One of the largest cities in India and formerly the abode of Nawabs, Bhopal – the capital city of Madhya Pradesh even today echoes the majesty of the 19th century, preserved in the old-world edifices. Akshay Nayak visits Jehan Numa Palace Hotel to learn about the Nawabi hospitality presented by the royal family at the palace-turned-heritage-hotel
Predominantly the land of Nawabs, the capital city of the then Bhopal State during the British colonial rule, till date emanates the centuries-old royal Bhopali culture. Scooting through the old gullies of the city, passing by the calm gated communities that usually house commodious bungalows or row houses with a lawn/ backyard, the ‘live-life-king-sized’ frame of mind could be seen sprawling over the city’s expanse as a chronicle of Bhopal from the regal times.
Ruling the princely state from 1819-1926, the Begums, visionary women of their kind, redefined the Bhopali tradition that the city showcases even today right from its Indo-Islamic and European influenced old-world charm architecture to the plain and simple cuisines and the art and crafts found across the city.
Preserving the royal Bhopali tradition deeply embedded in their roots, Jehan Numa Group of Hotels, one of the oldest hoteliers in Madhya Pradesh, serves the hospitality of the by-gone era on a silver platter at their iconic heritage and resort properties.
Nestled on the slopes of Shamla Hills, Jehan Numa Palace, Bhopal was built by Nawab Shah Jehan Begum’s son General Obaidullah Khan, the commander-in-chief of the erstwhile Bhopal state Force in 1890, during Jehan Begum’s rule. Following the death of the General in 1924, the palace served as a secretariat to his sons until all Jagirs were abolished by the Government of India in 1952. Moving forward, the palace was rented out by the family to the government until 1981, during which it was used as a hostel and the office of the Geological Survey of India.
The grandsons of General Obaidullah Khan, Nadir and Yawar Rashid – the owners of the palace envisioned to rekindle the legacy of the property and showcase it to the world after converting the royal residence into a heritage hotel. Undergoing seamless renovations and additions, while retaining the 19th Century royal spirit of the palace, Jehan Numa Palace hotel commenced operations from September 1983, offering the guests the lavish amenities that were once only enjoyed by the Nawabs. Run by the royal family even today, the palace hotel breathes magnificence dating back to the by-gone era.
Contoured with British Colonial, Italian Renaissance, and Classical Greek architecture, the vibrant white hotel bestows floral appeals such as Bougainvillea, Champa and more. Walking down the marble-floored aisle towards one of the 100 rooms in the dainty palatial hotel, Gaurav Rege, GM, Jehan Numa Palace, enunciates about how the hotel exudes architectural brilliance at every nook and corner. The portraits of Nawab Shah Jehan Begum and some memories are framed on the walls of the marble corridors, pictorially echoing the legacy of the royal family’s abode. The wrought iron chairs and polished tabletops at the restaurants personify elegance. Evident to be spotted by the poolside, spending some time besides the fountain relaxes the mind quite well. Rege quickly asks, “Doesn’t look like a restored one, right?”. Which was once under the rubble, the mosaic fountain is restored seamlessly enough to be confused with a brand-new one. Upon reaching the Imperial Room, one of the five categories, the vivid view of the setting from its veranda offers a feast to the eyes for the panoramic backdrop screams of contrasting hues of the sky, to the spirited white hotel walls, to the lush green grass followed by the rich blue-tiled swimming pool. The evenings can be spent with a cup of tea at the veranda enjoying the view of horses guided by their jockeys at the trotting track within the property, revealing the royal family’s love for stallions.
Pouring plush touches inside the room, the furnishings including the bed, the work station, etc., made of wood, posh upholstery and opulent décor, integrally liberate colonial influences. “Each of the 100 rooms including the six suites is crafted diligently to pamper the guests with the hospitality of the Nawabs,” expresses Rege.
As the rooms ensure a sound sleep for the patrons in the majestic setting, the F&B fare at the hotel traverses one on a gastronomic tour across the globe with unique offerings at their six thoughtfully designed specialty restaurants and bars. La Kuchina – the Italian restaurant with its warm burnt sienna flooring and traditional Sicilian style décor resembles coastal Italy. Specialising in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, the authentic wood-fired pizzas and creamy smooth hummus are favourites of a lot of walk-in guests at the hotel. During the dinner at Under The Mango Tree, Rege recommends trying their non-veg barbeque platter which tantalises the taste buds to soak into the rich yet simple Afghan influenced meaty creations, while enjoying the cool climate under the stars and the paraffin lamp-lit setting. However, he also insists to not to miss out on the cheesy broccoli and the velvety Dahi kebabs at the barbeque and grills restaurant. “The property believes in presenting authentic traditional recipes of the royal family, for which the chefs are sent to the owners’ residence for training and to cook exactly like it here at the hotel,” underscores Rege about the royal touch to the food.
The executive chef Jeevan Singh joined us for lunch at TAO (Tattenham Across the Orient) – Bhopal’s first Pan Asian Bar on the second day of our two-day stay at the bespoke palace property. The delicate water chestnut dim sums and edamame & truffle dumplings let your tastebuds delve deep into their fragile flavours, while the spicy burnt garlic noodles are charged thoughtfully with the South East Asian spices. The meal completed with the popular fried ice cream dessert – a perfect amalgamation of hard crust prepared from desiccated coconut and smooth vanilla ice cream on the inside.
