Heritage : India has got too much of a good thing

Heritage : India has got too much of a good thing

Thru’ the Looking Glass

This is Killa Aul,” my driver announced, to my surprise, as he brought the car to a halt at the end of a dusty nondescript village road in rural Odisha. On the other side of a dignified but decaying arched entrance, the palace appeared next to the Kharasrota River. This understated first impression nowhere near reflected the expansiveness of the 33-acre property. I had arrived at the side entrance. The main entrance fronted river, as visitors came by boat back in the glory days. The palace belonged to the rulers of the Deb dynasty, and the current raja and his wife were my hosts. They’d joined some of Odisha’s other royal families in opening their palace as a homestay in hopes of generating an income to preserve its heritage. The royal family of Dhenkanal in Odisha began doing so 27 years ago with just a couple of guest rooms and limited funds. They’ve since managed to restore much of their palace.

I felt dismayed. I’d visited Odisha four times previously, and I’d been writing about India travel for more than 10 years. Yet, I hadn’t known about these stately abodes. I couldn’t blame myself though. Who had been promoting them? Most destination management companies aren’t interested in off-beat destinations. They’re too focused on chasing commissions and profits. And, without government support, there’s little money to maintain and develop heritage properties.

A tour of the 16th century Aul palace, home to 19 generations of rulers, revealed that some parts had weathered the passage of time better than others. A walking trail through the jungle led to the overgrown ruins of the former ladies’ quarters, with ragged steps leading down to a medieval bathing pond. The weary remains of the noble court contained a frayed but gorgeous Meenakari fresco, featuring peacock motifs inlaid with Belgian coloured glass pieces. It was not a sanitised palace experience, as is common in Rajasthan, but an authentic real-life regal experience with more than 400 years of history in a village. Coming from a nation less than 120 years old, it was mindboggling for me. And, perturbing that it could so easily be lost.

Fortunately, the Aul palace had fared better than many of India’s other heritage structures that are forlornly crumbling (or being demolished) all over the country. As they disintegrate, so too does the potential for tourism. Not all foreigners want to fend off tenacious touts and selfie-seekers to gaze at yet another iconic monument. They want to do meaningful things that enable them to connect with India and its complex culture. In a state such as Odisha, where infrastructure is largely absent, royal homestays make regional areas accessible to tourists and provide them with unique immersive local activities. I was able to explore tribal and handicraft villages, admire silk worms, visit a shelter for aged cows, hike through pristine forest, go on a boat safari and spot crocodiles, watch a classical dance performance, see toddy tapping, learn about medicinal plants, take an art class, and dine on traditional royal family recipes. Who knew off-beat Odisha had so much to offer?

Passing through South Odisha’s Jeypore, I wondered whether it was too late for the palace there. With its upkeep unaffordable, it had become derelict. The only accommodation options were a smattering of soulless cookie-cutter hotels that could do with makeovers themselves. Where heritage is concerned, it seems India has too much of a good thing. Famous monuments continue to attract attention to the detriment of others that fall by the wayside. As past and present India coexist, the Old India struggles to be remembered and appreciated, while in the New India, robots are already serving customers at a Bengaluru restaurant.