Knowing Bhopal for what it truly is today, takes crossing a rather steep and tumultuous bridge. It is almost impossible to associate Bhopal with more than the ghastly tragedy of December 1984, when deadly methyl isocyanate leaked out of the Union Carbide factory killing and inflicting horrific damage on thousands. Decades later, the controversy still boils, and every now and then comes a new take on the gruesome saga.
That episode aside, and especially because this is a new millennium and an entirely new age, Bhopal deserves another look. It is, truly, more than deserving of this second look.
It is a city that breathes space, beauty, dignity and grandeur. All the magnificence of bygone eras, sprawling lush greens, tranquil lakes and gorgeous places of worship co-exist with, and indeed patronize the steady and planned growth of modernity. It is also a city where the average person is at peace with himself and his surroundings. Bhopal residents are renowned for their sense of humour and irony, as well as their ability to articulate themselves with anecdotes and poetry. This is, of course, if you understand Hindi and Urdu, and get friendly with the people when you visit. It is the capital and Urban headquarters of Madhya Pradesh, the state at India’s very centre, what you’d call “Heartland”.
Bhopal was founded in the 11th century by the legendary king from the Parmara dynasty, Raja Bhoj, and consequently named Bhojpal, the suffix ‘pal’ originating from the word for dam. The Parmaras traversed many crests and troughs in terms of their ruling power over the city, and with them, so did Bhopal’s fortunes. Closer to documented times, after the Mughal Monarch Aurangzeb passed away in 1707, the Afghan Soldier Dost Mohammad rediscovered and began to build anew what we now see as Bhopal, with his descendants carrying on the good work he began after his time. This succession of rulers infused Bhopal with Islamic culture, art and architecture, much of which survives even today in the old city, besides the still enduring influence of the spoken and expressed language.
Bhopal also has the unique history of having been ruled by 4 female rulers between the 1819 and 1926, “begums” as they are known. Beginning with Qudisa Begum, she was succeeded by Sikandar, her daughter, followed by Sikandar’s daughter Shahjehan, and in turn her daughter Kaikhusrau Jahan Begum. This period was a golden one for Bhopal, and saw peaceful and rapid development with establishment of its waterworks, a railway and postal system, besides construction of beautiful and timeless monuments. Importantly, in 1903, a municipality was also constituted during the Begum era. This dancing historic graph, with footprints left behind by different rulers, is the reason why Bhopal offers glimpses of every kind of culture. The turbulent times have left behind a legacy of forts built by the Afghans, the Rajputs and the Moghuls. The peaceful times have left behind palaces and temples, and the list goes on.
Location and Climate
Situated nearly 500 metres above sea level, Bhopal is located pretty much in the center of India, hilly but by no means a hill station. The topography of Bhopal in general is uneven, what with the city being perched on the Malwa Plateau north of the Vindhya range of mountains, but also hosting the Idgah, Shyamala and Arera Hills within its boundaries, aside from many smaller hills. Bhopal also houses the Bada Talab and the Chhota Talab, the beautiful big and small lakes that have been the city’s natural showpiece and pride since the ages. The Upper Lake or Bada Talab as it’s locally called has a catchment area as vast as 361 square km, while the Lower Lake, the Chhota Talab has 9.6 square km in which to catch rainwater. Together the lakes are known as the Bhoj Wetland. Summers tend to be very hot here with temperatures soaring to a dry merciless 40°, even 42° C. Notwithstanding this kind of heat in direct sunlight, the climate is typically such that the shadows provide an instant respite. Winters are moderately cold with temperature not going below 8oC. The rainy season is fed moderately by the South-West monsoon between June and September.
How to get there
Two major National Highways, NH 12 amd NH 86 pass through Bhopal, the former connecting Bhopal to Jabalpur in the East and Jaipur in the West, while the latter connects Bhopal to Sagar in the East and to Indore in the West. Daily buses ply with great frequency to Indore, which is 186 km away, Ujjain, 188 km from Bhopal, Gwalior at a distance of 423km from here, Jabalpur (295 km), Pachmarhi (195km), Sanchi (46 km), Khajuraho (383km), and Vidisha (65 km). in terms of the bigger metros, Bhopal is located at a distance of 741 km from Delhi and 789 km from Mumbai, and the highway network is efficient enough to make these cities accessible by road.
Bhopal is on both the main railway lines - the Delhi-Mumbai railway lines as well as the main southern railway lines main accessing major southern cities Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Trivandrum. There are also direct trains accessing Amritsar and Jammu Tawi and the other major towns in Madhya Pradesh. The railway station at Habibganj has the unique distinction of being India’s first ISO 9001 certified station, as does the Bhopal Express headquartered here, the 1st train to have achieved this certification.
The Domestic Airport is situated 15 km away from the centre of the city. Alliance Air flies regularly from Bhopal to Mumbai, Indore, Delhi and Gwalior; while Sahara Airlines flies from Bhopal to Delhi, Guwahati, Goa, Indore and Lucknow.
Places you must visit
Bhopal is home to the most of the spectrum of culture that is characteristic of India, and has preserved most of its inheritances from its various rulers, most significant among them being the Muslims. The splendid and opulent architecture of those times is reflected in Bhopal’s many mosques.
A legacy of Kudsia Begum completed in 1837, this mosque is resplendent with gold spikes that ennoble its minarets.
