A Royal Retreat 2
By Revati Pany
Th e d r i v e f r om Bhubaneswar to Cuttack was pretty smooth, while the same can’t be said about the drive from Cuttack to Kendrapada. We carried on and reached our destination. The Auli Palace, the Royal abode of Raja Braj Keshari Deb, the ruler of Aul Estate. As the shadows of dusk brought yet another nippy night, nothing quite prepared us for the first view of Auli Palace. A huge water body flanked by a regal looking fort palace proudly beckoning with its seductive medieval charm. And what a start we had…A traditional welcome, with ‘teeka’, garlands and a dignified, smiling Raja Braj Keshari Deb himself, to greet us .
Wow! It looked like a page, straight out of the history book. Arches and pergolas, dense greenery, high ceilings, courtyards and verandahs, and a silhouette of the beautiful river Kharasrota, fading into the darkness. We could not take in the expanse of the panorama, as it was dark, but the palace itself was well lit and we were so ready to enjoy every moment. Bearing stories of Odisha during the Afghan, Mughal and British rule The Auli palace was founded by Raja Ram Chandra Deb in 1590 A.D. He was the elder son of Gajapati Mukunda Deb Harichandan who was last independent ruler of the Kalinga empire who ruled the Barabati fort at Cuttack in 1567 A.D. Constructed on 30 acres of high land on a deltaic location adjacent to river Kharasrota at Auli in Kendrapada district, it has been maintained as the Royal residence till date, spanning 18 generations. The present ruler, Raja Braj Keshari Deb has thrown open the palace doors to visitors for a home-stay experience.
And what an experience it was! Four rooms in the palace are ready for the visitors and another four will be added soon. The huge high ceiling rooms with attached bathrooms were comfortable with super large beds The long verandahs opened into a courtyard which further extended into a terrace. A crackling bonfire was being attended to,by quietly efficient folks. A barbecue was under way with an incredibly fresh aroma of grilled food wafting in the cool, crisp air. Tables were laid out with beverages, followed by hot snacks from the barbecue and an unforgettable evening unfolded. We had the Raja himself for company, at his hospitable best, with his stories of the palace history. He is a vast reservoir of history, both for Odisha and India. And so many anecdotes! A sumptuous dinner followed and we soaked in every moment .
The Auli Palace is a fabulous get away, just three and half hours from Bhubaneswar by road. The homestay facility is superb and you get to enjoy all meals laid out in Royal style with the king himself . All of us were up at the crack of the dawn, not wanting to miss out on anything. In the morning the palace looked more beautiful, with the stunning river right behind it. A tea service was laid out next to the river in the back garden and the panorama, the cool breeze and the chirping birds created just the perfect setting. A lavish breakfast followed, and we were ready to take a tour of the palace.
Originally conceived as a mud fort, with tall outer walls for fortification, the structure kept changing as subsequent generations added on to the original structure. Looking from the river side, the fort palace looks like a wide ‘U’ shaped structure. The two ends are the guard towers and the middle part is the residence. To approach the residence, you have to enter t h rough two guard rooms . Then there is an open courtyard which leads to various sections. Luxurious bedrooms with old wooden furniture and modern bath fittings, polished marble and old glazing on huge windows made me feel like a truly royal guest ! The old photographs transported me to the bygone era of royal splendour.
During the statehood, there used to be a secret pass in this area (near the guard doors) to allow the king to escape to safety during an emergency. There is an interesting anecdote associated with this which I would like to share here.
As the story goes, during the rule of Raja Padmanabh Deb, he was once displeased with the behaviour of a British officer and slapped him. This became an issue and the British armed forces were sent to arrest the Raja.The Raja escaped via this passage and asked the ‘Paikas’ to signal with a white cloth when it was safe to return. However, British came to know of this plan and threatened the ‘Paikas’ to wave the cloth even as they waited for the king. When the unsuspecting king returned, he was arrested. The state came under the court of wards. However, later the king won the case in the British court against the officer on grounds of misconduct, and was re-instated with full dignity. The pass however, doesn’t exist anymore!
We explored the palace with Raja Braj Keshari Deb himself. It had Courtyards, a beautiful ancient temple (pooja was already done early morning !), there were the private rooms of the family, the dining and kitchen areas. There is a ‘Gadighar’ situated in the first floor of a building. A Teakwood ladder takes you to this beautiful room decorated with Rajasthani style ‘Meenakari’ work. The Raja sits here and enjoys the entertainment program put up by the locals. There used to be a Durbar hall with great pillars. There was a Rani Niwas, now in ruined condition, and sections for the Rani’s maids, called ‘PoiliGhar’.
The Auli Palace is a great combination of Odisha’s Royal Heritage and tourism. From the palace itself you can take a boat (which will be lovingly filled with picnic baskets from the royal kitchen) and foray into the river for a day of crocodile gazing. Well that is another story! Full of adventure and delight, another unforgettable day… A visit to Auli Palace is a must for the tourists and explorers from Odisha alike.