"This was the noble court," my host Raja Braj Keshari Deb, the current head of Odisha's Aul royal family, explained as he showed me around the weathered remains of his rambling 400-year old Killa Aul palace. Next to where we stood on a platform facing the now vacant yard was the elevated former throne room. Its austere exterior gave no hint of the fact that it housed the highlight of the palace: a timeworn yet breathtaking Rajasthani-style Meenakari fresco, featuring peacock motifs inlaid with Belgian colored-glass pieces. My imagination ignited, I pictured erstwhile kings seated there while presiding over important state matters or enjoying live music and dance shows with their families.
The palace was originally a simple mud fort on land that the Mughals granted to Raja Telanga Ramachandra Deba to establish his kingdom in 1590. He was the eldest son of the last independent Hindu king of present-day Odisha, Telanga Mukunda Deba of the south Indian Chalukya dynasty. The king ruled from Barabati Fort in Cuttack until he was killed in 1568 during a turbulent period of political instability, treachery, and Afghan invasion. Circumstances forced the king's wife and sons to flee, and it was only when the Mughals took over that the king's eldest son was recognized as a legitimate ruler.
Since then, Killa Aul has been home to 19 generations of rulers, although the royals lost their official powers after India gained freedom from the British in 1947. Similar to other royal families in India, Odisha's royal families were compelled to merge their kingdoms, known as "princely states," with the newly formed Union of India. Eventually, the Indian government dissolved their titles and compensatory payments (the "privy purse"), leaving them to fend for themselves as regular folk, albeit with royal lineage.
In order to generate an income and preserve their legacies, a growing number of royals have adopted the heritage homestay concept that's popular in Rajasthan, gradually opening their abodes to guests. The royal homestays in Odisha are located in regional areas where tourist infrastructure is largely absent.
Not only do the homestays make these off-beat areas accessible to travelers who want to get away from the crowds, they also provide unique opportunities to have immersive and meaningful cultural experiences. Opulent and pristine, the properties are not. However, their rawness is part of the attraction. They're like living museums that provide windows into the past. Each property has its own charm, and offers something different and distinctive. No to mention, the best bit—priceless personal interaction with fascinating royal hosts!
My tour of Killa Aul proceeded along a trail through the jungle, past crumbling palace ruins to the former royal ladies' quarters with steps leading down to a medieval bathing pond. Spread around the 33-acre property were rare plants (including kewda, used as an essence for perfume and flavoring biryani), more than 20 varieties of fruit trees, aromatic nag champa flowers (popular in incense), toddy-producing palm trees, an ancestral herbal garden, old stables, and family temples.
The royal residence and guest quarters are tucked away beyond a deliberately confusing maze of gates and courtyards designed to keep intruders out. I discovered I'd actually arrived at the side entrance. The palace's grand main entrance fronts the Kharasrota River, as visitors came by boat back in its heyday.
Indeed, it's the riverside setting that's particularly special and is the place to be at sunset. We had cocktails around a fire, while the homestay's signature dish—giant smoked prawns fresh from the river—was cooked amid the flames for dinner. 24 local dishes are served on rotation there. My sumptuous lunch included sweet and sour tomato chutney, fish kofta, jackfruit curry, fried pumpkin flower, and chenna poda (roasted caramelized cheese dessert). When the hostess heard I was yet to try pakhala (an iconic and much loved Odia dish made from rice, curd, and spices), she thoughtfully got the kitchen staff to whip it up for me, while the knowledgeable host educated me about peculiarities of Indian politics over a beer.
Some memorable crocodile and bird sightings on a boat safari through Bhitarkanika National Park, a traditional dance performance by local village girls, and kayaking to an island in the river topped off my stay perfectly. Odisha's Buddhist sites are only an hour away too.
Next, a three-hour drive inland brought me to Kila Dalijoda, the former recreational pleasure palace of Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, who belonged to the Panchakote Raj dynasty of rulers from neighboring West Bengal. What do you do when you're a king but the British stop you from hunting on land they control? You buy your own forest and build a mock British mansion that's more impressive than theirs! That's how Kila Dalijoda, named after the Dalijoda forest range, came into being in 1931. According to my hosts (the king's great-grandson Debjit Singh Deo and his wife Namrata), hedonistic Holi festival hunting parties with dancing girls from Varanasi were part of the fun.
Life at the property couldn't be more different nowadays though. The hosts rescued it from abandonment and squatters, and are living an enviably harmonious self-sufficient lifestyle there while the painstaking restoration work continues. Nevertheless, the mansion's old-world glory has largely been reinstated, with attention-grabbing arched colored-glass windows that catch the light. Sadly, what can't be replaced is the forest (much of it was lost after the Indian government took over). I was struck by how solitary the lofty brown laterite stone property appeared against the stark rural landscape. As it turned out, it provided an ideal base for exploring the area.
In contrast to the relaxing vibe at Killa Aul, Kila Dalijoda is especially suited to active families, with enough to do to occupy a week at least. The hosts' mixed interests in organic farming, wildlife, painting, cooking, Hindu mythology, and the welfare of the local tribal community mean there's something for everyone.
