Blissful Bhopal : Jehan Numa Palace and its wilderness retreat fortify princely lifestyle in our memory

The property offers luxury lifestyle in the form of retreat, leisure activities, culinary trail from the royal kitchen of Nawabs and more.
Jehan Numa Palace
Jehan Numa Palace

Bhopal is not the first destination that flashes in the mind of a bon vivant traveller who mostly thinks of Udaipur, Lucknow, Delhi and Hyderabad as the belt of royalty. However, our three-day trip to the city of Begums and Nawabs proved that the place is redolent of rich culture, deep history and arresting natural beauty. Bhopal exemplifies the famous Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb where both Hindu and Muslim rulers shaped the cityscape with art, architecture, culinary trails and princely pursuits. Taking a deep dive into the aristocratic Bhopali culture, we headed to the luxurious Jehan Numa Palace. Our ride meandered through the edges of the biggest lake of Madhya Pradesh, Bhojtal, whose magnanimity invited an infinity gaze if one is to look at the other side of the lake.

Jehan Numa Palace
Jehan Numa Palace

Land of Begums
During our ride, we learnt how the city was shaped by four dynamic and charismatic Begums who ruled between 1819-1926. They were quite ahead of their time. If the first Begum, Qudsia, defied the purdah tradition in a male-dominated society, her daughter Begum Sikandar Jehan was an expert in martial arts, fought many battles and crushed the rebels with her bravery. She built the iconic Moti Mahal and Moti Masjid — a landmark of Indo-Islamic and European architecture. Her daughter Shah Jehan Begum, much like the Mughal sultanate ruler, Shah Jehan, was a lover of arts, architecture and philanthropy. She revamped the infrastructure of the city by building hydropower units, opened hostels, built the largest mosque in India, Taj-ul-Masajid and showed her religious tolerance with the conservation of properties belonging to other faiths. The fourth and last Begum Sultan Jehan was a pioneer in the education and health field and authored books on topics of public interest. Bhopalis proudly hail the Begums as the extraordinary women of the olden era who were conservationists, educationists, philanthropists, designers, architects, regents, culinary connoisseurs and protectors of their subjects.

Palace interiors, Under The Jamun Tree
Palace interiors, Under The Jamun Tree

Ritzy lifestyle
After learning about the glaring insights, during our half-hour drive from the airport, we reached Jehan Numa Palace located on the serene Shamla Hills. We laid our eyes on the palatial facade of the property washed in pristine white colour with a cylindrical pillared entrance. Enter inside the 100-room property towards the courtyard and you’d be mesmerised by the mosaic fountain installed in a sprawling regal garden blooming with roses, champa, bougainvillaea, and soaring palm trees making the estate a perfect oasis of luxury. We soaked in the air of this 19th-century residence and walked past its arched walkways and verdant lawns to reach our Imperial Room for a quick check-in after a welcome drink. It was filled with a host of plush amenities like LCD television, en-suite bathroom, builtin refrigerator, room safes, study table stocked with hand-lettering equipment, cabinets and a private balcony facing the swimming pool.

Luxury rooms
Luxury rooms

The balcony gave us a stunning view of the beautiful thoroughbred horses that are regularly taken for evening and morning strolls. In that way, the Nawabi family has preserved its love for the athletic animals that dates back to horse racing, battles, hunting and leisure games. After a quick refreshment, we headed for lunch through the collonaded passage to reach one of the six dines at the palace — La Kuchina. The dimly lit Italian and Mediterranean restaurant serves risottos, pizzas, pastas, anti-pastis, dolci and hot beverages for the bon appetite.

Love for thoroughbreds
Love for thoroughbreds

We bite into a slice of Italy with their butter glistened Garlic Prawns served with mushrooms and herb-crusted Chicken Conchiglie in Alfredo Sauce pasta. Our Italian meal was completed with their home churned Strawberry Gelato that filled us with delight before we sip their freshly squeezed pulpy Orange Juice. The property also houses other fine dines and bistros like Shahnama — the multi-cuisine restaurant, Cafechino — a trendy coffee shop and bars like Tattenham Corner and Shergar that are popular watering holes for evening revelry. However, it’s their outdoor barbecue restaurant Under The Mango Tree (UMT) that became the highlight of the day where centuries-old recipes of the Bhopali royal family, passed down through generations come alive, standing the test of time. We booked ourselves an opulent candlelight dinner on the rooftop of UMT and made our headway for a museum tour of the palace.

