The palace was originally a simple mud fort on land that the Mughals granted to Raja Telanga Ramachandra Deba to establish his kingdom in 1590. He was the eldest son of the last independent Hindu king of present-day Odisha, Telanga Mukunda Deba of the south Indian Chalukya dynasty. The king ruled from Barabati Fort in Cuttack until he was killed in 1568 during a turbulent period of political instability, treachery, and Afghan invasion. Circumstances forced the king’s wife and sons to flee, and it was only when the Mughals took over that the king’s eldest son was recognized as a legitimate ruler.
Since then, Killa Aul has been home to 19 generations of rulers, although the royals lost their official powers after India gained freedom from the British in 1947. Similar to other royal families in India, Odisha’s royal families were compelled to merge their kingdoms, known as “princely states,” with the newly formed Union of India. Eventually, the Indian government dissolved their titles and compensatory payments (the “privy purse”), leaving them to fend for themselves as regular folk, albeit with royal lineage.
In order to generate an income and preserve their legacies, a growing number of royals have adopted the heritage homestay concept that’s popular in Rajasthan, gradually opening their abodes to guests. The royal homestays in Odisha are located in regional areas where tourist infrastructure is largely absent.
The tour of Killa Aul proceeded along a trail through the jungle, past crumbling palace ruins to the former royal ladies’ quarters with steps leading down to a medieval bathing pond. Spread around the 33-acre property were rare plants (including kewda, used as an essence for perfume and flavoring biryani), more than 20 varieties of fruit trees, aromatic nag champa flowers (popular in incense), toddy-producing palm trees, an ancestral herbal garden, old stables, and family temples.
The royal residence and guest quarters are tucked away beyond a deliberately confusing maze of gates and courtyards designed to keep intruders out. I discovered I’d actually arrived at the side entrance. The palace’s grand main entrance fronts the Kharasrota River, as visitors came by boat back in its heyday.
Indeed, it’s the riverside setting that’s particularly special and is the place to be at sunset. People had cocktails around a fire, while the homestay’s signature dish—giant smoked prawns fresh from the river—was cooked amid the flames for dinner. 24 local dishes are served on rotation there.
Some memorable crocodile and bird sightings on a boat safari through Bhitarkanika National Park, a traditional dance performance by local village girls, and kayaking to an island in the river topped off my stay perfectly. Odisha’s Buddhist sites are only an hour away too.
Next, a three-hour drive inland brought you to Kila Dalijoda, the former recreational pleasure palace of Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, who belonged to the Panchakote Raj dynasty of rulers from neighboring West Bengal. What do you do when you’re a king but the British stop you from hunting on land they control? You buy your own forest and build a mock British mansion that’s more impressive than theirs! That’s how Kila Dalijoda, named after the Dalijoda forest range, came into being in 1931.
Life at the property couldn’t be more different nowadays though. The hosts rescued it from abandonment and squatters, and are living an enviably harmonious self-sufficient lifestyle there while the painstaking restoration work continues. Nevertheless, the mansion’s old-world glory has largely been reinstated, with attention-grabbing arched colored-glass windows that catch the light. Sadly, what can’t be replaced is the forest (much of it was lost after the Indian government took over).
In contrast to the relaxing vibe at Killa Aul, Kila Dalijoda is especially suited to active families, with enough to do to occupy a week at least. The hosts’ mixed interests in organic farming, wildlife, painting, cooking, Hindu mythology, and the welfare of the local tribal community mean there’s something for everyone.
An early forest trek took you to a remote village, completely cut off from civilization and inhabited by the indigenous Sabar tribe. Closer to the homestay, members of the Munda tribe have set up open-air beer parlors, where they sell their potently brewed traditional handia rice beer to support themselves in place of hunting.
Gajlaxmi Palace, the ultimate destination for nature lovers. It may be the only place in India where it’s possible to stay amid protected reserve forest at the home of descendants of royalty. Just 10 minutes off the highway at Dhenkanal, the scrubby dirt road became lined with thick vegetation and finally opened out onto an elevated clearing where the white “phantom” palace (aptly labeled by the hosts) rose in front of me.
Dhenkanal Palace, home to the Dhenkanal royal family, at the foot of Odisha’s Garhjat Hills. The palace was built in the late 19th century on the site of a fort where a drawn-out battle with invading Marathas took place more than 100 years ago. However, the family’s history goes back much further, to 1529, when Hari Singh Vidyadhar, a commander of the Odisha king’s army, defeated the local Dhenkanal chief and established rule over the region. The current head of the Dhenkanal royal family, Brigadier Raja Kamakhya Prasad Singh Deo A.V.S.M, served in the Indian Army and also as Minister of Defence of India. A man of good humor, he claims to have founded The Henpecked Husbands Association of India made up of members from his wife’s family.
Although the palace is distinctly regal without being too formal, it’s difficult not to feel a bit overwhelmed upon arrival. The entrance, with its two monumental gateways, is imposing to say the least. An ornate double door opens out onto a courtyard with a staircase leading to the palace reception area. Colorful lion statues guard the door, and above it sits a domed pavilion where musicians used to play for distinguished visitors. After following the stairs up, I found myself in the sitting room, startlingly presided over by a taxidermy mount of an immense rouge elephant’s head. Apparently, the elephant killed nine people before being shot by the king in 1929.
Various items of importance, such as still-functional war weapons, are on display. The palace library, stocked with rare books and manuscripts, is open for guests too. Other extraordinary but less obvious facets include the family temple with a centuries-old deity, and an old stone mandap (platform for religious rituals) with carvings reflecting the universe, creation, and life. They say stone speaks in Odisha and it’s true.
Gajalaxmi and Dhenkanal palaces are outstanding bases for excursions. In Sadeibereni village, artisans practice the ancient craft of dhokra—a metal casting technique using the lost wax method. Traditional ikat saris are woven at Nuapatna and Maniabandha villages. At Joranda, an unusual sect of holy men belonging to the Mahima cult live a life of celibacy and constant movement, sleeping little and not eating after sunset.
Further south, on an island in Chilika Lake (Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon), is Parikud Palace, built by Raja Bhagirath Manasingh in 1798. In Odisha’s far north, beautifully restored Belgadia Palace of Mayurbhanj tells the story of the long-ruling Bhanj dynasty and has an artist-in-residence program. Nilagiri Palace, in Balasore district, also welcomes guests. It’s about an hour inland from Chandipur Beach, where the tide goes out for miles twice a day.