I was sitting in the elaborately furnished living room of Belgadia Palace, waiting for the royal sisters Mrinalika Manjari and Akshita Manjari Bhanj Deo. The winter sun poured in through the floor-to-ceiling, arch-top glass windows.
Earlier in the day, I had left Kolkata and reached Baripada in Odisha, less than four hours away by car. Baripada had always been an entry point to Simlipal Tiger Reserve for me, and I believed there was nothing in the town that would warrant a stop. I was wrong. A few twists and turns through Baripada and I was in front of an ornate gateway that opened to a long gravel drive flanked by a mango tree, among other varieties. At the end of the drive stood a gleaming white double-storied palace, the home of the present generation of the Bhanj Deo family.
It was initially built for Sucharu Devi, the daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, a noted 19th-century philosopher and social reformer of Bengal. Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo had fallen in love with young Sucharu while he was in Calcutta, and later married her despite stiff opposition from his family.
It is only recently that the family, which lives in a part of the palace, decided to open the remaining section as a boutique hotel. However, it was easier said than done. A large section of the 200-year-old palace, which had remained shut for many years, and many of the artefacts, were in a dilapidated state. Electricity and plumbing had to be overhauled. The original 25 rooms were broken down and redesigned to suit modern tastes. I was offered the Bengal Renaissance room or the red room. The Narainhity Suite in pale pink is a reminder of the family’s many links with Nepal. Then there are various other rooms, each with a different colour theme.
While Belgadia Palace offers a look into the life and times of the royal family, there are destinations in and around Baripada that one may explore to learn about the former state of Mayurbhanj.
The tiger reserve I mentioned earlier is about 25km away. Owing to the paucity of time, this time we went to visit the nearby Joranda and Barehipani waterfalls but if you are visiting Jashipur (95km away), the administrative headquarters of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, pay a visit to Khiching, the earlier capital of the Mayurbhanj rulers.
One evening, we drove to Haripur, about 15km away. It is believed that Maharaja Harihar Bhanj shifted his capital here from Khiching in the early 15th century. Sitting next to ruins of what could have been a palace complex or a fort are two temples. The Rasikraya temple was reminiscent of the sloped-roof terracotta temples of Bengal. Most likely, the temple was covered with decorated terracotta tiles, of which only a few remain towards the bottom. Earlier excavations had revealed many artefacts, local people informed us.
A drive around Baripada brought to light many administrative buildings, which go a long way to prove that the later Mayurbhanj rulers were indeed visionaries. They had introduced fire stations, courthouses, police stations, jails, etc. Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo was the first person to prospect for ore and minerals in Mayurbhanj. According to records, Jamshedji Tata entered into a contract with the king in 1905 when he came to know about the vast iron ore deposits in the region. The ruler was also the patron of the Baripada Musuem (founded in 1903), one of the oldest in Odisha. Today, however, the interiors are in shambles.
My trip to Belgadia Palace and Baripada ended with a visit to the Jagannath temple, also known as the Haribaldevjew temple. Built under the patronage of Raja Baidyanath Bhanj, the 16th-century temple drew inspiration from the Kakharua Baidyanath temple.
Baripada is about 195km by road from Kolkata and 207km from Bhubaneswar, its nearest cities with airports. Belgadia Palace is a boutique hotel with 10 rooms, including five suites at INR 14,000, one deluxe room at INR 10,000 and four standard rooms at INR 7,000, all inclusive (with breakfast). Contact: +91-9830290530; [email protected] thebelgadiapalace.com