Caption
Caption



Framed in history
We’re at the polished and spotless corridors of the palace that form a quadrangle with a verdant verandah in the centre. The walls are decked with sepia-toned portraits of the four Begums and their lineage carried forward by General Obaidullah Khan, the commander-in-chief of Bhopal State Force and second son of Sultan Jehan Begum. He built the palace as his administrative office in 1890 which was later turned into a world-class heritage hotel by his grandsons Nadir and Yawar Rashid in 1983. Adorning the walls, we see archival photos of pre-Independence royalty and their lifestyle. In one of the framed monochrome photographs, Begums are meeting dignitaries and we learn that they had their own special cameras and paparazzi to capture their significant events! Another group portrait showed how hockey became India’s national game under its patron Rashid-Uz-Zafar Khan, a member of the royal family. We further look at a set of images depicting the royal family’s possession of automobiles, branded guns, their passion for thoroughbreds and more.

Pool-side view
Pool-side view

From the Nawab’s kitchen
Our heritage walk culminated in an epicurean dinner at Under The Mango Tree. The breezy and botanical setting of the fine dine rendered by a 100-year-old mango tree shows the royal family’s preservation of nature in al its glory. One by one, we were served traditional recipes prepared by chefs trained by kothi kansamas(royal family cooks). From exotically spiced Galouti Kebab, cottage cheese stuffed Bharwan Aloo, hot and delicious Palak Shorba tempered with cumin to Machhli Korma Bhopali cooked with mouth-melting freshwater fish with Khameeri Roti — we relished a slew of decadent dishes. At the end of the day, we relaxed ourselves with a glass of wine and mulled over how the legacy of the age-old recipes has been kept intact in the most authentic way.

Preperation of meals from organic produce
Preperation of meals from organic produce

Retreating in nature
On day two, our stopover was at Jehan Numa Retreat — a 12.5-acre nature’s paradise housing 28 rooms, located on the edge of the lush green forest —The Van Vihar National Park. We entered the retreat that whispered sounds of nature — buzzing bees, multi-coloured butterflies painting the ambience in a rainbow of sorts and chirpy birds and squirrels squeaking near cottages. With no delay, we checked into our spacious room which was part of an intimate collection of low-slung cottages. Its interiors mesmerised us with impressionist tribal art details on walls, ethnic furniture, studycum-bedroom, tropical open-shower, walking closet, and rural design features like mud-coloured walls and flooring. The highlight was a private sit-in courtyard that opened into this sprawling organic garden that catered to the culinary needs of the palace and retreat.

Into the bush tv experience
Into the bush tv experience

We went on a stroll in the garden and rested our eyes on its fresh grown produce — parsley, coriander, kale, lettuce, mint, arugula, fennel and many seasonal vegetables, herbs and spices. For a more immersive experience, we went for a farm-to-fork culinary trail at the café Green House Bistro. The quaint café was not only a meal fixer with slow food philosophy but gave us an enhanced taste rendered by farm produce. We opted for a charcoal Black Burger stuffed with mutton patty, sautéed mushrooms, cheddar cheese and turkey bacon, Mac and Cheese Pasta and Arugula Pumpkin Salad with goat cheese and pine nuts. While the meal left us hale and hearty, the fruity air filled with the scent of ripe bananas, watermelon, and strawberries growing in the garden adjacent to our table gave us a complete sensorial experience.

Green House Bistro
Green House Bistro

Art of unwinding
After a delectable lunch, we picked some leisurely activities to keep us busy that included spa, yoga, cycling and bird watching. We began by reaching the Retreat’s wellness centre for a soothing lavender oil spa and massage. It gave us the optimum exfoliation accompanied by a steam bath in the end for a lasting glow. The green tea served at the end of the session further caressed our soul. We felt energised enough to visit their central restaurants at Retreat, Under The Jamun Tree, which was similar to its counterpart UTM but specialised in both continental and Indian cuisine.

A favourite with globe trotters, the lavish restaurant served us with royal Bhopali delicacies like Gosht Makhane Ka Korma, Mutton Filfora, Nadru Ke Kofte, Murg Rizzalla and more influenced by the ritual of shikar (hunting) — a practice that dates back to the time of Nawabs where raw meat was cooked for several hours on low flame before being blended with hand grinded spices. Our dinner amidst the constant rustle of tree leaves made the experience all the more calming.

Cycling at retreat
Cycling at retreat

Into the wild
On our last day, we headed for an adventurous cycling trip to Van Vihar National Park which is just 3km from Jehan Numa Retreat. Visitors can drive, cycle or walk through the environs of the zoological park which has over 200 bird species and is the natural habitat of predatory animals like tigers, bears, lions, crocodiles, snakes, hyenas and more. We were thrilled to end our trip seeing the carnivores plod majestically in the most open boundary zoo we’ve ever seen! Jehan Numa hospitably arranges the visit to the zoo which is a must-go attraction for any traveller.

Rooms at Jehan Numa Palace and retreat start from Rs. 8,000 upwards. Mail: priyamvada@newindianexpress.com
Twitter: @RanaPriyamvada

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