Let’s face it, Bhopal does NOT appear high up on travel bucket lists or itineraries. Why, even when considering to visit it, you may well be asked “What for???” I was, and that too repeatedly.
At the most, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh is seen as a stepping stone for Buddhist Sanchi. On its own, it is a bit of an enigma, its secrets veiled from casual inquiry. Which is a good thing, for it means you will have the “City of Lakes” to yourself, with very few tourists, and be in the company of locals instead.
According to legend, Bhopal was founded by Parmara Raja Bhoj, King of Malwa, in the 11th Century AD. Bhopal as one knows it today was founded by Dost Mohammad Khan, governor of Malwa during Mughal rule and Bhopal’s first Nawab (1707 – 1728).
So, why Bhopal, you may well ask. For starters, nowhere else are there not one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, albeit 8,000 years apart, at a distance of just 50 kilometres away: The Great Stupa built by Ashoka the Great at Sanchi and India’s largest collection of prehistoric rock art at Bhimbetka. Whilst one is the acme of Buddhist spirituality and art, the other is a record of prehistoric life in uncanny detail.
Furthermore, unlike any other city in India, Bhopal was ruled by four generations of women in the 19th Century: the Nawab Begums. Under these royal ladies, Bhopal thrived at every level, from infrastructure to economics. Bhopal’s waterworks, railways, postal system and municipality established in 1907, all form part of their legacy. Exotic palaces and extravagant mosques still recount stories of their glory.
Finally, Bhopal’s commitment to hosting and curating world-class museums is another side to it which further differentiates it. Whether it be to celebrate the inimitability of its indigenous tribes who form 21.1 percent of Madhya Pradesh’s population or to preserve cultural treasures comprising paintings, bronzes, and sculptures from various parts of the state—heritage in its whole, without prejudice or partiality, is honoured.
On the other hand, Bhopal has also been the site of great suffering as a result of corporate corruption. Who can forget Union Carbide Corporation’s gas leak on that December night of 1984 which killed 25,000 people and made over half-a-million men and women across multiple generations disabled. Many a tear and dumbed down complaint still echo in the old quarter.
What started off as a stopover for Sanchi, in a nutshell, became so much more when I visited it in March this year. As a traveller, Bhopal gave me incomparable experiences. Enough to make me want to share them with you. So here are my 11 experiences which I had only because I was in Bhopal, because of Bhopal being what it is. Have you enjoyed some of these too?
Note: The title image in this post is a miniature painting of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, ruler of Bhopal (1868 – 1901) in her palace [suitably] called “Taj Mahal,” State Museum Bhopal.
1. Meditate on the zenith of Buddhist art, architecture, and spirituality in Sanchi
Bhopal’s chief claim to fame, and rightly so, is its role as a springboard to the wonders of the ancient, exquisitely beautiful Buddhist centre set up by Ashoka the Great, the legendary Mauryan king.
Serving as a monastic centre for 1,300 years [3rd Century BC to 12th Century AD], three features set the UNESCO designated heritage site apart. One, Sanchi is a perfect synthesis of Buddhist spirituality, art, and architecture. Two, its well-preserved condition. And thirdly, the ensemble serves as a unique record of the birth, zenith, and eventual collapse of Buddhist aesthetics.
PS. Make sure you perform the parikrama in the early hours of dawn around the Great Stupa. Sunset will do too. 🙂
You may also like to read Photo Essay: Buddhist Sanchi, stories told and untold.
Travel tips: 1) The site is 48 kilometres or an hour and a half’s drive from Bhopal. 2) It is a small site and easily covered by foot. 3) Stay the night if possible at Gateway Retreat. This way you can explore Sanchi at sunrise when it is at its most lovely and deserted.
