When you are escorted by a convoy that thunders along the highway accompanied by several staff members, when you serendipitously encounter a majestic elephant en route and when you are finally welcomed by the strains of the Shehnai and drumming of the Dhol and a shower of rose petals and garlands, then you know that you are in royal company and you have been transported into the lavish environs of a palace 😀
Doing it in style, is the hallmark of HH Nawab Sultan Salauddinkhan Babi of the erstwhile princely state of Balasinor and I had the honor and utmost pleasure of being a guest at the Garden Palace Heritage Homestay which is where he resides with his family in the town of Balasinor in the district of Mahisagar, Gujarat, India.
Come and step into the regal residence with me and marvel at its rich decor, enjoy its gardens that are teeming with birdlife and dine of the sumptuous fare which is their signature Balasinori cuisine.
The Garden Palace, Balasinor, continued from Gujarat Royal Routes
About Balasinor –
Balasinor was originally a princely state that was established in the 18th century and was a part of the Babi dynasty that was formed in the mid 17th century in Gujarat.
Today, though it exists in a relatively remote part of the state, its claim to fame is its fabulous Balasinori cuisine and also the nearby Dinosaur fossil park that has become a location of global interest.
History of the royal family –
The family originally hailed from Afghanistan. They belonged to the Yusufzai clan of Pathans who belonged to the Babi or Babai tribe of Pashtuns that hailed from the province of Zabul. The Babi were also considered to be descendants of Hazrat Quays, one of the companions (sahabi) of the Prophet.
They originally arrived in the early 16th century with the Mughals during the time of Babar, as the most trusted lieutenants of the Mughal emperor. It is said that after having protected the emperor Humayun from a attack, they were rewarded with the Subedari (governorship) of Gujarat.
In course of time, during the mid 17th century, 3 of the brothers belonging to the family of last deputy Governor of Gujarat, formed the princely states of Balasinor, Radhanpur and Junagadh.
Balasinor was a 9 gun salute state with around 130 villages in its realm. The last ruler was HH Nawab Muhammed Salabat Khanji II. He was the 9th generation of the Balasinor Nawabs and was crowned at the age of 11 months after the passing of his father Nawab Jamiat Khanji. Due to his age, the state was ruled by the Regency council, since it was the period of the British Raj.
After Nawab Salabat Khanji II passed away in January 2018, his son, the 10th generation, Nawab Sultan Salauddinkhan Babi had his titular coronation called the Raj Tilak or Gaadi Dastoor in both Rajput and Islamic ceremonies respectively, at the Garden Palace Balasinor.
Today HH Nawab Sultan Salauddinkhan Babi resides in this palace in Balasinor along with his mother Begum Farhat Sultana, his wife Begum Zeba Sultan khan and his sister Nawabzadi Aaliya Sultana Babi.
A piece of trivia that might be of interest, is that the well known yesteryear actress the late Parveen Babi, belonged to the Babi family.
The Crest/Coat of arms –
The Balasinor crest has 2 doves denoting peace, on the Dexter and Sinister (right and left) of the bearer of the shield. A Katar or dagger across the shield signifies strength. There are palm trees on either side of the katar, being a popular tree in the region and finally there is a crescent moon on top symbolizing Muslim rule. The motto in Latin says Veritas Omnia Vincit meaning Truth alone triumphs. There is also an alternate motto in Gujarati that says Lenar Pasethi Lidhu which means Taken from the taker, which is said to mean – Taken from God.
About the Garden Palace –
The royal family initially lived in the Navchowkia palace in Balasinor, the palace of the Nine Gates. It was said to be one of the richest palaces in Gujarat with over a 170 rooms and vast wealth. The Darbar hall was similar to the grand Lakshmivilas palace of Baroda and the ceilings and walls were clad with gold and silver work.
The ruler in those times was Nawab Jamiat Khanji who was a lover of literature, arts, theater and music. He wrote plays in Gujrati, Urdu and Hindi, he composed music and he even taught a very famous Gujrati theatre artiste Jaishankar Sundari, how to tie a sari for the female role that he was to essay.
The British who wrongly assumed that the Nawab was only involved in arts and music and was neglecting his state, managed to exile him in Baroda under the Gaekwad rulers and during that period in the 1940’s, they looted the place and burned down the palace. Much of the wealth was lost and only very few articles were retrieved.
Soon after this, the Nawab was released and the family moved to the Garden Palace which was located in the gardens of the original palace not too far away. During this period, the Nawab’s son was born and he is quoted as saying that he lost a palace but gained an heir.
