Nostalgia greeted me as I stepped into beloved Vadodara, I could feel the misty air as memories flooded back. I could not believe that even after 20 years, many things had remained untouched. It almost took my breath away. As I stood there gaping at Vadodara, the cultural capital of Gujarat, she gaped back at me with her long winding streets and breathtaking architecture. ‘’I’m still gorgeous’’ she seemed to say. As I took it all in, I noticed that there was no overcrowding of streets or stagnant traffic that comes hand-in-hand with ‘growth and development’. The weather was as pleasant as it could get and so I began my journey with the enthusiasm of a prodigal son. I meandered from one end of the city to the next and managed to cover approx 15 km in less than 30 mins.
Hotel Regenta Inn offered me a great deal which made me want to indulge the city a little more. It was after all the first time that I would be experiencing a city I was familiar with, through the lens of a tourist.
Baroda (that's how we Gujaratis know this city) has been off tourist radar even though it is an erstwhile princely state like Bhavnagar and Jamanagar. Tourists arrive in Vadodara either by flight or train and proceed to the Statue of Unity without exploring the city itself. I met several groups in my hotel with similar itineraries.
For those of you who are visiting the city for the first time and have no idea what to expect, you can decide on one of the guided or bus tours of Vadodara.
Rear view of the iconic Laxmi Vilas Palace of Vadodara
I want to tell all of you about the breathtaking beauty and magnetic aura of this city of Gujarat, so next time you think of travel, you must think of exploring Vadodara. The history of Vadodara is a long and legendary one. The legend began about 2,000 years ago, when it first came into being on the banks of the river Vishwamitri. The city adopted the name Chandravati, then named Vadpatra (the Sanskrit word for "banyan tree") owing to the adornment of banyan trees. From Vadpatra it derived its present name Vadodara. Thus, the legend began to unfold. The great Maratha general, Damaji Gaekwad, conquered the city in 1734 and it became a part of the Maratha empire. However, the British ousted the Marathas from Vadodara in 1802. Not surprised huh? During the British Raj, Vadodara was made into district headquarters. After India's independence in 1947, the city became part of Bombay state (did you know this?) and subsequently Gujarat state when Bombay state was split in 1960.
Vadodara's greatest period under Maratha rule began with the accession of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III in 1875. A great deal of progress and socio-economic developments were achieved in all fields during his reign. The legacy of Maharaja Sayajirao continues to shape the city even today, making him one of the most prominent administrators and reformers of his time. The saying that "nothing grows under the banyan tree" is not true of Vadodara. Thanks to Maharaja Sayajirao's vision and leadership, the city flourished during his reign and continues to prosper even now. A majority of the important places in Vadodara are testament to his vision one and a half decades ago.
The jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring Laxmi Vilas Palace was completed in 1890 but still today it has retained the title of being the largest private dwelling in the world. It is believed that this magnificent 500-acre palace is 4 times the size of Buckingham Palace in London and is still the official residence of the Gaekwads, the royal family of Vadodara. The palace is named after Laxmibai, the second wife of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III and Rajkumari (the princess) of Tanjore. Laxmi Vilas Palace is the 3rd Rajmahal (the royal palace) of Gaekwad family.
The side view of Laxmi Vilas Palace
Tourists now can get more than a whiff of royalty as the palace now invites tourists between 10 am to 5 pm on all days, except Mondays. Of course, there is an entrance fee of Rs. 250 and Rs.150 for Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, which is part of the palace. The fee includes a self-guided audio tour of the palace. The palace tour is well-planned and when you enter you will be given a device with a set of earphones from the administrative office. The device plugs you into the audio guide which is available in numerous Indian and foreign languages like Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, English, and French. Various sections of the palace are numbered from 1 to 10. You can listen to the tour as you move around and the voice will transport you back in time. You can linger in the royal ambience for at least 4 hours if your heart urges you to indulge in the historics of royalty. A bygone era, we all can only dream of or imagine. I loved the way the audio tour was structured, curated to offer enough time for exploration and historical understanding of the palace. I must commend Rajendra Shah, the Gujarati speaking guide in the pre-recorded audio tour for his exceptional narration which highlighted subtle details of the palace throughout the tour.
You can listen to the commendable audio tour by Rajendra Shah with this device
The sheer grandeur of the palace astounded me and I feel its splendor even as I write this to you. The aura of this resplendence lingers like an unforgettable memory. Imagine a palace with 170 rooms, three dining halls, two fountains, and four verandahs (large open spaces with roofs). Built exclusively for Maharaja and Maharani (the king and queen) by Major Charles Munt, a renowned British architect, who also designed the palaces at Darbhanga and Kolhapur. This 3-storied glorious, mammoth structure was constructed with Agra bricks, sandstone, blue stones from Pune, and the famous Italian marbles. The tragedy that clings casually to this greatness, is that, Major Charles Munt committed suicide in 1881 out of profound fear that his design was defective and the palace would collapse soon. Despite his death, the palace's construction continued with his design and architecture. Even after 132 years, his legacy stands powerful and majestic.
