It is night and the mighty river Ganga has finally fallen silent. The ghats are hushed without the characteristic intense hustle and bustle of the daytime.
The sounds may have quietened but the lights stay on and the illuminated ancient structures on the river bank, keep the show going all night, bathed in the glow of bright hues.
The only noise is that of my motor boat as it slices purposefully through the dark waters. I am the only passenger and my boatman has picked me up from Raj ghat where my taxi deposited me from the airport.
The December night is very cold and the sides of the boat are open. I am glad for the coat that was easily accessible in my baggage and is now hugging me in a valiant attempt to keep me from freezing. As I breathe in the chill air, warm memories rise up within me and a wave of nostalgia washes over my being. I am back in Varanasi after many many years, a place where I had spent 2 memorable years of my childhood.
We sail upstream for 20 minutes before my stream of thought is interrupted, as the boat glides up to the pier and docks at the ghat leading to the Guleria Kothi hotel. This is going to be my home for the next 2 days and I feel a deep thrill as I disembark and gaze at the steps leading to the imposing building which is all aglitter, as if waiting to welcome me in its dazzling embrace.
Come, step back into time with me and enter the portals of the very ancient mansion turned hotel … the Guleria Kothi, in the city of Varanasi, which is located in the district of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest states of India.
About Varanasi –
Varanasi is a very famous city in North India and lies mainly on the West bank of the river Ganga.
What can I say about this city that captured my heart many years ago. This is the place that housed the ‘colony’ where my friends taught me spoken Hindi, the river Ganga where I washed off my childhood sins (and then began sinning afresh :-D), the homes of many friends where I ate the most delectable food (which probably gave birth to the foodie in me), the place where I enjoyed my school so much, that I returned this time to be at the school reunion … the list goes on and on.
Like a faithful friend, the city seems to have stayed the same, just the way I left it ages ago. Just a smattering of modernity marks the difference in time but the earlier city with its narrow lanes and crowds and ghats and eatery shacks, has remained just as I remembered it.
Apart from what it meant to me, Varanasi as most of us know, is said to be one of the world’s oldest cities and also the holy city of the Hindus.
There is so much to do and see here, the highlight being the vibrant ghats of the river Ganga. A ghat is an inclined embankment along the river and here they refer in totality to the structures and steps along the Ganga. Each of the 88 ghats of Varanasi, have their own history and purpose, mainly being venues where ceremonial bathing, meditation, pujas, cremations and other religious rituals are conducted.
Anyway, the focus of my story today is the Guleria Kothi, so let me not get entrapped in talking about anything else. Varanasi aka Banaras aka Kashi, will have its day on my blog, hopefully soon.
But before moving on, I have to mention that a random poster advertising Raja biscuits which greeted me at Varanasi airport, most serendipitously portrayed the Guleria Kothi and its neighboring ghats, as if knowing that this was where I was headed 😀
About Guleria Kothi –
Like most of the buildings along the ghats, the Guleria Kothi too is a few centuries old and likewise continues to stand intact and tall, a tribute to the amazing architecture and skill of those times.
History has it that the 18th century saw a flurry of construction in the form of temples and ghats along the Ganga and the credit for this is accorded to the Peshwas. The Peshwas were initially ministers in the powerful Maratha empire but in due course they took charge of the administration and rule.
The famous Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji is also said to have taken refuge in Varanasi in the 17th century. The Peshwas moved to Varanasi sometime in the 18th century. The story goes that they restored the city which was quite wrecked by the Mughals. They rebuilt many of the structures and also improved the place by constructing new buildings and temples.
The Guleria Kothi too was one of the creations and dwellings of the Peshwas and this river front edifice also came into existence in the 18th century. Kothi translates to mansion and this place obtained its name by virtue of its being built on what was known as the Guleria ghat. The actual ghat is officially marked as Agnishwar as a tribute to a nearby Agnishwar temple but legend has it that the presence of a Guler tree (cluster fig) in the premises, caused the ghat to be commonly known as Guleria ghat (this is not to be confused with another Gularia ghat further upstream). A guler tree still stands tall here, justifying the name.
Though its history is not documented in a very detailed or accurate manner, what is generally known is that in the mid 19th century, the building was relinquished to the British by the Peshwas. It probably crossed many hands, details of which are not easily available but to get to what interests us, the present owner Aditya Kumar Gupta bought this property somewhere around 2009 and after a few years of painstaking restoration, opened its doors in 2012 as a luxury heritage hotel, which is what it is till date.
