Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, situated in the heart of India is where the old and new as well as the Hindus and Muslims peacefully coexist. My earliest reference to Bhopal was comedian Jagdeep in the magnum opus ‘Sholay’ essaying the role of ‘Surma Bhopali’- a paan chewing, sherwani clad timber merchant hailing from Bhopal of course. Nothing seems to have changed in the decades that have passed when you visit the old Chowk of the city where you will notice people having the same nazakat or finesse. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy was the other reminder of this city which since then has worked hard to redeem its tarnished image. Years later having a friend hailing from Bhopal meant I often heard tales about the city and its vibrant culture.
So, when the Christmas vacations were around the corner, we thought it best to explore Madhya Pradesh that has three UNESCO World Heritage sites that were for long on our wish list. Bhopal is the perfect base for discovering the incredible historical and cultural places around it that are reminiscent of a prosperous bygone era.
As we hovered over Bhopal, I was bewildered to see massive azure water bodies from the aircraft’s window. On landing, en route to our hotel, I passed by the lake on the periphery of which in bold letters was written ‘Welcome to the City of Lakes.’ The twin lakes of Bhopal are the epicentre of the city and make up for the absence of the sea. Legend has it that the begum or queen of Bhopal on moonlit nights would recline in the lotus barge that drifted across the lake. The lakes are frequented by locals and tourists alike since it has boating facilities and a light and sound show in the evenings.
A little ahead was the iconic seven tons statue of Raja Bhoj, king of the Parmar dynasty, complete with a sword and regalia. Bhopal is situated on the base of Bhojapal an 11th-century city established by the king. The credit for the existing city, however, goes to an Afghan soldier called Dost Mohammed who had fled from Delhi after Aurangzeb’s death to Bhopal. Here he met the Gond Queen Kamplapati who sought his help after the demise of her husband.
On checking into the hotel, we realized that our suite overlooked the Bhopal Haat, which has artisans displaying their art and craft from all over the country. After an early dinner, my husband and I headed to the Haat where we got a glimpse of the various textiles and crafts of Madhya Pradesh like Chanderi, Maheshwari, Bagh block print, Gond painting, tribal metal artefacts called dhokra. If you are a handicraft and textile lover, then this place is where you must head for sure.
The next two days were earmarked for visiting Bhimbetka and Khajuraho. (More about these in other travelogues) On day three, since it was the last day of the calendar year, we wanted to be in Bhopal so that we could spend New Year’s Eve at the hotel. Our driver Naved arrived at ten in the morning, and we shared a list of what all we wanted to explore in the city.
Taj ul Masjid, which is said to be the largest mosque in India, was commissioned by Shahjehan Begum, the 8th ruler of Bhopal. The mosque with three domes in white, a sandstone edifice and spacious courtyard with a fountain was impressive. Inside a madrasa was in progress with the children huddled up in groups learning the scriptures.
Our driver then said he would take us to Taj Mahal Palace. Wasn’t the Taj Mahal in Agra? Well turns out the palace was built over thirteen years by the same Bhopal queen for an excessive amount. The British resident minister of Bhopal was so impressed by its grandeur and opulence that he suggested it be called Taj Mahal just like the one in Agra which was built by the begum’s namesake Shah Jahan. The entrance to the Taj Mahal Palace was locked, and the façade was in shambles. We got to know that repairs were underway with plans of converting it into a heritage property.
The Jain Mandir is located on top of the Manuabhan Tekri which gives a panoramic view of Bhopal City and can be reached by either a ropeway or road. Photography inside the temple was prohibited, but we managed to get some good aerial shots of the city from the hillock.
Bhopal has witnessed a dynasty of powerful women rulers who rejected the purdah system in a male-dominated society. The begums were at the forefront of politics and public life and ruled the city for a hundred years! On the death of the young Nawab Nazar Muhammed Khan, his 18-year-old wife Qudsia Begum declared that her 15-month-old daughter Sikander would be the heir. Gauhar Mahal was built by Qudsia Begum while the Moti Masjid was built by her daughter Sikander. Located on VIP road opposite the bank of Upper lake Gauhar Mahal is a fusion of Hindu Islamic architecture. An artisans’ fair was being hosted there when we visited it.
