Odisha State Museum in Bhubaneswar

If you are traveling to India with the ambitious hope of avoiding the 10 million tourists’ most-beaten tracks, you should consider a heritage homestay at Kila Dalijoda, a one-time hunting lodge near Choudwar, in the eastern state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) and near Cuttack. 

Traveling around the Odisha area.
Traveling around the Odisha area. Photo by Marta Franceschini

About one hour northeast of Bhubaneswar, the vibrant capital city of Odisha, this ex-royal residence has a story worth telling. On an early morning in 1931, Raja Bahadhur Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, fourth Maharaja of the Zamindari State of Panchkote, on the western frontier of Bengal, was traveling with his hunting procession toward Orissa, in search of tigers.

The Indian subcontinent was under the steadfast rule of the British Empire, which dealt with the 500 Indian royal families, applying the less-than-noble policy of the carrot and the stick, and imposing an irritating bureaucracy upon their liberty.

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Approaching the Kingdom of Bamra, Raja Bahadhur sent his envoy, as usual, to ask permission for entering its territory. The Raja of Bamra was a 9-year-old boy put under a British official’s custody until maturity age. The two royal families were still linked by a long-lasting and consolidated alliance, reinforced by a couple of inter-marriages.

Having supported the anti-British upsurge of 1857 in West Bengal, the Singh Deo royal family was not so well thought of by the new rulers, who awaited a chance for revenge. The permission was denied.

Raja Bahadhur was deeply hurt by the offense and quite embarrassed by the situation. He was in the middle of the forest, with his carts, his elephants, his guns, his porters, his servants, his supplies – with no place to go. It was not an easy encampment to move around. He swore to himself that he never again would suffer such an awkward and humiliating impasse.

A Homestay in India Worthy of Royalty

With the intercession of another fellow-Raja, he procured 11,000 acres of forest in the nearby province of Choudwar, where he reserved sole hunting rights. And there he built his new castle: in 1933, Kila Dalijoda opened its gate to the imperial elephants of Panchkote, becoming the posh residence for many royal hunting expeditions.

Eventually, in 1947, India regained its independence. The British colonizers left behind not only a deprived and traumatized country but also a long list of sadly problematic heritages. One of them was the systematic and extensive deforestation that, among other damages, forced many wild animals to leave their habitat and move elsewhere. This is how tigers disappeared from most parts of Odisha and, consequently, hunting ceased.

After being abandoned for more than 30 years, in 2012 Kila Dalijoda was converted into a quaint eco-friendly Airbnb home-stay with wifi, run by a delightful couple, Debjit Prasad, direct offspring of the Singh Deo royal family, and his wife Kumari Namrata Kumari, princess of a different dynasty. 

Set against a backdrop of hills and surrounded by lush green forest, Kila Dalijoda is made of dark red laterite and lime mortar. The two-story mansion getaway has a turret in each corner and a stained-glass window with flower pattern casting beams of colored lights in each room, enhanced by original vintage furniture and artifacts. 

The decadent charm of its lost splendor embraces and drives the guests at check-in in the dream-like atmosphere of an enchanted castle. But crossing the elephant-sized gates of Kila Dalijoda is a not-to-be-missed experience for much more than colonial nostalgia.

Inside Kila Dalijoda.
Inside Kila Dalijoda. Photo by Marta Franceschini

‘Good People Make Good Places’

It is said that “it is good people who make good places” and here, without a doubt, the proverb comes true. Debjit and Namrataboth have a natural talent for conveying their culture and knowledge to others, to let them gently enter and take part in Odisha’s lifestyle and reality, to encourage and facilitate the exploration of the pristine surrounding territory and its traditions.

They don’t sell a package tour; they don’t offer fake adventures. They serve authentic food and genuine experiences. As your sense of taste will immediately recognize the difference between a pre-cooked meal from a home-made delicacy, your heart will instinctively perceive that what you are experiencing is unique.

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Debjit is a natural-born anthropologist. When I walk with him through the region that once belonged to his ancestors, I feel as if a friend was accompanying me to explore his neighborhood. With him, the tribal communities cease to be tourist attractions, becoming interesting acquaintances he would like me to meet and interact with. They don’t dress for me to take pictures, nor dance for my donations. They simply let me in, and just keep doing what they were doing before: strew with cow-dung their courtyards, cook their food and drink their rice-beer.

We visit a monastery of half-naked sadhus belonging to the Alekh Mahima Dharma (literally, the Glorious Dharma of Void), a contemporary ascetic tradition within the Orissa Hindu reform movement. They believe in Nothingness as the Supreme Principle of the Universe, and consequently, reject the caste system. They live a simple life, made of asceticism, rituals and meditation.

For the first 15-20 years of monastic life, the monks cannot spend more than 24 hours in the same location, so they perpetually roam around, from village to village, barefoot and naked, preaching Nothingness as the Ultimate Reality. They have thousands of followers, scattered around the region.

Hanging out in India.
Hanging out in India. Photo by Marta Franceschini

I witness their wild and powerful pujas, punctuated by the thumping sound of drums and gong. I am bewildered. Their devotion transmits to me a sort of primordial energy full of sacred and mysterious significances, which I instinctively sense but rest unable to decipher. I leave with a feeling of blessing: the privilege of beholding a glowing and secret vision.

Later, we stop in the atelier of an artist-weaver, whose priceless masterpieces are exposed in museums all over India. After visiting his laboratory, Masterji shows me his collection. Some artworks have taken up to five years and six men’s skills to be completed.

