Pilibhit House: Haridwar’s Heritage Haven by the Ganga

A location to kill for, sumptuous heartland flavours and loads of spiritual TLC, all in a 110-year-old haveli—Pilibhit House ticks all the boxes, even for an agnostic wayfarer.

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Rivers have a way of turning even the most self-aware of travellers into mawkish weekend philosophers, I type on my phone’s screen and sound into my mind’s echo chamber. Gazing glassy-eyed at the heaving Ganga, which is busy thrashing around rafts pilgrims have fashioned using plastic bottles and flotillas of diyas, I am dangerously close to believing I have entered that tactless state myself. Thankfully, it’s closing time for Haridwar’s largest private bathing ghat, as a lurking security staff member informs me gingerly. I conveniently turn back and make my way to the classy restaurant at Pilibhit House Haridwar, prepared to submit myself to another sumptuous meal. On the way up, I take the illuminated corridors and foyer of the mansion towering above me as a sign that perhaps worldliness and indulgence aren’t all that bad.

 

Chapter One: The Arrival

My sweltering jalopy pulls up in a residential-looking street at Niranjani Akhara Marg. Having somehow wrested myself from a festive pilgrim crowd flocking to Haridwar’s holy ghats for Ganga Dussehra, witnessing the grand antique-blue gates of Pilibhit House is quite a relief. A stately mansion built in 1913 by the royal family of Pilibhit, a fief in northern Uttar Pradesh close to the Nepalese border, the 35-room property was recently acquired as part of the IHCL SeleQtions portfolio by the Taj group. Most of the structure retains its original plan, with the rooms on the upper levels added recently. Room Division Manager Debmallya Chowdhury shares that the hotel was designed with the colour blue as a ubiquitous motif, a nod to the holy city’s association with Shiva (not very far away is the famous Neelkanth Mahadev Temple in Rishikesh).

A blue marble statue of the deity’s dear companion and vehicle, the bull Nandi is the centrepiece of the impressive ivory courtyard. Right at the entrance, I am welcomed with a playing of the damaru—again symbolic of Shiva and the chief instrument that the Shiva Tandava is set to—followed by a rudraksha mala-garlanding and some Marigold Iced Tea, which, with its muted zestfulness, provides a gentle grounding, a welcome respite for my attention-loathing, rest-seeking self. The bright orange blossoms, widely used as offerings during worship, are an interesting addition to this soothing refreshment. It turns out that the rest and relaxation I’ve been seeking awaits me in my enchanting riverside room, whose refined but functional styling instantly lifts me. Behind me, a faux wall, panelled with mirrors, hides the cosy bathroom, a roomy dresser-cupboard and an adaptable niche to set my bags in. Right in front is a French-window style entrance that affords a view of the property’s flagship heirloom, a century-old mango tree under which the property conducts locally-inspired experiences, such as the genealogy-tracing session which is a take on a custom that draws many travellers from all over the country to this city. To the left, an infinity pool overlooking the Ganga shows off its wares to its oblivious, ever-moving guardian.

 

Also Read | BrijRama Varanasi: The Palace by the Ghats

 

Pilibhit House: Haridwar's Heritage Haven By The Ganga

Har-ki-pauri, with Haridwar’s Clock Tower in the distance; The elegant Garhwali Thali at The Dining Room, along with the signature Marigold Iced Tea; Preparations for the Ganga aarti at the Ganges Deck, Haridwar’s largest private bathing ghat. Photos by: Pilibhit House (bridge and clock tower); Prannay Pathak (lunch platter; aarti)

 

Chapter Two: The Traditional

The staff here will spoil you rotten if you allow it, so one might as well. The meals at The Dining Room, Pilibhit House Haridwar’s elegant all-day diner with a no-fuss name, are a case in point. My first lunch is a delicately done Garhwali Thali that is served at a table with a view of the lapping river and the two old-school metal bridges on either end of the frame. Things are just about getting started here, but Pilibhit House seems to have nailed the Taj standard with this restaurant, superbly combining the eclectic northern Indian flavour profile with the festive culinary tradition of the pilgrim city, with picks such as a Haridwar-special chaat and concoctions such as the Marigold Iced Tea. Having brought my palate up on the piquant and masterful Delhi chaat all over northern India, it’s hard to say what exactly makes the chaat—an assortment of crunchy papdi, tangy sonth, sev and chopped veggies—different. But once you’ve had a taste, you’re sure to order this as an appetiser for every dinner. 

Most of my meals are a buffet arrangement, but the menu at Pilibhit House is expansive. Continental favourites find representation across sections, as do appetite-rousing renditions of heartland recipes (Ajwaini Tikona Paratha and Hing Wali Peeli Dal evoke culinary nostalgia). What gets my attention is a section named Bhagwan ke Pakwan, a curation of prasad recipes with options like Swaminarayan Khichdi, Vrindavan-style Lauki Chana and Besara from Jagannath. To me, the restaurant recommends the Posto Walle Kacche Kele with a panch-phoran tempering, where the poppy seeds elevate a potentially straightforward plantain curry that could easily have been a toned down version of matar paneer. In the morning, head for the tea stall in the courtyard to get your chai made to your specifications, settle down on one of the couches in the breeze-friendly lobby lounge, and watch the morning dance of the river set to a melodious flute performance.

 

Pilibhit House: Haridwar's Heritage Haven By The Ganga

Clockwise from left: The chai pop-up near the lounge area where guests can enjoy tea made to their specifications; Stylish interiors blending contemporary and classical accents and decor elements throughout, be it deluxe rooms or suites. Photos by: Prannay Pathak (tea stall); Pilibhit House (property)

 

Chapter Three: The Ceremonial

One standout offering here that nicely places the destination’s spiritual appeal front and centre is the evening aarti. I join the rest of the guests at the Ganges Deck to exercise my vocal chords in the acoustic orchestra set to a dusktime jingling of cymbals and sounding of the conch. We take turns to address the river with reverence and love, but I hope that the closing tradition of releasing oblation lamps into the river can be phased out by and by. 

The hotel offers a shuffling deck of experiences based on availability and season, including early morning walks into town and safaris out into the Rajaji National Reserve. Several self-guided local excursions into the city and the old quarter of Kankhal are also on offer. At the in-house spa Jiva, an established Taj brand, Pilibhit House offers Indian therapies and healing techniques. I seek out the resident priest, Pt. Radhakrishna Bhaskar, for a palmistry session at the restaurant deck instead. With a magnifying glass in hand, Mr Bhaskar examines the depressions in my palm and even though I’m rather immune to the charms of chiromancy, I take his propitious predictions as positive affirmations, and one word of caution as—well, a timely word of caution.

Trusting in my newfound faith in spirituality, I opt for a navagraha puja on the final morning. Junior priest Pt Nitesh Sharma embarks upon an elaborate ritual to appease planets currently maleficent in my horoscope, as I go about offering auspicious marigolds to the celestial doyens of the Hindu pantheon at his instruction. At the end, the agnostic confesses that the experience is calming, and conducted under the sagely mango tree, with the gurgling Ganga a few metres away, is the kind of spiritual TLC that he has come to expect from this heritage haven.

 

Also Read | Rooms With a River View in Rishikesh

 

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Essentials

Pilibhit House, Haridwar is four-and-a-half hours (237 km) from Delhi by road. Doubles from ₹24,000 plus taxes (experiences payable separately). seleqtionshotel.com

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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.

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