A Darbargadh, its family and an epic saga …
Vadodara, August 28, 2022
I first heard about Jambughoda when my kids in primary school needed my permission to go on a two-day trekking camp in the Jambughoda forests. Later, while working on the Heritage Trust project on the medieval historical site of Champaner-Pavagadh in the 1990s, I happened to drive with the team beyond the Wada Talav towards Jambughoda town. It was on the road through one of the most beautiful, pristine and thickly wooded landscapes I had ever seen in Gujarat.
Then, in early 2000 when we had got Champaner-Pavagadh on the US-based World Monuments Fund’s prestigious global list of the Millennium’s Most Endangered Historical Monuments (there were four other sites from India), the Trust was visited by Jambughoda’s erstwhile ruler Vikramsinh Rana, his wife, Gyaneshwaridevi and their son, the smart young Karamveersinh. He explained to us his plan to want to make the family’s Darbargadh in Jambughoda, a lovely Nature’s Retreat, a place in the wilderness for people to enjoy, and alongside a chance to visit the Kalikamata temple on Pavagadh hill and the heritage monuments at Champaner that the Trust had already put on the tourist map of Gujarat.
(Vikramsinh is a stout nature conservationist in his heart and head. In the mid- 1980s, a road was being planned that would cut across the lush Jambughoda forests that the royal family and the Rathwa tribal community had protected and revered for hundreds of years. This news horrified Vikramsinh and when he came to know that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (he was his classmate at the Doon School) was going to travel to Gujarat, he immediately set out to meet him and successfully presented his argument against the same. Fortunately the forests were saved and continue to be a rare dense green belt in central Gujarat.)
So, let me put all of this in a geographical perspective. From Vadodara, Champaner-Pavagadh is about 45 km to the east. Jambughoda is about 20 km further onwards. If the royal Rana family could gear itself up to provide a decent meal in clean surroundings, it would help us tremendously at the Heritage Trust as we were aiming to get Champaner-Pavagadh on the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 2004 and therefore expecting a lot of inspection-visits from heritage experts across the world. At that time, Champaner-Pavagadh was largely a pilgrimage centre, serviced by street food hawkers and a modest Gujarat Tourism hotel at the Machi plateau on Pavagadh hill that served a Gujarati thali.
The Rana family lived up to their promise and since then for many Barodians, taking visitors to Champaner-Pavagadh, almost automatically includes a leisurely lunch at Jambughoda, before driving back.
On cue as it were, Jambughoda reorganized the outdoor and indoor spaces at the Darbargadh estate to add very well-appointed rooms, beginning with the original guest house that was attached to the Darbargadh, and including more each year.
What earlier were stables were renovated into spacious rooms as well and recently, a nice swimming pool has been woven into the thick tapestry of fruit orchards, corn fields, vegetable patches amongst which the Darbargadh nestles. It is from this harvest that under the watchful eyes of the women of the household that the old kitchen and elderly cooks continue to conjure tasty and nutritious rural fare that often harks back to the forgotten as also well-loved dishes cooked by so many royal women of Jambughoda.
When Champaner-Pavagadh Archeological Park did get the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination in 2004, it was as if Vikramsinhji’s far-sighted support for his son’s desire to convert part of the Darbargadh into a heritage guesthouse proved a "well-aimed" shot in the dark. At the same time, the Baroda-based Bhasha Research and Publication Centre’s Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh village, just 35 kms further east into the tribal Rathwa-land in Chota Udepur district, became fully operative and attracted visitors from across India and the world, around the year.
A lot of these guests opted to stay at Jambughoda. Weekend visitors from across Gujarat slowly began to make their way here too, attracted by the peace and tranquility the place offered, as well as the fresh and flavoursome meals served through the day.
Then in 2010, Cox & Kings along with IRCTC began the Maharaja Express, a palatial train that started from Mumbai, chugged into Baroda and after breakfast on board, the tourists were bussed to Champaner-Pavagadh for a tour of the heritage monuments and then onwards to Jambughoda for a sumptuous lunch served in a royal tent, then back to the magnificent Laxmi Vilas Palace in Baroda for a possible round of golf and a High Tea with the Gaekwad royal family before getting on to the train for onward journey to Ahmedabad and Rajasthan.
“We designed the entire 2-3 hours that the guests would be with us at Jambughoda with great care,” explains Bhavna Devi, the Jambughoda daughter-in-law. “The special Durbari Thali was served on our silver dinner service. Each of three vegetarian and three non-vegetarian dishes of the main course were selected carefully from our heritage fare and balanced to appeal to the tastes of the mostly Western palate. It was the first major meal these guests would be having after they embarked on this journey and we wanted the whole Jambughoda experience to be something they would always remember!”
Unfortunately, the Cox & Kings assignment lasted only two years, and Gujarat was off the IRCTC Maharaja Express map. In the meanwhile, looking at the tourist potential that Champaner-Pavagadh had unleashed (and with the Rani ki Vav in Patan, the Dhola Vira Harappan site in Kachchh and then Ahmedabad city getting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and City respectively status in quick succession), several hotels to cater to different income groups sprang up in the villages around Champaner.
Jambughoda took this time to re-think their strategy and extend their reach. A cosy conference room was added so that training programmes, workshops, meetings, small family gatherings could be held over the weekend or more and all within less than driving distance of two hours from Baroda. A swimming pool was added, a decision that the family was mulling over for a long time. Conservation architects were employed to structurally strengthen the Darbargadh, especially the living quarters of the family.
Then luck showed a full hand again. The Epic channel was scouting subjects to be featured in the third season of their popular series, Raja, Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan, which focused on rare and signature dishes of royal families across India, while giving the viewers a peep into their current lifestyles. One Sunday afternoon in January this year and down with COVID, I was swapping channels and suddenly saw a somewhat familiar face flash on the screen. Vikramsinh Jambughoda. The next fifteen minutes saw me glued to the channel. It was one of the most riveting episodes of a series I quite enjoyed. I had no idea what pages of wondrous history lay hidden in the deep recesses of this modest Darbargadh I had visited quite often. And especially of its feisty women! But that’s salt and pepper for another fiery dish …
Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.
All photos courtesy of Darbargadh Jambughoda.