The re-modelling of this place has resulted in a splendid property which is a harmonious blend of the ancient and the modern.
The mansion lies sandwiched between the imposing Bhonsale ghat and the brick red Ganesh temple at Ganesh ghat.
The building owes its mix of buff and pinkish colored façade, to the Chunar sandstone quarried from the adjacent district of Mirzapur. This mild hued stone is the main material used in the construction. The same sandstone has been used in several of the buildings along the ghats, giving them a uniform visage. The robust and durable stone is also the reason why these ancient buildings still stand intact.
The serene exterior of the hotel appears sedate and laid back but the interior, as one soon discovers, holds significant potential to make for an enchanting stay, with its alluring architecture, sandstone motifs adorning its walls, antiques and artefacts and splashes of brightness from local art in its nooks and crannies and other such charming décor.
Adding to all this of course, are the absorbing views that it offers of the magnificent river and the spirited activities along its banks.
Features and Amenities –
The hotel is a ground plus four storied building and what is interesting is that the ground and first floors are mainly solid with very little available functional space. In the monsoon months of August and September, the Ganga rises significantly in level and inundates the place right up to the first floor and hence the raised construction.
The actual hotel operates uninterruptedly through the year from the second floor upwards and the lower floors are in use only when there are no floods.
The re-modelling of the building has included an elevator from the ground floor which makes it easy to get to the higher floors, up to the third. The fourth floor can be accessed only via stairs.
The reception –
The steps of the ghats lead to an ornate wooden door which is the entrance to the hotel. This is the ground floor and only a narrow strip in front, houses the reception desk. The portion behind this area is solid wall.
The lobby is done up in traditional décor which well complements the aura of the ancient place. Motifs of the ‘triple arch’ logo of the hotel and the iconic Guler tree adorn the wall behind the reception desk. Delightful antiques and artefacts, colorful throw cushions and local handicrafts placed in the nooks and crannies, add to the splendor of this tiny but charming space.
Guests are welcomed with a local sharbat (drink) and presented with a delicate and glossy Banaras Tanchoi silk stole. The staff is friendly and go out of their way to brief the guests about the facilities and rooms and to make them feel at home.
First floor –
Like the ground floor, only a portion of the front of the first floor is available space, with the rest of the structure being solid. This floor houses 3 of the rooms.
Inner courtyard and meditation room –
The second floor apart from containing 4 guest rooms, also has an open central courtyard surrounded by a mediation hall, little alcoves where cultural programs take place and a corridor with a large and magnificent chess table.
The courtyard is a tranquil place and is also the venue for various cultural programs that are organized at nights for the viewing pleasure of the hotel guests. Instrumental music, Kathak dances, Sufi renditions etc, are some of the performances that are showcased in turn on a daily basis.
The meditation room is a large space overlooking the Ganga. This sacred place has a statue of Lord Purushottam installed in the center. This idol was said to have originally been present on the property. Legend has is that it was located while excavating the ruins of an old temple somewhere in South India and brought to this place by a sadhu.
The third floor has 6 rooms and an open terrace which overlooks a large expanse of the gorgeous Ganga, as well as provides panoramic views of the array of ghats all the way to where they end at the Malviya bridge. The terrace is also a picturesque location for photography.
I was quite enamored by the iconic triple arch that stands on the edge of this terrace like a gateway between the hotel and the vista of the river. This arch is also the logo of the hotel and its East facing setting offers great potential for stunning photographs, both of the guests as well as that of the rising sun.
My stay was in December when unfortunately the foggy winter mornings disabled a clear view of the sunrise but as you can see, that did not deter me from creating whatever art was possible with my camera, under the circumstances 😎
A similar arch design is also found inside their roof top restaurant Ganga Teere.
The Stay –
Guleria Kothi gives the guest a choice of 15 lavish rooms. All the rooms are of the same deluxe category and provide similar amenities. Having been restored out of the original structure though, they do vary in minor ways like size, floor plan, location etc.
Barring a couple of rooms, all the others offer a direct or indirect view of the Ganga. Gazing at the river is a very addictive activity to engage in and in my case I sat riveted by the window almost all day long, mesmerized merely by watching the unending stream of people, boats, priests, holy men, pilgrims, chanting devotees and tourists going about their pursuits and tasks, alongside the tirelessly flowing Ganga.
