As someone who occasionally works in the theatre, makes films and writes on history I have always felt a connection to Bhopal–a city known for its medieval and modern architectural marvels, and contribution to Hindi and Urdu literature, theatre and cinema. So a few months ago, when I finally got a chance to spend for 24 hours in the city, I embraced every bit of its old world languor and heartland atmosphere.
As usual, led by the nose, my cultural immersion started with a quest for breakfast. Raju Tea Stall on Sultania Road came highly recommended, and the combination of piping hot samosas, poha and jalebis did not disappoint. With a satisfied palate and a full stomach, I was ready to take on the itinerary that had been etched out by my friend.
Our first heritage stop was Taj Mahal Palace on the outskirts of the Shahjahanabad area, named after Shah Jahan Begum, one of the four extraordinary women who ruled Bhopal in the second half of 19th century. Much to my surprise, the entrance to the palace was shut and we were sternly told by the guard that the monument was closed to the public. In the conversation that ensued, he revealed that local authorities intended to lease it out to a private party, a move that was being contested in court by the governing bodies of a temple and mosque next door. Not being able to take in the grandeur of the Sawan Bhado gallery, the palace’s most grand feature, was disappointing but I took it in my stride and moved along.
The scale of Taj-ul-Masajid—the biggest mosque in India—evoked a state of calm in me. In a mystic trance, I stood next to the only tree in the large courtyard, looking at the mosque’s main hall, flanked by two minarets (18 storeys tall and topped with marble domes). The mosque’s unique aspect is a prayer hall for women on the first floor. As per local legend, Shah Jahan Begum asked the architect to combine the best of Jama Masjid in Delhi and Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque.
Built as a pleasure pavilion in 1870s, the Benazir Palace is an H-shaped structure with enclosed terrace gardens and gurgling fountains. Facing the Motia Talaab, the palace was used by Shah Jahan Begum as a summer rest house and a place to host visiting dignitaries. Today, the structure is in shambles but there are glimpses of its glory days in the decorative coloured glass work, the steel columns, and the beautiful carvings inside the hammam.
Ever since I watched Ismail Merchant’s classic In Custody, I was eager to see the film’s beautiful setting—Sheesh Mahal, located at the Moti Masjid Chauraha. As we entered the Mahal, the setting, a middle-aged man seated on a diwan and the lady of the house on a vintage wooden chair, the open courtyard and a narrow staircase leading to the room above instantly recalled the film’s atmosphere. The wooden balcony, with colourful glass panes, opened out to a view of Iqbal Maidan, which appears more than once in the movie.
After a brief visit to the 19th–century Moti Masjid, the 17th-century Jama Masjid and the Kamalapati Palace, it was time for a quick lunch in the Bharat Bhavan canteen. One of Charles Correa’s modern architectural marvels, Bharat Bhavan has both indoor and outdoor performance spaces, art galleries, a bookshop and several other creative nooks. We watched the rehearsal of a Hindi play opening the same evening for some time and then requested the manager to let us go backstage to see the picture gallery featuring the great theatre director B.V. Karanth and later made our way to the modern art gallery, where we brooded over Mumbai artist Sudhir Patwardhan’s paintings.
Located in a small house in the outskirts of the main city, the Remember Bhopal Museum in Karond has been curated and designed by activists and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy without any state intervention or support. This one-of-a-kind museum attempts to document the 1984 tragedy and the failures of our justice system. For the next couple of hours, we absorbed the tragedy through the exhibits and the recorded oral interviews. On our way back to the city, silence hung heavy in our car and little conversation was exchanged between us.
Once a roadside shack in a narrow market alley in the city, Jameel Hotel in Ibrahimpura is today touted as one of the best non-vegetarian joints in Bhopal. To satiate our immediate hunger, we feasted on a sumptuous spread of seekh and galauti kebabs. Our next food stop was Sharma Chat Centre in the city’s main market area, where we devoured a plate of chhole and dahi papdi chaat. After stuffing ourselves to the brim, we strolled through the narrow lanes, happy to see shoppers and tourists mingling in Bhopal’s bustle.
Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and a documentary film maker obsessed with discovering civilizations and cultures through travel. He loves reimagining places through their history and telling their stories to people in his heritage tours and writings. He never travels without a book and is always up for a meal in a new place.
Dhawal Bumb is an architect and photographer who travels to understand history and architecture. When not on the road, he can be found on a turf, playing football.