Nawab Jamiat Khanji passed away when his son was merely 11 months old and Nawab Muhammed Salabat Khanji II was crowned the king at that tender age.
The Garden Palace was built in 1883 and had been the residence of the Diwan of Balasinor. It is now home to the present members of the royal family.
About the Garden Palace Heritage homestay –
Way back in the late 90’s, when the heritage tourism movement began in India, the Nawab Salabat Khanji and Begum Farhat decided to open the home to guests in the form of a heritage hotel. They initially began with one room of the palace, when they received the Consul General of Belgium as their first guest. Gradually as more numbers of guests began visiting, they opened up more rooms. Hospitality naturally coursed in their blood and this venture was more out of passion than a strictly commercial one.
At the same time the Begum also decided to showcase her Balasinori cuisine and a restaurant called Bageecha was opened on the lawns. Despite the family being hard core non vegetarians, it was interesting to note that the restaurant was pure veg in keeping with the general sentiment and preferences of the locals.
During early 2000’s, coincidentally there was heightened interest in the dinosaur fossil site that had been discovered in 1984 and which most people had hitherto been unaware of. This brought a flush of enthusiasm to the region and the tourism department along with the royal family, began focusing on what they termed Dino tourism.
Salauddin had also obtained some experience in the hospitality business by conducting camps in Pushkar, Rajasthan and had gained knowledge by coming into contact with people from renowned hotels like Oberoi, Taj, HRH Group etc.
He then returned to Balasinor and increased the number of the palace guest rooms to 6. He also pitched tented accommodation on the lawns. This proved not very practical in the long run because the tents were seasonal and it was not possible to air condition them or make them more sustainable. Hence eventually, 7 new proper cottages were built.
The Garden Palace Heritage Homestay now offers a choice of 13 rooms that are available for guests.
In keeping with royal traditions, guests are welcomed traditionally with the Shehnai and Dhol (royal flute and drums) and are received with thick garlands of roses.
An overview of the premises –
The palace lies amidst 13 acres of gardens filled with trees and flowering plants.
The large entrance gate is flanked by walls bearing the royal crest and a driveway leads to the building that stands behind another short wall with the crest emblazoned again in the center.
Made of lime, bricks, stone and wood, the pale and peeling yellow facade of the palace, belies the grandeur of the past which it holds within its walls. To be fair, the exteriors are victims of the annual rainfall and the palace gets a face lift every year before the onset of winter. My pictures were taken during the rains.
Home to the present members of the royal family, it consists of nearly 30 rooms.
The decor consists of many of their original artefacts, hunting trophies, arms, crystal ware and other such items.
The living room contains the original Louis the XIV French style furniture that was salvaged from the earlier palace.
Innumerable framed photographs line the walls and table tops, keeping alive the memory of their ancestors and history.
The hall is flanked by 2 bedrooms that have been turned into guest rooms. The rest of the rooms are situated at the back. The main dining room is adjacent to the hall and from here there is a stairway that leads to the family’s quarters on the first floor.
Multiple lawns and a pavilion are situated in front of the palace to its right and to the left is another lawn that separates the main building from the cottages.
There is also a banquet hall, the administrative office, a second dining space, the cottages and a large yard with a circular dais, all to the left of the palace.
The Maharaja express, a luxury tourist train used to have its route through Gujarat a few years ago and it was in this yard that the guests would be awarded a royal welcome with traditional music and dance followed by a royal feast from the Begum’s kitchen.
Rooms and categories –
The heritage stay offers 13 rooms in 2 categories. The rooms are divided in a simple manner into 6 Palace rooms and 7 Camp Cottages.
While similar amenities are provided, they differ in decor and furniture, the former retaining the period ambience and the latter being more modern.
All the rooms have air conditioning, fans, tea/coffee facilities, in room dining service etc.
Palace rooms –
The palace rooms have a regal feel to them. The furniture is all the original period/heritage furniture but the bathrooms have been modernized. The building was a palace and never meant to be a hotel, hence all rooms are unique in different sizes and shapes and decor.
There is a touch of the ancient and some spaces might feel a bit dull and archaic but there are plans to redecorate and change to brighter linen and color schemes.
The cottages are neat units that form an L shape along 2 sides of the lush lawn.