Their embroidery narrates stories from Indian mythology or replicates the intricate carvings of the ancient temples of Orissa. One gigantic tapestry retraces the salient episodes of Mahatma Gandhi’s legendary life, who made the weaving-craft a symbol of Indian identity. In fact, Silk production employs more than 6 million people. 

We also meet an old lady silk spinner, a traditional activity for many Indian rural and tribal people. In Odisha alone, sericulture provides employment for more than 6 million people involving 700,000 farmers in 59,000 villages. The lady, with dark, wrinkled skin, sits on the floor, partially wrapped in a pink sari. Her movements look ancient and meek.

Driven by Debjit’s inexhaustible energy, I follow him in a remote village to discover the traditional art of metal forging. I visit a cows’ shelter, worship one of the four yogini temples of India, and walk 10 km (6.2 miles) in the jungle to a small tribal settlement, where I sit in a family courtyard, hug their children, and invent creative strategies to communicate with them all – 65 inhabitants and 20-some huts, a community on the brink of extinction, bravely trying to preserve its tribal identity.

Women relaxing around Kila Dalijoda.
Women relaxing around Kila Dalijoda. Photo by Marta Franceschini

We stare at each other with the innocent audacity of children. Our differences merge on the cow-dung courtyard pavement, around the rice cooking pot, at the lilting rhythm of the wooden spoon stirring the stew. I realize how a burst of laughing can dramatically reduce distances.

Next to each mud-dwelling, a brick cabin with asbestos roof, painted a pathetic pink, sticks out. It is the most effective achievement of a government campaign named Swachh Bharat  (Sanitation of Rural India), a program that costs $28 billion and, according to official sources, a “complete success.” In five years, millions of latrines have been constructed. Too bad that very few of them are used for what they were supposed to.

The great majority of the pink cabins, in fact, lie there, deserted. Either they are abandoned in ruins or used as storage. Many have the asbestos roof broken, if not missing, and vegetation growing up inside. Some doors are ripped out and piled up nearby.

“They came, they built up the things, and they left”, explains a villager. “We didn’t know how to use them. It felt strange. With time, they got broken. Nobody ever came to check. Eventually, we forgot the whole story.”

The ambitious government program has invested in bricks and concrete, but not in education and maintenance, perhaps ignoring that bricks and concrete deteriorate and need maintenance, while education is as needed as bricks to build a change.   

The same bleakness is shared by the solar single-panels standing next to each hut, broken and unworkable as well. They merely survived a couple of monsoons, often resulting here in devastating typhoons, and turning such innovative and strategic installations into dead poles. Their disturbing appearance, utterly failing to harmonize with the mud village, results in damage beyond the mockery.

Along the way, Debjit’s presence remains always discreet, competent and attentive. He elegantly stays at my side, letting me free to experience everything without interfering, unless I require it.

When such a carousel of emotional adventures needs a pause for thought, here comes Namrita’s time. With authentic regal finesse, she introduces me to the ocean of Indian mythology, alternating family anecdotes and epic tales, poetry and psychology, recipes and Indian philosophy. We approach divinities, saints and mysteries. We dive into each other’s dreams in search of true messages. We exchange quotations and poetry. To enjoy her conversation over a steaming cup of masala chai is a pleasure that quickly evolves into a daily ritual I just don’t want to miss. 

Nearby farming fields in Odisha, India
Nearby farming fields in Odisha, India

Culinary Art in the Kila Dalijoda Kitchen 

Discourses reach their climax when guests and family gather around the dining table to savor some of the best specialties of Indian home-cooking. Under Namrata’s meticulous supervision, Kila Dalijoda cuisine became not only a taste bud delight but real culinary art.

Years of study and research have made her a master chef of multi-regional delicacies: from Gujarat to Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, she lavishes her guests with the most amazing meals they could ever find in any restaurant. On top of that, many of the ingredients come from the in-house organic kitchen-garden, the property fruit trees, and the small dairy that offers, daily, fresh milk, curd, and paneer, the traditional Indian cheese. 

Debjit and Namrata’s company is never a one-way experience. On the contrary, they are curious and sensitive enough to encourage the exchange of opinions and confrontations on every subject: They love to learn and reflect on different perspectives and visions from all over the world. This is why their dining table often becomes a global arena where an intriguing variety of ideas and data are jointly discussed and analyzed, blended with their innate sense of respect and elegant humor.

Before departing, I ask Namrata to reveal the secret of Kila Dalijoda’s enchanting atmosphere. She replies with an enigmatic smile and requests that I follow her downstairs. We stop in the courtyard in front of a small structure with three doors. One has some red symbols drawn above its jamb, and a few shining colored strips hanging from it, fluttering in the wind. Two tiny orange flowers sit on the threshold, and a small straw basket hangs on one side.

Namrata says it is time I met the real owner of the castle. She introduces me to Bagla Mukhi, the patroness goddess of Kila Dalijoda. “The entire property belongs to her, not only in our beliefs but on the official deed as well,” Namrata explains. “From the bricks to the trees, everything is hers. Us included. We are just the take-cares of her property.

“Whatever happens, good or bad, depends upon our divine mother, and we consider it a sign of her will. Therefore, we feel grateful, anyway. We are delighted if you enjoy your stay. But thank the goddess, not us.”

Before you go: Check https://odisha.gov.in/ for more information on openings and travel in India

Author’s Bio: Marta Franceschini is a prize-winning Italian author, journalist and scholar. For many years she has worked as a freelance correspondent for Italian newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts from India. She has lived in Delhi, Bangalore and the Thar desert of Rajasthan. Her skill in colloquial Hindi and Urdu enables her itineraries to be daringly off-the-beaten-track. She loves to go where others don’t, and chasing her intuition she often discovers uncharted treasures. 

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