Restoring The Lost Glory Of The Dhenkanal Palace In Odisha

The royal family tastefully restored the historic property and converted it into a heritage homestay. The rambling space also showcases Odisha's rich art and craft
The Dhenkanal Palace is nestled against the gradual slopes of the Eastern Ghats.
The Dhenkanal Palace is nestled against the gradual slopes of the Eastern Ghats.

Odisha's quaint and scenic town of Dhenkanal holds a special place in my heart as I studied journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication there. I made some of my best friends in Dhenkanal and have some of the fondest memories of my life from the beautiful town. And the best part, the Dhenkanal Palace stands at a kissing distance from the IIMC campus. Although I have had my share of random visits to the palace grounds, I never got an opportunity to visit the palace in its entirety.

In 2020, an online lecture by the members of the Dhenkanal royal family, Yuvrani Meenal Kumar Singhdeo and Princess Yashasvini Kumari Devi, not only brought back those cherished memories, but also introduced me to the treasure trove of heritage that the palace is. The discussion focused on how the royal family had tastefully restored it over the years and converted it into a heritage homestay. I wanted to pack my bags right away and take the first flight to Bhubaneswar.

The heritage homestay has huge courts and sprawling gardens
The heritage homestay has huge courts and sprawling gardens

How The Palace Was Built

The only fort-cum-palace in Odisha, the Dhenkanal Palace is perched on the slopes of Paniohala Hill. The construction was started by Maharaja Bhagiratha Mahindra Bahadur in the mid-19th century. Designed by a Bengali architect, the palace was raised on the site of the fort that witnessed a long-drawn siege and war by the Marathas.

The Maharaja did not want a lavish fort or palace, but one befitting a king which was not too florid. The subsequent generations added and built on the original structure during their reign. Today, the palace serves as a heritage homestay with huge courts and lush gardens nestled against the gradual slopes of the Eastern Ghats.

It was after their marriage in 1990 that Yuvrani Meenal and her husband Yuvraj Amarjyoti Singhdeo explored the idea of tourism. Belonging to a royal family of Wankaner in Gujarat, Yuvrani Meenal had seen their palace into a hotel during the seventies. "l had seen that aspect of heritage or palace tourism from my childhood. We also wanted to be able to enjoy it, have family and guests over as well as give it an incentive and financial feasibility to restore, which only tourism could give," she says.

Restoration, An Uphill Task

Parts of the palace were in dire need of repair and they knew it would be quite a task for their children to restore it. They began the restoration work in 1990, aided in no small part by the Yuvrani's passion for interiors and design. "We started one room at a time. Initially we worked on the interiors of the common areas, structural works such as roof repairs, electrification and plumbing," says the Yuvrani.

Rooms in the palace have retained the old charm
Rooms in the palace have retained the old charm

It was easier said than done. There was a lack of skilled labour in Dhenkanal back then and most of the construction materials had to be brought from Kolkata, 475 kms from Dhenkanal.

Renovating an ancestral home that is more than 150 years old was a delicate process, says Yuvrani Meenal. "We had to match the flooring to some of the existing Carrara marble. The tiles, the fittings, lights and furniture all had to match the time period," she adds. Then, there were challenges like walls being too thick for laying electrical wiring.

Surviving The Challenges

Since it was a lived-in palace, they also had to make sure that the restoration work did not disturb or displace the family. "In those days, we had long power cuts and work would have to stop for hours sometimes. We both had to be on our feet at all times to supervise or else something would go haywire in the blink of an eye," the Yuvrani recalls. The weather would be a major challenge as well, the restoration process survived heavy rainfalls, 100 percent humidity, hot summers and cyclones.

While they restored the dining room, sitting room, gardens and library, keeping tourism in mind, it was the guest rooms that required the maximum effort. "These were rooms occupied by my grandfather-in-laws' brothers and their families. When they built their houses and moved out, this block was empty and needed a lot of repair and maintenance. There was neither electricity nor plumbing nor furniture. Monkeys were frequent visitors," recalls Yuvrani Meenal.