The mysterious looking Bhonsale ghat also piqued my curiosity and I was surprised to learn that the ruinous structure was actually still inhabited.
Of course my camera also found its favorite targets, the birds of which there are several species in the vicinity.
The Deluxe rooms –
The well appointed accommodation includes a comfortable double bed, desk, chair and table, luggage rack, mini fridge, wardrobe, safe, TV, air conditioner, room heater, complimentary fruit platter and small snacks and also a well designed en suite washroom, equipped with necessary toiletries, hair dryer and 24 hours hot water.
The rooms are well maintained and the large French windows ensure ample natural light and also lead to a narrow balcony space in some of the rooms.
The staff warns against keeping the windows open, since there is a possibility of monkeys getting inside. I did not see any though.
Also, since the original façade of the heritage building has been retained, be aware that the railings are very low and hence it is imperative to be very careful while moving around in the balcony and certain other similar spaces of the hotel. It is especially important to keep an eye over young children and aged people.
Chef Palash Ghosh heads the kitchen at the Guleria Kothi. A well experienced and highly motivated person, he has very clear ideas on the food that he wants to showcase. Between the 2 restaurants which he manages on the premises, namely the Café Guleria and the Ganga Teere, he makes sure that there is adequate representation of local Varanasi fare while also catering to the international palate, to which he sometimes adds a dash of Indian flavors too.
His concept is that, since the guests have chosen to stay in a heritage space which offers stunning views of the Ganga, the food too should be themed around the local, to match the ambience and the guest should have a holistic experience which is in tune with the character of the hotel.
The main restaurant is the Ganga Teere, their rooftop fine-dining space that serves Indian food with an a la carte menu that lays emphasis on Banaras cuisine. This is open to in-house guests as well as walk-in diners who have a separate access via a stairway adjoining the outside wall of the building.
Capable of seating around 35 people, this place is perched high up on the fourth floor and has an open air terrace seating as well as indoor dining.
Apart from chequered marble tables and chairs draped in turquoise colored fabric, the terrace also has a domed gazebo at the edge, which overlooks the waters below and is an ideal spot for a romantic setting. This is actually our very own Indian style Gumbaz (I named it the Gumbazebo 😎).
The entire terrace makes for a very picturesque setting that is rendered even more ethereal in the evenings, when the golden glow of the evening lights, bathe the blues in amber hues.
There is a second similar terrace and gazebo on the other side of the fourth floor, which can also be used for private events.
The turquoise color scheme continues in the indoor section too, with large bell shaped hanging lamps and the upholstery of the chairs. The tables and serving counters are of solid wood. There is a small seating area at the entrance and an inner hall deeper inside, where the wall at the far end bears a similar triple arch as on the third floor.
The restaurant is open from breakfast until dinner.
Breakfast is served from 7.30 am to 10.30 am, lunch from 12.30 pm to 3 pm and dinner from 7 pm to 10 pm. Tandoori items are not available from 3 pm to 7 pm.
Breakfast is complimentary for the in-house guests. This is the only meal here which is served buffet style and the menu covers the usual range of Western and Indian options.
There is something for everyone at the breakfast counter, right from South Indian to North Indian and of course the ubiquitous fare of muesli, breads, breakfast pastries, fruit, juices and so on.
What excited the foodie in me however, was the daily selection of some very local breakfast snacks alongside all the other regular items.
Whenever I travel, my South Indian palate yearns for local fare and in Varanasi, the sight of Pyaz ki kachori, various stuffed parathas, bhaturas, puris and all their apt accompaniments, made my heart and tummy very joyous indeed 😋And to add to the pleasure, they also have a selection of local sweets like gulab jamun, parwal ki mithai, malai ki gilori, lal peda and other such tantalizing items.
Unlike breakfast, lunch and dinner are always a la carte. The menu is sufficiently comprehensive and every dish is deliberately Indian, right from the shorbas to the salads, the starters, the main course and desserts. Local Banarasi cuisine finds its way into some of the items, with a special focus on seasonal delicacies, particularly in the winter months when fresh produce is abundant.
At dinner, chulhas (small earthen stoves/mini bonfires) are provided on request in winters, for diners seated on the open terrace.
It is a surreal experience to dine al fresco in the chilly winter night, with the spectacular view of the Ganga below and the lights and sounds of the adjacent ghats for entertainment.