Named after the Persian Poet, Firdausi’s opus Shahnama is a multi-cuisine restaurant presenting a fine selection of Indian, oriental and continental dishes. Cafechino Café and Patisserie and Shergar Bar are also celebrated by guests to enjoy long conversations either over a cup of coffee or with a tumbler of brown spirit, respectively.
Underscoring that transparency is the key at Jehan Numa Group of Hotels, Rege expresses, “We do not shy away from showing our kitchens to the patrons. They can walk directly into the kitchen without prior permission to witness our fool-proof SOPs while handling food.”
For Jehan Numa Palace, rooms account for 42 per cent of the revenue, Rege informs. “But given our excellence in F&B, restaurants bring in about 38 per cent of the revenue and the rest is contributed by banquets,” he adds.
“We are the de facto hotel of choice for anything that is commercially, socially important and anything that has the remotest hint of snob value. Anything important has to happen with us,” explains Rege about the palatial hotel’s historic significance in the city of Bhopal.
While the hotel group has seen a rise in popularity for all their properties, Rege says that his vision during his assignment with Jehan Numa Group of Hotels was to increase the revenues of the group collaboratively instead of showing performance at only one hotel as a separate entity. Having earlier worked with The Leela Group, reminiscing his initial days as the GM at Jehan Numa Palace, Rege muses, “The first day at the hotel, I recall being at my office at 9 am like just any other hotelier. Suddenly at 12.30 pm in the afternoon, I see there is too much of movement happening in the porch area. I was told that the then CM was arriving at the hotel. It was a different ball game for me, for I had never welcomed a CM on the very first day of my assignment!” Having spent over five years now at the hotel, Rege says, the hotel hosts celebrities or political leaders very usually, so one may not be surprised, to spot a celebrity at breakfast at Jehan Numa Palace.
As Bhopal is popularly known as the ‘City of Lakes’ due to an abundance of natural and manmade lakes, including the massive Upper Lake and the Lower Lake, Bhopal is also one of the greenest cities in India and is home to several species of flora and fauna residing peacefully in the dense Van Vihar National Park. Being lush, the city and its vicinity are home to several jungle lodges and resorts. Jehan Numa Group of Hotels expanded in the city by unveiling Jehan Numa Retreat in close proximity of Van Vihar National Park.
Located about a couple of minutes away from Jehan Numa Palace, Jehan Numa Retreat overlooks the Upper Lake and is dramatically secluded from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Green House Bistro within the 12-acre property is located in front of the lobby so it sees a lot of non-resident customers too. Designed within a greenhouse, the café exhibits antiques, plants and vegetables. Popularly known for its farm to table concept, the café opens to an inhouse farm, providing the guests a visual treat of the freshly plucked produce before being served on the table.
The resort’s canvas is blanketed by perennial plants and houses 28 cottages scattered in clusters of five and four rooms respectively. Each suite opens to a backyard that overlooks the many plantations whose produce is used in the hotel’s restaurants. Though a novel property, the royal touches aren’t amiss in Jehan Numa Retreat as the rooms are adorned with colonial-style furnishings, bathtubs, etc. Jehan Numa Retreat is also unique as it offers an open-to-sky shower in each room.
The lobby is flanked by two and three clusters of the rooms respectively. Interestingly, there are small pathways from each cluster of rooms that cut through the grass and meet at the swimming pool which offers an astounding view of the flat green landscape fenced by towering Eucalyptus trees, and saffron-coloured skies while tuning in to the melody of the birds chirping. The spa rooms too showcase a view of the swimming pool.
As much as the retreat property tries to bring nature closer to the rooms, it equally encourages the patrons to dine under the stars, amidst nature. For the dinner, Under The Jamun Tree – the all-day restaurant at the resort, Vincent Marques, manager, Jehan Numa Retreat, devises a wholesome meal that presents the fresh produce from their farm. Interestingly, a staggering 70 per cent of the produce used by the hotel is grown within the property. On being asked about the mild flavours with minimal influence of the spices, Marques informs, “Bhopal, since its inception was influenced by rulers and residents who had their roots from Afghanistan due to which the food too was rich with more focus on retaining the mild flavours of the simple ingredients than making them spicy just for the sake of it.”
Responding to a query about the popularity of dining in the open at the resort, Marques says, given the popularity of the concept, they offer tailored ‘Dining in the Woods’ experiences in an open area within the property that lets one experience the rustic-style cooking and dining concept. “What is barely found in cities, our patrons laud our dining in the woods concept as it offers a calm breezy environment with a view of fireflies on the nearby trees,” says Marques.
While there is much to explore, the hotels are strategically located to many attractions in and around the city. A stone’s throw away from Jehan Numa Retreat, the tribal and state museums are worth a visit to learn the history of the land. The Bhimbetka rock shelters and natural caves and Sanchi, both are an hour’s drive away from Jehan Numa Palace.
Speaking about Bhopal as a destination, a candid Rege echoes, “Bhopal is very underrated as a getaway destination when compared with the others in the country. With entertainment hubs, wildlife, serene landscape, old-world charm architecture, pilgrim spots, great hotels, and seamless connectivity from the key metros and other tier-II cities, one can easily have a fun-filled weekend in the capital city of MP. Although there are a lot of companies in Delhi and Mumbai who do a lot of offsites with our hotel given our best-in-class prices and amenities, the other potential markets from India remain largely untapped due to the lack in promotion of the destination.”