T here’s a story that has been passed down through generations of the Bhanj Deo family of Orissa. “My great grandfather, an avid collector of art, had gone to Christie’s in London. He was wearing a dhoti and kurta. The guards stopped him, saying Indians were not allowed. So, he removed his cheque book, gave them a blank cheque and said, ‘give me whatever you like’,” recounts Akshita Manjari Bhanj Deo.

In a few months, that cheque and a written record of the story will be on display at Belgadia Palace, Mayurbhanj. The palace, which once hosted the likes of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the kings of Nepal and Bhutan and other heads of states, will be opened to the public as a heritage hotel. It will offer a glimpse into the lives and grandeur of the Bhanj Deo family, and of Mayurbhanj. “My family contributed a lot to India’s history. This is our way of recognising that history and putting it out on display, allowing people the chance to experience life at that time,” says Akshita, who with her sister Mrinalika are the directors of Belgadia Palace.


Former glory The interiors of Belgadia Palace, Mayurbhanj in Odisha


The palace is just one of many rajbaris (old royal houses) in and around Bengal that are being restored to their former glory. The aim is to save these ancestral homes, which suffer neglect owing to multiple ownership and rising costs of maintenance, from decay and demolition. These zamindari properties are trying to get a new lease at life as commercially viable heritage/ boutique properties, on the lines of the old havelis and palaces in Rajasthan. Last year, Jhargram Raj Palace opened its gates. The current residence of the Malla Dev royal family, the ground floor (10 rooms) has been converted into a heritage hotel, a joint effort with West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation. The next year will see the launch of two more rajbaris , Bari Kothi in Azimganj, and Belgadia Palace, Mayurbhanj, Odisha. You could call it the new luxury renaissance of the east.

LuxeBari Kothi

Rebirth of a home Restoration work in Bari Kothi was done only with the help of local artisans


History in the making

“Bengal has always been a place for those living with culture and heritage. The owners of these royal houses were well-to-do but never had the extra income to look after property. So, many of them went into ruin. That’s all changing now,” says Raj Bhattarcharjee, operations manager at travel company Mylestones & Journeys. The company is working with the three zamindars — Rabindra Narayan, Dhruva Narayan and Basav Narayan Kundu — of Itachuna Rajbari in Hooghly District. Itahcuna was built in 1766 by the Kundans (now Kundus), one of the many Maratha warriors who invaded Bengal in the 1700s. The property is spread over 10 acres and is famous for being the spot where the Hindi movie Lootera was filmed. The brothers used all the money they made abroad, and by renting the space out for film shoots and TV shows, to make the space livable again. Itachuna is one of the older rajbaris, functioning as a heritage hotel for the last seven years.


Royal homes Itachuna is famous for being the property where the film Lootera was shot


A chance encounter with the ruins of Rajbari Bawali in Bawali, West Bengal, persuaded Ajay Rawla to take up the job of restoring the grandeur of the 250-year-old palace. “I was driven to protect it from disintegration. Being a third generation Calcuttan. I always wanted to have a village home in Bengal and here it was,” he says. To do this, he had to convince the current owners, all 18 of them, to agree to the project, a process that took him two years. Work began in 2010 — he consulted architects and advisors from UK, Italy, Mexico and the USA. The restoration work involved recreating ponds and roofs, reclaiming pavilions, renovating the original wooden shutters from the janana . Local craftsmen were trained by the Aga Khan Foundation to do lime water construction, and traditional brick making. The construction used mostly recycled materials, from old Burma teak furniture, antiques and vintage marble rescued from other buildings of the period, which were being demolished and used in the restoration.

The family house of the Dudhoria family, Bari Kothi was built in the late 1700s. The name, which literally means Palace of the Elder, was coined since it was the house of the elder brother, Rai Bahadur Budh Sing Dudhoria. The biggest challenge the owners faced when renovating the place was finding the right specialists (skilled masons, plumbers, engineers). They wanted to use only local labourers and artisans and much time was spent in training them. Work began in 2016 with the help of a creative restoration architect from Canada, Samar Chandra. “We spent a lot of time just cleaning out the place. It had over 50 years of dust and grime collected within it. For instance, one room had about 300 bats nesting in it. It took us 10 days to clear them out,” says Darshan Dudhoria, one of the owners. The finishing touches are now being put on the Bari Kothi. In December, the palace will host an international heritage festival.

Meanwhile, over in Mayurbhanj, the Deo sisters are still working on restoring their family home. “Our family gave away many buildings to the government. Seeing their dilapidated state, we realised we had to preserve whatever was left of our heritage,” says Deo. A lot of the original architecture was done by women so it was fitting that they chose Pooja Bihani to complete the restoration. The restoration work included upholstering the furniture from Europe and East Asia; restoring the gold leafing, miniature paintings and murals in antique shops in Kolkata; repairing and polishing the art deco, stained glass, and chandeliers; and cleaning century-old carpets and animal taxidermy and carcasses and mounted them on walls. “There’s so much treasure here. Our aim was to let these antiques tell their own stories,” says Bihani.

The zamindari life

Living at the rajbaris is not a question of luxury or opulence. It’s about enjoying the grandeur of the zamindari legacy with a few modern upgrades. “The true measure of luxury is how much at home you feel and how well you are cared for” says Rawla.

At Rajbari Bawli, guests can also enjoy musical and dance performances and operas in the courtyard; boat rides on the Hooghly and culinary demonstrations. Staying options include a dak bungalow, ashram and zamindari suites. For the health conscious, they offer spa, detox, weight loss and Ayurveda-based programmes.

LuxeRajbari Bawali

Itachuna Rajbari has 15 rooms in the house open to visitors, complete with ornate four-poster beds and attached baths. In the backyard is a lush green space converted to an outdoor shooting area, and a pond. “We wanted to ensure the place is not too modern but is homely,” adds Bhattarcharjee. Guests can tour the five mahals — a courthouse, ballet dancing hall, kitchen house, guest house and an andar mahal for ladies; visit the ruins around the palace like the thakurdalan (ceremonial platform).

LuxeRajbari Bawali-Interior

LuxeRoyal guest house Jhargram

A splendid past The royal guesthouse at Jhargram palace has housed dignitaries such as Uttam Kumar and Morarji Desai


At Jhargram Raj Palace, visitors have the option of skipping the premium and royal suites for the royal guesthouse, which has housed many dignitaries including Morarji Desai, Uttam Kumar and Mamata Bannerjee. When Bari Kothi opens to public, visitors can explore the palace’s sheesh mahal (room of mirrors), library, music room, durbar hall, janana chowk (the ladies courtyard), gaddi ghar , halwai khaana , gulabi chawara (pink room) amongst others.

LuxeJhargram palace

Belgadia Palace wants to serve as a museum to a time gone by. Attractions will include oil paintings, a 100-year-old library, vintage cars, a restored hunting lodge, museum and a collection of memorabilia. Guests will be able to visit a tribal village and learn about dying art forms like dhokra and chhau , take trips to the nearby wildlife parks, and visit structures constructed in the pre-British era and pre-Independence structures like the railway, air strip, Rani’s Dharamsala, and a palace temple built in the 1930s.

LuxeBelgadia outside

Time warp: Belgadia palace wants to serve as a museum to a time gone by


“We want to give people an idea of what it was to live like in those times,” says Deo.

For more information, visit www.therajbari.com (Rajbari Bawali); www.jhargrampalace.com; www.barikothi.com; www.itachunarajbari.com.

Joanna Lobo is a Mumbai-based journalist