“Looking into the story of my family led to unravelling almost 1,500 years of history.”
As a young student in America, Akshita Manjiri Bhanj Deo, who might have been the 48th documented ruler of Mayurbhanj, Odisha, spent her holidays in family cottages in upstate New York, along with elder sister Mrinalika. The idea of opening up their ancestral home to guests took root there. So in 2015, Akshita opened the doors of The Belgadia Palace to visitors looking for a brush with its glorious past. Built in 1804, the mansion in Baripada city once welcomed foreign dignitaries to the royal state. In its 200-odd years, Belgadia has seen a thriving monarchy, the Raj era, the formation and dissolution of a constitutional monarchy, been a barrack for World War soldiers, as well as a family home.
There’s a story in every corner of this 22-acre property. A small wall cabinet right outside my suite holds a well-preserved collection of antique tobacco pipes, most bought in London. Its twin on another wall has an assortment of children’s vintage puzzle games. All along the mansion’s walls are paintings of royals and sepia snapshots of family and state.
It took over a year-and-a-half and the expertise of a family friend to restore this beloved home. Once Pooja Bihani of Spaces and Design was introduced to the Doric Corinthian-style mansion, she restored it to its former glory with utmost care—carved details were brought out and painted a different colour, murals and paintings were restored in Kolkata’s old antique shops, and some creature comforts introduced.
Now, the ground floor rooms have carved wooden desks and beds, and walls showcase the family and state history in frames. Wrapping around them, is a sunbathed corridor whose large French windows open to the sprawling back orchard. Among the 15 different fruit trees that grow there—yes, you can go fruit picking in the summer—is a special hybrid mango tree. Created by grafting two types of mangoes, as requested by Akshita’s grandparents, it used to bear heart-shaped fruits.
Inside, a little way from a writing desk still stacked with stationary bearing royal insignia, is a seemingly simple little wooden cupboard with double doors. When opened, it reveals tiny drawers full of Mayurbhanj’s natural and mineral riches: a travelling museum that went on voyages to show off the princely state. But the best part of this corridor is its easy access to the warm library. I found my best treasures here—hard-bound, black-and-white editions of National Geographic magazines from the early 1900s.
Perhaps the most heart-warming of Belgadia’s stories is that of its unconventional bride. Sucharu Devi, daughter of 19th-century Bengali philosopher and reformer Keshub Chandra Sen, first met Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo, Akshita’s great great grandfather, in Kolkata. The foreign -educated prince fell in love with the head of the All Bengal Women’s Union, but convention, family, and a royal betrothal kept them apart. Years later, when the widowed king met his (still unmarried) first love again, he brought her home as his bride. The extended royal family still couldn’t embrace her, so Belgadia’s doors were opened for Sucharu Devi. She brought with her a new design to the culturally rich tapestry of Mayurbhanj—poets and artists visited Belgadia on her invitation.
In fact, every bride has brought something to Belgadia. Akshita’s grandmother, the Late Rajmata Bharati Rajyalaxmi Bhanj Deo, and Akshita’s mother Maharani Rashmi Kumari married into Mayurbhanj from the royal families of Nepal and Jaisalmer respectively. Naturally, Belgadia’s palate is a delightful mix of Odiya, Nepali and Rajasthani cuisines. Alongside the regional delicacy of muri mangso (spicy mutton curry served with puffed rice), there’s Nepali dal and gattha.
Across Odisha’s largest district is a legacy that was pioneered by the Bhanja (Bhanj Deo) kings, from the sprawling Mayurbhanj Palace, which is now a college, to centres of art, history and religion. Even the forest rest houses that still stand within the Simlipal National Park and Tiger reserve, 30 minutes from town, were built by erstwhile royals.
Away from the rolling greenery, within the boundaries of the now bustling town of Baripada, are the most well-documented memoirs of Mayurbhanj. Past the chhaupadiya, a space where chhau dancers once routinely flaunted their art, is the Baripada Museum. Stone statues from sites at nearby Khiching and Haripur, excavated by the princely state’s Department of Archaeology in the 1920s, hold pride of place. From Khiching, the tenth-century Bhanja capital and site of the family deity Goddess Kichikeswari’s shrine, come intricately carved black stone sculptures that are now divided between Baripada, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Kolkata museums. For me, the most intriguing artefacts at the museum are the monthly state magazines filled with articles that have somehow outwitted the silverfish. An address from the king opens each issue, followed by stories from local journalists who often travelled to scour national and international news to fill The Mayurbhanj Chronicle, printed at the Mayurbhanj state press.
In the busy market ten minutes away, a small path past large iron gates and through an overgrown garden leads to the 120-year-old Jubilee Library. The gloriously old building may need some TLC, but houses astounding works including many coveted first editions in English, Hindi, Odiya and Bengali—from Tagore to Nehru—stamped with the Mayurbhanj palace stamp.
One of the best places to end a day of time travel in Baripada is probably at the Hari Baldev Jagannath temple, watching the evening aarti. This centuries-old edifice with murals on its ceiling and walls, hosts Odisha’s second-largest Rath Yatra, Dwitiya Srikeshtra, the only one where goddess Subhadra’s chariot is pulled by women.
Mayurbhanj may be regarded as a microcosm of Odisha’s rich repository of arts. From the metal work of dokra to the vibrant chhau dance, art has always thrived here, very often under Bhanja rulers.
Make sure to reserve an evening at Belgadia for chhau dancers. Unlike in the chhau of Bengal and Bihar, Mayurbhanj’s dancers don’t don elaborate masks, but the form itself is every bit as majestic. Men (and recently, women) move with grace, power and control to the rhythm, to leave you enthralled.
Within a 30-minute travelling radius of Belgadia live a milieu of local artists. In a small workshop cum homestay Kalyan Barik, a fine arts graduate, spends time teaching art to young kids from the local tribal communities. At Kuliana, the centuries-old dokra work is still alive among dedicated artisan families. The art of weaving sabai grass into baskets, bags, boxes, and even furniture is perhaps a direct influence of royal ancestor Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo, who brought back the golden grass from his travels to Africa.
While renovating Belgadia, it was never forgotten that it was at the centre of a land that fostered creativity. The Bazaar, a store that houses sustainable brands from across the country and those showcasing local arts and entrepreneurs is one of the ways in which the tradition is kept alive. The other is Belgadia’s artists’ residency programme. And these, Akshita hopes, are only the first steps.
The Belgadia Palace in Baripada town, Mayurbhanj, Odisha, is 230 km/5 hr from Kolkata and Bhubaneswar by road (firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from Rs11,000, including three meals and community experiences in and around Baripada).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.