The capital of Madhya Pradesh is an amalgamation of scenic beauty and old world charm
Like our own Hyderabad, Bhopal is a city of contrasts. North of the lakes lies the old city with its rich historical past as seen in its elaborate mosques, monuments and bazaars with period architecture and an old-fashioned labyrinthine network of lanes and bylanes, which reminds you of the Charminar area.
Since it had been many, many years since my last visit to Bhopal, I agreed to join a conducted city tour. A big group of us piled into a city bus and ticked off the must-dos on the city’s list. Bhopal has a rich royal past dating back to the 11th century. Many monuments and relics of that royal legacy are scattered across the city.
South of the lakes is the modern part of Bhopal with malls, hotels, wide roads and housing complexes. Incidentally, after former Hyderabad, it was Bhopal State, which was the was the second-largest Muslim-ruled princely State.
Given a large number of artificial and natural lakes, Bhopal is known as The City of Lakes. It is also considered the greenest city in India, and we wholly agreed with this label after driving around for two days.
The City of Lakes is a deserving moniker. The city is divided by its two main lakes – Bada Talab or Upper Lake aka Bhojtal and Chhota Talab aka Lower Lake, which together forms the Bhoj Wetlands. There are several other lakes dotting the city. Bada Talab is around 10 centuries old and considered India’s largest man-made lake.
It is said to have been built by Raja Bhoj (the city founder according to legend) on the advice of a saint. Later, a bath in the lake, which had healing powers cured the king of his skin disease goes the story. Today, one can see a large statue of Raja Bhoj on the embankment and the entire area is a popular tourist spot with recreation facilities.
Lower Lake or Chhota Talab, is connected to Bhojtal by an over century-old Pul Pukhta and is encircled by the Kamala Garden which together provides plenty of birdwatching ops. Like Upper Lake, this too draws many tourists and locals in the mornings and late evenings
There are also the Munshi Hussain Khan Talab, which irrigated the royal mausoleum-garden complex Bada Bagh, and Motia Talab with the Taj-ul-Masjid – one of India's largest mosques where we spent much time. Also worth seeing are the East Railway Colony Lake, Siddique Hasan Khan Talab and Lendiya Talab.
We next visited what is reputed to be one of the city's most exquisite structures, Gohar Mahal, built in the year 1820 by the first woman ruler of Bhopal, Gohar Begum. Also beautiful are other historical buildings like Shaukat Mahal with its blend of European and Indo-Islamic styles; Jama Masjid with classic Islamic architecture and towering minarets; and the smaller Moti Masjid.
After shopping for clothes and accessories with the embroidery and beadwork that Bhopal is famous for, and local eats we returned to our hotel.
The next day, I had to take time out for a look at two places I was looking forward to most of all. The first was Bharat Bhavan, a famous centre of visual and performing arts – dance, music, painting, sculpture, theatre, etc. The very building is known for its creative and aesthetic architecture. Unfortunately, it was mostly closed when I visited but I got a good look at the impressive architectural features.
The second one was Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalay or IGRMS, aka Museum of Humankind. The sprawling premises, spacious corridors and rooms of this museum depict the evolution of man and humankind with an emphasis on India. There are thousands of exhibits most of which are permanent and the rest part of temporary exhibitions.
Another well-known museum in Bhopal is Birla Museum with many objects from prehistoric times and stone sculptures and terracotta items from later times.
The Van Vihar, which we drove through, is classified as a National Park, though it appeared to be more of a zoo. The lakeside areas of Upper and Lower Lake and this park are the biggest attractions for children in this city.