THE CAPITAL OF MADHYA PRADESH,BHOPAL was founded in the 11th century by Raja Bhoj of the Paramara dynasty. By the 18th century, it was held by a Muslim dynasty whose rulers included several remarkable women, the Begums of Bhopal. The city, ringed by hills, stretches along the shores of two artificial lakes, the Upper and Lower Lakes. The old quarter, north of the Lakes, is a maze of narrow lanes, bazaars and mosques. To the south is the new city, with its leafy suburbs and industrial enclaves. In December 1984, a toxic gas leak from the Union Carbide factory claimed the lives of 5,000 people, in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. With the wounds of this tragedy now healing, Bhopal is a good base for visiting some of the state’s fascinating sites.
The most imposing monument in Bhopal, this large, pinkwashed mosque was begun by Sultan Jehan Begum in 1878 but was left unfinished for almost a century before being completed in 1971. A progressive ruler, the begum established the city’s postal system and hospitals, but virtually bankrupted the royal treasury as a result of her ambitious schemes. The enormous courtyard of the mosque has a dukka (water tank) for ritual ablutions, and the vast prayer hall is striking for its rows of pillars. This grandiose mosque is surmounted by three white domes and flanked by two 18- storeyed minarets. Its general ambience is majestic rather than beautiful.
Situated in the centre of the old quarter is the Chowk (literally, main square). Streets radiate out from it, each one specializing in a particular type of goods – the Bhopali hatuas (elaborately beaded purses) for which Bhopal is famous, tussar silk, caps, drums and spices. Havens li ne the streets, with wooden fronted shops on the ground floor, and elaborate wrought-iron balconies above. Dominating the area is the Jai Masjid with its gold finials, built in 1837 by Qudsia Begum, another of Bhopal’s female rulers. It is surrounded by shops selling silver jewellery. South of the Chowk is another mosque, the Moti Masjid (“Pearl Mosque”) built in 1860 by Qudsia Begums daughter and successor. With its striped dome and tapering sandstone minarets, it looks like a smaller version of the Jai Masjid in Delhi . Also worth visiting in this area is the Shaukat Mahal, a 19th-century Indo-Saracenic cum Rococo palace. Built by a French mercenary who claimed to be a descendant of the Bourbons, it now houses government offices, though visitors are usually allowed inside by the guards.
A large cultural complex, Bharat Bhavan was established in 1982 to showcase and promote India’s rich tribal and folk art heritage. To the right of the entrance is the Tribal Art Gallery, a superb collection that includes votive objects, terracotta figures, masks, wall paintings, woodcarvings, and the distinctive metal sculptures created by craftsmen from Bastar . A gallery across the courtyard exhibits contemporary Indian art. Bharat Bhavan is also the venue for regular performances of theatre, music and dance in the evenings.
STATE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
A collection of 12th-century lain bronzes, found in Char district in western Madhya Pradesh, form the highlight of this museum’s collection. It also has a series of stone sculptures, mostly from the 6th to 10th centuries. Older pieces include yakshis (female attendants) dating to 200 BC, and a Standing Buddha in black granite. The museum shop has good plaster replicas of some sculptures for sale.
RASHTRIYA MANAV SANGRAHALAYA (MUSEUM OF MAN)
Set in the hills overlooking the Upper Lake, this museum, which sprawls over a 40-ha (99-acre) site, has authentic replicas of Indian tribal dwellings, built by the tribal people themselves. Tribal cultures from all over the country are represented in the museum, through comprehensive displays of utensils, ritual objects, musical instruments, tools, murals, carvings, jewellery and costumes. An Introductory Gallery, in a thatched hut, explains the museum’s layout.
VAN VIHAR NATIONAL PARK
Fad The most famous inhabitants of this large park, near the Upper Lake, are the White tigers (see p239). A good time to see these rare creatures is at about 4pm, when they come to the edge of their enclosure for their evening meal. The zoo is also home to lions, leopards and Himalayan bears.
This museum has a welldisplayed collection of stone sculptures dating from the 7th to 12th centuries. Shiva, Vishnu and various goddesses are shown in their different incarnations. Particularly impressive are Vishnu in his hoar (Varaha) incarnation, Goddess Durga in her ferocious Chamunda form, and Shiva and his consort Parvati in their celestial home on Mount Kailasa. Next to the museum is the large, recentlybuilt and brightly painted Lakshmi Narayan Temple, overlooking the Lower Lake.