My room –
The rains prove damaging to the main palace due to the material with which it has been constructed and there is a refurbishment that takes place annually before the tourist season begins during the festival of Navratri which usually falls in Sep/Oct. Hence the palace rooms were not available and I stayed in one of the cottages that was large, bright and airy and themed in blue.
Gardens and lawns –
As the name suggests, this is a palace within a garden and the lush greenery and dense tree cover make this place a veritable bird sanctuary. The presence of the Sudarshan lake right across the road, is also a big reason why several water birds are seen.
There are birds all year round and all day around and the place is constantly abuzz with chirping and tweeting and the music of birdsong.
There are nearly 40 species like herons, ibis, cormorants, parrots, doves, sunbirds, babblers, woodpeckers, owlets, weaver birds, hoopoes, golden orioles, koels etc and even a resident colony of fruit bats. The birds even seem to have their favorite haunts and one can see the same ones coming back to perch on coconut palms and other trees.
Bird watchers and photographers will have quite a field day here.
I myself went quite batty trying to chase birds and bats and one of my mornings was actually spent waddling behind an ibis and heron who were foraging for big fat earthworms while I had not had my breakfast yet 😀
Of course the Royal geese were also the victims of my camera.
The gardens are quite in their natural state with scattered overgrowth and do not appear to be overly manicured.
There are also a variety of flowers, many of which also lent their awesomeness to my food photography 🙂
Well what can I say about a cuisine that deserves an entire book of its own. It is not an easy task for me to condense the nuances of their signature Balasinori cuisine as they call it, hence I will have to devote an entire new post to it 😀
Read more about the Balasinori cuisine and Begum Farhat’s role in putting it together, in this post – Garden Palace Balasinor – Cuisine.
Banquet halls and meeting rooms –
There is a large hall called the Shamiana which is a possible venue for weddings, private functions, conferences, business meetings etc. It can accommodate 150 people in a fine dine setting and in buffet style it can handle 250-300 people.
The bigger lawn can contain upto 1500 people and the smaller one can take 200.
The palace has also been used as a venue for photoshoots and there have also been Gujarati movies shot here.
Palace Galleria –
Begum Zeba also runs an online boutique called the Palace Galleria where exquisite hand made items are available which she herself curates after sourcing from artisans. The products are local as well as from across India.
Zeba brings with her the legacy of her grandmother who was highly skilled in embroidery, knitting, bead work, sequin work and such skills. Zeba also was trained from childhood in these arts and when she married into the Babi family, she found that her mother in law and aunts in law were equally skilled.
In order to preserve these handicrafts, she decided to put together products of these dying arts and encourage local artisans by providing a platform to showcase their work and make a decent living.
This passion of hers propelled her to undergo a year’s training after which she brought forth the online portal with a range of products that include hand made and naturally dyed textiles from all over India like bandhini, Kashmiri and Banarasi embroidery, tie and dye from Gujarat, a myriad of prints from Kutch, Zardozi embroidered silk cushion covers and other such items. The hand crafted work is exquisite and far more valuable than machine made.
Hand made jewelry, handicrafts and artefacts are also available.
Her work can be seen on Facebook page of The Palace Galleria
Amenities and facilities –
There are no indoor games or pool or any of the standard amenities that are found in resorts. It is mainly a place where one can relax and unwind in the lap of nature. However, there are future plans for a swimming pool which will be a very welcome addition considering the climate of Gujarat.
Things to do within the premises –
Despite not having any man made facilities, bird watching is certainly an activity that one can indulge in and as in my case, spend an inordinate time doing so 😀
It was highly thrilling for me to be living in what felt like a veritable bird sanctuary and I spent a lot of time struggling with my inadequate lens, trying to capture as much as my equipment would permit.
The adjoining field with grazing donkeys was also entertaining enough for me because I hardly ever get to see them in Bangalore.
Another interesting possibility is to attend a cooking class with the Begum Farhat where she will enthrall you with her skill and will charm you with her intelligence and grace. This is a wonderful opportunity to take home lasting knowledge of a unique cuisine.
Things to do in the surroundings –
The Dinosaur park and museum is the main attraction that draws people of all ages right from children to adults. More about this in this post – Dinosaur park and museum, Balasinor.
Wanakbori Dam on the river Mahisagar which is 15 km away is a scenic spot. Guests can have a picnic meal packed to enjoy by the waterside, on the rocks (the real rocks of the prohibition kind, Gujarat being an alcohol free state :-D)
Another excursion that is conducted for a minimum group of 6 people and only in winters, is a hiking trip to Dhamod. This is a 35 km drive from the Palace, followed by a 2 km easy hike to an old ruined fort on the hill called Laliya Luhar Qila. The trek culminates with High Tea on the ramparts of the fort amidst its picturesque environs. The entire session takes 3 hours.
