With around 1.8 million inhabitants, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh’s capital, sprawls out from the eastern shores of a huge artificial lake, its packed old city surrounded by modern concrete suburbs and green hills. The nineteenth-century mosques emphasize its enduring Muslim legacy, while the hectic bazaars of the walled old city are worth a visit. Elsewhere, a couple of good archeological museums house hoards of ancient sculpture and the lakeside Bharat Bhavan ranks among India’s premier centres for performing and visual arts. The Museum of Man on the city’s outskirts is the country’s most comprehensive exhibition of adivasi houses, culture and technology. Despite all this, Bhopal will always be best known for the 1984 gas disaster, which continues to cast a long shadow over the city and its people.
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Bhopal has two separate centres. Spread over the hills to the south of the lakes, the partially pedestrianized New Market area is a mix of shopping arcades, internet cafés, ice cream parlours, cinemas and office blocks. Once you’ve squeezed through the strip of land that divides the Upper and (smaller) Lower lakes, sweeping avenues, civic buildings and gardens give way to the more heavily congested old city. This area includes the Jama Masjid and the bazaar, centred on Chowk, a dense grid of streets between the Moti Masjid and Hamidia Road. The art galleries and museums are on side roads off New Market, or along the hilly southern edge of the Upper Lake.
The Bhopal gas tragedy
At 12.05am on December 3, 1984, a lethal cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides, exploded at the huge, US-owned Union Carbide plant on the northern edge of Bhopal.
Highly reactive, MIC must be kept under constant pressure at a temperature of 0°C – yet cost-conscious officials had reduced the pressure to save some US$70 a day. When water entered tank E-610 through badly maintained and leaking valves to contaminate the MIC, a massive reaction was triggered. Wind dispersed the gas throughout the densely populated residential districts and slums. There was neither a warning siren nor adequate emergency procedures in place, leaving the thick cloud of gas to blind and suffocate its victims. The leak killed 1600 instantly (according to official figures) and between 7000 and 10,000 in the aftermath, but the figure now totals well over 25,000 in the years since the incident. More than 500,000 people were exposed to the gas, of whom about one fifth have been left with chronic and incurable health problems, often passed on to children born in years following the tragedy. The water in the community pumps of the affected residential areas remains contaminated with dangerous toxic chemicals that seeped out from the now-deserted factory. Campaigners say the factory still contains thousands of tonnes of toxic waste.
Though the incidence of TB, cancers, infertility and cataracts in the affected area remains way above the national average, the factory officials initially said the effect of MIC was akin to that of tear gas, causing only temporary health problems. They accepted moral responsibility for the accident, but blamed the Indian government for inadequate safety standards when it came to the issue of compensation. Only in 1989 did Union Carbide agree to pay an average of Rs25,000 to each adult victim – a paltry sum that didn’t even cover loans for the medical bills in the first five years, let alone compensate for the loss of life and livelihoods and other consequences of the disaster. In 2001, the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre opened to treat patients.
Despite both US and Indian former bosses being charged with serious offences – including manslaughter – the government and factory authorities had been keen to sweep the whole episode under the carpet. It took until June 2010 for some measure of justice to be dispensed, when a Bhopal court gave seven former factory employees two-year prison sentences for causing “death by negligence”. The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide Rs500,000. NGOs and local campaigners dismissed the ruling as completely inadequate. Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide in the US, never faced justice; Anderson fled India to the US after the Indian court granted him bail and, although in 2002 a Bhopal court directed India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue his extradition, the US authorities refused to extradite him, and he died in a nursing home in Florida in 2014.
After much lobbying, the government in 2005 launched a legal case to recoup money from Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001 but denies ongoing liability. To date, little progress has been made but people in Bhopal continue to stage regular protests and rallies.
A wealth of impressive ancient monuments lie within a couple of hours’ journey from Bhopal. To the northeast, the third-century BC stupas at Sanchi are an easy day-trip. Its peaceful setting also makes an ideal base for visits to more stupas at Satdhara or Udaigiri’s rock-cut caves and the nearby Column of Heliodorus at Besnagar. South towards Hoshangabad and the Narmada Valley, the prehistoric cave paintings at Bhimbetka can be visited in a day by bus.
From a distance, the smooth-sided hemispherical object that appears on a hillock overlooking the main train line at Sanchi, 46km northeast of Bhopal, has the surreal air of an upturned satellite dish. In fact, the giant stone mound stands as testimony to a much older means of communing with the cosmos. Quite apart from being India’s finest Buddhist monument, the Great Stupa is one of the earliest religious structures in the Subcontinent. It presides over a complex of ruined temples and monasteries that collectively provide a rich and unbroken record of the development of Buddhist art and architecture from the faith’s first emergence in central India during the third century BC, until it was eventually squeezed out by the resurgence of Brahmanism during the medieval era.
Floating serenely above a vast expanse of open plains, Sanchi’s ruins have preserved the tranquillity that attracted the original occupants. Most visitors find a couple of hours sufficient to explore the site, though you could easily spend several days poring over the four exquisite gateways, or toranas, surrounding the Great Stupa. Paved walkways and steps lead around the hilltop enclosure, dotted with interpretive panels and shady trees.
The ruins of ancient Besnagar, known locally as Khambaba, are in a tiny village down the main road from Vidisha. During the Mauryan and Shunga empires, between the third and first centuries BC, a thriving provincial capital overlooked the confluence of the Beas and Betwa rivers. The emperor Ashoka himself was once governor here and even married a local banker’s daughter. Now, a few mounds and some scattered pieces of masonry are all that remain. Yet one small monument makes the short detour worthwhile. The sixteen-sided stone pillar in an enclosed courtyard, known as the Column of Heliodorus, was erected in 113 BC by a Bactrian-Greek envoy from Taxila, the capital city of Gandhara (now the northwest frontier region of Pakistan), who converted to the local Vaishnavite cult during his long diplomatic posting here. The shaft, dedicated to Krishna’s father Vasudeva, was originally crowned with a statue of Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda.
A modest collection of ruined temples and fifth-century rock-cut caves stand just 6km west of Vidisha at Udaigiri. The caves, many decorated by Hindu and Jain mendicants, lie scattered around a long, thin outcrop of sandstone surrounded by wheat fields.
Once you’ve left Vidisha, a left turn just after crossing the Betwa River leads along a gently undulating tree lined avenue for 2–3km. As it approaches the hillside, the road takes a sharp left turn towards the village. Stop here, at the base of the near-vertical rock face, to climb a steep flight of steps to Cave 19, which has worn reliefs of gods and demons around the doorways, and a Jain cave temple on the northern edge of the ridge. Ask the chowkidar to unlock the doors for you.
The site’s pièce de résistance, a 4m-high image of the boar-headed hero Varaha, stands carved into Cave 5. Vishnu adopted this guise to rescue the earth-goddess, Prithvi, from the churning primordial ocean. Varaha’s left foot rests on a naga king wearing a hood of thirteen cobra heads, while the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna hold water vessels on either side. In the background you can see Brahma and Agni, the Vedic fire-god. The scene is seen as an allegory of the emperor Chandra Gupta II’s conquest of northern India.
A worthwhile add-on to a trip to Udaigiri, Vidisha’s District Museum displays some very fine statuary somewhat haphazardly around its gardens, and more formally inside several sprawling, badly lit galleries. The majority of its pieces, such as Kubera Yaksha, the 3m, pot-bellied male fertility figure in the hallway, are second-century Hindu artefacts unearthed at Besnagar, a small, underwhelming site 1km north of the Udaigiri turn-off on the road from Vidisha – most of the artefacts from the site have been moved here.