An early 6 a.m. forest trek took me to a remote village, completely cut off from civilization and inhabited by the indigenous Sabar tribe. Closer to the homestay, members of the Munda tribe have set up open-air beer parlors, where they sell their potently brewed traditional handia rice beer to support themselves in place of hunting. During my visit, I met a renowned tribal artist, visited an old-age home for cows, marveled over the silkworms at the homestay, and learned about exclusive family recipes that are unavailable in restaurants.
Gajlaxmi Palace, the ultimate destination for nature lovers, was my next stop. It may be the only place in India where it's possible to stay amid protected reserve forest at the home of descendants of royalty. Just 10 minutes off the highway at Dhenkanal, the scrubby dirt road became lined with thick vegetation and finally opened out onto an elevated clearing where the white "phantom" palace (aptly labeled by the hosts) rose in front of me.
This 1930s royal residence was built by the host's grandfather, Raj Kumar Srishesh Pratap Singh Deo, the third son of the erstwhile king of Dhenkanal. His interests included writing, film making, and magic. The property gets its name from the annual Gajlaxmi Puja that's dedicated to goddess Laxmi and is prominently celebrated in Dhenkanal. There are also wild elephants in the surrounding forest. They come to raid the mango trees in the hosts' garden during summer. (I can understand why. The highlight of my lunch was a delectable sweet and spicy mango dish, made with the first harvest of the season). Many other types of birds and animals can be spotted while sitting by the lake, a short walk away.
The property's enchanting mountainous panorama is dominated Megha (Cloud) Hill, which rises majestically at the rear. It's hard to believe the hill was barren in the late 1990s, until the host's father (a hunter turned conservationist) convinced villagers to catch anyone cutting trees there. Host J.P. Singh Deo leads guests on an insightful two-hour morning walk through the jungle to a tribal hamlet. However, what I won't forget in a hurry is the preserved skin of a ferocious-looking man-eating tiger, displayed with sharp teeth bared in an antique cabinet in the homestay living room. The tiger was shot by the host's father on request by the Odisha government after it had claimed 83 lives.
My final destination was Dhenkanal Palace, home to the Dhenkanal royal family, at the foot of Odisha's Garhjat Hills. The palace was built in the late 19th century on the site of a fort where a drawn-out battle with invading Marathas took place more than 100 years ago. However, the family's history goes back much further, to 1529, when Hari Singh Vidyadhar, a commander of the Odisha king's army, defeated the local Dhenkanal chief and established rule over the region. The current head of the Dhenkanal royal family, Brigadier Raja Kamakhya Prasad Singh Deo A.V.S.M, served in the Indian Army and also as Minister of Defence of India. A man of good humor, he claims to have founded The Henpecked Husbands Association of India made up of members from his wife's family.
Although the palace is distinctly regal without being too formal, it's difficult not to feel a bit overwhelmed upon arrival. The entrance, with its two monumental gateways, is imposing to say the least. An ornate double door opens out onto a courtyard with a staircase leading to the palace reception area. Colorful lion statues guard the door, and above it sits a domed pavilion where musicians used to play for distinguished visitors. After following the stairs up, I found myself in the sitting room, startlingly presided over by a taxidermy mount of an immense rouge elephant's head. Apparently, the elephant killed nine people before being shot by the king in 1929.
My congenial hosts, the softly-spoken crown prince Rajkumar Yuvaraj Amar Jyoti Singh Deo and his vivacious wife Meenal, quickly put me at ease. As the host gave me a tour, he recounted the royal family's heritage with engrossing anecdotes and tales from the past. Innate structures, such as the durbar (audience) hall adorned with photos of previous kings, are well-preserved focal points.
Various items of importance, such as still-functional war weapons, are on display. The palace library, stocked with rare books and manuscripts, is open for guests too. Other extraordinary but less obvious facets include the family temple with a centuries-old deity, and an old stone mandap (platform for religious rituals) with carvings reflecting the universe, creation, and life. They say stone speaks in Odisha and it's true.
The artistic hostess is largely responsible for the palace's current appearance. She's been gradually transforming it over the past 27 or so years, beginning with just a couple of rooms for guests. I admired her ability to create chic looks from pairing family heirlooms with lively decor. Her talent doesn't stop there though. She also has her own clothing range, on sale in the homestay's gift shop, that promotes contemporary designs made out of traditional Odia weaves.
Gajalaxmi and Dhenkanal palaces are outstanding bases for excursions. In Sadeibereni village, artisans practice the ancient craft of dhokra—a metal casting technique using the lost wax method. Traditional ikat saris are woven at Nuapatna and Maniabandha villages. At Joranda, an unusual sect of holy men belonging to the Mahima cult live a life of celibacy and constant movement, sleeping little and not eating after sunset.
My adventure ended there but Odisha's royal heritage trail doesn't. Further south, on an island in Chilika Lake (Asia's largest brackish water lagoon), is Parikud Palace, built by Raja Bhagirath Manasingh in 1798. In Odisha's far north, beautifully restored Belgadia Palace of Mayurbhanj tells the story of the long-ruling Bhanj dynasty and has an artist-in-residence program. Nilagiri Palace, in Balasore district, also welcomes guests. It's about an hour inland from Chandipur Beach, where the tide goes out for miles twice a day.