The story of Bhopal is steeped in romance. It is stories within a story, set in chapters that make you want to linger and turn the page, all at the same time. It stars a king who fell terribly ill, a deep sparkling lake and a queen of incomparable beauty. It has four women of substance, as many impregnable forts and, like the sum of its eclectic parts, a world famous stupa. It has ruthless ambition, feckless treachery and heartbreaking tragedy. And, like the fun-loving, easy-going Bhopali will tell you, if you stretch your imagination a wee bit (okay, and then some), you will even find a tenuous film star connection!

Legend has it that Parmara Raja Bhoj(1010-53 CE), affected by leprosy, was advised by sages to build a lake and bathe in it. Thus was born a bund —and a city. The Parmaras went on to rule over Malwa till the 13th century. By 1565, the region was part of the Mughal Empire and, with its decline in 17th century, it came to be dominated by local chieftains, the Gonds. There began another story of love and loss. One such Gond king, Nizam Shah, ruler of Ginnur (or Ginnorgarh), was much envied for the enthralling beauty of his wife. Rani Kamlapati was, goes a legend, “more delicate than a rose, more graceful than a doe and more beautiful than a pari (fairy)”. She was every man’s object of desire, including the Raja’s power-hungry kin, Alam Shah. This merciless traitor, says local lore, killed the Raja and drove the queen to drown herself. But the Rani did not die. Instead, she hired an Afghan swords linger, Dost Mohammad Khan, to eliminate her tormentor — and ruled for a decade! After her death, ‘Dost’ murdered the Rani’s son, took over the fiefdom and laid the foundation of what was to grow into Bhopal city.

Dost’s successor, Ghaus Mohammad, was Bhopal’s fifth Nawab. He had a fierce feminist in his first wife, Zeenat Begum. During times of frequent siege by the neighbouring chiefs, she would rally the women of Bhopal to fight for their land and honour. Zeenat’s widowed daughter, Qudsia, became the first of Bhopal’s famed begums, in 1819. From here on, power passed from one begum to another.

And the filmy chakkar? There was, of course, the eponymous and stereotypical Soorma Bhopali essayed by late comedian Jagdeep in the superhit Sholay. And Sajida Sultan, the last titular head of Bhopal royalty, is mother-in-law of none other than actress Sharmila Tagore.

But stories don’t always come with the luxury of happily-ever-afters. Nowadays, Bhopal is remembered most for being the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster. In 1984, thousands of men, women and children died in their sleep as poisonous gas leaked from the notorious Union Carbide plant here— it had followed no safety systems. Bhopal died and is still in the throes of its rebirth. Signs of the appalling callousness of fate and retribution (the hard-won compensation is known more for its inadequacy) line a tired city relearning to survive. And live it does because citizens like Rashida Bi, compensation campaigner and winner of the prestigious Goldman Award, fight like their historical sisters.

Things to See & Do

Bhopal’s charm comes from its two lakes, the Upper and Lower lakes, which offer idyllic views and boating. Bhopal also has interesting mosques and museums.

The lake in Bhopal
The lake in Bhopal

Lake Views
The River Kolas meanders in from Sehore and merges with the Betwa near Vidisha. The bigger lake is separated from the smaller one by an over bridge. A boat club, walkway and aquarium, serenaded by a cool breeze, makes the Upper Lake area delightful for a rendezvous. Petrol boats (60 for 30mins), motorboats (60 for 10 mins), paddle boats (30 for 30 mins) and water sports are on offer. The Upper Lake also has a dargah in the middle, a memorial to Shah Ali Shah, a maulvi.

When Dost’s daughter-in-law fell ill, the holy man prayed that his life be taken and the queen’s spared. Seven days into his prayers, Shah Ali Shah passed away. 

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Taj-ul-Masjid, Bhopal
Taj-ul-Masjid, Bhopal

Mosque to Mosque

The largest stone mosque in Asia, the Taj-ul-Masjid (literally ‘crown of all mosques’) was Shah Jahan Begum’s dream project. The canopy spans a magnificent 248 x 94 square metres. Started in 1877, work on the pink masjid was stalled due to paucity of funds. Construction resumed only in 1971. The huge main hall, inter-arched roof, cool marble flooring and spacious courtyard is thronged daily by the devout. Another contribution, this time a gift of Qudsia Begum, is the imposing Jama Masjid (1837). It is situated in the heart of the old city, a beautiful work of art crowned by gold spikes atop minarets. Just north of the Lower Lake is the Moti Masjid, built in 1860 by Sikandar Jahan (also known as Moti Begum) — a doppelgänger to Delhi’s famed Jama Masjid. Yet another, lesser-known mosque, hidden within the confines of the local medical college, Masjid Dhaiseedi is believed to be one of Bhopal’s oldest (built in 1716). Credited to Dost Mohammad Khan, it is widely believed to be the smallest mosque in the world. Exactly two-and-a-half steps lead up to it, hence the name.
Tip: Visitors are not encouraged to visit mosques after twilight

Palace Walk
Shaukat Mahal and Sadar Manzil stand tall at the entrance to the walled city and the bustling Chowk area that also falls to the north of the Lower Lake. A French mercenary, apparently a descendant of the Bourbons, designed Shaukat Mahal, a 19th-century Indo-Saracenic-Rococo palace. The once grand but now derelict Sadar Manzil houses government offices. The sprawling Gohar Mahal sits just behind the Shaukat Mahal, on the banks of the Upper Lake. Built in 1820,the building is a study in Hindu-Muslim architectural styles.

