(Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
Not only has Odisha’s Belgadia Palace been transformed into an award-winning boutique hotel, but its princess owners are redefining the role of Indian royalty.
As the bougainvillea-adorned gates opened and the smartly dressed footman greeted me, I was excited to see the palace for the first time. So too was my taxi driver, who had pulled over on three occasions en route to joyfully tell passing strangers where we were driving. The elegant white mansion that came into view at the end of the driveway seemed familiar, not just because I follow the property on social media, but also because the exterior was originally designed to replicate Buckingham Palace.
The Belgadia Palace is a refurbished 18th-Century royal palace in the East Indian state of Odisha. While it has housed and entertained guests of the royal family of Mayurbhanj for five generations, it has recently been transformed by its princess owners into an award-winning boutique hotel. Not only are the sisters determined to restore the 11-bedroom, 2,100-sq-m palace to its former glory, they are doing it in a way that preserves the culture and history of Odisha.
Akshita Bhanj Deo (pictured) and her sister, Mrinalika, are committed to restoring the Belgadia Palace to its former glory (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
Akshita Bhanj Deo and her sister Mrinalika – the princesses of Mayurbhanj – are part of the Bhanj dynasty, a royal family originating in the central and northern regions of Odisha that traces its roots to 697 CE. The sisters are the 48th generation, and the first to grow up completely post-Partition. After Indian independence in 1947 and the abolition of the privy purses (the payments made to royal families by the Indian government in 1971), maintaining grand properties became financially challenging for most royals, and transforming them into hotels became a savvy business move.
While there are a number of royal palace conversions across India, the opportunity to stay in one still resided in by royals – and learn about the history of the region directly from the family itself – is rare. In fact, the day-to-day involvement of the family is key to the success of the Belgadia Palace. Akshita regularly shows guests around the property and is heavily involved with the local craft projects such as sabai grass weaving, while their father, the maharajah, plays billiards with guests while regaling them with stories about local conservation projects.
Akshita met me on the driveway, and we walked through the arched entranceway that was built high enough for elephants to pass through. She told me that the ancestral property was originally used to entertain visiting foreign dignitaries, and the palace was filled with leisure areas: billiard rooms, vast libraries and the grand “Edo” Ballroom with its high ceiling and elaborate chandeliers.
The “Edo” Ballroom is one of many rooms originally used to entertain visiting foreign dignitaries (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
The interior oozed early 20th-Century glamour, a period often viewed as the region’s golden era, from the swing jazz music playing in the ballroom to the peacock feather-adorned walls – a nod to the local folklore that the Bhanj dynasty were born from the eyes of a peafowl. Each generation has added onto the palace, with the newer white wings of the building spreading out sideways, but it’s the sisters who have ensured its longevity, and who are redefining the role of Indian royalty through their work.
“I think my parents were the lost generation really; they saw the privy purses being abolished [and no longer had a defined role] whereas for my sister and I, we grew up post economic liberalisation with access to world news – and then chose to come back and do something for our communities,” Akshita said.
Akshita and Mrinalika started renovating the property in 2015. It was slow work due to the sisters’ intense focus on keeping the decor authentic and historically accurate. They upcycled some of the antique furniture, with other design choices coming from studying their grandfather’s sketchbook and archived photos, many of which are now displayed on the walls of the property.
The palace is located in the East Indian state of Odisha, a part of the country that is not on the radar for most international tourists (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
However, they’ve also added a modern twist, introducing vibrant colours on the walls as well as a projector room for screening movies, a swimming pool and a giant outdoor chess set. This approach seems to be working: the combination has helped draw attention to the Belgadia Palace, with even Vogue India shooting here. The property now walks an unusual line between a royal palace and an elegant homestay, with guests mingling in the communal entertainment areas, playing chess and watching films in the screening room.
The emphasis on preservation, mixed with the introduction of modern necessities such as effective plumbing and WiFi, has at times been a challenge. “One of the hardest parts was ensuring it was functional and still keeping the historical factors of the house,” Akshita explained. “The walls of the palace are so thick, it was difficult to get piping and wires through, and the ladders had to be specially made as they just don’t make them 44ft as standard.”
Odisha isn’t on the radar for most international tourists, but the sisters are looking to change that. They are very active on social media, running Twitter and Instagram accounts for the hotel, as well as appearing in numerous magazine articles promoting both their property and the region. While these pursuits clearly bring in more business, they have the secondary benefit of helping to raise Odisha’s profile – a state where 23% of the population is made up of tribal communities – and protecting the region’s cultural heritage by providing a platform for artists and performers.
The restored property walks an unusual line between a royal palace and an elegant homestay (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
“There’s this part of the world which is not being given its due credit in terms of art and culture and so that’s what we wanted to do. If people are interested in royalty that’s great, but if we can take that interest and divert it into the community efforts and leaders of the community then that’s our hope and aim [at the Belgadia Palace],” explained Akshita.
A percentage of income from guests staying goes to the Mayurbhanj Foundation, a charitable fund founded by the sisters that supports the local communities through art, sport, education and sanitation programmes. The property also houses artist residencies, allowing guests to purchase pieces from local artists, and there are regular live musical performances.
On the palace lawn one evening, we watched Odisse, a classical dance-form from Odisha originating in the temples. If you discounted the spotlights, we could easily have been watching a performance from 100 years ago, with a 14-year-old local dancer combining dramatic eye movements and timed footwork to tell the stories of the gods and goddesses.
“We know that the house and the legacy wouldn’t last unless there was community support, and also that tourism has a multiplier effect on jobs and livelihoods. The only way it is going to last another few hundred years is if people think, ‘this property has a relevance to me’,” Akshita said.
The palace hosts regular live musical performances, including Odisse, a classical dance-form from Odisha (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
Their female entrepreneurial spirit and philanthropic nature is clearly something that runs in the family. Odisha has faced numerous invasions due to its strategic location, which historically kept male members of the royal family busy. That meant that the broader work looking after the Mayurbhanj region fell to the female family members, who focused on building hospitals, schools and buildings that promoted education and health.
The current two generations of the Mayurbhanj royals live on the second level of the palace, with Akshita and her sister in one wing and their parents in the other. In the shared living space, which was previously her late-grandmother’s personal room, I could see this female influence in the design choices. Teal walls contrasted with pink velvet seats, huge, patterned rugs sat atop tiled floors and crystal bowls were filled with flowers. “Prints on prints,” as Akshita described it.
Marrying members of other royal families was common in India, and Akshita’s grandmother was the princess of Nepal. Akshita joked: “You won’t find any pictures of men in this room, just portraits of my grandmother with her sisters.”
Previously Akshita’s grandmother’s personal space, the upstairs living area is a riot of colour and texture (Credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
There was, however, an entire cabinet dedicated to the awards her grandmother’s dog had won. This fusion of personal artefacts mixed with all the luxuries of a boutique hotel is what makes the Belgadia Palace distinct from other Indian royal properties. It also puzzled Akshita’s grandmother, who lived at the property until her death in 2020.
“Right until her passing she would sit with her binoculars and ask who the people [the guests] at the property were,” Akshita said.
With that, the princess headed off to take some calls, her Great Dane in tow. She left me with a parting gift: a handcrafted sabai grass basket made locally by Hasa Atalier, a brand empowering Odisha women to gain an income from their crafts. I’d spotted a similar one online in one of her recent photoshoots, where she was pictured holding it against the backdrop of the palace interiors, very on brand.
Ever glamorous, with community artisans always at the forefront of her mind, is seems that Akshita is a true modern princess.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.