Sandur received a celebrity endorsement long before there were tourism departments trying to market destinations. As everyone there and every article that references the place likes to tell you, the Mahatma visited in 1934 and issued a terse travel advisory: “See Sandur in September.” Records show that he passed through in early March, but that need not detract from the essential truth that the area around Sandur experiences a glorious outbreak of green every monsoon.
Winter is the other good time to visit. It is a January morning when I alight at Toranagallu railway station, pretty as only very small stations can be, just as the sun begins to rise. The drive to Sandur, a little over 25km, takes an hour on roads that are a combination of lunar and Martian surfaces — severely cratered and with red dust everywhere. The consolation is the view — forested hills to one side and on the other the expanse of the Narihalla water reservoir with its twin boulders rising out of the water. The roads owe their condition to the thousands of truck-loads of iron and manganese ore that are ferried daily. Sandur is a town of about 30,000 people in the heart of the mining area of Karnataka’s Bellary district. Before Independence, it used to be the seat of the Sandur princely state, founded in the early 18th century by the Maratha clan known as the Ghorpades. My destination is the Shivavilas Palace, completed in 1940, and home to the last maharaja of Sandur, Yashwanthrao Ghorpade.
I must confess to feeling some apprehension as we approached the palace. My few run-ins in the past with luxury hotels had been comfortable enough experiences, but this comfort had tended to be so insulated from the outside and of such a bland and generic quality that it had the side-effect of inducing mild despair. I had steeled myself in the line of duty, but, happily, this proved unnecessary in the case of Shivavilas Palace. The next three days had all the warmth of a homestay, but in a palace.
The palace turns out to be an amiably sized red-domed affair standing in neatly landscaped grounds. A long reflecting-pool runs down the middle to the gate. Moving down the driveway and entering the palace, a spacious anteroom leads to an open centre where a demure bronze lady with a bird on her shoulder holds up a lamp. The pillars and arches of the two floors of the palace look into this centre. The first floor is the residential section with twelve rooms and suites. The ground floor has the offices, dining hall, two temples, a billiards room with bar, and a ‘durbar hall’ that is really a museum of regalia and weaponry. Around the grounds are a swimming pool, a spa and a garage with three painstakingly restored automobiles — a hunting jeep, a Mercedes belonging to the maharaja and a vintage Dodge.
I didn’t once encounter a menu in my three days at the Shivavilas Palace. Meals are prepared in consultation with the chefs, which is presumably how royals ate. The two chefs between them presented meals ranging from South Indian to Punjabi to Continental and I’m told they are experimenting with more cuisines. (One of the nice things about eating in a palace is the cutlery — if you ever find yourself at this one, ask for a shot of coffee simply to look at the work of art that is their demitasse cup.)
The task of converting the palace into a hotel was undertaken by the present general manager, John Curtis. Looking at before-and-after pictures, it is striking that the palace interior now seems more royal than when royalty actually lived here. Pragmatic table-fans have now been replaced with air-conditioning and replicas of antique wood-and-cane ceiling fans; thin simple curtains with heavy gold drapes; plain white ceramic bathroom tiles with muted pink sandstone evoking tiles; cudappa stone flooring in rooms with wood; simple plastic light switches with replicas of old-style Bakelite switches. Chandeliers have been added, ‘period lights’ installed. The old cast-iron street-lamps on the driveways have been supplemented with new ones cast in Gujarat and brought here. Much of the furniture that was already in the palace has been re-upholstered and carpenters were hired to make additional furniture in the same style.
There are serious amounts of wood used in the palace, bringing a reassuring cosiness to the airy, high-ceilinged rooms. Doors, windows, chairs, tables, writing-desks, dressing tables, beds, wardrobes, settees, stools and a grand staircase leading to the first-floor are all of old Burma teak. The floors in the living area are rustic oak. Taken with the stuffed hunting trophies in the durbar hall and billiards bar — tigers, deer, buffalo, bears, antelopes, boars — that’s half a forest right here inside the palace. Heritage hotels may be the last places in these conscience-ridden times where one can experience this somewhat literal co-existence with nature.
The homeyness I sense in Shivavilas Palace probably comes from the fact that it was in use by the royal family until recently, and parts of their lives here are still discernible. Old-fashioned radios and a turntable sit on a balcony. Decorative pieces, clocks and cutlery acquired by the royal family are still in use. Family photographs sit on ledges and shelves; portraits of past rulers hang on the walls. M.Y. Ghorpade, the son of the last maharaja, followed the tradition of the royal hunt in a more pacific way and ended up becoming a noted wildlife photographer. The palace contains some of his equipment, and prints of his pictures hang from the walls. The bookshelves about the palace still have old copies of National Geographic magazine and proceedings of the Bombay Natural History Society. The palace library contains all sorts of riches, with some books over a hundred years old. The last maharaja was an adherent of the Puttaparthi Sai Baba, and a room had been kept aside for his use during visits. The room is preserved intact with all its dusty saffronalia.