2. Marvel at Classical Gupta sculpture and its stories from Indian mythology in the 1,600-year-old Udaygiri Cave Temples
To go to Sanchi and not club it with a visit to the Udaygiri Cave Temples would be sacrilege. Udaygiri has some of the earliest Hindu cave temples in the country. These were made during India’s Golden Age under the rule of the Guptas. Historically and culturally the era was significant for it brought about a revival of Hinduism [moving away from Buddhism] and a shift from Vedic to idol worship. Many of the caves were completed under the patronage of Chandragupta II aka Chandragupta Vikramaditya, one of India’s most powerful rulers (376 – 413 AD).
Don’t miss the Varaha Cave with Vishnu in his boar incarnation rescuing the earth goddess from demons, the Ekmukhalinga with its feminine beauty and third eye, the oldest date-able representation of Ganesha, and the Sheshashayi Vishnu, one of the earliest and largest images of a reclining Vishnu on the coils of a primeval snake.
Travel tips: 1) The site is 9 kilometres from Sanchi. 2) The caves are fenced behind iron grills. You will need to ask Kishen, the ASI guide at the site, to unlock them for you.
3. Feel both awed and humbled by the prehistoric rock art in Bhimbetka
India’s largest collection of prehistoric rock art is just 47 kilometres south-east of Bhopal. A repository of hunting and battle scenes, daily life, dancers and musicians, and animals of all kinds, the over 500 rock shelters, of which only 15 are accessible to the general public, were painted between 12,000 and 700 BC.
Dr. V.S. Wakankar “discovered” the rock shelters in 1957. A UNESCO World Heritage Site today, the site is all the more spectacular for it depicts the evolving dynamics of the relationship between human beings and nature. To top it, these dynamics continue to be practiced in the lives of the local Adivasi tribes who reside on the fringes of the site.
You may also like to read: Bhimbetka—The prehistoric rock art wonders of India.
Travel tips: 1) Bhimbetka is an hour and a half’s drive from Bhopal. 2) There is no public transport to the site. You will need a car to reach it. 3) Do use a guide, and if one is not available, one of the security guards, as it is not easy to spot some of the paintings.
4. Say a prayer at the world’s largest Shiva lingam in 1000-year-old Bhojpur
Just outside Bhopal, in a little village called Bhojpur is a monumental Shiva temple housing the world’s largest Shiva lingam. The lingam is carved out of a single rock 2.3-metres-high and 5.4 metres in circumference. Together with its pedestal, it reaches 12 metres high—the gigantic proportions giving away the important role the little village once played in the region’s history.
Built by Raja Bhoj, founder of Bhopal, in the 11th Century, the incomplete temple has been attracting pilgrims from far and wide for the past thousand years. A parikrama around the lingam is believed to answer prayers, that is if you can brave the bees and monkeys which swarm around the temple!
Travel tip: The Bhojpur or Bhojeshwar Temple is on the way to Bhimbetka.
5. Visit India’s largest and tiniest mosque, and some in-between, in the old quarter of Bhopal
Many things make Bhopal unique, but none more so than its rule by four generations of Nawab Begums [queens] from 1819 to 1926, at a time when feminism was not even touted. And like their male counterparts in other parts of the country, they too filled their city with magnificent mosques.
These architectural jewels snuggle together in the old city with the ethereal pink Taj-ul-Masjid as its crowning glory. The mosque was built in 1877 by Shah Jahan Begum who wanted to create the largest mosque in the world. However, a shortage of funds delayed its completion to the 1980s. Just across the road is Bhopal’s oldest and tiniest mosque on top of an old fortification tower belonging to Dost Mohammad Khan, aptly called Dhai Seedi Ki Masjid [mosque of two and a half steps]. The group is completed with Jama Masjid, bang in the heart of the bazaar, built in the 1830s by Qudsia Begum, and Moti Masjid by Sikander Jahan Begum in 1862.
Travel tips: 1) All the mosques are walking distance from each other. 2) Avoid visiting the mosques during namaaz times.
