The religious edifices - of the four begums who ruled Bhopal for over a hundred years - have survived rather better than the palaces and public buildings
One of my enduring images of Bhopal was formed during a visit to the city a couple of years ago when, after picking my way through the dusty chaos of Sultania Road, I stumbled upon a political demonstration in Shahjehan Park. As happens often in this city so deeply wounded by the catastrophic chemical disaster of two decades ago, effigies of Warren Anderson were being burned and furious graffiti scrawled on the walls that edged a patchy green. But what sticks in my memory is the sea of women that filled that very public space, some incandescent in red, gold, green and ochre, others silhouetted by the soft, sometimes shiny, black folds of a burqa. And all with fists clenched and arms aloft and voices raised. What had inspired these women to be so defiant in the face of their brutal injustice?
The clue comes in the name of the park. And the road on which it stands. And the dozens of other designations that litter the streets and institutions of the city. The names of four Muslim women who ruled Bhopal as a princely state for over a hundred years from the early 19th century into the 20th: Qudsia, Sikandar, Shahjehan and Sultan Jahan. Facilitated by a lack of male heirs on one hand and a seeming propensity for administration on the other, they moulded Bhopal into an oasis of female agency and power within India’s patriarchal order. Schools for girls were established, mina bazaars built, women trained as hakimas, texts written to guarantee women’s rights, circles of female poetesses and prose writers patronised, and staunch activists gathered from across the subcontinent to participate in some of the earliest women’s organizations in India.
It is this past that brings me back to Bhopal again and again. I return to have the unflinchingly academic history that I write about enlivened by walking the streets of the city accompanied by apparitions that, in my mind’s eye at least, seem to rise out of the yellowed, crumbling pages of my sources in the local archive.
This time, however, I come with my parents who are visiting from Canada, eager to observe this place of which they have heard me speak so often over many years. In their honour, we stay not in the compact warrens of the old city — my regular haunt — or the glossy new hotels of T.T. Nagar, but at Noor-Us-Sabah, the former palace of the state’s last heir-apparent, Princess Abida Sultaan, who migrated to Pakistan shortly after Partition. Recently reclaimed for WelcomHeritage, it is gentility personified: whitewashed walls rising out of the Koh-e-Fiza over Bhopal’s Upper Lake, smart waiters adorned with the fish and shield of the state’s sky blue crest, long lines of perfect arches melting into the temple-topped hills beyond.
Inspired by the poetry of the palace’s name, I rise at dawn on our first morning to wander alone out of the gates and along a rough drive to the single-minareted masjid less than a kilometre way. I’m pleased to see a signboard outside with a brief history — explaining that this simple mosque was built by the last nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan, to accompany his mother’s grave — alongside a number denoting the site’s inclusion in the city’s recently conceived Heritage Walk. Finally, it seems, Bhopal’s rich history is being recognized, largely due to the efforts, I find out later, of a new commissioner of archaeology, archives and museums, Pankaj Rag.
There at the mosque, before I tackle anything else, I pay my respects to the last begum of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan. Her simple grave, adorned only with a small plaque in English and Urdu and a few flowers, sits beside that of her son, the building’s patron, and, with no one there but me — an experience still possible at many of Bhopal’s heritage sites — I revel in the cool morning air lifting off the lake and the smooth marble beneath my bare feet.
An hour or two later, we set out again on foot, along the recently completed VIP road towards the city. Constructed with Japanese money as part of the Bhoj Wetlands Project, this relatively empty thoroughfare offers a quick route for political dignitaries, businessmen and tourists alike from the airport to Bhopal’s attractions, as well as the opportunity for a languid promenade along the shore of Upper Lake. As we pass submerged temples, sinking rowboats and a rising Sufi shrine, we are greeted vociferously by honeymooning couples, shrouded women astride scooters and two curious boys on a bicycle who nearly topple off in their enthusiasm to wave at us.
Our first view up towards the old city reminds me that, whatever the efforts of the new commissioner, what one finds primarily in Bhopal is heritage falling down. The first begum’s palace, Gohar Mahal, still stands defiantly by the lake in a proud fusion of Mughal and pre-Islamic styles, but it is festooned with posters, in need of a paint job, and, most seriously, crumbling. Behind it, Shaukat Mahal, mixing Islamic design with Occidental idioms, is perhaps in an even worse state of disrepair, having been appropriated by the Indian government at Independence and now sporting broken beams through disintegrating plaster. Only Sultan Jahan’s hall of public audience, Sadar Manzil, seems to have attracted some restorative attention. As we drift through its scalloped arches and elegant garden, I can almost look beyond the uncivil scrum in the government offices to imagine the crowds of women — poor, privileged and princely — that used to congregate here, their ruler’s purdah guaranteeing unfettered access not available even to male relatives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the begums’ religious edifices have survived rather better than their palaces and public buildings. Looking across the Maidan — a once sedate space that is now adorned with a tatty modern sculpture of what appears to be an oversized bird’s nest — we are faced with Sikandar’s Moti Masjid. It is an uncompromising structure in deep red stone that is fortified by two somewhat squat minarets topped by golden cupolas. Though wreathed in power lines, in its solidity, it seems to evoke its female patron — an Amazon-like figure who, in her youth, was reported to have gone into battle against her own husband on horseback. Later, she was also responsible for establishing Bhopal’s pragmatic reputation for loyalty by refusing to rebel during the 1857 uprising.
