Garden Palace Heritage Homestay’s buttery yellow exterior gives away little about its lavish interiors. About an hour’s drive from Ahmedabad, in the town of Balasinor, the haveli is the private residence of the area’s erstwhile royal family. It’s located just off a busy street, but wears an air of calm because of the gardens that surround it.
It’s only when I step inside that I understand the affluence and history of this small town. Every corner of the pistachio-green living room is filled with memorabilia belonging to the family of the former nawab of Balasinor. The furniture is French Louis XIV style and the walls are covered with gilded photo frames showing generations of royals. There’s even a stuffed leopard in a corner. The haveli has an air of opulence but I also detect hints of wistfulness in the way everything is crammed together.
One painting shows a toddler dressed in a dark sherwani and a gold turban, with a large jewel-encrusted sword placed before him. My hostess, 41-year-old Aaliya Babi, tells me it’s a portrait of her father, who inherited the title of nawab when he was just 11 months old, and held it till 1947, when he was about three years old.
The house I’m in was built in 1883 to accommodate the royal family’s guests. But it became their home in the 1940s after the palace, which was close by, burnt down. Relics salvaged from the palace are dotted around the haveli and its gardens: semi-circular glass frames and floral grills atop the door to my room, stone carved railings tucked into corners in organised heaps.
Not surprisingly Aaliya has a wealth of stories that she shares jovially over a cup of tea. My room, which opens onto a little garden with a swing on one side and a street on the other, is built on what used to be the erstwhile diwan’s vegetable patch, while the bathroom was a former pantry for his wife’s favourite snacks. The haveli’s dining room is filled with artefacts from brass and silver samovars to hookahs, big and small, that belonged to her grandmother. When she travelled, Aaliya says, her grandmother would trade her hookahs for cigarettes. The story makes me smile, because the idea of a sari-clad woman with her head covered, smoking a cigarette would surely have raised many an eyebrow.
Despite its sense of grandeur, Garden Palace has a relaxed, informal vibe. Conversation with Aaliya flows easily as we settle on an ornate sofa after a nawabi meal that included seekh kebabs, chicken in white gravy, veg biryani, and a decadent motichoor halwa. The meals are personally supervised by Aaliya’s mother, the former begum, and include traditional family recipes. Though I couldn’t get a one-on-one cooking class with the chef, I did manage to coax her to share her recipe for the delicious halwa we had at lunch.
Chatting with Aaliya, I learn more about Balasinor. In the 1980s, geologists found a large dinosaur fossil site only a short distance away, in the village of Rayoli. Aaliya was a little girl then and the discovery sparked her interest. She started studying the fossils and later, when she was older, invited palaeontologists to document and study the site. Today, she conducts tours and displays a small fossil collection at her homestay. The exhibit’s centrepiece is a fossilised dinosaur egg that her brother acquired from a village home where it was being used as a pestle to grind spices.
Interest in the fossil site has grown in recent years, drawing visitors from nearby Ahmedabad including groups of Harley-Davidson riders, and passengers on IRCTC’s luxury train Maharajas’ Express, which stops at Balasinor. Travellers are greeted with a royal welcome that includes floral showers and a chance to meet the ex-royals dressed in their traditional best. The grand welcome sounds fascinating, but I cherish the informal interactions I’ve had with Aaliya and her family. They’ve given me a glimpse of the other aspects of royalty, a sense of hospitality and tehzeeb (courtesy) that linger though the titles and way of life are now gone.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Lingering Grandeur”.
Accommodation The homestay has six large, well-appointed rooms. Three deluxe rooms are furnished with antique furniture. The Darbar room is where the nawab’s secretary once stayed. The rest are smaller, more recently built, but decorated with pieces saved from the old palace. The rooms are a mix of old and new, with dark four-poster beds, and mahogany coloured, old-school clothes racks in modern bathrooms. There are also tented accommodations that are available in winter (98253 15382; http://gardenpalacebalasinor.blogspot.in/; doubles from ₹5,750 including meals; fossil site tours ₹350 per person).
Getting There Balasinor is 87 km/1.5 hr east of Ahmedabad and 91 km/2 hr north of Vadodara (Baroda). The closest airport and railway junction is Ahmedabad (taxis from Ahmedabad charge ₹800 one-way).
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.