The Bhanj Deo sisters of the Bhanja Dynasty decided to restore their ‘home’ — The Belgadia Palace, and open it up for people to experience Odisha’s history through its art, culture, heritage and people, while encouraging sustainable tourism.
‘A Palace of Heritage Beauty’ — reads the website of The Belgadia Palace, an 18th-century Victorian brick-built double-storey structure in Baripada town of Odisha.
To passersby, the palace holds a different allure altogether. Perched atop a hill with its intricately designed porch, its gardens sprawl for miles around and the rooms breathe royalty. But for the Bhanj Deo sisters, Akshita and Mrinalika, who belong to the 48th generation of the Bhanja dynasty, the place will always be what they call “home” — a space that resounds with the chatter and laughter of their growing up years.
“This is our ancestral home,” says Akshita in conversation with The Better India, adding that the family has been in ownership of the property since 1804. While the sisters were schooled in Calcutta, and then overseas — with Akshita pursuing political science and human rights and Mrinalika pursuing sociology — the palace would often be a place they returned to for the holidays.
And when they did, it would be akin to entering a different world altogether. They explain why.
Being a princely state in India, Mayurbhanj in Odisha was witness to an influx of dignitaries who flocked to the city for various political and social reasons. Whilst in the city, they would sojourn at The Belgadia Palace where the Bhanjas were ruling.
But following Independence, the palace saw a lull in the number of people who sought shelter in it, apart from the Bhanj Deo family, consisting of Akshita, Mrinalika, and their parents — the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty HH Maharajah Praveen Chandra Bhanj Deo and his wife HH Maharani Rashmi Rajya Laxmi.
Having witnessed the mutation that the palace had seen from the hub of cultural activity to one that was now vacant, the Bhanj Deo sisters were fuelled with a strange zeal.
“We thought of restoring our ‘home’ in a way that would open it up for people to come and experience the past, our roots, and discover Odisha and all its wonderful aspects — art, culture, heritage, and people,” says Mrinalika.
The idea was sown in 2015 when the sisters stood in front of their parents with a mighty ask. They were looking for someone who would not just invest in the project but also in their dream. And when their parents agreed, they began work on a project that would come up to be one of the “most fulfilling” aspects of their lives.
Poetic and profound; you’ll find it at Mayurbhanj
Elaborating on the restoration process of The Belgadia Palace, Mrinalika says the idea was to restore the place keeping in mind that travel can be a means to sustainable development.
“We were looking to build a sustainable community that employs and skills the local community. There was a greater purpose in keeping this alive and showcasing a different side of our state and our district, its entrepreneurship, talent, the story of warriors, and the resilience of its people,” she adds.
However, there were a series of challenges that awaited.
Since Mayurbhanj is classified under the Red Corridor (part of the contiguous strip of land passing through India that sees left-wing extremism and Maoist activity), the sisters knew it would be challenging to set up a boutique hotel here and invite people to the area.
But, with firm resolve, they began what would be a five-year-long project.
Explaining the thought process behind the restoration, Akshita says, “We were certain that while preserving the antique charm of the home, we wanted to fit in modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and get the plumbing and electricals done right. However, the decor and styling were done according to the initial layout of the property.
“The skeleton of the building was preserved because it was fine. The furniture too dates back to more than 100 years and is preserved, as are the carpets and chandeliers,” she says adding that what they couldn’t repair or keep, they have as artefacts in the home. For instance, the vinyl record players and countless first edition books in the library.
A plan that began in 2015, saw the light of day in 2019 when The Belgadia Palace welcomed its first guests.
Experience life ‘king size’ in the Belgadia Palace
Right from the entrance to the stay, everything exudes a finesse that can’t be compared. A long walk through the driveway treats one to a splendid view of the gardens and grounds. At the end of this aisle, one will find the Elephant Porch or “Hathi Baramdah” — a high-arched porch built for the ruler when he’d mount the howdah on an elephant for ceremonial processions.
The boutique hotel boasts 11 rooms, with upholstery that has been repurposed from the original palace. One has to just look around and be fascinated with every corner; the windows embossed with royal insignia, century-old oil paintings and more.
“The suites offer hints and whispers of a royal era with the dark winding mahogany staircase at the lobby draped with a red carpet used for receiving the Maharajah,” says Akshita.
Like everything at The Belgadia Palace, the food is a royal spread with Odia thalis that chefs from the local community prepare. The thalis promote regional dishes with millet being the hero ingredient.
Feasting goes well with the culture, is what the Bhanj Deo family believes, and there is never a dull moment at the palace.
One of the most sought-after activities is the Chhau performance, a semi-classical Indian dance with martial and folk traditions. Borrowing inspiration from the state army and also from Hindu epics, the dance form was also inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In the evenings, a dokra artist visits the palace and showcases his skill. The non–ferrous metal casting art is said to be 4,000 years old and fading away with time. A stroll through the nearby villages will give a peek into how local women weave sabai grass into pure magic in the form of bowls, trays and wall hangings.
For those who’d like a spot of adventure, the UNESCO Biosphere — Simlipal Elephant and Tiger reserve 40 km away from the palace is perfect.
But, the most resplendent part about a stay at The Belgadia Palace is in the month of July during the Rath Yatra festivities. Also known as the Chariot Festival or the Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, the entire city comes alive with the energy and joy of the occasion and is a riot of colour.
At the core of every experience at The Belgadia Palace, there is the sisters’ simple message.
‘Experience the same magic that we have’
Today, the palatial landscape of Belgadia sees guests from all over the world including Canada, Japan and Western Europe.
“While it is exciting, the best part is when we see a guest from Odisha with their kids, recounting why they wanted their children to witness a place that is a part of history,” says Akshita.
A night at the palace costs anywhere between Rs 14,000 to Rs 19,000 and is inclusive of meals and a few experiences. However, the sister duo says there are miles to go.
“I would say we have only just begun and that we haven’t accomplished our vision in its entirety, just yet. We would like to impact a much larger section of society via tourism to have achieved our dream,” says Mrinalika.
She adds that instead of abandoning a heritage property which had been a bastion of community life, they decided to breathe new life into it.
“Restoration itself is a challenge, and being a climate-prone state, we are in a race against time to protect such a building and also to build infrastructure and amenities so the entire district benefits from tourism,” she adds.
All said and done, today as the sun sets over The Belgadia Palace, the sisters watch their creation unfold before their eyes.
“The restoration of The Belgadia Palace is a homage to the people of Mayurbhanj, and their story deserved to be told to the world,” concludes Mrinalika.
Edited by Pranita Bhat