It was very early in the morning. The sun’s warm rays played hide-and-seek through the leaves of the passing trees, falling on the road in patches. The road wound along the edge of a massive lake which my sleep-deprived mind almost mistook for a river. Of course, it couldn’t have been a river because that was the Bada Talab (Upper Lake), I told myself recollecting a colleague’s words from the previous evening. I was in her hometown, a place I’d never really thought much about visiting to be honest, but somehow, now that I was there, the early chill in the air and the golden sunlight juxtaposed against the black road and the blue water—a smile spread across my exhausted face. I’m not sure why but I took that moment as a sign, a sign of things about to go well.
If we think of Bhopal, the gas tragedy of 1984 supersedes any other historical reference. Our history books tell us how an accidental industrial leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant played havoc with so many innocent lives, how its effects are still prevalent today. A horrific tragedy, but that shouldn’t deter one from making a visit to this beautiful city today. Bhopal is a pleasant surprise, a breath of fresh air away from the bustle of an urban metropolis.
As the car sped towards my destination, I passed a large statue by the lake. It looked like a king, complete with a sword in his hand. “Raja Bhoj ke hain,” informed the driver who caught me looking through the rearview mirror. History tells us it was this king who initially founded Bhopal or Bhojpal as it was known as in the 11th century. It’s said the Malwa king built the lake to secure the eastern front of his kingdom. The modern city has grown from around the waterbody and today has a population of about 19 lakh, as per the latest census. If one were to credit the founding of the modern city, it would go to an Afghan soldier in the Mughal army about 300 years ago. Following Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in the early 18th century, in the confusion that followed, Dost Mohammad Khan grew in stature and power, becoming a prominent mercenary who helped local chieftains against pillagers in the Malwa region. The story goes—he was asked to defend the honour of Bhopal’s Rani Kamlapati against a rival Gond warlord, Alam Shah, who had disposed of her husband, in exchange for a lakh of rupees. The rival was defeated but the queen, instead of the full fee in cash, offered the mercenary Bhopal. That was the turning point which led to the consolidation of the city. In 1818 it became a princely state and after Indian independence, it remained independent. It was only in 1949 that Bhopal became a part of the union of India. Unlike other princely states during the 19th century, it was ruled by four powerful begums from 1819 to 1926, breaking the tradition of male nizams. Modern India’s most prolific cricket captain—Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi—hailed from the ruling family, while his wife Sharmila Tagore added the glamour of the film industry. When son Saif married co-actor Kareena Kapoor some years ago, I still remember newspaper headlines describing the royal wedding in every detail.
The green foliage continued along the road till I reached my destination in Madhya Pradesh’s capital city. Purple kaashphool blew in the breeze as soothing shades of brown and beige of the five-year-old property came into view. I was at Jehan Numa Retreat at the edge of the town. The 12-acre luxury property has its own bakery, a fresh herbs and vegetable garden, fruit orchard and everything one needs for a relaxing weekend. Earlier, my experience of Bhopali cuisine had been limited to breakfast foods—pohe, jalebi and chai. I was aware of meats because of the Mughal influence, but I didn’t have an idea what really constituted Bhopali cuisine. Thanks to chef Siddhartha, it was a fabulous introduction. It was a journey of understanding the subtleties of ingredients and flavours. In every dish I tasted, there was always one dominant spice. And the belief in slow cooking that really lends flavour to everything. Be it the murg Bhopali rizzala or the filfora (a local speciality of ground meat with chili and mint), I was in meat heaven. No wonder I needed an evening swim under the stars and twinkling fairy lights to get some exercise in.
Bhopal is a city at the cusp of tradition and modernity. The nawabi culture is still prevalent amid the burgeoning influence of postmodern structures like malls and fast-food chains. The city of lakes (it has 17 of them) is blessed with natural beauty and architectural marvels, and also has a steadfast electrical industry, probably one of the largest in the world.
In Indian cities, looking for and finding peace is almost never a reality. In Bhopal it is. As I went about exploring, I found myself opening up to the city. Rush hour could be described as a small wait at a crossing, the pace of life seemed adequate, and the greenery astounding, while the city itself, divided into old and new parts, had something for every kind of traveller or local. Even city walls were a sight for sore eyes. Pops of colours, messages of cleanliness and ill effects of pollution, the concept of family to tribal art—they truly define the essence of the city.