Timba Tua hot water springs, Galtheshwar temple on the banks of the Mahisagar river and other such sites are present within a 30 km radius.
For guests who are there for a longer duration, visits to the palaces of Lunawada and Santrampur can be arranged along with a meal.
Day excursions can also be arranged to Champaner and Pavagadh which are world heritage sites 75 km away (1.5 hrs) and also to the Statue of Unity in Narmada district 170 km (3 hrs) away.
More about all this in – Things to do in the surroundings of Balasinor
Phone and internet connectivity –
Being in the heart of Balasinor town, internet and phone signals are reasonably reliable and are not an issue. The hosts also provide WiFi for their guests.
Visitor profile –
This is a beautiful palace amidst lush gardens. It is highly suitable for families, children, elderly people, couples, honeymooners and a host of such leisure travellers.
Artists, photographers, bird watchers, nature lovers and trekking enthusiasts will find this place very interesting and addictive.
The dinosaur park and museum is a great attraction and brings in people of all ages. Princess Aaliya personally conducts pre booked tours of the place. The Garden Palace a mere 12 km away, is the best place to stay for the dino enthusiasts. It is obviously also highly exciting for those interested in paleontology.
Many student groups also come here on school excursions and educational tours.
The place is a Khana Khazana – a treasure trove of excellent cuisine and food lovers will find the fare fascinating, just like the conversations with the talented and gracious Begum Farhat and Begum Zeba.
Those interested in history, heritage, culture and traditions of Nawabs and their dynasties will also find it interesting to interact with the sociable Nawab and listen to his tales of yore.
For those from the surrounding cities of Gujarat, this provides a great option for a quick break.
Being in the vicinity of the dam in a region that is dotted with textile, cement, electrical and other industries, the venue is also suitable for corporate and business meetings and conferences. Many of the industries like Wanakbori Thermal Power Plant, GE Power, BHEL, Siemens Germany, JK Cement etc find this a convenient and suitable option for their Indian and overseas visiting engineers and executives and they enter into long term contracts with the place.
Social and environmental commitment –
The family is very particular about recruiting locals and enhancing employment opportunities in the area. Being the erstwhile rulers of the region, they continue to undertake a responsibility towards the betterment of the tribal and rural society and they engage in a number of relevant social and religious activities.
The Dinosaur park and museum that came about with the family’s support, has also brought the region onto the tourist circuit, thus creating several jobs for the locals.
Best time to visit –
Winters are the peak season in this region. The weather is a big deciding factor in Gujarat and October/November to February/March sees the highest inflow of tourists. April to September are their summer and monsoon and though the palace does not close, it is less operational since there is not much tourism here.
Of course for the corporate guests however, it is business as usual.
What you should carry –
A pair of sturdy walking shoes, a cap, an umbrella/raincoat during monsoons, binoculars if interested in bird and animal life and a camera to capture the exquisiteness.
Getting there –
The nearest cities to Balasinor are Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Both are well connected by all modes of transport like air, rail and bus.
Ahmedabad however is a better option since there are more number of direct flights to many destinations.
While the most convenient way from either of the 2 cities is cab or private car, Gujarat state transport buses also ply on the route.
The hosts at Garden Palace also arrange for airport pick up and drop.
There is also a railway station at Godhra 45 km away.
Being a remote area, the main means of transport within Balasinor, is cab or private vehicle and one cannot really depend on any other means of public transport.
Distance from Ahmedabad to Balasinor – 85 km, around 2 hrs.
Distance from Vadodara to Balasinor – 100 km, around 2+ hrs.
The highways are excellent and the landscape is scenic.
I was picked up from Halol around 65 km away and the route took us along the beautiful Narmada Canal with a serendipitous jumbo attraction on the way, that went well with the royal theme 😀
Booking and contact –
You can contact them directly or through various portals like booking.com, Make my trip, GoIbibo etc
Garden Palace Heritage Homestay, Palace Road, Balasinor – 388255,
Mahisagar, Gujarat, India
Email id of Garden Palace Balasinor –
Please Note – This trip was made in collaboration with Garden Palace Balasinor. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
This itinerary was specially curated hence some of the features might have been personalized accordingly. Before booking, please check the facilities offered in your package.
Sep 23rd – 25th, 2019