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 known for the 1984 gas disaster, which continues to cast a long shadow over the city and its people.
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.
Bhopal’s name is said to derive from the eleventh-century Raja Bhoj, who was instructed by his court gurus to atone for the murder of his mother by linking up the nine rivers flowing through his kingdom. A dam, or pal, was built across one of them, and the ruler established a new capital around the two resultant lakes – Bhojapal. By the end of the seventeenth century, Dost Mohammed Khan, an erstwhile general of Aurangzeb, had occupied the now deserted site to carve out his own kingdom from the chaos left in the wake of the Mughal Empire. The Muslim dynasty he established became one of central India’s leading royal families. Under the Raj, its members were among the select few to merit the accolade of a nineteen-gun salute from the British. In the nineteenth century, Bhopal was presided over largely by female rulers, who revamped the city with noble civic works, including the three sandstone mosques that still dominate the skyline.
Today, Bhopal carries the burden of the appalling Union Carbide factory gas disaster of 1984, with residents quick to remind you of their continuing legal and medical plight. In 1992, Hindu-Muslim rioting broke out following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. However, the many tales of Hindus sheltering their Muslim friends from the mobs at this time and vice versa demonstrate the long tradition of religious tolerance in the city. In recent years, Bhopal – and Madhya Pradesh in general – has remained true to its lenient nature, with little of the political and religious intolerance that afflicts many other north Indian states.