If you only have time to visit one attraction in Bhopal, you must go to the Tribal Museum. Madhya Pradesh has always had a large tribal population and this museum tries to capture the soul of the land and people. I was gobsmacked. The museum opened in 2013 and has been wowing visitors since. Celebrating the seven major tribes of the region—their crafts, culture, beliefs and ways of life—the displays aren’t confined to specific areas but find a place throughout the galleries, each a riot of colours. Exhibits are as high as a multi-storeyed building, some leaping out of walls, while some remain muted on the ground. The whole experience is a treat to the senses, especially when juxtaposed with the neighbouring staid State Museum. But there is the one penny on display there, a philatelist’s dream. There’s also Taj-ul-Masjid for history buffs. The ‘crown of mosques’ is a gem on the Bhopali landscape, and the largest in the country.
Bhopalis take good care of their health. VIP Road along the Bada Talab is a walker’s paradise in the mornings. At night it transforms to a somewhat quieter version of Mumbai’s Marine Drive with bikers and groups of people, crowded with joggers and walkers. Some even make their way to Van Vihar, Bhopal’s answer to a national park. More of an open-air zoo, one can spot tigers, bears, hyenas, lions and plenty of migratory birds there. Located adjacent to the Bada Talab, the view of the city from Van Vihar is quite a sight. The health conscious even go up Kolar Road near the Kerwa Dam Lake. It’s a lush green belt but wild tigers are all too easy to spot in the vicinity. In fact, there are warning signs all through, but I, thankfully, didn’t come across any.
My second night was spent at Jehan Numa Palace. Built by General Obaidullah Khan, the then begum’s son, in the 19th century, the initial 16 rooms have now given way to a 100. The low-rising building, influenced by colonial architecture, is pristine and white. The heritage property retains its past but has modern influences (like the lounge bar Tattenham Corner, the city’s most popular) at the same time. While the rooms are spacious with a subtle touch of heritage, like old wooden furniture, renovations have been made to give visitors a livelier feel. Spurts of colours in the form of fresh flowers are breathers. For example, La Kutchina is their Italian restaurant, complete with an open kitchen and warm tones (great pasta, by the way), but all around the property are fascinating old photographs of the family, the city and the country—a balance of the old and the new. Also, I fell for the horses in the stables behind the building. There is a training track that wraps the hotel and in the morning, while you sit on the verandah overlooking the path and swimming pool, the horses trot past, making it a unique experience in a luxury property. The all-day dining at Shah Nama has an excellent spread and the coffee shop attracts various age groups for a delicious brew, but my favourite was dining at Under the Mango Tree. One literally eats under one at this fine-dine restaurant. While the galouti kebab melted in my mouth, the tender and spicy mustard fish was ever so succulent. Sitting on the terrace under the embrace of the leaves, subtle breeze and night sky, with the warm yellow lights showing off the splendour of the property is highly recommended.
Bhopalis have the option of going to Sanchi or Bhimbetka for a day trip to break the monotony of city life. While the 3rd century BCE Buddhist stupa, commissioned by Ashoka, is teeming with history, Bhimbetka’s rock shelters and cave paintings that date to the Mesolithic period are a must-visit. Looking at the animals and hand prints on the walls makes one wonder about civilisation, how it evolved to this day and age of smartphones and wireless technology. Wasn’t the simple life much easier back then?
On my way back to the city, it began pouring but I had to make one stop. It had been recommended by almost everyone I met and I couldn’t leave Bhopal without trying the hot samosa and jalebi, washed down with a cup of chai at Raju Tea Stall near Peer Gate. As it poured and I shivered, the tea kept me warm. Looking at the friendly faces around, I felt at home. I longed to explore more.
Jet Airways and Air India have direct flights to Bhopal from Delhi. For stay, choose Jehan Numa Palace Hotel and Jehan Numa Retreat. (Contact the properties for prices; jehannuma.com).