Can royalty get more royal? Riveting architecture that holds the heart of the city
There is a theory that states that the palace was built as a mirror image of its design as a result of the North symbol being reversed during construction. So, when you visit, don't be surprised to find the entrance of the palace on the reverse end. As you gaze at this historical monument, you will realize that there are three sections to the palace. Let me explain: On the left wing of the palace is the Darbar, where public meetings were held by the Maharaja. In the central wing of the palace is the main entrance used by the Maharaja only. The right wing is called "Janankhana", or the ladies wing. Janankhana was restricted to male visitors except for the Maharaja.
The architecture of the palace is an amalgamation of eastern and western cultures reflecting the personality of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad. He had traveled the world and wanted his palace to link ancient Indian rituals with modern cultures. Hence, the design of the palace embodies diverse cultures like Jain, Mughal, Rajput, Gujarati, Marathi and European. The facades were made as per Rajasthan traditions and ceilings were made as per Jain traditions. The interior of the place has numerous designs of flowers and intriguing sculptures.
Mughal architecture of left wing
Maharaja Khanderao Gaekwad II died at a young age without having a male child to inherit his kingdom. His widow Maharani Jamnabai Sahib adopted Gopalrao, the son of Shrimant Kashirao, the Gaekwad of Kavalana in Maharashtra. After undergoing intense training and teaching, this 12-year-old boy was designated as Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. Having been highly educated, he imagined a beautiful kingdom where art, science, sculpture, and education were given special attention. At a very young age, he imagined a palace based on these philosophies. In 1890, he built a palace that was equipped with modern facilities like an intercom, an elevator, European plumbing and an electric alarm system where he lived for the rest of his life. A total of GBP 180,000 was spent on this project, which at the time was equal to about Rs. 60 lakhs (6 million). Astounding, isn't it?
A Royal Garden of Gaekwads
The entire landscape around the palace was designed by William Goldring, a specialist from Kew Gardens. The most popular spot in the garden is the Sunken Garden which lies directly opposite to the palace. The huge pond it encompasses provides a beautiful reflection of the entire palace. Legend says that this is the view that had the Maharaja transfixed on many evenings from his Jharokha on the first floor. This garden is dotted with marble urns and various statues made of bronze and marble. A significant showstopper in the garden is the famous sculpture of infant Moses carried by his mother Miriyam based on the biblical story of Moses. All of this won't stop you from admiring the famous peacock urn, made out of marble, that proudly adorns the resplendent gardens of the Lakshmi Vilas Palace.
The sunken garden of Laxmi Vilas Palace
The statue of infant moses with mother Miriyam in the garden
The audio tour continues as you enter into the royal splendor of the palace. I held my breath in expectation, edgy excitement as I anticipated the beauty of the palace that it is so renowned for. If I told you that the outer magnificence of the palace was just the beginning of this great legend, it would be an understatement. The most striking aspect of the entrance is its interior that is embellished with stucco work and murals. There is a sheesham balcony, fine engravings on crystal chandeliers, walls, pillars and amazing sculptures. The floors and ceilings were resplendent with carrara marble imported from Italy. The same gorgeous marble was used in the famous indelible statue of David by Michael Angelo.
The ceiling of the entrance with fine carvings, sheesham balcony and gorgeous chandeliers
Majority of the statues in the entrance are the superlative creation of the famous Italian sculptor, Felici. The other intriguing aspects of the entrance are six white statues on the walls that represent geometry, medicine, music, philosophy, arts and science. These statues give us an inkling of the exemplary vision and foresight of the great Maharaja. His vision has had a domino effect on the city's growth and culture. Vadodara now boasts of world-class educational institutes, big industries and has grown to be the epicenter of art and culture.
The true depth of the grandeur of palace can be visualized from the entrance
Moving towards the corridor, the fine carvings of sun and cow on the pillars become more distinct and visible. These carvings symbolize that Gaekwads were Suryavanshis who descended from the solar deity Surya. Cow is the symbol of their ancestors. Gaekwad is derived from two words, Gai (meaning Cow) and Kivad (meaning Gate). Nandaji (the great grandson of Krishna) had kept cows in kivad to protect them. This is the reason Gaekwad means "the protectors of cows".
