A couple of days before Christmas, I woke up at 5am and boarded a small boat to sail to a bank of the Ganga River to watch an elaborate Hindu ritual unfold as the sun came up. Seven priests made offerings, their arms outstretched, waving large lamps with long golden flames. Women recited mantras, which were broadcast by speakers to a crowd of a few hundred people: families, honeymooners, locals, tea sellers and flower vendors. It is cold in Varanasi in December, and we laughed at our attire: block-printed cotton salwar kameezes seemed best for photos, but at dawn we had thrown on mismatched woollen sweaters and silk shawls over them, along with our trainers. After the aarti ended, the ghat – the steps down to the river – transformed into a social setting. To a background of live classical music and singing, we drank freshly brewed chai and gossiped. In another hour, free yoga lessons would begin.
We made our way back to the boat, passing smaller shrines, a pizza parlour, men selling birdfeed. Hundreds of Siberian gulls migrate here each winter from Central Asia, and they flew around the boats with light trapped between their wings, descending to the water for feed and then circling the boatmen with stardust. It was a sight as magical, poignant and transcendental as the aarti on the ghat. As the boatmen guided us back to BrijRama Palace, sunshine seeped through the current like shimmering fish; the sky aglow, cloudless; the morning breeze lifting our dupattas to the heavens; the Ganga sustaining millions along its banks but also many millions far away, for whom faith is a daily saviour.
I didn’t have an agenda for my trip to Varanasi – other than eating the city’s famous winter dessert, Malaiyyo, which is exposed to the morning dew to help the cream rise naturally into a weightless, cloudlike concoction of milk, nuts and cardamom – but in that moment, I knew I was meant to be there; I knew it was just the balm my soul needed after a long year.
With this issue, we bring you our annual Wellness & Spa Guide, a supplement dedicated to helping you find what you truly seek this year – be it a rejuvenating break with the family in tow, cutting-edge treatments to restore your balance and sense of self, or a solo inward journey. Travel, like love, has the capacity to renew, revive and, above all, heal.