Unravelling an enigma

Abounding in royal love stories, the Belgadia Palace is Odisha’s best-kept secret as it has many tales that’ll keep you enticed, writes Mary Ann Issac

A hypnotic swaying of lush green paddy fields welcome the oblivious traveller into Baripada, Odisha, en route the illustrious 19th century Belgadia Palace. The kingdom of Mayurbhanj was a constitutional monarchy with its own currency, and was one of the last to join the Indian union post Independence, in 1949. Of their two airstrips, the Amarda airbase was Asia’s largest during the second World War. Their fleet of aeroplanes, and Belgadia Palace were used by the allied soldiers in World War II. Maharaja Purna Chandra Bhanjdeo was the Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in France during World War I, and volunteered to fight when he was only 18.

It was Sri Ram Chandra Bhanjdeo’s foresight and vision for India as a world leader in iron ore production, that led to J N Tata gaining his first iron ore lease in Gouramahisani, Odisha. 

Interestingly, J N Tata had to accept citizenship of Mayurbhanj to avail the lease. Earlier this year, the Belgadia Palace was opened to public for the first time as a boutique homestay by the young royals, Akshita and Mrinalika Bhanjdeo, daughters of Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo, the 47th ruler of Mayurbhanj.

Royal adventures

At Belgadia, the walls speak of state events from the early 1900s through sepia-toned photographs, and of royal hunting adventures through beautifully preserved taxidermy mounts. The bison, cheetah, and tiger find company on the walls with the rather eerie skeletal remains of a 19ft man-eating crocodile. The ornamental contents of its stomach make for a spine-chilling display of beautiful bracelets and anklets, the wearers of which were victims of an unfortunate happenstance.

Amidst the deer heads accentuated by gold frames, and ornate silver jewellery that decorate the palace walls, is the vainglorious peacock which is deeply embedded in the history of Mayurbhanj. 

According to tribal folklore, the royal family originated from the egg of a peahen, contributing to the etymology of Morbhanj (mor meaning peacock). 

Legend also dates the origins of the Bhanjdeo family back to when a Bhanja king married a
Mauryan princess, resulting in Mauryabhanj

But credit for coining the present name Mayurbhanj goes to the Englishman’s inability of pronouncing either of its erstwhile names.

Tales of love

The royal family’s origins are probably lost to the sands of time, but hidden in plain sight on windows and antique chairs, is the royal insignia, featuring two peacocks.Tales of maharajas and maharanis are incomplete without a passionate love story that could inspire a blockbuster movie script, and the Belgadia Palace delivers in spades. Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo met Sucharu Devi in Darjeeling, when he was an 18 year old scouting for a wife, and she an educated 15 year old.

She was the daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, a philosopher and social reformer of 19th century Bengal. They decided to wed after a brief courtship, inviting discontent from the royal family, for a daughter of a rebel could never make a befitting queen.

The crown prince capitulated to familial pressures, and married Lakshmi Devi from a local royal family. But his love for Sucharu Devi remained, while she refused to marry; her heart longing for her lover.

As though their love story was written in the stars, Lakshmi Devi, after giving birth to three children, succumbed to small pox. 

Now paying no heed to his family’s wishes, he proposed marriage to his sweetheart, and they were wed in Calcutta in 1904. But Sucharu Devi was forbidden entry into Mayurbhanj Palace, and so the Rajabagh Palace in Calcutta was built for her. The Belgadia Palace which until then was a guest house for dignitaries, was furnished to her taste, and would be her residence in Mayurbhanj during her visits.

Live the legacy

According to family legend, Sriram Chandra would light a flame atop the Mayurbhanj Palace for Sucharu Devi to see from Belgadia, and know that he was thinking of her.

It is only after his death that she finally entered the Mayurbhanj Palace, on invitation of her stepson, Purnachandra Bhanjdeo. 

A more recent love story is of Maharaja Pradeep Chandra Bhanj Deo and Maharani Bharati Rajya Lakshmi Devi. The maharaja commissioned for his lady love, the creation of beautiful, bespoke furniture with delicately engraved flower motifs in a room of pink hues.

Today, it is a guest room named the Narayanhity suite, as a homage to the maharani’s childhood home in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Stories of star-crossed lovers, valiant fighters, and prescient administrators, await all those who visit the Belgadia Palace, and who better to hear all these stories from than the scions of this enigmatic legacy — the young royals.

 

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