Gireesh G.v.
Shaukat Mahal, the 19th century palace in the walled city
Shaukat Mahal, the 19th century palace in the walled city

 In Man’s Footsteps
Since its inception in 1982, Bhopal has been Bharat Bhavan to the cognoscenti. This Centre for Performing and Visual Arts, to the west of the Lower Lake, houses a museum of arts, a repertory theatre, an art gallery, a workshop for fine arts, indoor and outdoor auditoria, and libraries of Indian poetry, classical and folk music. It was designed by Charles Correa.
Entry fee: 20; Timings Feb-Oct 2-8pm, Nov-Jan 1-7 pm, Mondays closed.

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Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal
Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal

To the south of the region between the two lakes, on the Shamla Hills, sprawls the Museum of Mankind that showcases the tribal art and culture of India. It’s spread over a large area and is worth a visit.
Entry fee: 20; Timings 10 am-6 pm, Mondays closed

Opposite the Ravindra Bhavan, the Archaeological Museum has 12th century Jain bronzes, photos of the Bhopal Begums and copies of Bagh Cave paintings.
Entry fee: 20; Timings: 10 am-5 pm, Mondays closed.

Situated on the Arera Hills, southeast of the Lower Lake, is the Laxminarayan Temple built by the Birlas. It has fine sculptures.
Entry: Free; Timings: 8 am-noon, 2-6 pm

The cacophonic Chowk, north of the Lower Lake, is literally the heart of old Bhopal. It’s lined with mosques and ramshackle havelis. You’ll find shops stocking silver jewellery, beadwork, embroidery and sequin work. Stop to admire the fretwork on a balcony —bearded, warmly smiling owners will emerge from within to offer you tea.

Shopping
Once famous for the finest muslin, Bhopal is best known today for its exquisitely woven Chanderi and Maheshwari fabrics. Mrignayani, the MP State Emporium, stocks a wide variety, and so do local sari shops. Keep in mind that anything that costs less than 1,500 is not likely to be a pure weave. Another speciality is the zardozi, intricate embroidery work on lehengas and saris. Bhopal is also famous for beaded batuas (purses) — look for them in the bustling galis of the Chowk, Bhopal’s most famous shopping area. The marketplace has the atmosphere of a medieval souk. Crafted by skilled Muslim artisans of the walled city, these bags come in a variety of colours for prices as low as 200. Look for the fish and peacock motifs on the pouches, it’s the most popular and often the most beautiful. A stroll down the Chowk can yield a cache of embroidery and beadwork, velvet and leather items, including beaded mojris. The Chowk area is closed on Sundays.

Where to Stay
Bhopal city offers a slew of modest to swanky hotels. The Jehan Numa Palace (Tel: 0755-2661100; Tariff: 4,700-17,000) is a plush century-old heritage structure that offers a cyber café, a health snack bar and horse riding. The luxurious Noor-us-Sabah Palace (Tel:4223333; Tariff: 5,400-22,000) belonged to Begum Abida Sultan and is now a WelcomHeritage hotel. Hotel Lake View Ashok (Tel: 2660090; Tariff: 4,500-7,000) is a 3-star option located near the Chief Minister’s residence. Its restaurant serves both Continental and Chinese cuisine. Hotel Shagun (Tel: 2544250; Tariff: 850-1,700) at Bhawani Chowk has a restaurant and 28 rooms while Ranjeet’s Lake View Hotel (Tel:2660600; Tariff: 3,000-3,500) at Shamla Hills has a restaurant and bar. There’s also the MP Tourism-run Hotel Palash Residency (Tel: 2553066;Tariff: 2,690-4,990), at TT Nagar.

Where to Eat
Bhopal is famous for items as varied as gutka and salted tea. The risalas (a chicken preparation with rich gravy) and biryanis in the small eateries near the Chowk are delectable and immensely popular. Lore has it that everyone in Bhopal eats jalebis and piping hot poha in the mornings for breakfast. Considering the dishes are delicious, there is no reason why you shouldn’t either. The cuisine is mainly Mughlai, though you’ll find some dishes unique to Bhopal too. Bhopal residents swear by the authentic dishes made by the Bohra Muslim women (popularly known as Bohranis), who live in the Old Bhopal sections of the city and do catering. The best way to reach them is by asking around in the Chowk. Also try the faloodas in the many old small joints dotting the old Bhopal area. The non-veg dishes, kebabs and biryanis of Jameel at Ibrahimpura come highly recommended. Other options include batter-fried fish at the Filfora in the Koh-e-Fiza area of the city. Turrant, the in-house café at Hotel Ranjit Lake view, is also well-known. The Noor-us-Sabah Palace has a charming open-air restaurant overlooking the Upper Lake — they serve the best kadai ghosht (mutton curry)in the country!