier in the day, arriving from Kolkata. Directly in front of us, the Ganges River (or the River Ganga as the locals called her) stretched as far as our eyes could see both to the left and right of us. Our hotel was located on the Scindia Ghat, which sat in between the Manikarnika Tirth Ghat to our right and Sankata Ghat to our left. Ghats were the set of steps that directly led down to the river. Varanasi was filled with them, each used as meeting places for its people for a wide variety of reasons – socializing, praying, cleaning themselves, washing their clothes, etc. The intricate brown, stone structure – the Ratneshwar Mahadev, a building of sorts, that had recently been struck by lightning – stood crooked to our right, serving as one of the many places in Varanasi where the locals worshipped. The Dufferin Bridge, which provided the northern barrier to the holy section of the Ganges stood almost 4 km to our left, easily within sight. We would spend most of our time either behind the Scindhia amidst the maze of the myriad alleyways or to our right past the Manikarnika Ghat to the main one, the Dashaswamedh Ghat. The site of the Manikarnika dominated most of the culture, alive only steps from us, as that ghat served as the main place for Hindu cremation. Wood and bodies burning was a constant site and smell during our stay at the Scindhia.
The most famous of the ghats – the Dashaswamedh Ghat, located close to the Vishwanath Temple – was only a 1 km walk due south along the banks of the River Ganga, walking past the funeral pyres and cremations of the Manikarnika Ghat (no pictures or video allowed being chastised by the locals as I found out the hard way, no disrespect meant on my part), Lalita Ghat, Meer Ghat, Tripura Bhairavi Ghat and Man Madir Ghat. One legend had it that Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva. The other legend told of Lord Brahma sacrificing ten horses in a ritual called the Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna. Along the way, we were walking through and around, over and under and in and out of teems of people, dogs, goats, cows, dog shit, goat shit, and cow dung. It was a colourful walk; our eyes, noses and ears received a lesson in extremes. Conversely, one night we hired a boat to take us to the main ghat by river, providing a wholly different experience – both spiritually different in their own ways; one only had to decide whether you wanted to mingle amongst the people on land or on water.
We went to the Dashaswamedh Ghat for the “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) both nights just before 6 PM, as the prayer service inviting the entire city was conducted nightly before sundown. The ceremony paid homage to Lord Shiva, the River Ganga, Surya (sun), Agni (fire) and the whole universe. It was especially wonderful to be a part of this during Holi, the Indian festival of colours, which we experienced earlier in the day. One night, we witnessed the pooja by boat, getting there early enough to situate ourselves fairly close to the shoreline for a splendid view, before all the other boats took up every inch of remaining water along the river they could. The next night, we decided to walk the length of the ghats to be among the people on land, a sea of colourful people with colourful dress. We were blessed with a full moon to accompany the spirituality already in abundance during the ceremonies.
Throughout all of our excursions in Varanasi, Kush proved to be the kindest and gentlest of hosts, catering to our every need. Food was simply splendid as we sat on the rooftop gorging on vegetarian fare our entire three-day, two-night visit. We would befriend a couple women later on our trip in Udaipur, who stayed at Scindhia as well, we would later find out when we ran into them at Fort Jaisamer. Upon our recommendations, they stayed at Scindhia too; and had the same nice things to say about Kush that we did. He left all of his guests feeling that way.
The Scindhia Guest House provided a perfect introduction to the real India, real Indian cuisine, and real Indian people.
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