Dhenkanal is a very beautiful district with green hills, reservoirs and endowed with ancient religious sites. It is an ideal destination for tourists with myriad interests; may it be the amateur wildlifer, budding birder, historian, a researching botanist, someone having genuine interest in zoology or just plain jane interested in religion. This place gets its name after a sabara tribal chieftain called ‘Dhenka’. Its splendid hills and its heritage have the potential to become a tourist draw for people from all over the world.
Dhenkanal also has a rich feudal and martial history too, the district headquarter Dhenakanal city has quite a few palaces including the primary Dhenakanal Palace which is the seat of the erstwhile ruler of Dhenkanal and it also serves as a homestay to travellers. But apart from this palace there is another Palace which of late has come onto the radar of international and national tourists, Gajlaxmi Palace, situated at the outskirts of Dhenkanal near the famous Kapilas Temple and the Mahima Alekh monastic order. The Mahima Alekh monastic order is one of the youngest religions of the world and as per information given to us by Jitendra Singhdeo, a few lines from the religious monastic order have been adopted in the main hall of United Nations General Council in New York.
A homestay with royal treatment, the palace lives upto its era of grandeur and gadjats. It is located on outskirts of Dhenkanal and is roughly 65 kms from Bhubaneswar via Barang. As one breaks off the tarmac you are greeted by a diminutive concrete sign with an elephant mural and a marker stating Gajlaxmi Palace on the left. As the 2.5 km road leads up you realise that you have left the 21st century and have arrived back in time. The palace situated atop a small plateau feels like a gleaming pearl shining in the foliage of greenery. We met Kunwar Sahib Jitendra Pratap Singhdeo & Kunwarani Sahiba Naveenita Singhdeo (hails from the Ranawat clan from Chittorgarh in Rajashtan) who greet us with a smile and energy filled atmosphere. “There is an interesting history about our property Gajlaxmi Palace. This property that we have carefully restored was built by my grand-father Raj Kumar Shrishesh Pratap Singhdeo in 1935 he began construction and it was ready to move in by 1942, you see he was a man of a bygone era, they were 6 brothers and he was into a lot of things, he was a prolific writer, a film maker, he was a magician by hobby who used to shuttle between Dhenkanal and London with P.C. Sorcar senior. While P.C. Sorcar took it up professionally, he went to pursue other things especially wildlife conservation.My grandfather Shrishesh Pratap had around 9000 acres of land which he cared for and maintained till independence. Later on my father Kunwar Sahib Ranendra Pratap Singhdeo took up the responsibility of the palace and now me and my wife we run it as a homestay for guests who come from across the world.” Says the energetic Kunwar Jitendra Pratap Singhdeo a bundle of energy, joy and sheer grit.
The Singhdeo’s take great pride in protecting their Palace and the areas around Megha hill. Point to be noted here is how serious they were about the environment back in the late 1998, the Megha hill which is just behind the Gajlaxmi Palace was completely barren and it was due to the efforts of Ranendra Pratap Singheo who convinced the villagers around the hill to catch anyone who would cut trees and hand them over to the cops. Today Megha hill has regained its greenery. “You can see barking deer, birds, fruit bats, flying foxes, wild boar and elephants, they have all come back and are a part of the eco-system.” Says an emotional Jitendra Pratap Singhdeo. Yes, today’s tourist want to get away from the din and noise of the city, where clean air has become as rare as Kina Lillet would be to today’s generation. “Guests come from all over the world from urban areas like Milan, New York, Rome, London, Antwerp, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Basel, Zurich, Miami, Washington D.C, Honululu, Lisbon, Perth, Sydney oh! the lists goes on.” Says Navneeta Singhdeo as she guides her house retinue to make preparations for the guests who are about to arrive.
The Gajlaxmi Palace makes you a part of the household, as a guest you are given the same warmth as the member of the family. “The few days that you spend with us we are flexible and filled with adventure. I must tell you that apart from trekking, nature walks and observing a plethora of wildlife you have an excellent opportunity to star gaze. I would like to point out through your magazine that Odisha has an amazing scope for star gazing.” Says Jitendra Pratap.
Gajlaxmi palace has 4 stately rooms done up in the same format as a heritage property should be with high ceilings and antique furniture preserved from the 1940’s. The rooms give an old world charm but are equipped with basic modern amenities and maintaining a balance between both the grandeur of the gadjats and a homely feeling.
“Gajlaxmi serves mostly Indian cuisine and some Rajasthani dishes on special order since Navneeta my wife is from Rajasthan. I personally look into the sourcing of vegetables, meat or fish which are all fresh and locally produced from farms. The taste of a fish caught from a stream in Dhenkanal is far more delectable than any grown in those damn fish farms in Andhra and my guests swear by it.” says Jitendra Pratap.
There are some rules here too at the homestay- “We discourage plastics, I hate people who litter and toss plastics around the place, Om Puri and Mohan Aghashey and the crew of ‘Target’ a Hindi movie had stayed in the property for 3 months and I made it absolutely clear to those chaps that no one litters and waste needs to be disposed properly. We all need to be a little sensitive about the environment and if I sound rude or uncouth it’s because I would like to keep atleast Megha hill and the surrounding areas the way it is today. Green, pristine and lush for future generation.” Says a lound and vociferous Jitendra Pratap.
As we bid adieu to this wonderful Palace situated in the middle of thick jungle we give it a sure 5 stars for its old world charm and homely charming atmosphere that it provides. As we prepare to leave Navneeta Singhdeo walks up to us and says, “you should come back sometime again, we have more stories to tell over desi-chicken Rajasthani style and would make sure you lose that beer-belly of yours with our itinerary.”
Itinerary for Gajlaxmi Palace:
Day-1 : Relaxing and acclimatizing with the Palace and its History .
Day-2: Nature walk for 3 hours for birding, animal spotting, tribal village experience along with drinking tadi (date palm juice)
Day-3: Visit to Kapilash and Joranda or visit the open bill stork migratory birds at Sadangi village
Day-4: Visit to Satkosia along with lunch at Satkosia
Day-5: Visit to Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udaygiri
Day-6: Visit to Puri & Konark
Day-7: Visit Sadeiberani Dokra tribal handicrafts village along with Saptasajya hill drive and trekking and visit to Nuapatna weavers village
Day-8: Visit to Kapilash wildlife sanctuary to visit some residential tribes and nomadic tribes who collect honey
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