Her husband wasn't keen to break down any part of the old structure, nor add anything new, so they worked towards restoring the interiors, keeping in mind the sanctity of the palace. "We did up one room at a time and added bathrooms. There was no assurance of how well tourism would do. In those days, Odisha did not have much infrastructure, nor was it a regular tourist destination, but we took the plunge anyhow. At the end of the day, it was our home and had to be maintained and cared for," says Yuvrani Meenal.

The before and after photos of the renovated room
The before and after photos of the renovated room

The royal couple also travelled around to pick up antique pieces of crockery, lights and curios among other antiquities. The furniture in the restored homestay is a blend of Oriental, English and local, while the style of interiors range from colonial to local. A lot of the old furniture was restored by their competent in-house carpenter.

The furniture for the Dhenkanal Palace has been brought from furniture from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kolkata and Mumbai
The furniture for the Dhenkanal Palace has been brought from furniture from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kolkata and MumbaiInstagram/ indialostandfound

"We have brought in furniture from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kolkata and Mumbai. The oldest portion was furnished in an European manner and we wanted to retain it and enhance it in the same style. For my husband and me, it was imperative to retain the local flavour and essence of the guest block. Since it was our passion, we did not hire an architect or interior designer but did it all by ourselves," she says.

Age-old Crafts And Skill

After the guestrooms were restored, they converted the erstwhile labour room into a guest lounge. Yuvrani Meenal has been a collector since her childhood and so was her mother. Wall plates, teapots, brass ware, fans, textiles and porcelain collected by them have been displayed in the guest lounge.

The royal family was keen to incorporate and showcase the age-old crafts and skills of Odisha, a cauldron of traditional arts and crafts since time immemorial. It was imperative for them to retain the Odia ethnicity and essence. A lot of the soft furnishings, bed covers, curtains, table linen has been woven by ikkat weavers from the nearby villages.

The famous and vibrant applique work of Pipli have been used in bed sheets, overhead shamianas and garden umbrellas. Some of the walls at the palace, including the bathrooms, are adorned with patachitra paintings. "We employed Dokra artisans to make candle stands, ash trays and doors, and bell metal artisans have handbeaten brass basins in our bathrooms," said Yuvrani Meenal.

The traditional bathrooms in the palace have patachitra motifs
The traditional bathrooms in the palace have patachitra motifs

The doorways are carved in stone by local artisans to match some of the earliest structures on the palace premises. The laundry and waste-paper baskets have been woven in cane by artisans from neighbouring villages. "We also have the traditional jhutti, chitta or alpana on our walls. We have consciously tried to employ each local art form or skill in some way in the Dhenkanal Palace."  

About Dhenkanal

Dhenkanal is a treasure trove of culture with festivals, crafts and a host of cultural activities that take place all year round. The distance from many of Odisha's historical sites is optimal, giving visitors both access to the sites as well as a getaway from the tourist track.

The Astashambu Temples at Kualo are an hour's drive away. You can also visit the sleeping Vishnu at Saranga and age-old temples like Naganath, Annakoteswar, and Chitalpur. Autumn and winter months are the best time to visit, October to March is ideal.

More Information

Dhenkanal Palace
Dhenkanal, Odisha -759001
Phone:   91-9437292448 / 91-9748478335
Email Address:
Facilities:  Free WiFi, in-house boutique, air-conditioning, running hot and cold water in all en-suite bathrooms, tea and coffee maker on request, library, lounge area, doctor on call

Getting There

Air: Bhubaneswar, Odisha's capital, is the nearest airport 80 kms away

Rail: Cuttack (55 km), on the main Howrah Chennai route links Dhenkanal to major cities. It is also directly connected to Delhi, Howrah, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Bikaner, Vishakapatnam, Raipur, Amritsar and Mumbai

Road: Dhenkanal is 75 km from Bhubaneswar and 55 km from Cuttack on NH-55

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