Mayurbhanj: A well-kept but easily accessible secret

Finally, something good came out of the incessant scrolling on Instagram. Sometime back, I was stopped in my tracks by a photo posted by the gorgeous Bengali actress Mimi Chakraborty. But no, it wasn’t Mimi’s unquestionably good looks that made me pause. It was the shoot location. The Belgadia Palace in Baripada, Orissa. 

Belgadia Palace
Belgadia Palace

A quick search revealed that this was the erstwhile royal palace of the Bhanj Deo dynasty of Mayurbhanj. It’s now been renovated, converted to a boutique hotel and thrown open to lesser mortals. And it looked fabulous. What’s more, it’s a rather accessible 5-hr drive away from Kolkata. 

After following them on the Gram and lusting over the place for a couple of months, we booked to spend the extended Diwali weekend there. 

The road to Baripada from Kolkata is excellent throughout. Most of it is along the national highway and even when you turn away from the highway near Jhargram, it continues to be well maintained and scenic.  

A lovely drive
Driving through the countryside

Upon arrival, we were greeted with fanfare and shown into our rooms. They have a mix of regular rooms and suites. We were travelling as a family of six and had opted for one of each kind.  Now, having stayed there, I would strongly recommend the suites. They are well worth the extra pocket pinch.

The elegant and opulent suite rooms come highly recommended
The short drive to Goaldihi passes through the forest

After a quick lunch, we headed for the village of Goaldihi, a half-hour drive from the palace. We had heard about the Sabai craft practised in the region and this tiny, bucolic village is the best place to see it in practice.

Women of the self help group making baskets with local Sabai grass

Women of the village operate a production facility cum training centre where they spend their afternoons weaving dried indigenous Sabai grass into beautiful objects of utility like baskets, lampshades and purses among other things. This initiative not only helps sustain a traditional craft but also gives some measure of economic independence to the women and supplements their family income. The show is run entirely by women and is a heartwarming example of what grassroots (pun intended) development can achieve. 

Chhau performance at the palace

We got back just in time for a performance of Chhau dance arranged within the palace for the guests. Chhau is a folk dance form practised in Mayurbhanj and contagious districts of Saraikela in Jharkhand and Purulia in West Bengal. The Mayurbhanj Chhau, unlike the form practised elsewhere, doesn’t use elaborate masks. A brief solo performance on incidents from the life of Lord Shiva, accompanied by traditional musical instruments, gave us a flavour of the dance form.   

Tasteful period furniture adorns every corner of the palace

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the palace. The palace and every artefact within it, whether for utility or embellishment, oozes class and is a testament to the fine taste and considerable fortunes of the ruling family. The property is full of Insta-worthy spots. Virtually every corner implores you to pick a magazine and just plonk down on one of the elegant chairs or sofas. I did just that. 

Reading or Posing?

Dinner was a simple but delicious affair. Seated at the head of the table in the magnificent dining hall, for a fleeting moment I felt like an omnipotent monarch myself. We retired early after dinner, for the next day was to begin before the crack of dawn.    

On the second day, we visited the Similipal Tiger Reserve. The forest had been closed to visitors ever since the first outbreak of Covid and had only reopened a couple of days back after 18 months. When it comes to forest safaris, my maxim is to go with zero expectations of any animal sightings and treat every sighting as an unexpected bonus. It was just as well because we entered the forest at 7 am, spent almost 12 hours inside the forest sighting practically no wildlife. 

Joranda Waterfall inside Simplipal Tiger Reserve
Gorgeous Barehipani falls in Simplipal

But driving around the forest amidst the dense foliage with a sense of anticipation is an experience in itself. There are two very picturesque waterfalls – Barehipani and Joranda – inside the forest. Lunch was had in a canteen inside the forest run by a women SHG which had bid for and obtained the tender to the canteen from the forest department. The food was simple but delicious and once again, it was the enterprising spirit of the tribal women running the place that won us over.       

Local delicacy – Patua – chicken smoked in Sal leaves

Another interesting experience was tasting Patua – a local delicacy – chicken marinated with spices and wrapped in sal leaves. It is cooked over a charcoal fire on gauze. The flavours of the fresh sal leaves seep in and combine with the smokiness to give Patua its unique taste. 

The finished product – very flavourful

On our way back, we did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We stopped our car in the middle of the jungle and turned the lights off. It was almost 7 pm and pitch dark outside. Rarely do city dwellers like me get to witness such clear starlit skies. Breathing in the crisp, fresh winter air in total silence and pitch darkness in the middle of the forest was a deeply gratifying experience. 

Practical info: The entry fee to the park is Rs 100 per person. Unlike other national parks, there are no organised safaris. SUVs can be rented from the city and permits are issued every morning to a limited number of vehicles on a first-come-first-served basis at the designated entry gates. Guides are also allocated at the time of entry  Boleros charge Rs 5000 for the full trip to and from Baripada and Innovas charge Rs 6000. Adventurous travellers can also choose to drive themselves. 

Again, after a long, exhausting day, we retired early.  

The next morning I had to wake up to the unpleasant realisation that it was the day of our return.

I made use of the morning in spotting some of the avian visitors to the property. There are common birds like doves and parakeets and less common ones like barbets and thrushes. This was followed by breakfast.  

The one area where the otherwise immaculate property has some room for improvement is in the culinary department. The choices are limited and despite the setting, seem overpriced for what is essentially simple food. Odia food has a very rich legacy and is replete with hidden gems. This felt like a missed opportunity on part of the palace to showcase some of them at reasonable prices. 

An excellent alternative to having in is Brewbakes cafe, just about a km from the palace. They have an extensive menu, delicious food, efficient service and very reasonable prices. It was a delight finding a restaurant this good in a relatively small town.  

Interesting relics of the yore scattered across the property
Those times had different moral codes – Trophy hunting was the norm

But I digress. After breakfast, we got a detailed tour of the property. The tour put the myriad portraits, artefacts and architecture of the palace in context. It was illuminating to learn about the rich history of the benevolent royals and their generous contributions to the common good of the area. The goodwill earned over generations means that the erstwhile royal family, now devoid of their titles, continues to be very highly regarded by the locals.     

And with that, it was a wrap on our time at the palace. With a heavy heart, we bid goodbye to the royal comforts and warm hospitality of the Belgadia Palace.

We could get used to this!

On our way back we stopped at a village called Kuliana, which we had come to know, is home to traditional Dokra artists.  

This pitstop turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We landed up at the doorstep of Sri. Yudhushtir Rana, a very decorated Dokra artist. The septuagenarian craftsman was delighted to have visitors who had come in search and showed off his craft with childlike enthusiasm.  

The Dokra artisan immersed in his craft

First, elaborate statuettes are made using beeswax. The figurines are then covered in clay with an opening on top. Once the clay has dried, it acts as a mould. Molten metal is then poured into the mould. It dissolves the wax inside and the metal takes its place, in effect forming the figurine. It is then allowed to cool and the clay mould is cracked open, revealing the metal statuettes that are then polished and sold. The motifs are mostly religious or scenes from tribal life. 

The artisan’s guileless enthusiasm and sheer pride in his craft gave us hope that as long as ambassadors like him are around, our millennia-old crafts are in safe hands. 

The long drive back gave me ample time to reflect on the many highlights of this short but rewarding trip. Odisha tourism pitches the state as the best-kept secret of India. I couldn’t agree more.     

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