Moti Masjid is also our entry point into the meandering lanes of the Chowk, and, for a time, we follow them somewhat aimlessly past once prestigious state schools, graceful, if faded havelis, and crammed Urdu bookshops. It is the bustling bazaar surrounding the Jama Masjid, however, that especially charms my mother, filled as it is with boisterous crowds of colourful and black-swathed women — as in the park on that day of protest — and we linger to choose glass bangles in a jealous green and exultant turquoise. Here, we also find further evidence of Bhopal’s unique past in that many of the narrow shops are hung with beaded handbags and other handicrafts. Some of these skills were introduced by the last begum after visits to Europe and other parts of India to give the women of her realm the means to earn a livelihood — and, hence, the promise of economic independence.
Emerging back into the choking traffic, we head vaguely north until we hit the clogged Hamidia Road, then turn left to pass a rambling garden containing the grand, but neglected tombs of early begums and their nawabi consorts. Many restful hours could be spent here, exploring overgrown corners and deciphering inscriptions, yet, on this occasion, we push on further until we come to the spiky marble mausoleum of Shahjehan’s second husband, Siddiq Hasan. A leading figure in the reformist Ahl-i-Hadith movement of the late 19th century, he continues to be venerated — as the rather well-kept state of his grave suggests — with the sober style of Islam that he advocated even gaining increasing influence in Bhopal in recent years over the begums’ decidedly more tolerant approach.
Dodging Bhopal’s omnipresent three-wheeled tongas, we continue along the city’s northern artery until we pass through a battered, if still impressive, ceremonial gate into Shahjehan’s Taj Mahal and Benazir palace complex. In an even worse condition than those buildings in the centre, admission demands that one scramble over piles of rubble where the front entrance has collapsed entirely. I can only guess at what it might have looked like when Lord Landsdowne, visiting the state in 1891, described it in a letter to his mother in England as “bright and pretty”. Another of the commissioner’s numbered signboards gives hope that, in time, some concrete attempt may be made to find out through sympathetic restoration.
By this point, my parents are being carried only by my own enthusiasm. Still, they cannot help but be awed as we curve through another majestic gate to see the Taj-ul-Masjid, crown of mosques, seeming to float on a glistening lake before us. Hailed as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, it was commenced by the third begum, Shahjehan, in the late 19th century, but completed only in the 1970s with the help of private donations after her successors redirected state funds into public services and municipal infrastructure. Its four citadel-like walls, three bulbous white domes, two soaring minarets and one vertigo-inducing front staircase make it perhaps India’s largest mosque and, as the sun sets behind it, I am reminded, not for the first time on this day, of the breadth of the begums’ vision. It is the strident echoes of Bhopal’s remarkable dynasty of Muslim queens that continue to claim me. For them, the city should be remembered not just as the city of lakes or the city of mosques, but as the city of indomitable women.
By air: Regular flights with Jet Airways and Indian Airlines connect Bhopal with Delhi, Indore and Mumbai.
By rail: Bhopal is conveniently located on the main Delhi-Chennai line. From Delhi, take the Shatabdi Express for the shortest journey time (leaves New Delhi at 6am, arrives Bhopal at 2.10pm).
Where to stay & eat
Noor-Us-Sabah Palace (www.noorussabahpalace.com) is, as their own literature proclaims, ‘the best address in Bhopal’. All rooms have private balconies overlooking the lake — a great place to take in the sunset. Breakfast can be taken on a terrace with the same view, as can be dinner at the Sunset Barbeque, though Dynasty is also a great Chinese restaurant.
Jehan Numa Palace Hotel (www.hoteljehanumapalace.com) is also a fine place to stay with some rooms being organized around a pleasant enclosed garden and others having balconies over the palm-lined swimming pool. The bars and restaurants, including Shahnama, La Kuchina, and Under the Mango Tree, are particularly good.
Hotel Sonali (http://hotelsonaliregency.com/index.php) is the best option in the Hamidia Road area. It is great value for money, offering many of the 24-hour services desired by tourists and business travellers, along with clean rooms and friendly service.
The New Inn in T.T. Nagar is a favourite place for a quick lunch, offering tasty North and South Indian dishes served by an army of smartly turned-out waiters.
What to see & do
Bharat Bhavan: an impressively-designed and picturesquely-located complex for the visual and performing arts that exhibits contemporary folk and tribal paintings, sculptures and carvings, as well as organizing festivals and concerts of dance, music and theatre.
Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya: an expansive museum dedicated to celebrating the culture, art and religion of India’s tribes. Especially impressive is the open-air exhibit of tribal dwellings located in reconstructed village settings.
Van Vihar Safari Park: a good place to see lions, tigers, leopards, bears and crocodiles if you can’t observe them in the wild.