Not only has Belgadia Palace in Odisha been transformed into an award-winning boutique hotel, but its princess owners are redefining the role of the Indian royal family.
When the bougainvillea-adorned gates opened and a smartly dressed footman greeted me, I was excited to see the palace for the first time. So was my taxi driver, who stopped three times along the way to gleefully tell strangers where we were going. The elegant white mansion that came into view at the end of the driveway looked familiar, not only because I follow real estate on social media, but also because the exterior was originally designed to replicate Buckingham Palace.
Palace of Belgadia is a renovated 18th-century royal palace in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Although it has housed and entertained guests of Mayurbhanj royalty for five generations, it has recently been transformed by its princess owners into an award-winning boutique hotel . Not only do the sisters intend to restore the 2,100 sq ft 11-bedroom palace to its former glory, they are doing it in a way that preserves Odisha’s culture and history.
Akshita Bhanj Deo (pictured) and her sister Mrinalika are committed to restoring Belgadia Palace to its former glory (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
Akshita Bhanj Deo and her sister Mrinalika, the Mayurbhanju princesses, belong to the Bhanj dynasty, a royal family that originated in the central and northern regions of Odisha and dates back to 697 AD. The sisters belong to the 48th generation and are the first to be fully grown after the partition. After India’s independence in 1947 and the abolition of privy purses (payments made by the Indian government to royal families in 1971), maintaining the grand estates became financially difficult for most members of the royal family, and turning them into hotels became wise business- move
Although there are many converted royal palaces throughout India, the opportunity to stay in a palace where members of the royal family still live and learn about the history of the region directly from the family itself is a rarity. In fact, the day-to-day involvement of the family is key to the success of Belgadia Palace. Akshita regularly shows guests around the property and is actively involved in local craft projects such as sabai grass weaving, while their father, the Maharajah, plays pool with guests while telling them stories about local conservation projects.
Akshita met me at the entrance and we walked through an arched entrance that was built high enough for elephants to pass through. She told me that the estate was originally used to host visiting foreign dignitaries, and the palace was filled with entertainment areas: billiard rooms, vast libraries, and a grand Edo ballroom with high ceilings and elaborate chandeliers.
The Edo Ballroom is one of the many rooms originally used to entertain foreign dignitaries (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
The interior exuded the glamor of the early 20th century, a period often considered the region’s golden age, from swing jazz playing in the dance hall to walls decorated with peacock feathers – a nod to local folklore that the Bhanj dynasty was born from the peacock’s eye Each generation completed the palace, the new white wings of the building expanded to the side, but it was the sisters who ensured its longevity and with their work are redefining the role of the Indian royal family.
We grew up after economic liberalization with access to world news and then decided to come back and do something for our communities
“I think my parents were actually a lost generation; they have seen private wallets abolished [і більше не мали визначеної ролі]while my sister and I grew up after economic liberalization with access to world news and then decided to come back and do something for our communities,” said Akshita.
Akshita and Mrinalika started renovating the property in 2015. It was slow because the sisters took special care to keep the decor authentic and historically accurate. They repurposed some antique furniture , and other design choices were made by studying his grandfather’s sketchbook and archival photographs, many of which are now displayed on the walls of the residence.
The palace is located in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, a part of the country that is off the radar of most international tourists (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
However, they also added a modern touch by introducing bright colors on the walls, along with a projection room for watching movies, a swimming pool and a giant outdoor chess set. This approach seems to be working: this combination has helped draw attention to Belgadia Palace, even Vogue India filmed here The hotel now walks an unusual line between royal palace and elegant family, where guests mingle in common entertainment areas, play chess and watch movies in the cinema.
The emphasis on conservation, mixed with the implementation of modern essentials such as efficient plumbing and Wi-Fi, was a challenge at times. “One of the most difficult parts was making sure it was functional and that the historic elements of the house were preserved,” Akshita explained. “The walls of the palace are so thick that it was difficult to run pipes and wires through them, and the ladders had to be specially made because they are simply not the standard 44 feet.”
Odisha is not on the radar of most foreign tourists, but the sisters aim to change that. They are very active in social networks, maintain hotel accounts in Twitter and Instagram , and also appear 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 the profile of Odisha – a state where 23% of the population is tribal – and protect the region’s cultural heritage by providing a platform for artists and performers.
The restored home walks an unusual line between royal palace and elegant family (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
“There’s a part of the world that doesn’t get enough attention in terms of art and culture, and that’s why we wanted to do it. If people are interested in the royal family, that’s great, but if we can take that interest and channel it into community efforts and community leaders, then that’s our hope and our goal [щодо Бельгадського палацу]”, Akshita explained.
A percentage of the revenue from guests staying at the hotel goes to the Mayurbhanj Foundation, a charity founded by the sisters that supports local communities through arts, sports, education and sanitation programs. The hotel also hosts artist-in-residences, where guests can purchase artwork from local artists, and regularly hosts live music.
One evening on the palace lawn, we watched Odisse, a classical Odisha dance form that originated in the temples. Spotlights aside, we could easily have been watching a 100-year-old performance where a 14-year-old local dancer combines dramatic eye movements and footwork to tell the stories of gods and goddesses.
The only way it will last another few hundred years is if people think, “This property matters to me.”
“We know that the house and heritage would not survive without the support of the community, and that tourism has a multiplier effect on jobs and livelihoods. The only way it will last for a few hundred more years is if people think: This property is relevant to me.” – Akshita
The palace regularly hosts live musical performances, including Odisse, a classical dance form from Odisha (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
Their female entrepreneurial spirit and philanthropic nature undoubtedly run in the family. Odisha has faced numerous invasions due to its strategic location, which has historically kept the male members of the royal family busy. This meant that the wider work of caring for the Mayurbhanj region fell to the women’s family members, who concentrated on building hospitals, schools and buildings that promoted education and health.
The current two generations of the Mayurbhanj royal family 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 used to be her late grandmother’s private room, I could see this feminine influence in the design choices. Turquoise walls contrasted with pink velvet seats, huge patterned rugs lay on the tiled floor, and crystal bowls were filled with flowers. “Prints on prints,” as Akshita described it.
Intermarriage with members of other royal families was common in India, and Akshita’s grandmother was a princess of Nepal. Akshita joked, “You won’t find any pictures of men in this room, only portraits of my grandmother and my sisters.”
The upstairs living area, which used to be Akshita’s grandmother’s personal space, is a riot of color and texture (Image credit: Joshua Paul Akers)
However, there was an entire cabinet dedicated to the awards her grandmother’s dog had received. This combination of personal artifacts mixed with all the luxury of a boutique hotel is what sets Belgadia Palace apart from other Indian royal estates. It also puzzled Akshita’s grandmother, who lived in the estate until her death in 2020.
“Until her death, she sat with binoculars and asked who people were [гості] in this facility,” said Akshita.
With these words the princess went to take some calls with her Great Dane. She left me with a parting gift: a basket of Sabayan handmade herbs made by a local brand Hasa Atalier , which empowers the women of Odisha to earn income from their handicrafts. I spotted a similar one online at one of her recent photoshoots where she was depicted holding it against the background of the palace interiors, very branded.
Always glamorous, with social artisans always at the forefront of her mind, Akshita seems to be a true modern day princess.