Odisha's quaint and scenic town of Dhenkanal holds a special corner in my heart. I pursued my journalism course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication there. I made some of my best friends in Dhenkanal and have some of the fondest memories of my life from the beautiful town. And the best part, the Dhenkanal Palace stands at a kissing distance from IIMC. Even though, I have had my share of random visits to the palace grounds, I never got an opportunity to visit the palace in its entirety.
Last week, an online lecture by the members of the Dhenkanal royal family Yuvrani Meenal Kumar Singhdeo and Princess Yashasvini Kumari Devi, organised by the Centre for Historic Houses in India, not only brought back those cherished memories, but also introduced me to the treasure trove of heritage that the palace is. The discussion focused on how the royal family had tastefully restored it over the years and converted it into a heritage homestay. I wanted to pack my bags right away and take the first flight to Bhubaneswar. Thanks to the pandemic, I had to instead settle for an exclusive conversation with Yuvrani Meenal. The only fort-cum-palace in Odisha, the Dhenkanal Palace is perched on the slopes of Paniohala Hill. The construction was started by Maharaja Bhagiratha Mahindra Bahadur in the mid-19th century. Designed by a Bengali architect, the palace was raised on the site of the fort that witnessed a long-drawn siege and war by the Marathas. The Maharaja did not want a lavish fort or palace, but one befitting a king which was not too florid. The subsequent generations added and built on the original structure during their reign. Today, the palace serves as a heritage homestay dotted with apartments, courts and gardens nestled against the gradual slopes of the Eastern Ghats.
It was after their marriage in 1990 that Yuvrani Meenal and her husband Yuvraj Amarjyoti Singhdeo saw tourism as a future for the property. Yuvrani Meenal hails from the royal family of Wankaner in Gujarat. And they had converted their palace into a hotel during the seventies. “I had seen that aspect of heritage or palace tourism from my childhood. We also wanted to be able to enjoy it, have family and guests over as well as give it an incentive and financial feasibility to restore, which only tourism could give it,” she says.
Parts of the palace were in dire need of repair and they knew it would be quite a task for their children to restore it. They began the restoration work in 1990, aided in no small part by the Yuvrani’s passion for interiors and design. “We started one room at a time. Initially we worked on the interiors of the common areas, structural works such as roof repairs, electrification and plumbing,” says the Yuvrani.It was easier said than done. There was a lack of skilled labour in Dhenkanal back then and most of the construction material had to be brought from Kolkata, 475km from Dhenkanal.
Renovating an ancestral home over 150-years-old was a delicate process, says Yuvrani Meenal. “We had to match the flooring to some of the existing Carrara marble. The tiles, the fittings, lights and furniture all had to match the same time period,” she adds. Then there were challenges like walls being too thick for laying electrical wiring.
Since it was a lived-in palace, they also had to make sure that the restoration work did not disturb or displace the family. “In those days, we had long power cuts and work would have to stop for hours sometimes. We both had to be on our feet at all times to supervise or else something would go haywire within the blink of an eye,” the Yuvrani recalls. The weather would be a major challenge as well, the restoration process survived heavy rainfalls, 100 percent humidity, hot summers and cyclones.
While they restored parts like the dining room, sitting room, gardens and library, keeping tourism in mind, it was the guest rooms that required the maximum effort. “These were rooms occupied by my grandfather-in-law’s brothers and their families. When they built their houses and moved out, this block was empty and called for a lot of repair and maintenance. There was neither electricity nor plumbing nor furniture. Monkeys were frequent visitors! There were two old drop toilets which we have retained with a little renovation."Her husband wasn't keen to break down any part of the old structure, nor add anything new, so they worked towards restoring the interiors, while maintaining the sanctity of the palace. “We did up one room at a time and added bathrooms. There was no assurance of how well tourism would do. In those days, Odisha did not have much infrastructure, nor was it a regular tourist destination but we took the plunge anyhow. At the end of the day it was our home and had to be maintained and cared for."
The royal couple also travelled around to pick up antique pieces of crockery, lights and curios among other antiquities. The furniture in the restored homestay is a blend of Oriental, English and local, while the style of interiors range from colonial to local. A lot of the old furniture was restored by their competent in-house carpenter.
View this post on Instagram
“We have brought in furniture from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kolkata and Mumbai. The oldest portion was furnished in an European manner and we wanted to retain it and enhance it in the same style. For my husband and me, it was imperative to retain the local flavour and essence of the guest block. Since it was our passion, we did not hire an architect or interior designer but did it all by ourselves.”
After the guestrooms were restored, they converted the erstwhile labour room into a guest lounge. Yuvrani Meenal has been a collector since her childhood and so was her mother. Wall plates, teapots, brass ware, fans, textiles and porcelain collected by them have been displayed in the guest lounge.
Odisha has been a cauldron of traditional arts and crafts since time immemorial. The royal family was keen to incorporate these age-old crafts and skills in the restoration of the palace. It was imperative for them to retain the Odia ethnicity and essence. A lot of the soft furnishings, bed covers, curtains, table linen has been woven by ikkat weavers from nearby villages. The applique work of Pipli is also something they have used a lot in bed sheets, overhead shamianas and garden umbrellas. Some of the walls at the palace, including the bathrooms have patachitra motifs.“We have employed Dokra artisans to make candle stands, ash trays and doors, and bell metal artisans have handbeaten brass basins in our bathrooms."
They have had doorways carved in stone by local artisans to match some of the earliest structures in the palace premises. The laundry and waste-paper baskets have been woven in cane by artisans from neighbouring villages. “We also have the traditional ‘jhutti’, ‘chitta’ or ‘alpana’ on our walls. We have consciously tried to employ each local art form or skill in some way in Dhenkanal Palace."
It’s been 30 years and the restoration of the palace continues. The heritage homestay reopens in December and we can't wait to be there!
Dhenkanal is a treasure trove of culture with festivals, crafts and a host of cultural activities that take place all year round. The distance from many of Odisha’s historical sites is optimal, giving visitors both access to the sites as well as a getaway from the tourist track. The Astashambu Temples at Kualo are an hour’s drive away while the Buddhist sites of Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri and Udaigiri. You can also visit the sleeping Vishnu at Saranga and age-old temples like Naganath, Annakoteswar, and Chitalpur. Autumn and winter months are the best time to visit, October to March is ideal.
Dhenkanal, Odisha -759001
Phone: +91-9437292448 / +91-9748478335
Email Address: email@example.com
Facilities: Free WiFi, in-house boutique, air-conditioning, running hot and cold water in all en-suite bathrooms, tea and coffee maker on request, library, lounge area, doctor on call
Air: Bhubaneswar is the nearest airport at 80km
Rail: Cuttack (55 kms), on the main Howrah Chennai route links Dhenkanal to major cities. It is also directly connected to Delhi, Howrah, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Bikaner, Vishakapatnam, Raipur, Amritsar and Mumbai
Road: Dhenkanal is situated 75 km from Bhubaneswar and 55 km from Cuttack on NH-55