Sikandar Jahan, Begum Kudsia’s daughter, left behind her this majestic mosque built in 1860, reminiscent of Delhi’s own Jama Masjid,
Shaukat Mahal and Sadar Manzil
Shaukat Mahal is architecturally something of an oddity amongst the Islamic themed monuments in the walled city. It is rather western in its design, given by a Frenchman who was supposedly descended from the Bourbons of France. It combines Gothic influences with a Post Renaissance sensibility, and this combined with Islamic features offers quite a unique picture.
You may also pay a little visit to the Sadar Manzil, once the Hall of Public Audience of the erstwhile rulers of Bhopal, now head office of the municipal corporation.
A benefaction from Shah Jahan Begum,The Taj-ul-Masajid is one of Asia’s largest mosques, built around a courtyard that also houses a capacious tank within its centre. The accent here is clearly on “grand and impressive”, as is evidenced by the double storeyed gateway with its recessed archways, the multifoiled cusped openings and the recessed arches of the Quibla wall in the prayer hall, and black basalt mimber.
Outside its northern wall, you are again overwhelmed by the vast expanse of water in the tank here. The annual three-day Ijtima congregation held here attracts people from all over.
Bhopal also is home to the Dhai Seedi ki Masjid, which, as opposed to the above, is probably one of the tiniest mosques in Asia! Worth a visit to satisfy your curiosity!
Kudsia Begum was also known as Gohar Begum, and this magnificent palace that sprawls on the banks of Bada Talab, was built in 1820, a hallmark of Hindu and Mughal fusion in architectural style. This palace is situated behind Shaukat Mahal.
This renowned centre for the performing and visual arts was designed by the much celebrated architect, Charles Correa. It is so designed that its spaces and reliefs merge seamlessly and effortlessly with the natural landscape of the site, offering a truly harmonious visual treat. It is amply supported by its art museum, an art gallery, a repertory theater, and open air amphitheater on the banks of Bada Talab, auditoria both indoors and outdoors, fine art workshops, performance rehearsal room, and music and poetry libraries. The centre houses a museum of the arts, an art gallery, a workshop for fine arts, a repertory theater, indoor and outdoor auditoria, a rehearsal room and libraries of Indian poetry, classical and folk music. Bharat Bhawan is open to visitors from 2 pm to 8 pm everyday, and shut on Mondays.
Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya
The Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (National Museum of Mankind) is once of a kind, stretching over more than 200 acres of hilly land on the bada talab front on the Shamla Hills. It is probably the only museum in the world to boast rock shelters from prehistoric times adorned with prehistoric paintings. Located in its authentic origins, this museum is obviously dedicated to propagation of local knowledge and time related tradition as opposed to a typical display of objects from different eras. The curators of this museum are the very folk and tribal communities that inhabit the site, representing folk life peculiar to different eco-specific origins.
This unique post-colonial museum also boasts of arguably one of the best audia visual archives and ethnographic specimen collections in the world, with a state-of-the-art library and computerized documentation, in spite of a rather economical size.
Government Archaeological Museum
This Museum showcases Madhya Pradesh Sculpture at its best, with an eclectic, beautiful collection of pieces from all over the state of Madhya Pradesh. Here, you will get to see the statues of Alakshmi and the Buddha, copies of paintings from the Bagh caves near Mandu, and paintings from various schools of art. This museum is open on all days but Mondays.
Laxmi Narayan Temple and Museum
Another sculpture showcase with the entire gamut of influences from every corner of the state is located on the Arera hills, as an added attraction to this extremely graceful and charming temple, also known as the Birla Temple, a shrine to the Hindu Lord Vishnu and his consort, the Goddess Laxmi.
The museum, again, is open all days, save Mondays.
Alongside the Bada Talab, unfolding over 445 hectares of land, you may at leisure enjoy a Safari in this nature park, enjoying glimpses of wildlife of every variety – gentle as well as predatory, all wild and all free. Van Vihar is shut only on Tuesdays. Visiting hours are 7 to 11 in the mornings and 3 to 5:30 in the afternoons.
This is a fascinating area for a photographer or a life documentarian to spend endless hours – the very heart of Bhopal. Bursting with old mosques and residences (Havelis) that hark back to olden times, teeming with shops that are a collector’s heaven, the Chowk is mesmeric in its offerings. You will be overwhelmed by the traditional Bhopali art and craft – intricate beadwork, Silver jewellery, ornate cushions and purses of velvet and the like! Not a place to miss at any cost – it is soul itself.
Regional Science Centre
This science museum is home to the famous Taramandal, or star gallery, the local word for a planetarium. It also displays exhibits under the categories of “Invention” and “Fun Science” in its premises situated on the Shamala Hills, a scenic location by itself.
This one is open 10.30 am to 6.30 pm, everyday but Monday.
Upper and Lower Lakes
Bhopal’s favourite spot is all liquid – its favourite Bada and Chhota Talab. A picturesque overbridge separates the Upper Lake from the Lower Lake. On Bada Talab, you can enjoy a variety of boat rides – motor, sail, and even the age-old paddle!
This aquarium is remarkable for its variety, and an enjoyable visit for those interested.
Places to stay
Jehan Numa Palace Hotel
Hotel – Noor – Us – Sabah
Hotel Lake View Ashok
Hotel Amer Palace
Arch Manor Hotel