Sun and Cow are carved on the pillars at the end of the entrance
As we move inside from the entrance, we come across a vast corridor that surrounds the palace and this space invites an abundance of sunlight and ventilation. The spacious corridor is connected to the first floor by a marble and wooden staircase with exquisite paintings, some made using pure gold, this is where the current royal family lives. The corridor also leads to the "Swagat Kaksh", a small living room dedicated to welcoming guests. I could hear the gasps of tourists as they encountered two large captivating portraits of Maharaja Sayajirao in this room. The room is adorned with a royal couch, few chairs and glass painted windows that greet the sunlight in delight.
Guests to the palace are escorted to this room
Intricately carved walls and pillars inside the corridors of Laxmi Vilas Palace
"Pratap Shastragar", next to Swagat Kaksh, displays an admirable collection of royal armory. Professor Manikrao, who was awarded Rajratna by Maharaja Sayajirao for his distinguished work, created this room in 1941. This was the first time such royal weaponry has been displayed. Some of the famous weapons in the collection include the Navdurga sword, the Panchkula Talvar (sword) of Guru Gobindsinghji, and Shivaji Maharaj's sword. There are many swords on display that are encrusted with gold, silver, ivory, and diamonds. One of the most impressive swords is the Navadurga sword, which has carvings of nine avatars of Mother Durga, the goddess of destruction. There are also other displays that show weapons carried by soldiers in order of their importance, such as swords, bhalo (spear), and chakras (war-quoit).
The armory room of Laxmi Vilas Palace showcases a wide range of decades-old weapons
The throne adorns the Gaddi Hall which is located at the end of the corridor in the central wing, it is commonly referred to as the Rajyabhishek Room (Coronation Room). The simple yet elegant hall has crowned many brothers, sons, and grandsons of Maharaja Sayajirao. Among them are Fatehsinghrao and Ranjitsinghrao, brothers of the Maharaja, Pratapsinghrao, the Maharaja's grandson, and Samarjitsinghrao, the current Maharaja. The hall showcases a simple Gaddi (seat) with Mayur Chatri (peacock umbrella), where the king sits during the coronation ceremony. The design of this hall reflects Maharaja Sayajirao's desire to keep this ceremony simple. Even though everything about this hall is understated, I could sense its importance in the making of history. I could feel the stories unfold from the throne, like pages fluttering in the wind, leaving legacy after legacy for a country thirsty for change and hungry for growth. A significant feature of this gallery is the collection of 6 paintings by the renowned painter Raja Ravi Verma that depict Hindu mythology. These paintings added a new dynamic to the room lending strongly to its mystical beauty.
It's symmetry and balance that make Gaddi Hall so appealing
Upon entering Hathi Hall (Elephant Room), visitors will be astounded at its opulent beauty. The audio recording is customized with traditional Gujarati music and soothing drum beats to meet the vibe of the room. I was awestruck the moment I stepped in, and I was torn between listening to the audio and indulging in the beauty of the hall. A guide however, drew my attention as he kept me engrossed with his passionate narration as he spewed fascinating facts one after the other. I was absorbed in the magic of it all like everyone else as we stood riveted with intrigue and fascination.
According to royal tradition, this was the spot where the Maharaja would climb on an elephant for a special occasion, which is why the place is called the Elephant room. Each of the arches in the pillars is carved with elephants. All the windows and doors bear the signature of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III.
In all my travels throughout India, I have seen many beautiful palaces, but this unique magnificent surreal beauty was the first encounter for me. A beautiful place that evoked strong emotions to connect with its story, its legend and you find yourself lured to reach out and touch the splendor around you. Hoping, perhaps to imbibe some of it.
The soaring ceilings and grandiose chandeliers are enough to take your breath away
Connecting to the Hathi Hall is the most exquisite place in Laxmi Vilas Palace, the Darbar Hall. It is located in the first wing of the palace. An interesting thing about this 95-foot-long, 5,000-square-foot hall is that there are no pillars. Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad had a vision for this hall and he said once, "There cannot be a better hall than this anywhere in India." Darbar is a Persian term meaning noble court or a formal meeting where the king held all discussions and rituals of the state. There were 34 types of Darbars during Maharaja Sayajirao's tenure including "Veshbhusha" (different ways of wearing costumes) and visits of various rulers who came here to greet the Maharaja.
Chandeliers, Belgian stained glass, and the ceiling with geometric patterns decorate the interior of Darbar Hall
As a music and art scholar from the London Royal Academy, Maharaja Sayajirao was an ardent art lover. Murano tiles were used to cover the floor of this hall. Twelve people from Italy made the floor in 18 months. The Hall showcases exceptional figurines in traditional Indian attire sculpted by Felici. The Hall depicts various Hindu mythology stories in a 15-foot glam painting on the top. Below these paintings is an emblem that reads "Jin ghar jin tak". It translates to a horse's saddle is my home and it is also my throne. It conveys that the Maharaja has to be always ready to protect his people.
