The Royal Touch: Princesses Akshita and Mrinalika M. Bhanj Deo

Feb/07/2021 / by Akanksha Singh

akshita and mrinalikaIn Odisha’s backcountry is an 18th-century Victorian-era styled palace, which, over its 200-plus years, has seen many famous personalities stepping in through its doors, including travel writer and conservationist Mark Shand; the last king of Nepal Gyandendra Shah; industrialist J.N. Tata; and Bengal renaissance reformer Keshab Chandra Sen.

Today, it sits on a quiet hilltop. Part living museum, it has been restored to its former glory with overflowing antiques, and a part-sustainable chic boutique hotel: The Belgadia Palace.

Akshita and Mrinalika are the joint force behind Belgadia’s restoration. They are also the daughters of Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo, the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty of the princely state of Mayurbhanj and Rashmi Rajyalaxmi Bhanj Deo, from the royal family of Jaisalmer.

Growing up, even my closest friends didn’t know I lived in a house like I did,” says Akshita, a fast talker with the sort of certainty that grows with groundedness (although she later attributes this to elocution lessons). “I always kept [Mayurbhanj] and my life as two separate worlds, which I didn’t see mixing.”

The sisters grew up in Kolkata, studying first at the elite La Martiniere for Girls and then the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. Akshita, who was 14 at the time, and Mrinalika, then 16, credits this move as having changed everything for them.

“Suddenly we were in this cosmopolitan city and we had a lot of independence – and that was all thanks to [our] parents,” says Akshita. “They were rooted in tradition with very progressive [views].”

At two years, six months apart, the sisters are close. Middle siblings, the two describe each other with affection. Mrinalika is, according to Akshita, “very disciplined,” while Mrinalika says Akshita, her younger sister as the “more logical, technical one while I’m all about the energy and the vibe.”

One thing my sister and I have,” says Mrinalika, “is that whether we agree or disagree [on something] it’s communicated and [laid out] on the table.” It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that their joint business ventures take off as well as they do.

Mrinalika, who initially decided to take on the task of renovating Belgadia, knew it was a good idea from the start.

“I knew too much [at 23], but I just had that focus,” says the director of Belgadia now. When people asked her why anyone would travel three-and-a-half hours from Kolkata to reach a sustainable boutique hotel, she says she just knew.

“I was like, ‘No, people like to travel, people are looking for places to go – unheard of places to go,” Mrinalika says. “And I’m going to bring Mayurbhanj on that map, the ‘unheard of’ map for people who want to travel.”

Six years later, the venture is going strong.

At Belgadia, their sustainable practices range from the simple (glass bottles for water, refillable toiletry containers, low-flush toilets), to specifically local ones (edible landscaping across their 15-acre land to suit the flora and fauna, using grass-woven dustbins, bags, and doormats). It’s the local ones that make all the difference, Akshita believes.

Leaving out the middlemen, the sisters have partnered directly with local artisans to ensure all profits go to their communities, and with institutions like Xavier University in Bhubaneswar, to have certified internships for students to research sustainable practices at the palace with their professors. Belgadia also offers an artist’s residency where resident artists can collaborate directly with local artisans.

I think India’s young royals have to serve as social entrepreneurs today,” says Akshita. “I mean, these are people who are strongholds [from] communities that predate the British.” Of course, she’s aware that the privileges the royal families of India have access to make all the difference, but with contacts that go back hundreds, even thousands of years, she says, “they can understand [what happens at the] grassroots level, you know, the pains and challenges. They have the network and the audience – a global platform, sometimes – to catalyze some kind of positive change.”

It was only in college that Akshita understood the impact of this change. That was thanks to a professor of hers at Bard, where she was studying political science:

“He said, ‘There are so many resources [for you] and this wealth of knowledge of who you are and what your family has done. It’s a shame you have no interest in it, even out of sheer academic curiosity.’” 

Akshita credits that moment as a turning point. It was the first time she had been made to actively seek her identity, which was trapped between the one she had inherited from her parents and the one she’d shared aloud at college, about being from a small village in Mayurbhanj.

For Mrinalika, however, marrying those two identities and reaching into the depths of their powers came naturally, especially when she expanded her love of yoga into another career. A certified Hatha and Yin yoga instructor, she realized the ease with which she ignored expectations of herself.

“It’s so easy to be directed and guided by external institutions rather than actually being the person that I am,” she says. “When I took on path of yoga, it really broadened my horizons, my exposure, also just [my] understanding the kind of life that I was living, and what I [wanted] to leave behind.”

The sisters’ idea for Hasa Atelier, a brand described as “conscious luxury handicrafts for the modern boheme lifestyle,” came out of Mrinalika’s love of locally-made art and her aesthetic.

“I wanted something I would buy,” says the 29-year-old, “I wanted to like break that [stereotype] that everything handcrafted, doesn’t always have to look bland. I love color, pops of color.” Hasa, meaning “to grow” in Santhali, refers to their range of products being made from the local sabai grass and date leaves, to be woven into handbags, dinner mats, and everything in between.

The two sisters have several projects beyond Hasa Atelier and Belgadia in the works. They see themselves as hard workers first and royalty second. Akshita, a natural PR personality who is currently a communications strategist at Wadhwani AI, says it best: 

“I feel like we have to be identities we can label and box ourselves into. I think we’re born limitless. [We] do a number of things and just happen to be descendants of a royal family.”

Yes, you are stuck at home maybe but try some armchair travel. Check out adventure travel in India.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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