South of Gwalior, Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, spreads over seven hills and around two lovely lakes. Named for its 11th-century founder, Raja Bhoj, it was devastated by succeeding invaders and rebuilt in the 18th century by Dost Muhammad, an Afghan general serving the Mughals. More recently the city was ruled by a succession of begums (queens), some of whom initiated innovations including a postal system, railways and waterworks. Today, evocative monuments are juxtaposed with contemporary buildings, teeming market-places in the old walled city give way to shaded avenues and residential complexes, and traditional lifestyles mingle with modern bustle.
Construction of the Taj-ul-Masjid, one of Bhopal's more recent monuments, began under Shah Jahan Begum, who ruled from 1868 to 1901, but was completed only in the 1970s. Among the largest mosques in the country, it has an impressive main hall, a striking fašade and a huge courtyard. Other important mosques include the Jami Masjid (1837) and the Moti Masjid (1860), patterned after Delhi's Jami Masjid. The Chowk area in the heart of the old city is crowded with gracious old homes, or havelis, mosques and little shops well stocked with traditional Bhopali crafts - beadwork, embroidered and sequined handbags and silver jewellery. A curious mixture of European architectural styles, Shaukat Mahal at the entrance to the Chowk is said to have been designed by a remote relative of the Bourbons of France. Sardar Manzil close by was once the hall of public audience of former nawabs. An important modern center for the arts, the officially sponsored Bharat Bhavan houses a museum of folk art, an art gallery, a fine library of Indian literature, and an active repertory theatre.
But a recent disaster has changed the face of Bhopal drastically. On the night of 1 December 1984, the otherwise pleasant state capital became internationally known as the site of the world's worst industrial accident. In the early hours of the following day, toxic gases leaked out of storage tanks at the nearby Union Carbide factory and within hours hundreds of poor workers and slum dwellers living nearby had died. The response to the disaster, both locally and internationally, was extraordinary with many volunteers and medical workers becoming affected by the gas. Six years later people are still suffering and over 3,000 have died from the effects of the poison they absorbed on that cold winter morning. While the factory is still there, it has long since closed down. Rest assured that the city is now safe to visit.
Bhopal is a useful base for several interesting short excursions. The main palace of Dost Muhammad at Islamnagar, just 11 kilometers (seven miles) away, effectively combines Hindu and Islamic decorative art. Chaman Mahal and the two-storey Rani Mahal are among the other lovely structures of the palace complex.
The massive but incomplete Shiva temple at Bhojpur, 28 kilometers (17 miles) southeast of Bhopal, is a magnificent example of 11th-century temple architecture. Remarkable for its soaring strength of line and elegant sculpture, it houses a huge lingam, a ritual phallic symbol.
At Bhimbetka, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Bhopal, over 500 painted Neolithic caves chronicle the life of prehistoric man.
Sanchi, 46 kilometers (30 miles) to the northeast of Bhopal, has some of the finest and most varied examples of Buddhist sculpture and architecture in India. The Great Stupa, with its majestic dome built over Buddhist relics, is India's oldest stone structure. An intricately carved railing encircles the stupa, and for magnificently sculpted toranas, or gateways, illustrates the Buddha's numerous lives with an intricacy that can only be described as an act of worship. The Buddha is here represented only by symbols: the lotus, the tree of life, foot-prints, and a throne. The unusually lustrous Ashoka Pillar near the southern gateway was originally inscribed with a religious ordinance and surmounted by a lion capital, now the national emblem of India. Of the other stupas in the vicinity, numbers 2 and 3 are of particular interest. Only a few ruined monasteries remain. The famous Begging Bowl, carved from a single huge boulder and used to collect food for the monks, is near one of these. A poorly designed modern monastery displays two glass caskets containing relics returned to the site by Britain in the 1950s. Other places of interest around Sanchi include the ancient settlement of Vidisha, Udaiygiri and Gyaraspur.
Bhopal and Sanchi Attraction Details
Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh, Raja Bhoj, Taj-ul-Masjid, Shah Jahan Begum, Jami Masjid (1837), Moti Masjid (1860), Chowk area, Shaukat Mahal, Bourbons of France, Sardar Manzil, Bharat Bhavan, palace of Dost Muhammad at Islamnagar, Chaman Mahal, Rani Mahal