The Café Guleria, is situated on the open deck at the entrance. The timings are weather dependent and it is open usually from noon to 5 pm or even later in summer.
It has its own exclusive kitchen which serves continental and fusion food and serves as an eatery for both in-house and walk-in guests. Pizzas, sandwiches, pita bread with accompaniments, beverages and other such fast foods are served here. Some innovative items bear a local touch, like the Kulcha sandwich with chicken or paneer tikka filling.
Alcohol is not served in the hotel premises.
Private parties – Both restaurants are available for hosting private parties and other events, for groups of 20 – 25 people at a sit-down meal.
Room service is available through the day and only as long as the kitchen is open at night. Tandoor items are available only when the tandoor is operational.
Special orders – A traditional Banarasi Thali featuring seasonal and hyper locals dishes, is available on special request and a pre-order of at least 24 hours.
Private dining with candlelight dinners are arranged in the Gazebo/Gumbaz for couples. This romantic 2 – 3 hour package includes to and fro boat transfers, a dedicated musician playing the flute, specially curated food, mocktails and flower adorned décor.
Special meal packages are available on festival days and special events.
Sunday lunches are accompanied by live bands at the dais on the deck near the ghat steps at the Café Guleria. The timings are from 1 pm – 5 pm with an a la carte menu that is a bit more special than the weekday one.
Activities within the hotel –
Being strategically situated on the ghats of the touristy city of Varanasi, there is more action to be expected outside the premises than inside. However, there are music and dance presentations for the entertainment of the guests.
Cultural programs –
The tranquil environs of the courtyard on the second floor, make for an apt venue where guests are treated to some local culture every night, by way of Kathak performances in the central yard with its gorgeous tiles or Sufi recitals or classical instrumental music played in one of the charming alcoves bordering the yard.
The enjoyable performances take place every night and guests can either sit in the courtyard or even watch from the third floor above.
Activities organized outside the hotel –
Ganga arathi cruise –
During the tourist season of October to March, the hotel guests are taken once during their stay, to witness the Ganga Arathi at the Dashashwamedh ghat.
This event is the highlight (quite literally) of the Ganga and hordes of devotees and tourists gather on land and in boats to witness this ceremonial ritual. In brief, this is a daily religious ritual after sunset, where fire is offered as thanksgiving to the river Ganga by a set of young priests who skillfully and synchronously wield large lit lamps with entrancing fluidity and devotion. Accompanying chants, prayers and devotional music enhance the divinity of the ceremony.
The glorious ambience of water, light and sounds, paints a breathtaking scene that the camera tries its best to do justice to. Unfortunately on both the occasions that I attended, the boat was a bit too far away from the wooden deck and also the views were hindered by the several boats in the way. The night light is also not conducive for good pictures. However I managed to do the best I could 🙂
The hotel organizes its own boats which take the guest to and fro and the arathi is witnessed from the boat itself while it docks at the ghat.
It takes 15 minutes to get to the Dashashwamedh ghat and 15 minutes to return. The arathi usually begins after sunset which is at 6 pm in winters and maybe an hour later in summers and the ceremony lasts for 45 minutes. The guests leave for the arathi accordingly, which is around 5.45 pm in winter. Going a bit early ensures a better position for the boat and consequently a better vantage point to witness the ritual because several boats crowd around the ghats to get good views and those who reach late may have to manage with hindered and unclear views.
The entire exercise takes nearly 1.5 hours from the hotel and back and safety measures like life jackets etc, are adhered to.
Guests can also choose to hire their own exclusive boats or Bajras and the hotel can assist with the same. Bajras are large flat bottomed boats, usually with a lower compartment for the staff and machinery and the upper deck for the passengers. The top of the boat is covered by a canopy and seating is usually on a large rug spread across the floor. The sides of the boat are open and offer clear views of the surroundings.
A quick video glimpse –
Things to do in the Surroundings –
The holy city of Varanasi is also a heritage city with its innumerable temples and many places of historical interest.
In addition the surroundings of the city and the neighboring districts also have places of interest and scenic beauty.
When I visit again I will explore the city in detail and blog for you 😀
Visitor profile –
There are no restrictions on any kind of visitors. Guests of all ages are permitted but do keep in mind that there is no disabled access whatsoever because of the location of the hotel. Hence those with mobility issues may not find it possible to access the place.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to keep a watch on children within the building, due to the low railings on the balconies.
