Delhi to Bhopal: Museums and mosques

Five ‘begums’ held sway in the city from 1819-1995

The Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal is one of the largest mosques in India. Photo: Parth Jha
The Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal is one of the largest mosques in India. Photo: Parth Jha

After having spent over a decade in Bengaluru, it was a reluctant move to Delhi. I was upbeat about leaving behind traffic-clogged roads but despondency crept in when I thought about Bengaluru as a perfect springboard to travel on the weekends. Chikmagalur, Coorg, Bandipur—the list is endless. Hoping that Delhi would be a similar jumping point to weekend-savvy destinations, I started scouting for places, looking for something that would put me in the middle of stately architecture, historic relics and the headiness of a bustling city. I narrowed down on Bhopal. Given that I have forever associated the city as the site of the industrial disaster at the Union Carbide chemical plant in 1984, it was time to change that.

Bhopal offers the best of a mid-sized Indian city—a whirl of chaos in the old city, malls and shopping complexes, frenetic shoppers, street food and crumbling monuments that are yardsticks to its lineage. I chose the central district, New Market, to base myself for better access to both old and new parts of the city. On the first day, I headed to the mosque circuit near the Kohefiza area in the old part. It felt appropriate to pay homage to the most historically dominant part of the city, especially since five begums held sway in this part from 1819-1995.

In 1877, Bhopal’s third female ruler, Shah Jahan Begum, ordered the construction of Taj-ul-Masajid. But construction was stopped in 1901 when she died. The onion-domed mosque was finally inaugurated in 1985. I roamed around the large courtyard, peeping through the pillared coves to look at the mihrab (a niche in a mosque’s wall that indicates the direction of Mecca) and then moved to the Jama Masjid, a short auto-rickshaw ride away.

Built in 1837, the Jama Masjid was the creation of Qudsia Begum. The sharp rays of the noon sun were bouncing off the gold spikes that crown the minarets. A fruit-seller outside the mosque suggested that I should visit the Moti Masjid (built in 1860) and Dhai Seedi Masjid (built sometime in the 18th century). Bhopal’s smallest mosque, Dhai Seedi (2.5 steps), lies in the grounds of Hamidia Hospital and is popular for its minuscule size (about 16 sq. m).

I ended the day in the old market area, where street food joints lie tucked away in narrow alleys. After sampling jalebis, poha-sev and kebabs, and topping up with Sulemani chai, I was back at the hotel.

Next morning, I shifted my gaze to the new part of the city. Nestled in the relatively chaos-free and upmarket Shyamla Hills of New Bhopal, is the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum. With exhibits that are focused on the history and life of the seven tribes and sub-tribes of Madhya Pradesh, 1,500 tribals contributed to its making by using materials from their villages. It took me the whole morning to walk through the five galleries. One can also visit the nearby Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, an anthropology museum, but I skipped it for another lesser-known gem of the city—Qadimi Hammam, a Turkish bath, from the 1700s. Since I had arrived in October and the hammam operates only from November-March, I just got a chance to peep inside. It is a cosy space divided into two sections, for men and women (massages start from Rs400).

A visit to the hammam calls for another trip to Bhopal. After all, it’s the ideal way to relax at the end of a hectic weekend.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @supsonthemove. 

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