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Nostalgia, Nature and New Age Aura

The Jhira Bagh Palace near Indore is the perfect setting for English summers, Indian dinners and some solitude.

Have you ever wished for a slice of that ‘simple life’… where you are milking cows instead of clients, tending vegetables not bossy egos, picking fruits, not faults and riding free through rugged lands instead of hurtling through the economic slowdown? Banish the thought of doing all that in some creaky farmhouse with an outdoor lavatory… instead head for the palatial pleasures of the Jhira Bagh Palace in Madhya Pradesh. This elegant palace has been converted into an eco-friendly heritage hotel which offers nostalgia, new-age amenities and all things natural… on a rugged Malwa platter.

We reached the Jhira Bagh Palace after a two-hour drive from Indore, which brought us to the Dhar district in western Madhya Pradesh. The Mandu Bypass Road lies just before the Dhar city limits and a left turn from the road leads to the Jhira Bagh Palace. A gravelled driveway beckoned us to the green and warm brown environs of the quiet, sun-drenched palace precincts. Built in 1860 by Maharaja Anand Rao Puar III, the palace was the grand English guesthouse of Dhar state. The next 70 years saw its beautiful arches welcoming the movers and shakers of the Raj era-the Governor General, Viceroy of India and a bevy of British officers. Elaborate banquets, thrilling horseback hunts and sightseeing tours were the order of the day. In 1945, the last ruler of Dhar, Maharaja Anand Rao Puar IV, decided to renovate Jhira Bagh Palace to be his official residence and appointed the well-known architectural firm of Gregson, Batly and Kings.

The palace underwent a classy, modern change with a blending of the Art Deco and Bauhaus styles. But the Maharaja never stayed there and by the time the renovation was over, India had gained Independence. With the merger of the princely states and the Republic of India, the palace was shut down. Ironically, when it was resurrected in the mid-90s, in its new avtaar it became what it was originally built to be: an old English guest-house playing host to visitors. Today the palace is a popular hot spot where families come to chill out.

City-bred children find it a refreshing break because instead of televisions, video game parlours and shopping malls, they can plunge heartily into the many outdoor activities on offer. They can ride Badal and Raaja, two horses belonging to the palace, milk cows (a la Heidi), play table tennis, plant corns and soyabeans or just race through wide open spaces. According to the palace staff, guests coming to Jhira Bagh Palace for a night halt end up staying back for days on end. The palace exudes a quiet, elegant charm with its elaborate wrought iron jaali in the driveway, elegant interiors and stylised furniture.

The theme-based suites and rooms have décor that matches, and attached bathrooms. The most notable suites are Maharani, Victoria, Jaipur and the Colonial. They showcase an old-world charm with their high ceilings, airy spaces, sepia-tinted photographs that line the walls, four-poster beds, love seats, old chandeliers and period furniture. We stayed in the well-appointed Gujarat suite. The high ceiling fan quietly whirring over the room added a country-inn touch to the room’s quaint charm. Just outside the main dining room was a small sitting area where the wrought-iron table and chairs beckoned us for morning tea sessions.

At dawn, we were serenaded by birds and the aroma of ripening mangoes on the trees just beyond. We didn’t even miss room service-it would jar in any case in this homely palace. You can just step into the cosy dining room where the friendly staff is at hand to serve you warm meals. The palace’s dairy farm, biogas plant, solar heating and organically grown plants and vegetables make it a self-sufficient eco-friendly complex.

In fact, milk and food supplies for the residents are produced locally. Menus consist of many original recipes from royal homes. Freshly cut vegetables, pickles made from the palace’s own crop of mangoes, freshly drawn milk from the resident cows, chutneys made from mint, which is grown in the palace gardens… and a chef who’ll adapt his cooking to whatever you fancy.

During the off-season you can virtually live life king-size and ‘lord’ over the palace as visitors are few and far between. You will wake up to mornings musical with birdsong and impatient neighing horses. The green, fresh and earthy smell of its natural environs will tempt you to take a walk on the vast palace grounds. English afternoons come alive as you sit on the well-manicured lawns, sipping tea and biting into your delicate cucumber sandwiches. One can almost envisage the palace in its heyday playing gracious host to the English lords and ladies who sauntered here.

Evenings can be spent in table tennis contests or drinking cocktails in a small mosaic-floored courtyard fragrant with the scent of raat-ki-raani flowers. You can also down beers in the air-conditioned comfort of the Sunset lounge with its Art Deco lights, huge Belgian mirrors and glass-panelled doors, through which you can watch the sun setting on yet another quiet Malwa day.

Dinner can be the succulent Hara Bhara kebabs, said to be the cook’s speciality, or the tried and tested fare of a regular home-cooked dinner. The adventurous can bite into the more exotic choices of Dal Panya or Makki Panya. After having been through various hotels with their look-alike-feel-alike ambience, at the Jhira Bagh Palace, we certainly did not miss the bevy of officious hotel staff, en-suite Internet connections, fax machines, air-conditioners, mini bars, safes, bellboys and discotheques. Like the brochure says, “ Experience a palace not a hotel”.

For sightseeing aficionados, Mandu (the world’s largest fortified city and associated with the Baaz Bahadur-Roopmati romance) is just 30 km away, but beware of bad roads. The Bagh Caves (86 km), the religious Maheshwar (70 km) and Dhar itself lying nearby, with its 14th century fort, Lat Masjid, Chhatris of the former ruler of Dhar state and the Bhojshala are worth visiting. You could also ask Neha, the palace’s manager to organise the trip for you. You can also opt for customised packages.

According to Deepak Suryavanshi, director, Western Heritage Hotels Pvt Ltd and the hotel’s creator, “We are planning to set up a spa, a library, a pond for migratory birds and introduce buggy rides as well, to give the guests a wider range of options during their stay.” Jhira Bagh Palace offers four suites, two deluxe suites and 10 deluxe rooms.

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