The Belgadia Palace: Find out how is this 200-year-old royal residence and boutique-homestay is contributing to sustainable tourism
The Belgadia Palace stationery on which this travel diary began comes with a smart kit for guests on saving vital resources like water, ‘Towel up means will use again,' and similar easy know-hows on zero-wastage. "We are consistently trying to reduce the carbon footprints of our operations, we are in process of going full-organic with our produce here at Belgadia," Akshita Bhanj Deo reveals at lunch, over a plate of delicious Nepalese jogi bhaat. “We serve primarily Odiya, Rajasthani and Nepalese cuisine, you'll find a lot of bona fide tribal, homegrown specialities. My mum's from Jaisalmer and my grandma is actually the daughter of King Tribhuwan Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal,” she adds.
Akshita and her older sister Mrinalika are the faces of new-age royalty trying to spearhead pioneering advances in protecting and promoting indigenous handicrafts, handlooms, design and heritage artistry with a renewed focus on sustainability. While Mrs and Mr Meghan Markle’s royal exodus caused international ripples, the new descendants of Indian royalty are taking a significant leap towards a more credible and ethically conscious future while staying rooted to the historical narratives of their families.
The construction of the palace at Baripada (only 3.5 kms from Kolkata) began on the orders of Maharani Sumitra Devi Bhanj Deo in 1804. The 18th-century Victorian brick-built palace constructed in the Western style of Doric-Corinthian column, the palace is essentially a boutique homestay, only a few hours away from the Simlipal, an Elephant and Tiger UNESCO Biosphere. The present interiors were designed for Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo’s second wife, Maharani Sucharu Devi, daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement.
“Ram Chandra was often referred to as the Philosopher King, he was also a social reformer; we curated a homestay experience so the connect to history is more immediate and authentic for guests who want to get a sense of our cultural significance,” Akshita tells us during the mid-morning rounds of the palace grounds along with her adorable Great Dane pups Sebastian and Marcus.
The striking 15-acre property sits on a raised hill overlooking sprawling landscaped greens on either side, highlighted by a long drive-in which will lead you to the “Hathi Baramdah”, a high arched porch built to accommodate the ruler when he would mount the howdah on an elephant for ceremonial processions. The suites and deluxe rooms have of course, been re-designed and equipped with luxe, world-class amenities while simultaneously straddling the property’s iconic narrative.
From the vintage vinyl records to the taxidermied animal heads, Persian rugs, royal journals, bullets from World War II, to the pre-Independence calendars, anything you touch at the Palace has its own century-old backstory which contributes to Belgadia’s overwhelmingly enriching experience.
The present-day occupants of the palace, besides Mother Bharati Rajya Laxmi are her son Praveen Chandra Bhanj Deo who is the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty and his wife Rashmi Rajya Laxmi of Mayurbhanj. The first floor houses most of the suites, namely The Crown Suite, The Empress Suite, The Bengal Renaissance, The Narayanhity Suite, with the exception of Peacock Suite.
The ground floor lays out a perfect historical trail through the legacy of Mayurbhanj, which was once the largest state of the Eastern States Agency. From the billiard and bar room, to the astonishing library, tearoom, and a games room, it’s a map through labyrinths of the state’s diverse legacy.
Akshita and Mrinalika envisioned their ancestral property as an anchor for nurturing the culture of Orissa as well as catering to the new-age ethical heritage tourism which has gained immense popularity. “Mrinalika is a certified yoga instructor and this space acts as a wonderful retreat for those looking for an escape; we even host an annual artists residency where independent creatives from across the world show up,” the young royal tells us. From high tea at the rose garden patio over some freshly baked goods or some bonfire dinner over jazz, or a stroll through the mango orchard, the palace offers a multi-faceted staycation experience.
But tribal tourism still remains Belgadia’s biggest focus; in fact, the idea for running the palace as a boutique homestay birthed out of the need to build self-sustaining communities which could lead to local welfare. The district of Mayurbhanj has been a powerhouse of art and culture for centuries, be it the ancient wax casting art form Dokra or the martial arts dance form Mayurbhanj Chhau.
The palace itself once housed artists such as Hemendranath Majumdar and boasts of some of his best works. So the palace acts as a platform where the best of Orissa’s indigenous culture is curated for the world. “We have recently opened up a boutique store within the palace grounds which curates products from local sellers,” Akshita tells us.
On a two-day long visit to The Belgadia Palace you could visit the temple of Kichakeswari at Khiching (built entirely of rare chlorite slabs), visit the Sabai/Dokra village to observe the lost arts featuring dokra and sabai grass and maybe pick up some one-of-a-kind memorabilia, there’s also a Jagannath temple stone’s throw away from the palace which is also steeped in history. You can also choose to have a live performance of Mayurbhanj Chhau (which has influences of military combat) at the front porch of the palace.
A tour through the local tribal bazaar is a must to get the real feel of Baripada’s local livelihood, you can pick up some trusty Ikat yards, there’s also the Council Hall, the Rani Dharamshala, the Bhanja Palace ruins at Haripur on the bank of the Budhabalanga river. Helpful tips: 1)Also check out the famous wildlife parks, Barheipani Falls and Jaranda Falls, which are total hidden gems. 2) The palace is pet-friendly!
Check out the palace's Instagram page here.