Best time to visit –
Varanasi weather is extreme, being cold in winters and exceedingly hot in summers. Hence the tourist season is clearly divided into peak and off season. While the hotel is open almost all year through, it is necessary to be aware of the good and not so good times to visit.
October to March is the high season which is also a period when most of the important Indian festivals take place. The winters are cold but tolerable and it is a pleasure to tour the city in these months.
The summer is harsh from April to July with temperatures in the 40 deg c range and tourists usually do not opt to visit in this season.
August and September have the monsoons when the Ganga invariably rises by several feet. Since the current is very strong, boating and all other activities on the river are halted by the authorities for this period. There is almost nothing to do by way of riverside action.
As mentioned earlier, the water floods the hotel right up to the first floor, rendering it out of bounds. The hotel operates with limited space, services and resources during this period. The only access is by foot, through the gullies and the hotel has a separate external stairway to the second floor, which is used by all visitors during this period.
Also keep in mind that they are closed for around a week during the floods, while they clear out all the furniture and items from the lower floors and move them elsewhere to safety.
The hotel too has 2 different rates according to the season, their off season charges being quite discounted.
Phone and internet connectivity –
Varanasi is a big city hence a stable internet is not very difficult to obtain. In addition, the hotel has a reliable free Wifi connection too, for its guests.
What you should carry –
Being on the riverfront with no quick land access, it would be practical to carry a few emergency supplies like important medicines, special food requirements etc. Apart from this, the hotel seems well equipped to handle most needs that the guests might have.
Of course, the clothing and footwear should be in accordance with the weather. Summers are very harsh and temperatures can climb to the forties (deg c) and in likewise winters are also extreme and temperatures could go as low as 5 deg c. Hence it is advised to carry very light cottons, sunscreen, caps etc in summer and sufficient warm wear for the winters.
Getting there –
Varanasi as we all know, is a well known tourist destination and well connected by all means of transport.
Guleria Kothi is 26 km from The Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, Varanasi.
The nearest Railway station, Varanasi Junction is 4 kms away.
Taxis would be the most convenient way to get to the ghats from these places.
It is interesting to know that main access to the hotel is only via water. One can also get there by walk, which is not considered a very convenient choice by most guests.
The ghats as I mentioned, were built in the 18th century and the localities behind the buildings are a maze of narrow alleyways (called gullies). Bikes are the only vehicles that can pass through albeit with difficulty. Hence the only practical access over land, is by walk.
The Ganesh ghat which is adjacent to the hotel, is around 1 km from a place called Maidagin Golghar (near Union Bank), which is the nearest location where 4 wheelers can drive up to. The hotel sends a porter to this point, where he receives the guests and carries their luggage and leads them alongside on foot. After navigating through the tiny gullies, they then descend the Ganesh ghat steps and again climb a few more steps to the adjoining Guleria Kothi hotel.
Getting to the hotel by boat is a much more suitable option and also gives guests an opportunity to enjoy a few boat rides on the Ganga. Certain ghats like the Raj ghat/Bhainsasur ghat on one end and the Assi ghat on the other end, are accessible to 4 wheelers including cars and buses. There still are steps to navigate but the vehicles can at least come right up to the steps, unlike in most other ghats and the boatman also assists with the luggage. Hence this makes it easier than coming over land, for both the hotel staff as well as the guests.
Boats are dispatched on prior intimation of at least 30 minutes whenever there are guests to be ferried and the boatman communicates via phone to stay updated about the guests whereabouts. The pleasant and scenic sail takes around 20 minutes upstream from Raj ghat and about 30 minutes downstream from Assi ghat, depending on which ghat the pick up is from.
The pick up and drop is complimentary during arrival and departure and in addition, the hotel also provides one complimentary to and fro boat ride per night for each guest. Life jackets and other necessary measures are followed.
As mentioned, remember that during the rainy season, the only way to get to the hotel is over land, via the tiny gullies.
Booking and contact –
CK 1/ 14 Patni Tola,
Guleria Ghat, Chowk, Varanasi,
Uttar Pradesh, India 221001
+91 542 240 6666 (7)
+91- 7991919101 (2)
Email id –
Please Note –
This trip was in collaboration with Guleria Kothi and I thank them for the hospitality. My narration is based on the inputs I received from various sources as well as my personal experiences.
This itinerary was specially curated hence some of the features might have been personalized accordingly. Before booking, please check the facilities offered in your package.
Dec 22nd – Dec 23rd, 2022