Raja Saliwahan Jamnia gives new meaning to single-hand driving as he manoeuvres his black Scorpio through recently harvested fields. En route from Mhow to Jamnia Fort, his ancestral abode, he waves out to villagers, greeting everyone with Jai Onkareshwar, the name of his family’s ruling deity.
Princely states may be no more, but Jamnia is still addressed as raja and his wife Riteshwari as rani saheb. Dressed in olive green corduroy trousers and a mauve T-shirt, this 44-year-old ‘king’ of a state that ruled over 86 villages is not averse to riding a tractor to plough the 200 acres of land that is now the family’s main source of income. His dream is to
transform the eight-room Jamnia Fort and its adjoining ruins into a heritage hotel.
Ask him why a tourist would come to Jamnia and Jamnia points to Rani Roopmati ka Mahal in Mandu, 14 kms away, the nearby lake and Sholay-like landscape around. “We’ll offer a horse safari to Mandu, water sports, fishing and an experience that’s much more exciting than what Rajasthan offers.” His wife, who heads an NGO for tribals in the area, adds, “One can study the tribal culture in this land of the Bhil tribals.”
A couple of hundred kilometres away, at Amla in Ratlam district, Kunwar Raghvendra Singh has already converted part of his family’s ancestral palace into an 11- room heritage property. Brushing aside teething troubles like lack of power, water and approach roads, Singh says he got some 300 visitors to his property last year. A hundred kilometres from Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal, Maharaja Bhanu Prakash Singh of Narsinghgarh is getting ready to sign off the 300-odd room fort built in 1685 to a hospitality company, which will convert it into a palace hotel.
The Scindias and Holkars are the well-known royal families of Madhya Pradesh, but few know that the state is home to over 725 palaces, forts and garhis (small forts).
These lesser-known royalties now smell an opportunity in heritage tourism, a business that is thriving in adjoining Rajasthan. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, which turned profit-making in 2004-05 after 25 years in the red, is keen to help. “Forts and palaces are enduringly fascinating. Everyone wants to experience the world of the rajas, even if for a day. There is vast potential for heritage tourism in Madhya Pradesh,” says Ashwani Lohani, MPTDC managing director.
The MPTDC too is developing two such properties it owns — the Laxmipur Palace in Panna spread over 13 hectares and Govindgarh Fort that once belonged to Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewa.
So why has MP lagged behind in wooing tourists to heritage sites? Lack of infrastructure, connectivity and awareness are the major reasons for this. Unlike in Rajasthan, the rulers in Madhya Pradesh, barring a couple, were not rich. As a result, when privy purses were abolished, they sold off their lands and moved to the cities where they now live as commoners.
Like Maharaja Vikram Singh of Sailana near Ratlam who moved to Pune and is busy popularising the Sailana cuisine across the world. His father Digvijay Singh of Sailana was a connoisseur who compiled a book on Sailana cuisine, apart from developing the first cactus garden in India in Sailana around 55 years ago.
Vikram Singh admits that expecting tourists to go to Sailana just to experience a palace is foolhardy. But he has plans for the royal property. “It is to do with culinary tourism, if you may call it that. Tourists can experience the ambience while they learn to cook some of the Sailana dishes. Such holidays work in Italy and Australia. Given the craze for Indian cuisine, it should work here too,” he says.
Better road, rail and air links are improving matters somewhat. The four-lane highway connecting Madhya Pradesh to most major cities is changing the way tourism is being viewed in the state. The Neemuch-Mhow national highway and the Bhopal-Mandsaur state highway, due to be completed in a year, will offer better connectivity to Rajasthan as well as places like Ujjain, Mandu, Maheshwar and Onkareshwar.
Of the 725 royal properties in Madhya Pradesh, at least 225 are in the private sector. But despite the potential, developing them is proving difficult because often there is no clear title. According to MPTDC’s Shrivastav, only 39 have a clear title. The owners do not have the money to develop these properties on their own and the developers insist on outright purchase, which is not acceptable to the owners.
“The royal families are like tigers: nearly extinct. Our forts and palaces are our only identity. We should not sell them to people who have no idea what our lifestyle was like,” says Kunwar Giri Ratan Singh of Narsinghgarh.