Moti Masjid is reminiscent of the Jama Masjid of Delhi. A grand entrance with a flight of stairs ushered us to the courtyard which had a water body with a fountain. On the periphery of the courtyard were pillared corridors with lattice jhali work through which light filtered. The gleaming pearly white edifice (from which the mosque gets its name) with three domes and two towering brick red minarets was a sight to behold.
Located close to Moti Masjid at the entrance of the Chowk were Shaukat Mahal and Sadar Manzil. Shaukat Mahal designed by a Frenchman was an amalgamation of ‘Indo-Saracenic and Rococo’ architectural styles. Sadar Manzil with ornate columns and arches was used for public gatherings. Both these structures were inaccessible as restoration work was in progress.
One of the fascinating highlights of Bhopal is the mutual coexistence of old and new. So, while the old city boasts of historical palaces, opulent mosques, crowded chowks and classic havelis the newer portions of the city have swanky hotels, shopping malls, impressive museums, art and culture centres.
Next in line was the Bharat Bhavan a centre for visual and performing arts designed by world-renowned architect Charles Correa. The centre is elegantly designed with landscaped gardens, open spaces, an amphitheatre, art galleries, museum of art, art installations, library and so on.
The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum is a window to the rich and diverse culture and traditions of the seven tribes of Madhya Pradesh- Gond, Bhil, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol and Bharia. A series of art galleries with countless artefacts, paintings, installations and sculptures beautifully juxtaposed left us spellbound. The interplay of light, silhouettes and use of natural elements like stone, mud, wood, and so on left us dumbstruck. The beliefs, rituals, folklores, lifestyle, textiles, games were brilliantly conveyed by the displays. This is a not to be missed attraction of Bhopal.
It was late afternoon, and we were now famished. Our driver took us to a Mughlai restaurant near the Chowk, where we ordered some kebabs and biryani. The biryani with fragrant rice and pieces of meat delicately flavoured with an array of spices and saffron was heavenly. Not to be outdone were the succulent, tender assorted kebabs accompanied with mint chutney, onion rings and slivers of lemon. We ended the meal with some sweet, creamy phirni with a garnish of chopped nuts.
With our stomachs full we had made sure to pack in enough calories that we were to burn while exploring the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sanghralai. Located on Shamla Hills, this open-air anthropological museum spread over 200 acres ‘depicts the story of man in time and space’. The museum has been curated by tribals from all over India to depict their lifestyle. Villages complete with homes, traditional technology, a repertory of tribal and folk arts were on display. Our favourites were the Nagaland, Warli and Toda homes.
The Veethi Sankul has a library, auditoriums and spacious exhibition halls. The first gallery was dedicated to Human Evolution and Variation with models, photos, installations depicting human evolution. A giant installation of the double helix DNA reminded me of my days studying biochemistry at university. We struggled to comprehend what it’s 3D structure was in days when the internet was a distant reality. It was closing time, and we had to exit the gallery.
The Van Vihar safari park, State museum, Regional Science Centre and aquarium are other attractions of Bhopal that you may want to visit. On the last day of our stay, we visited the lakes where boating can be done. A model of a steam engine train was installed at the entrance of the boat club. Ducks quacked in the lake as announcements were made for visitors to purchase tickets for the boat rides.
Bhopal is a city with a multidimensional profile- the grandeur of an erstwhile era, a window to the country’s rich tapestry of art and craft and a fine example of modern city planning with serene lakes. The city of begums, lakes, mosques and museums, had charmed its way in our hearts with its two distinctly divergent cityscapes that coexist.
|GETTING THERE- |
Nearest Airport: Bhopal has an airport with connectivity to major cities of India.
Where to Stay: You can do a net search for an array of staying options depending on comfort and budget. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott.
Travel Trip: It is a good idea to make Bhopal your base and explore the nearby attractions like Bhimbetka, Saanchi, Udaygiri from here.