Agra’s Taj Mahal has made it to the list of seven new wonders of the world, but another architectural gem of the same name, built by a Begum of Bhopal in 1874, is in ruins and in danger of being erased from the heritage map of Madhya Pradesh (MP).
“The Taj Mahal in Bhopal is one of the largest palaces built at that time. Some parts of the palace have been encroached, some parts have collapsed or are collapsing. If something is not done urgently, we will lose a heritage palace,” says director (programme), architectural heritage division of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). Intach, which conserves heritage buildings in the country, submitted a proposal to the MP government about a year ago to save the Taj. Serge Santelli, dean of the School of Architecture in Paris, who is trying to save the architectural marvels built mostly by the Begums of Bhopal, who ruled the erstwhile state for four generations in a row, has described the city’s Taj Mahal as one of the best palaces in the world.
Santelli, who loves heritage structures and lives in a 16th century house in France, says: “Not many know about Bhopal’s Taj Mahal. It is one of the best palaces in the world.” An Indo-French project called the The Bhopal Workshop is trying to document and save the remaining heritage buildings of the city. The Indian and French partners even put up an exhibition—Living Architectural Heritage of Bhopal—to showcase the city’s heritage. The focus was, obviously, on the Taj Mahal.
Santelli is appalled at the ruins in Bhopal. “The ruins in Bhopal have no parallel in the world. The locals seem obsessed with the idea of razing old structures to make way for commercial complexes,” he says.
Savita Raje, the Indian partner of the project, put up pictures of the Taj Mahal as it was during the time of the Begums and as it is now. The grand palace, which was home to Nawab Shahjehan Begum, was built as part of the Begum’s ambitious construction of the Shahjehanabad suburb.
On the features of the palace, Manu Sobti, an architect, says: “The palace resonated the theme of tranquil landscapes and grand dimensions. An impressive entrance facade led into large, interiorized open spaces or courtyards, all resplendent with the elements of landscape and water.”
But this was till some refugees made Taj Mahal their home and scribbled the “love you” messages on its walls. Today, large parts of the Mahal have collapsed. In fact, this is why the refugees were forced to move out.
Conservation architect Meera Das, who studied the palace in great detail in her capacity as the Intach regional convener, observes in a booklet on Bhopal’s architecture: “The Taj Mahal had a long courtyard with a fountain structure constructed in carved red stone. This exquisite fountain structure—the Sawan Bhadon Sahan—is the centrepiece of this large complex. When it was operational, the structure created an effect similar to that of rains. Air ducts insulated with earthen pots brought cool air from the Motia Talab located at the south.”