Set in one hundred acres of gardens, farmland, and wilderness, Jhira Bagh Palace lies on the outskirts of the historic town of Dhar in western Madhya Pradesh. It’s a fine base from which to explore both Dhar, and Mandu, an hour away.
A gravel-lined driveway leads up to the palace, a sprawling heritage retreat tinged with old-world nostalgia. The original palace was constructed by Maharaja Anand Rao Puar III of Dhar in 1865 as an English guesthouse, and up until 1938 was used to entertain viceroys, governors, royalty, and state guests on official or recreational visits. Monochrome photos in its spacious lobby and passageways recount visits by Lord and Lady Curzon in 1902, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, and the kings of Mandu and Dewas. Other photographs depict elaborate banquets, picnics, royal occasions, and hunts.
Around 1943, Dhar’s last ruler Maharaja Anand Rao Puar IV decided to renovate Jhira Bagh and turn it into his official residence. He hired Bombay’s famous architectural firm Gregson, Batley & King, who had built Bombay Gymkhana and Bombay Central station, to refashion it in the prevailing art deco and Bauhaus styles. By the time the renovations to the “Jewel of Malwa” were completed, the history of India had been rewritten.
The abolition of privy purses after independence led to the abrupt closure of Jhira Bagh. For 50 years it lay abandoned, and was overrun with weeds; dirt and guano thickly covered the Italian Carrara marble floor. It’s hard to imagine now, that locals called it Kali Kothi (Black Mansion), the haunt of snakes, scorpions, owls and bats.
In November 1993, the present owners acquired the property from the wife of the late Maharaja, as a post-retirement plan to start an agricultural farm. They were fascinated by Jhira Bagh’s surroundings, its stepwells and water bodies. The place is called jhira because of the jharnas (springs) that feed the wells. Once the weeds and trash were cleared, water started pouring back into the step wells from all sides. Though the renovation project was huge and challenging, the property was painstakingly resurrected to its former glory. Today, it is an eco-conscious heritage hotel with exemplary sustainable and responsible tourism practices.
Welcomed with garlands and juice, the first thing we feel upon entering is a sense of spaciousness. The imposing structure has vaulted roofs on iron girders, broad passages, sunlit courtyards, and wide arches that open to the greenery outside. The unfettered play of natural light and breeze within the building, its burnished old wooden stairs and banisters, and four-foot-thick walls, speak volumes about its architectural grandeur.
Each of the 15 colonial guestrooms and suites is lavish, with double-height ceilings and generous bathrooms. Rooms are furnished with antique beds, handcrafted period furniture, settees and couches, work desks, and storage spaces. However, they don’t have TVs; for recreation there are indoor games like TT and billiards.
Each room follows a distinct style. There are the India-themed Jaipur and Gujarat rooms customized with traditional Bagh textiles; the English and Peacock rooms exude vintage elegance; and there is sheer opulence in the Colonial, Victorian, Maharaja and Maharani suites. Garden view rooms offer private, alfresco seating, ideal to catch a scenic sunrise or sunset. We woke up to the sight of lily ponds and a well-tended lawn where nilgai and peacock roam, the latter’s cries mingling with the calls of myriad other birds.
Jhira Bagh is an epicurean’s delight. Lavish homestyle meals are served in the green-hued royal dining room or in the breakfast lounge, dressed with high ceilings and period furniture. While mellow ghazals play in the background, a retinue of staff plies guests with dishes made from original recipes of the royal household: representing a selection of Indian and global cuisines. Romantic candlelit dinners are often organized in the courtyard. And for a grand setting, the Royal Malwa Darbar banquet hall has an original 22-foot solid rosewood table and 24 handcrafted chairs once used by royal dignitaries.
The estate is worth exploring, and guests are welcome to visit the surrounding fields, dairy farm, and gobar gas plant. It’s a good way to learn about organic farming practices. An ancient Hanuman temple next to the palace stands under a gigantic 150-year-old banyan tree, accentuating the air of serenity.
Rajendra Museum, on the upper floor, holds a well-curated personal collection of antiques, architectural relics, coins, tribal art and craft—each piece has a story to tell. There is also an adjacent library containing a treasure trove of books. Restoration of vintage automobiles is another passion that drives the host. A garage doubles up as a vintage museum, where old dream machines have been resuscitated—a Willys MB 1942, a Ford Prefect 1952, a beetle-green 1928 Austin 7 “Chummy” Tourer, and interestingly, a LandRover seized in 1971 at the Bangladesh border, complete with machinegun mounts. Even the 1938 Commer Q2, a rare British van that took Pandit Nehru on a tour to Mandu in 1952, is still running.
Jhira Bagh’s Green Imprint
Jhira Bagh was founded on the principles of conservation of natural resources. Rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, solar water heaters, drip irrigation and sprinkler systems and a biogas plant are some of the green initiatives here. They exemplify the property’s commitment to responsible tourism.
Additionally, the kitchen uses fresh organic vegetables and grains grown on their own farm. A full-fledged dairy takes care of all the milk needs, while fish and meat are sourced from within a five-kilometre radius, ensuring a minimal carbon footprint.
Thousands of trees, including fruit-bearing ones, were planted for soil fixing, They provide a habitat to several species of birds, specially peacocks, and other wildlife. Timers and LED bulbs fixed in public spaces ensure energy efficiency. The Bagh fabrics in the rooms are customized and sourced directly from the artisans of Bagh, a village famous for this unique style of block printing.
Employing locals and members of tribal communities has helped these groups economically. Local communities have also been encouraged to showcase their culture, music, and dance to guests, a move that has helped preserve traditions and given locals pride in their identity.
Getting there: Jhira Bagh Palace is 5 km from Dhar just off Mandu Road, and 36 km from the town of Mandu.
Jhira Bagh Palace
Where: Mandu Road, Dhar, Madhya Pradesh 454001
Contact: +91 73125 56183, 98260 33801
Visit MP Tourism