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Life still spins here with the same level of energy as it did centuries ago,” any djinn would say about the teeming streets of old Bhopal that exude a medieval Islamic air with its ancient gateways, arches and turrets set against an assembly of antique buildings and monuments conjuring up the gilded age of ancient queens.
The djinn is experiencing an 18th century moment. The domain was the hub of a powerful Muslim dynasty steered by Afghan general, Dost Mohammed Khan. The jewels of its 200-year reign were the four women rulers of the land, better known as Begums of Bhopal. During their time from 1817 to 1926, they shaped Bhopal into one of the most beautiful cities in India, inviting grudging praise from the Mughal emperors in Delhi.
The queens not only fashioned the city’s lakefront landscape with palaces, noble houses, mosques, marketplaces and eye-catching monuments, but also gave the settlement its essential civil amenities like waterworks, railways, postal system and a municipality.
Surviving Central India’s heat and dust, most of their architectural makings still exist to exhibit touches of outstanding regal grandness and amazing mixture of architectural styles. The first Begum’s palace, Gohar Mahal, represents a fusion of Mughal and Rajasthani influences, while Shaukat Mahal blends Islamic design with post renaissance and gothic idioms.
A gateway joins Shaukat Mahal with Moti Mahal, another architectural marvel of the time. Unfortunately, they are all in very dilapidated stage and require urgent restoration, otherwise Bhopal will lose some of its treasures which perhaps can’t be rebuilt. The only edifice I notice receiving kindness is the once opulent Sadar Manzil, which was used by the Begums as a hall of public audience.
The chowk is at the heart of old Bhopal with soaring pinnacles, convex silhouttes of domes and intimidatingly defensive walls. The thoroughfares are lined with shops and old houses., thronged by people and vehicles as they were centuries ago, perhaps the only difference being horse-drawn carriages, push-carts and palanquins have been replaced by cars, vans, scooters and autorickshaws. A muzzein calls for prayer from a nearby mosque, asking the faithful to gather.
Mosques are jewels of Bhopal. Taj-ul-Masajid—said to be the largest Islamic place of worship in India—ranks at the top. Its colossal setting with lavish pink walls, white domes and towering minarets command awe. Bhopal’s third female ruler Shah Jehan Begum commissioned its building at the end of the 19th century but construction was halted afte her death until work resumed in the late 20th century. The other two mosques that draw attention are the Jama Masjid, renowned for its gold-sheathed domes, and Moti Masjid, which architecturally resembles Delhi’s Jama Masjid—the Begums have left a splendid architectural lagacy behind.
Treading the mosque-path leads to supposedly the world’s smallest mosque. It is perched atop a ruined stone turret, once part of an old fortress, on the grounds of which now stands a modern hospital. Legend says it was built by an early ruler of the Khan regime for the fortress guards to pray in during duty hours. Getting inside the shrine requires tackling two big steps and one relatively smaller step, that’s why it is locally known as the ‘Mosque of Two and a Half Steps’.
The Islamic heritage here has place for both piety and indulgence. In Kamala Park is the spa to rival all luxury hotel spas; the 18th century Qadimi hammam that is being run by the same family for over two centuries offers oil massages and steam baths in the classical style. The recipes for the massage oils and fragrances are a family secret handed down through generations. Only women are alowed during the day, while men use it at night. But it opens only after Diwali and shuts on Holi. In mall-lined modern Bhopal, the contrast of time is not lost on a hunter of the past, forever seeking the sorcery of history.
Getting There: Bhopal is well connected to major cities by air, rail and road.
Accommodation: Stay at Jehan Numa Palace Hotel (www.jehannuma.com), a former royal residence, to experience some flavours of the bygone era.
More info: Log on to www.mptourism.com