Meet Princess Akshita of Mayurbhanj, who says growing up as an Indian royal was like being a 'Downton Abbey' character
- Princess Akshita Bhanj Deo is a descendant of India's Bhanja dynasty and Nepal's royal family.
- After college, she returned to her home state to help her sister restore a family palace.
Akshita traces her royal lineage through the Bhanja dynasty and her grandmother, daughter of the late King Tribhuvan of Nepal, she told Insider. She returned to her home state of Odisha in 2016, after graduating from New York's Bard College, and started working with her older sister Princess Mrinalika Bhanj Deo on converting Belgadia Palace, a 200-year-old family estate, into a boutique hotel.
But most of the palaces built and run by her ancestors were given up when India became independent from Great Britain in 1947, the same time Indian royals lost their official powers, she said.
Searching for ways to maintain the palaces, forts and stately homes her family managed to keep hold of is something Akshita saw her grandparents and parents deal with growing up.
"My parents grew up in a generation where you just don't talk about it," she said. "It's not as pretty as it looks. These palaces were massive white elephants. Some of them are dilapidated, or at different stages of restoration."
Assumptions she grew up living like a typical Disney princess are far from the truth, Akshita said. If anything, she said her childhood shares parallels with the struggles faced by the Crawley family in "Downton Abbey."
"My reality was so much further than that," she said of princesses like Cinderella. "We lived in this really old, 100-year-old British bungalow in Calcutta. If you've seen 'Downton Abbey,' I mean these houses always have wear and tear and restoration needed."
"When you see what your grandmother was like and then you see like the way your children are gonna grow up and it's not gonna be these stately houses with 100 staff and a lot of decorum. That just won't work," she said. "We don't have the means to and that's the same problem they have."
Realizing how much work goes into the survival of their family homes also hit her when she saw friends living in "really swanky" modern apartments while growing up.
"I remember really not relating to the idea of the word princess to anything I saw in media or movies or pop culture. Because nothing could've been further than the truth," she said.
Many of the palaces owned by the family have since been converted into public schools and museums, she said. But when it came to Belgadia Palace, Akshita said she and Mrinalika saw an opportunity to try something different and venture into sustainable tourism.
"It was vastly different to my grandmother who was like, 'You can't charge people to stay in your house. You have to entertain, you have to be ambassadors to your state,'" she said.
Belgadia Palace, Akshita said, was originally built to welcome foreign dignitaries and British envoys but now as a hotel, which opened in 2019, the 18th-century Victorian-style property welcomes people "from all over the world to come here to know about the state."
And while opening Belgadia up to the public was a first for her family, Akshita said she and her sister are simply doing what they can to ensure their legacy lives on.
"My parents never were like, 'this is your house,'" she said. "They were like, 'This is a house. You have to make it survive for the next generation and the generation after that.'"
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