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Noor Mahal: Building a successful palace hotel in India’s hinterland

In the ’90s, Colonel Manbeer Choudhary decided to pursue his dream of building a luxury hospitality brand in the nondescript city of Karnal. The result was the palatial Noor Mahal, which is now a destination wedding and MICE spot for affluent clientele from Haryana, Delhi and Punjab. Now, in 2021, he’s taking the Jewel Group of Hotels global by investing $20 million in the European market, beginning with Colonel Saab, a restaurant chain in London that will offer authentic cuisine from India’s royal kitchens.

After setting up two successful hotels in India, homegrown hospitality brand, Jewel Group of Hotels, has announced its plans to go international. The company is set to invest $20 million in London’s hospitality segment starting with the opening of restaurant chain Colonel Saab at New Oxford Street in July this year. The idea behind the restaurant is to introduce authentic dishes from India’s royal kitchens to well-heeled, global travellers with an experienced palate, Colonel Manbeer Choudhary, Chairman and Managing Director, Jewel Group of Hotels, tells us. “We are observing and foreseeing growth and demand opportunities for new restaurants and hotels in the international market. Global citizens are highly intrigued by Indian cuisine and hospitality. London offers a chance to interact with the global audience, people who would have extensively travelled and experienced multiple facets of food,” he explains.

noor mahal karnal luxury hotel india
The palatial Noor Mahal is built around two courtyards—Diwaan-e-Aam and Diwaan-e-Khaas. (Photo: Courtesy Noor Mahal)

Asked if he considers expanding internationally amid a pandemic a brave move, Col. Choudhary says he’s “blessed to be standing on firm ground”. “This expansion was long in the planning and we were on the verge of starting work on this when the pandemic hit. Now that things are normalising, businesses need to take initiative to move the ecosystem, create opportunities and generate momentum. With the new ray of hope, I feel this is the perfect time to start something new. Indian hospitality is respected and valued by global citizens. We want to offer them something exciting and celebrate the future by setting a new growth and recovery milestone,” he adds optimistically. 

A palace in the middle of nowhere 

This isn’t the first time Col. Choudhary has relied on his instincts and taken a calculated risk to further his dreams. After serving in the Indian army for 25 years, he turned to his passion for hospitality in 1994. He saw opportunity in the unlikely city of Karnal in Haryana. Mythologically, it is said to have been founded by Karna, the brave warrior of the Mahabharata. In the 18th century, it was allegedly the site of a battle between Nader Shah of Persia and Mughal emperor Mohammed Shah and a refuge for members of the East India Company during the 1857 rebellion. Presently, few indicators of this storied past lie in the city that’s now dominated by semi-rural settlements. 

With no luxury hotel within a 100 km radius, Col. Choudhary appears to have followed the adage, “if you build it, they will come,” when establishing his second property in Karnal, the palatial Noor Mahal. The palace hotel is a grandiose aberration amidst its bucolic setting by the old course of the Yamuna river. With Rajputana and Mughal elements, designed by architects Himmat Singh and the late Nimish Patel, the impressive structure can hold its own with any of Rajasthan’s palaces. The 122-room property is structured around two courtyards—Diwaan-e-Aam and Diwaan-e-Khaas—and replete with arches, domes, tikri work, opulent chandeliers, hand-painted frescoes, gilt mouldings, marble columns, antiques and bespoke furnishing. Besides heritage suites, there’s also a royal chamber, Khwabgah, which includes two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, bar, office chamber and a private terrace overlooking the city. 

Staying true to his vision

frontier mail restaurant noor mahal
Awadhi restaurant, Frontier Mail, is a recreation of the eponymous train that ran from Mumbai to Peshawar. (Photo: Courtesy Noor Mahal)

“We were advised that building a 5-star palace hotel was a next to impossible task and might not be commercially viable especially when we were not ready to compromise on the authenticity of the architecture, decor and other elements,” admits Col. Choudhary. However, he was not willing to give up on his vision. “A palace cannot be a centrally air-conditioned, multi-storied building and cannot be decorated with pseudo heritage artifacts.The main challenge was to invest time, money and effort in scouting for authentic resources: Perfecting the mix of architecture with modern amenities; getting the right building materials from all over the region; sourcing artisans who are proficient in hand-painting and decor; and sourcing authentic and rare artifacts from across the country to give a royal finish; and curating and serving authentic cuisine at our restaurants which are in sync with the theme of the hotel. Even getting trained staff for the hotel was initially a challenge since all qualified personnel wanted to work for big hospitality brands and not a fairly unknown brand with a property away from any big city,” he says. “Our dedication triumphed; we are humbled and delighted that Noor Mahal is now recognised as a landmark. Our guests understand and appreciate all the efforts we take in delivering the best experience.” 

Over the years, Noor Mahal has earned a reputation as a destination wedding spot for affluent clientele from Haryana and neighbouring Delhi and Punjab. The 10,000 sq ft Venetian-style Sheesh Mahal is the most modest of its event spaces, followed by the 20,000 sq ft Darbar Hall, the Noor-e-Mehtab, a 30,000 sq ft terrace, and sprawling lawns Rani Bagh and Raja Bagh. Guests can opt for bespoke wedding packages, and the hotel will take care of the rest, from the decor to the catering and anything else one might request for their big day. While Noor Mahal has a contemporary all-day diner and a swanky colonial style bar, the jewel of its F&B offerings is the Frontier Mail, an Awadhi restaurant that’s a recreation of the famous train that ran from Colaba, in Mumbai, right up to Peshawar, which is now in Pakistan. Besides guests staying at the property, the restaurant has also attracted a lot of walk-ins looking for a unique dining experience. 

As with Noor Mahal, Col. Chaudhary is confident that his leap of faith in setting up Colonel Saab will pay off. “Once it is up and running, we will venture into increasing its footprint in the European market. We’re also looking at expanding our footprint in India and creating more heritage properties here,” he signs off.

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