If you are looking for an offbeat adventure that allows you to live like royalty, in a palace surrounded by art and experience culture, head out to Odisha.
Mrinalika and Akshita M Bhanj Deo are the second and third daughters of Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo. He is the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty, which was formed in the erstwhile princely state of Mayurbhanj, now part of Odisha. The sisters have now opened the doors of Belgadia Palace, their home.
“This is not a hotel but our home that we have opened for people to come and experience the past, our roots and discover Odisha and all its wonderful aspects - art, culture, heritage, and people,” says Akshita.
Established in 1804 the Belgadia Palace is a Victorian double-storeyed, brick structure that sits on a raised hill. It has been home to the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj.
Almost next to Kolkata, the palace offers easy access to temples, wildlife parks, waterfalls, and colonial heritage tours, as well as an opportunity to interact with the tribals too. “There is something for everyone who visits the Belgadia Palace,” adds Akshita.
While Mrinalika is the full-time director of the Belgadia Palace and Akshita is the Marketing and Communication Head, the sisters also pursue full-time careers. Akshita is Lead Brand Strategist of Global Citizen India, a social advocacy platform based out of Gurgaon. Mrinalika is also a yogini and a certified yoga teacher who organises retreats in India and abroad.
The palace was opened to the public at the end of January. While the royal family has private wings, the duo says, “We have opened all the other parts of the palace for public consumption to promote the art and architecture of the district.”
The family involves and engages with the guests, and the girls also act as tour guides. “We want people to come and explore Mayurbhanj, its tribal people, the youth and learn about our heritage and culture,” they say.
The palace itself is a living museum for the past 200 years and has seen many important guests come and stay. It has also been a rehabilitation center for the allied soldiers during World War I and II. There are multiple such stories about the palace which the tourist gets to learn and hear about from the royal family in residence.
Being a young royal in India
Born in Kolkata, the sisters studied in Kolkata till 9th and 10th grade and then went to boarding school in United World College of South East Asia. From there they went on to the Bard College and the University of Virginia. Akshita pursued Political Science and Human Rights, and Mrinalika studied Sociology and International Relations with a certification from McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.
But wherever they travelled and lived, their heritage called out to the girls.
Akshita says, “To be a young royal in today’s India means being the custodian of the heritage and legacy of the land, of telling stories that deserve to be told. We feel we are entrepreneurs who are ensuring that young Oriyas know about their heritage, take pride in it and share it with the world. Odisha is India’s best kept secret and we have our own USP.”
Innovation and entrepreneurship
A lot of effort has gone into transforming the Belgadia Palace into a tourist home. The girls and the family put in their resources and given that the palace is a museum with a lot of antiques they ensured they found an architect who treated it with equal care and love.
The people working as staff are all locals who have been trained by Akshita and Mrinalika. They have a garden whose produce is used in the palace. They also have an artist-in-residence programme, and even allow travellers to travel with pets as a few rooms are pet-friendly. Everything is curated to give travellers an authentic, real and relaxing experience of Odisha.
The duo did a lot of research before opening the place to tourists. Since the palace was a patron of arts, and communities, the girls have marked a percentage of their earnings to go into NGOs and help the community grow.
The funds will support and preserve dying arts such as Dokra (indigenous art form), to sustain Mayurbhnaj Chhau, a martial arts dance form, and help in the sports education of young girls. Some orphanages in the area will stand to benefit as well, the sisters say.
“We look at ourselves as a startup that is promoting sustainable travel and tourism,” they add. It has been their passion and dream to restore the Belgadia Palace and open it out to people. With all the passion and love for their heritage and roots, these young royals will surely change the way the world perceives Odisha.