Mayurbhanj has always been an important region of the Indian state of Odisha due to the mineral deposits that had fuelled the economy of this erstwhile princely state of the Bhanj Deo rulers. However, even with its sublime landscapes, beautiful forests and a rich cultural heritage, this northern corner of Odisha had somehow fallen off the tourist map. Now, this hidden gem of Odisha is opening up to its tourism potential and has much in store for the curious and culturally inclined traveller.
Belgadia Palace is in the town of Baripada. The stately manor that dates to 1804, is the residence of the Bhanj Deo royal family that had ruled Mayurbhanj. An ornate gateway leads to a long gravel drive flanked by a cluster of trees and a verdant lawn. At the end of the drive stands the sprawling façade of the double-storied palace.
The languid interiors, Victorian in provenance, are ensconced in lived-in luxury with its antiquated furniture, artefacts and crystal tableware. Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanj Deo, two sisters from the royal family of Mayurbhanj have turned a wing of their ancestral palace into a royal homestay, where I had based myself to delve into the rich cultural heritage of Mayurbhanj, now a northern district of Odisha.
It was amazing to find how this palace-turned-resort is creating luxury experiences for travellers and keeping intact the cultural legacy of Mayurbhanj alive, all at once.
The moment I stepped inside the elaborately furnished living room of Belgadia Palace, it felt like a throwback to the olden days of laid-back regal splendour. The Belgadia Palace is not just a boutique hotel but it is a living museum that enshrines the history of the Bhanj Dynasty with multiple links to royal families of Rajasthan and Nepal.
I was put up in the Bengal Renaissance Suite or the Red Room that was the chamber of a former queen. Each of the 25 rooms that are now open to guests have retained their original charm with only functional changes to suit modern amenities. The Narainhity Suite in pale pink and the Crown Suite in light green are two other royal chambers that come with en-suite lavish bathrooms fitted with bathtubs, period furniture and dainty corner pieces.
The blue library, lined with ancient cabinets stacked with leather-bound editions from the 19th and early 20th century titles, is the perfect place to enjoy an afternoon tea session, while listening to the storied past of the palace from Mrinalika Bhanj Deo. “We have started the Mayurbhanj Foundation to touch the lives of people in the district in the last five years in the fields of education, health and the arts” she said, adding “ there is also a rolling Artist Residency Program to support creative development in contemporary and traditional art forms and contribute to the overall cultural development and sustainability of Mayurbhanj.”
Food is an intimate affair at Belgadia where home-cooked fare in authentic Odisha style is served to guests. The tangy mutton curry is a delectable delicacy, whipped up with a recipe handed down the generations in the royal kitchen. The dining hall, with its huge oval table, gleaming teakwood cabinets and crystal glassware, has remained unchanged since the days royal dinners were hosted here.
The highlight of any trip to Mayurbhanj is a drive to Simlipal National Park, 72 kms from Belgadia Palace. The forest is home to the largest population of tigers in India (99 according to the last tiger census) and I drove through several elephant corridors, spotted a small herd too. Barehipani Falls, the third highest waterfalls in India, is tucked deep inside this National Park and is a must-see.
Mayurbhanj Chhau dance, an ancient dance form, is still being practiced in the region. Mayurbhanj Foundation has tied up with an NGO promoting Mayurbhanj Chhau so all guests get to experience the folk music and dance inside the palace grounds. The dexterous art of sabai grass weaving and the tribal dhokra art of sculpting metal figurines from copper and bronze based alloys are two cultural legacies of Mayurbhanj, immaculately preserved.
And a late afternoon drive to Haripur to find the beautiful terracotta temple of Rasika Raya, standing in a solitary splendour amid the medieval ruins of the old capital of Mayurbhanj, can be an unforgettable experience.
Baripada, the district headquarters, is within driving distance of about four hours from both Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar airports at a distance of 224 and 249 kms, respectively.