6. Remember Bhopal’s gas tragedy of 1984 at the Remember Bhopal Museum
Be prepared to feel tears singe your eyes and your throat constrict over a hard-to-swallow lump at the Remember Bhopal Museum. The collection of images and audio recordings, curated by a community of survivors and activists, narrates the corporate world’s deadliest crime and its survivors’ ongoing fight for justice.
In 1984, in the dark of the night between the 2nd and 3rd of December, over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases leaked from a pesticide factory owned and operated by Union Carbide Corporation, USA. But that was not all. Union Carbide exited Bhopal without cleaning its factory site, leaving behind massive amounts of highly toxic materials which contaminated Bhopal’s drinking water. The victims’ average compensation was just US$500. Company officials, including Warren Anderson, chairman and CEO of Union Carbide, were all acquitted after paying nominal fines.
Over 8,000 people died in the first three days following the leak; 25,000 people have died to date. 500,000 people continue to suffer depilating lifelong diseases. The rate of birth disabilities in Old Bhopal is 10 times higher than in the rest of India. Maybe you would like to help the cause too. They take both in cash and in kind.
Travel tips: 1) The museum is located in the Housing Board Colony, off Berasia Road, 3 kilometres north of Hamidia Road in the old city. 2) Museum timings and fees: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, Closed on Mondays.
7. Step into the magical universe of Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasis in the ground-breaking Tribal Museum
If there is only one museum, or for that matter only one place you are able to visit whilst in Bhopal, let it be this one, for it is unlike any other museum or travel experience in the country.
A government initiative to create awareness of Madya Pradesh’s tribal communities which number 15.3 million in the state alone, the Tribal Museum comprises of five state-of-the-art indoor galleries on their art, culture, traditions, tribal artefacts, and way of life. But with a difference. Art is the underlying language. Folklore and traditions are here translated into colossal installations created by the Adivasis themselves using local materials. Their homes brimming with wall art are yours to explore in person under a simulated midnight blue sky. The belief that divinity exists in nature—in jungles, hills, rivers and ponds—and not in a concrete temple is revealed through fluttering flags on trees, terracotta horses piled on mounds, and tridents pierced into the earth.
You may also like to read India travel shot: Pithora painting, the art of ritual in tribal Madhya Pradesh.
Travel tips: 1) The museum is part of the museum complex which includes the State Museum and Museum of Mankind, in Shyamla Hills. 2) Museum timings and fees: 12:00 pm – 7:00 pm (Nov – Jan)/ 8:00 pm (Feb – Oct), Closed on Mondays; Rs. 10 [Indian], Rs. 250 [Foreigners]; Photography charges [without flash] for still camera: Rs. 50.
8. Learn about the homes of indigenous tribes across India in the open-air Museum of Mankind
Half a kilometre up the road from the Tribal Museum is another government initiative dedicated to the tribal communities or Adivasis of India. Named Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya [National Museum of Mankind], it throws light on these people’s lives through a pan-India lens and one not confined to the interiors of a museum.
Life-size displays are herein placed in the open, scattered on the slopes of Shyamla Hills. So, if you ever wondered what the homes of Adivasis [who make up 8.6 percent of India’s population] were like in Maharashtra and West Bengal, or Meghalaya and Kerala, this is the place to find out. The museum’s indoor sections house their artefacts.
Travel tips: Museum timings and fees: 10:00 am – 5:30 pm (Sept – Feb)/ 11:00 am – 6:30 pm (Mar – Aug), Closed on Mondays; Ticket: Rs. 50; Photography charges for still camera: Rs. 100.
9. Discover Madhya Pradesh’s art treasures in Bhopal’s State Museum
Indian state museums, without fail, burst at their seams with treasures. Bhopal’s State Museum is no different. It can be overwhelming to decide what to have a dekko at and what to give a miss.