Italy's famous Murano tiles were used to create the flooring design
Vadodara's creativity and arts flourished under Maharaja Sayajirao. Maharaja Sayajirao's initiatives towards promoting arts were highly admired by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In 1914, Maharaja organized Akhil Bhartiya Sangeet Sabha (All India Music Festival) at the Darbar Hall where maestros like Ustad Inayat Ali Khan performed. The hall was electrified by Belgian chandeliers and lanterns on top with wind blowing from both sides. Eventually, the festival became the Annual Baroda Festival, which continues to this day.
Jharokha for the ladies of Royal Palace fitted with Apsaras playing musical instruments
I was so engrossed with the legend and the magic of the palace that I didn't realize that the tour had come to the last site of interest. Darbar Hall was the 9th pitstop and I needed to step out of the Palace to reach the last. But before I proceed, I want to touch upon once again the tragic demise of Major Charles Mant. After his untimely passing, Robert Fellow Chisolm stepped in to finish the architectural splendor. As per the original design the 300-foot tall tower of the palace was intended to be a clock tower. Chisolm realized that the ticking of the clock would disturb the peace inside the palace. Hence, he proposed and mounted a small red colored light atop the tower which at that time was visible from anywhere in the city. A glowing red light that indicated the presence of the Maharaja in the residence. Even now, this 100+ year old tradition shines like a beacon to all that visit the sovereignty of the city.
The tallest tower shone like a beacon to indicate the presence of the Maharaja in the palace
As I passed through the first wing of the palace towards the last section in the tour, I stumbled upon a small courtyard which used to be the playing area for royal children in those days. It was beautiful, poignant and nostalgic as I stood there and imagined the pitter patter of little feet. The sound of giggles and innocent laughter bouncing off exquisite ceramic paintings that adorned the mural-like walls. It painted a beautiful scene, stolen from the likes of larger-than-life Bollywood movies.
This is where you heard the pitter patter of royal little feet
Ceramic paintings decorate the adjacent walls at the entrance of the playing area
The tour ended with the spectacular ceramic mosaic painting on the outer wall of the palace. It is made of Smalti Mosaic and features detailed full length portraits of men and women wearing traditional costumes worn during festivals. The necklaces featured are made from Filati, whereas the men showcase the fashionable turbans of those times. The mosaic also lends a strong christian overtone with the elegant portrayal of an angel.
Vintage mosaic mural decorate the external wall of Laxmi Vilas Palace
On February 6, 1939, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III died at the age of 76 years leaving behind an unforgettable legacy for Vadodara. The city holds onto these memories and the people reflect in the culture that they emulate and the pride they embody for the city. Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III remained Maharaja of Vadodara for 63 years while spending his last 49 years in the palace he built with a vision that has sustained through the years of growth and change. It is a tribute to the people of Vadodara who treasure the sanctity of their history and its undeniable role in the trajectory that this sovereign city has taken over the years.
You might want to read this travel story of mine as well.
Lesser-known but amazing places to visit in Vadodara
The Laxmi Vilas Palace of Vadodara is one of the largest private residences ever built. In addition to its grandeur, the Laxmi Vilas Palace is also renowned for its unique blend of Indian and European architecture, which makes it one of the most distinctive buildings in India.
The Laxmi Vilas Palace is currently owned by HRH Samarjitsingh Gaekwad, the great grandson of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The palace was originally built by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad II in 1890 and served as the main residence of the Gaekwad family for many years. The palace is now open to the public as a museum. He continues to live in the palace and is involved in its upkeep and maintenance.
The sequel to Masti (2004), Grand Masti, was shot at Vadodara's Laxmi Vilas Palace. Several scenes from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan were shot here as well.
Vadodara has good rail and air connectivity with the rest of the country. There are several direct flights from major Indian cities. It is also an important railway junction for trains connecting Mumbai with northern parts of the country. There are regular state transport buses that run between Vadodara and various cities in Gujarat.
Vadodara's Laxmi Vilas Palace is a beautiful, sprawling complex that takes up almost four city blocks. Visitors can tour a small portion of the palace, which includes several opulent rooms as well as a museum devoted to the maharaja's life. Most visitors spend between one and two hours at the palace, although those with a keen interest in history or architecture may wish to spend longer.
Visitors may access a small portion of Laxmi Vilas Palaces on all days except Mondays and public holidays from 9.30 am to 5 pm. Ticket prices for the palace and Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum are Rs. 250 and Rs. 150 respectively. For Rs. 375, you can get the combined ticket. It is also possible to book Laxmi Vilas Palace tour online and combine it with other heritage tours.
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