Home to the confluence of two distinct architectural traditions, Bhopal shimmers and shines as a landscape of lakes, bustling activity and delicious street food, says Rhucha Kulkarni
Divided neatly by a pair of lakes, Bada Talab and Chhota Talab, Bhopal is a city of contrasts. The old township north of the lakes is a quaint, labyrinthine affair with elaborate Mughal architecture, mosques and busy bazaars. The modern Bhopal lies south of the lakes, with upmarket hotels, wide roads and excellent museums. My introduction to the city occurred through Bada Talab. The golden glow of the ripples, the air abuzz with excited conversations and the steady rhythm of oars splashing in the water… Since Bhopal is home to more than 17 natural and man-made lakes, the title, City of Lakes, is fitting, to say the least. These placid waters stand as a symbol of architectural excellence and unparalleled water management, painting a picture of a rich royal past dating back to the 11th century. Flanked by the Vindhya and Singarcholi mountain ranges, they have been instrumental in the growth of Bhopal as the cultural, economic and educational hub of Central India. According to folklore, the city was originally established by Raja Bhoj, of the Paramara dynasty and the modern city was eventually set up by a Mughal soldier, Dost Muhammad Khan. This confluence of two architectural traditions makes it a rich visual treat.
Also known as Bhojtal, Bada Talab is about 1,000 years old and is the largest man-made lake in India. The legend goes that Raja Bhoj built the lake on the advice of a saint, in pursuit of a cure for a skin disease. It is said that the lake’s curative powers worked their magic and Raja Bhoj was cured after a dip in its soothing waters. I felt transported in time as I was told all of this, looking at the magnificent statue of Raja Bhoj standing tall on the embankment. Today, Bada Talab is a lively entertainment ecosystem with many a boat and water scooter riding around a sprawling tourism complex called Sair Sapata.
Chhota Talab, or the Lower Lake, is connected to Bhojtal by the Pul Pukhta bridge constructed in 1794 by a nobleman, Chote Khan. Originally built as a beautification project, Chhota Talab is today surrounded by the Kamala Garden. A bird-watcher’s paradise, terrific bird-spotting and photography opportunities abound in this green shelter. Bada Talab and Chhota Talab together form the Bhoj wetlands – an extremely important ecological site.
Motia Talab goes on to unravel the secrets of Bhopal’s Mughal past, with the Taj-ul-Masajid – one of the largest mosques in India – towering over its pristine waters. The trio – Motia Talab, Siddique Hasan Khan Talab and Munshi Hussain Khan Talab – was apparently used to drain excess water, besides acting as reservoirs to meet water shortage.
Munshi Hussain Khan Talab also irrigated Bada Bagh, the exquisite royal mausoleum and garden complex. I marvelled at the environmental foresight of these rulers and went on to explore more lakes like Lendiya Talab and East Railway Colony Lake.
There is more to Bhopal than just its lovely lakes, and my second day was dedicated to soaking in the city’s flavour by ambling along its streets and bylanes.
Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex and museum inaugurated in 1982 by Indira Gandhi, turned out to be the perfect escape for anyone with a taste for fine arts, literature, theatre, cinema, dance and music. Gohar Mahal on VIP Road, a mansion built in 1820 by the first woman ruler of Bhopal, Gohar Begum, offered me a splendid glimpse into the city’s political history. I revelled in the gorgeous convergence of Mughal and Hindu architecture as curved archways met intricate Hindu carvings. Shaukat Mahal was a bit of a twist in this tale, though, with its Indo-Islamic and European architecture.
For the best local experience of Bhopal, head to the bustling bazaars or Chowk. And no visit to the city is complete without an indulgence of your taste buds. I devoured some lipsmacking chaat, biryani pilaf and dal bafla, and the famous Bhopali paan served as the perfect conclusion to my gastronomic trail. The true taste of Bhopal lies in its multifaceted personality that appeals to every kind of traveller. While the serenity of its lakes gave me peace of mind, the buzz of the cityscape added its own vibrance to my visit and the two together made for the perfect trove of memories to cherish.
The author is a travel writer and the views expressed in this article are her own