May I suggest the following collections? The 1920s water colour copies of the 5th Century Bagh Cave paintings in Madhya Pradesh, painted to ensure the latter’s posterity. The hoard of 87, 11th Century Jain bronzes unearthed by a farmer while ploughing his field in 1992. A miniature painting of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, ruler of Bhopal (1868 – 1901) at Taj Mahal [her palace in Bhopal]. And lastly, the sculpture gallery with its fantastic collection of stone effigies. Don’t miss the 2nd Century Yakshi from Bharhut and the exquisite 12th Century Tirthankara from Shivpuri.
And once you are done, why not wash it down with a cup of coffee and hot pakoras at its canteen. They are just as delectable as the objets d’art.
You may also like to read Preserving a disappearing heritage: The Bagh Cave paintings at Bhopal State Museum.
Travel tips: 1) The museum is right next to the Tribal Museum. 2) Museum timings and fees: 10:30 am – 5:30 pm, Closed on Mondays; Rs. 10 [Indian], Rs. 100 [Foreigners]; Photography charges [without flash] for still camera: Rs. 50, Video camera: Rs. 200.
10. Explore the palace ruins of Bhopal’s four generations of Begums
Unlike the mosques built by Bhopal’s Nawab Begums, their palaces are a shadow of their original selves. Yet they charm in a ghostly, forgotten-in-time-and-space way. Take for instance, Taj Mahal, a colossal Indo-Saracenic structure with a seven-storied façade, 120 rooms, a hall of mirrors and savon bhadon pavilion built at a cost of Rs. 3 million in 1884 by Shah Jahan Begum, and one of the largest palaces in the world at that time. It has been now bought over by a hotelier.
Gohur Mahal, named after Qudsia Begum in 1820 was the city’s administrative and political seat. Today it houses trade fairs. Shaukat Mahal, built during the reign of Sikander Begum, was famous for its distinctive design—an effervescent concoction of Post-Renaissance and Medieval Gothic styles of architecture, designed by a French architect. This one took me an hour to recognize for it has been broken down into multiple units occupied by a corresponding number of homes and businesses.
Lastly Kamlapati Palace, an engineering feat half-submerged under the adjacent lake. It was not built by the Begums but is older, dating back to 1680, and was home to a Gond queen called Kamlapati who gave the land on which Bhopal was built to Dost Mohammad Khan in return for a pack of mercenary soldiers.
Do explore the Begums’ palaces now, for who knows how much longer they’ll last.
11. Stroll along the shores of the millennium-old Bada Talaab in the City of Lakes
And finally, which other city in India can take credit for being a city of lakes. Or give you the joys that come from walking their shores, the sun bouncing off silk-like waters. Bhopal does not have one, but over a dozen of such lakes.
Its biggest expanse of fresh water is the Bhojtal aka Upper Lake aka Bada Talaab, the oldest man-made lake in India. According to legend, the King of Malwa, Parmara Raja Bhoj and founder of Bhopal (1005 – 1055 AD), suffered from an acute skin disease. A sage told him to build a talaab [water tank] combining the waters of 365 tributaries and to bathe in its waters as a cure. And thus, Bada Talaab came into existence. Next to Bada Talaab, separated by a ramp is Lower Lake or Chota Talaab. The two lakes are not just a source of water for the city but a site for local prayers and rituals as well.
PS. Make sure you pay a visit to Raja Bhoj’s gleaming effigy on Bada Talaab. He makes for some interesting photography.
And with this, I also come to the end of this post. I hope I have been able to convince you, after 2,761 words and 22 images, Bhopal needs to be on your travel bucket list and itinerary too. ❤
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- Getting to Bhopal: I flew in.
- Getting around: Auto rickshaws and car hire services are readily available. For Sanchi, I took a local bus.
- Staying there: Now this was a wonderful find in itself! I stayed at Hotel Atishay in MP Nagar, booked through makemytrip. It is a new glitzy business hotel with great rooms, a vegetarian menu, and super helpful staff.