The palace also yields many stories. In this veritable showroom of fine furniture I come upon two distinctly out-of-place chairs. It turns out they were given to the king at some point by the chairman of Tata Motors, who was excited by the new seats they had just designed for their trucks. The bronze lady with the lamp at the centre of the palace was moulded by the raja of Pudukottai as a present. I ask about the room I am staying in and learn that it was the childhood room of one of the princes.
The nearby Kumaraswami temple complex is a prominent site of worship in the area. The oldest temple here was built by the Chalukya rulers around a thousand years ago with later additions by the Rashtrakuta kings. The whole complex is then supposed to have disappeared into the Swamimalai forest. The Ghorpade kings at some point found and restored the site to the people. The temple they added to the complex carries in an unobtrusive spot the relief of a monitor-lizard — or ghorpad — from which their clan takes its name. The guards at the temple still wear a turban and sash as they did under the Sandur maharajas.
To visit Sandur town and stay at the palace is in a sense to travel back in time to the princely state of Sandur. The last maharaja handed over the 400-odd square kilometres of his territory to the government of India in 1949, but the royal family remains intimately connected to the land and its people. The maharaja’s eldest son, M.Y. Ghorpade, was elected MLA from the Sandur constituency seven times. I’m told that when the maharani died last year, 7,000 people from the area turned up at the Shivavilas Palace to pay their respects. Even as far away as Hampi, a good two-hour rumble away, in the adjacent Vijayanagara kingdom, the tourist guide shows a flicker of interest when we tell him we’ve come from Shivavilas Palace. At the state tourism hotel, where we stop for lunch, he points to a print of one of MYG’s photographs: “Taken by sahebru. He used to come here often.”
I visit one of the mines operated by SMIORE — a company started by the erstwhile maharaja to provide employment to his subjects — and helmeted foremen rush about to ply me with tea and biscuits. I even turn around and say, “Who, me?” when I’m asked to plant a sapling to mark my visit. My head-of-state moment goes by in a daze with people behind me proffering soap, water and towels. The next day I visit a school associated with the palace and squirm as a nursery teacher lines up kids to sing a song in welcome. All this undeserved regard is, of course, the result of staying at the palace.
The princely state of Sandur, even if now non-existent, is still a palpable entity in the area, and responsible for much of the landscape of today’s Sandur. Trusts affiliated with the palace have set up a wedding hall, hospitals and several educational institutions. For guests at Shivavilas Palace, this opens up a whole range of things to do. The adjacent residential school, for instance, is well-endowed with sports facilities. John Curtis lists out for me the sort of activities it is possible to arrange in the vicinity of the palace: tennis, basketball, cycling, horse-riding. There’s even a driving range and a shooting range somewhere.
A walk in the vicinity of the palace might have you encountering an impossibly colourful group of women. This would be the Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra, started to revive and market traditional Lambani craft. Here, women from a nearby Lambani settlement together produce garments, linen and accessories in their traditional patchwork-embroidery-mirrorwork style. The centre also has units for khadi, sculpture in wood and stone, and craftwork in cane.
Above my bed in the palace is a framed square of patchwork that came from the Lambanis. Already at the limits of colourfulness, it seems to acquire an additional glow after I learn who made it and where it came from. Elsewhere, on the margin of a corridor, are incongruous things to have in a palace — lumps of ore, surprisingly weighty, from the land around. These are tokens of what might be the nicest thing about Shivavilas Palace — that it manages to be luxurious without being isolating, that for the price of a room in a palace you can experience a small kingdom. Even if it’s not September.
Sandur is 21km (one hour by car, given the roads) from the charming Toranagallu railway station. BY AIR There are airstrips nearby but the most practical airport is still Bengaluru (300km/6-7hrs). BY RAIL The Hampi Express is a convenient overnight train from Bengaluru to Toranagallu. Hospet and Hubli are other options.
The Shivavilas Palace at Sandur, Bellary district, built in 1940, is now a WelcomHeritage hotel. It has nine deluxe rooms (Rs 10,500), a suite (Rs 12,500), a Maharaja suite (Rs 15,500) and a warren of antechambers, dressing-rooms and balconies that is the Maharani suite (Rs 18,500). Tariffs exclude meals and taxes. Contact: 08395-260223/309/310, shivavilaspalacehotel.com, welcomheritagehotels.com
What to see & do
The centrepiece of Sandur is its palace and there’s plenty to soak in while actually staying here—photographs and relics of the royal family, the tiny durbar room with its throne and weapons, a garage with two vintage cars and a jeep, the old books in the library. In addition the palace has a swimming pool, spa and billiards table. Tennis and basketball courts are accessible just outside. Shooting and horse-riding can be arranged for those with more princely proclivities. The palace can also organise a half-day visit to the nearby mines with a stop at the millennium-old Kumaraswami temple. The heritage site of Hampi (40km) and the Daroji Bear Sanctuary (60km) both make good day trips from the palace. The Sandur Kushala Kala Kendra is a craft centre with opportunities for shopping.
When to go
November to February is when Sandur is at its balmiest. Very hot in summer, the place breaks out into greenery in the monsoon months (August to October).