Begum's bastion

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Begum's bastion

It’s a state capital, but not in the tourist map yet. Undiscovered, unpredictable, serene and yet urbane — it’s Bhopal.

It is a romantic tale — stories within stories, chapters dusted with history, colours and urban elitism. Bhopal is known for lakes, architecture and good nawabi food. It has a deep, sparkling lake, an impregnable fort, a world famous stupa.

The first tryst with Bhopal reminds you of Hyderabad. Both offer rich architecture and culinary nawabi heritage. Bhopal is named after Raja Bhoj. History suggests that Raja Bhoj suffered from leprosy and was advised by sages to build a lake and bathe in it and thus the Greater Lake was built. Bhopal has a rich history of being ruled by four begums, each the first-born daughter of the preceding begum.

These women constructed some of the most beautiful monuments of Bhopal. The four Muslim women, who ruled Bhopal as a princely state for over a hundred years from the early 19th century into the 20th were: Qudsia, Sikandar, Shahjehan and Sultan Jahan. Facilitated by a lack of male heirs, they transformed Bhopal into an oasis of female agency and power within India’s patriarchal order.

The rich nawabi culture and art can be witnessed as one enters old Bhopal. A gate built in Islamic style welcomes you to this part, adorned with structures, which are evidence of a great history this land has had. Situated just at the entrance of the chowk area is an architecturally-rich Shaukat Mahal.

My next stop was the Taj-ul-Masjid, one of the largest mosques in Asia, built by Nawab Shahjehan Begum around a courtyard with a large tank in the centre and an imposing double-storeyed gateway.

A visit to Bhopal is incomplete without a little stroll on the Upper Lake in the evening. On the bank of the lake stands Gohar Mahal, an architectural gem dating back to the times of Qudsia Begum, also known as Gohar Begum. The Mahal speaks of magnificent expression of the fusion of Hindu and Mughal architecture.

Apart from Islamic structure, the city is also home to Laxminarayan Mandir. The sandy-yellowish temple has an old-world charm about it, with a huge turret on one side of the building. As one enters the temple through a magnificent archway, and the sprawling lawns that surround the complex, it lends a picturesque appeal.

In the vicinity is the Birla Museum. The various objects that are exhibited in the museum date from the primitive period onwards. There are primitive tools and implements that were used during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, which are also on display.

A marvelous scale model of the Bhimbetka rock shelter with its ancient murals is surely going to astound the onlookers with its divine appeal. Tourists interested in archaeology can also observe the stone sculptures that date from the 7th to 13th century, collected from the various archaeological sites. Coins, manuscripts and terracotta belonging to 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD are also exhibited.

Far in the distance stands the Bhopal Dow Chemical Factory, as stoic as a carcass. The place recalls the horrors of 1983. Faint thoughts of death and life mingle here. The horror, unspoken of before, possesses you as it crawls beside you in the stranded, plaintive lanes of the factory. This is a stunningly odd place to be in — but it’s about being face to face with that night.

But an evening walk beside the lake as the sun sets behind you medicates the soul. The Upper Lake also offers some good dining options.

The city is a foodie’s haven. Bhopal is known for its kebabs and Nargisi biryani — something that you can find in every lane of the old city. A little detour to Chatori Galli will take you on a gastronomical roller-coaster and the smell of the rich spices will overpower your senses. Bhopal’s delicious offering of bade ka kebab is second only to the famous offering of Tunde Miyan in Lucknow’s Chowk Bazaar, and nalli nahari is just inescapable.

Bhopal’s perfectly light breakfast of poha reminds me of Marathi culinary delights. But here it comes topped with sev and served with hot and crispy jalebis.

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