The begums of Bhopal make the city what it is – a medley of sights and sounds like no other
The first time I heard of Bhopal was as a child, when the unfortunate gas tragedy happened. Many moons later when I visited Bhopal, I was in for a pleasant surprise. What I experienced and saw was a city filled with lakes, lush greenery and street art amidst mosques and museums. For me, the most intriguing thing about the capital of Madhya Pradesh, was its tryst with royalty – a state that was mostly ruled by women – the begums of Bhopal.
While the Nawabi legacy is well-known to all, very little is known about Parmara Raja Bhoj, after whom the city’s airport is named. The king, who ruled the city in the 11th century, is said to have built the Upper Lake or Bhojtal. A large statue of Parmara Raja Bhoj dominates the lake that is today a popular local hangout, especially in the evenings. After the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 17th century, local chieftains called the Gonds, ruled the city. Nizam Shah, ruler of Ginnur, whose wife Rani Kamlapati was believed to be the epitome of beauty, was killed by his kin Alam Shah. It is said that Rani Kamlapati, who Alam thought drowned, actually did not die but hired an Afghan, Dost Mohammad Khan to avenge her husband’s death and then ruled the region for over a decade. It was after her death that Dost took over the reins of Bhopal. His successor, the fifth Nawab of Bhopal, was Ghaus Mohammad whose first wife, Zeenat Begum rallied for the women of Bhopal and taught them to fight for their land and honour. It was Zeenat’s widowed daughter Qudsia who went on to became the first begum of Bhopal in 1819. The 157-year-old rule of the begums is a testament of female empowerment and most of the monuments that you see in the city today have a connection with them.
The begums were connoisseurs of art and believed in negotiation and peace. The Taj-ul-Masajid, which translates to ‘crown of all mosques’, was built by Qudsia’s daughter Shah Jahan Begum. The pink-hued structure has a large main hall, recessed archways, octagonal minarets, an inter-arched roof, marble flooring and a spacious courtyard – it indeed is an architectural marvel.
Known for its pearl white façade, golden spikes and red towers is Moti Masjid, built by Sikandar Jahan in 1860. It is a near replica of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and is a must-visit in Bhopal. The Rani Kamlapati Palace, situated on the banks of the Lower Lake, is another famous tourist spot. The palace lies in the midst of the Kamla Park and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. There is an interpretation centre that talks about the Gond connection to the history and architecture of the Kamlapati Palace. The two-storey structure has been built using lakhauri bricks and cusped arches are supported by fluted pillars.
For a deep insight into the royal history, you can visit the Gohar Mahal, named after Qudisiya Begum. Built in a typical Hindu-Muslim architectural style way back in 1820, this palace has beautiful paintings adorning its walls, illustrated doors and arches all around a central courtyard. Currently the Mahal hosts the annual Bhopal Mahotsav, which sees a congregation of artisans, craftsmen and folk performers.
The food of Bhopal is typical of Mughal fare that has myriads of influences from Hyderabad, Lucknow, Afghan and Malwa, which lends it a unique character of its own. Breakfast specials include Samawar, the salted tea; Sulaimani chai made in a copper vessel; poha and jalebi. When you are here, sample the risalas, a chicken preparation with rich gravy and biryani. Food cooked by the Bohra Muslim women in the Old Bhopal part of Chowk is also well-known. One must try their food, which includes dishes of qorma (braised meat in thick gravy), kebabs (minced meat fried or
roasted over charcoal), bhujia (cooked vegetable), salan (a gravy of meat/ vegetable), keema (minced meat), rice cooked with meat in form of pulao and dal pasanda.
Apart from the ever-popular falooda, you can indulge your sweet tooth by trying the gullati (rice pudding), kheer, muzaffir (vermicelli fried in ghee and garnished with saffron), shahi tukra (sliced bread deep fried and topped with sweet thick milk garnished withdry fruits) and lots more.
On my last day in Bhopal, I headed to Mahavir Giri, a beautiful hillock offering a bird’s eye view of the landscape. As I stood atop the hill, overlooking the city with the wind blowing in my face, I could not help but admire the begums of Bhopal. After all they had accomplished much by shattering the glass ceiling and creating a city that still holds on to its royal roots.