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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Photo Essay: No place for memory in Bhopal

Rat traps and rat poison, metal chains of seemingly endless length, slingshots, lanterns, locks, scissors, knives, ropes—and a bouquet of peacock feathers in the middle of all this. This very useful shop is situated right under the crumbling arch of the nearly 300-year-old Jumerati Darwaza in Bhopal.

Customers would be well advised, however, to keep their eyes firmly averted from the gate’s patchwork ceiling and its gaping holes. You can still make out the floral motifs on either side of the arch, but the gate is badly damaged, covered in moss, with a plant digging its roots deep into the structure. The shopkeeper, though, is nonchalant, “Kuch nahin hoga (nothing will happen)."

Jumerati is one of six gates built in the 18th century by Bhopal’s founder, Dost Mohammad Khan, and named after different days of the week; it’s the only one still standing. Syed Akhtar Husain, author of Royal Journey Of Bhopal, a photographic history of Madhya Pradesh’s capital, says the rest were demolished in 1950.

Jumerati, too, is frequently threatened with a similar fate. In 2010, then state urban development minister Babulal Gaur was quoted by The Hindu as saying, “These (Jumerati Gate, the Imperial Post and Telegraph Office) are not heritage buildings. They are weak and damaged structures that can crumble any time. They are dangerous and need to be demolished."

Protests saved the day, with Gaur even being compared to the Taliban which had destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, recalls Narayan Vyas, a superintending archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India who has settled in Bhopal post retirement.

Just last month, however, the Bhopal municipal corporation demolished a damaged section of Shaukat Mahal, a palace with Indo-French architectural influences, built in the 19th century in honour of Sikander Jehan Begum, the second of the four begums who ruled Bhopal. This time, the protests fell on deaf ears.

For most of this year, a citizen-led initiative started by Anil Gulati, #Bhopal Walks, has been attempting to build awareness of the city’s rich cultural heritage through weekly walks and posts on social media. “Bhopal can only be a heritage city when people believe it is one," says Vyas, who believes that the lack of conservation expertise is the prime reason for the neglect.

Whatever the reason, the state’s disinterest in preserving structures like Jumerati Gate seems to be reflected in practically every heritage monument. This city of nawabs is celebrated now largely for its spectacular lakes but seen more as a transit point for Sanchi, the Unesco World Heritage site just about 40km away.

June brought with it a glimmer of hope—the Madhya Pradesh directorate of archaeology floated tenders for conservation work on five historical gates, all built in the 19th century. Jumerati wasn’t on the list.

These five—Lal Darwaza, Islami Gate, Military (Regiment) Gate, Dakhil Darwaza and the 150-year-old gate of the Bagh Farhat Afza—are associated, once again, with the begums of Bhopal. The first three were gates to Shah Jahan Begum’s Shahjahanabad. Dakhil Darwaza, which has traces of European influence, led to her palace, the Taj Mahal. The doors to this decrepit palace of 120 rooms stay firmly shut nowadays; while one board and a few men at the gate discourage visitors, another board emphasizes the penal consequences of imperilling this “protected" monument of “State importance".

Life continues around the other gates, though these too betray signs of suffering—they have borne the brunt of the weather, pollution, half-hearted repairs, encroachment and indifference. At Lal Darwaza, for instance, it would be hard to find a single person who could tell you the name of the gate where they’ve lived and worked for years.

Like every other historically significant city and town that international conservation institutions have yet to show interest in, Bhopal has no place for memory. As the driver of the taxi ferrying me across the old city said: “This is the first time someone has asked me to take them to these gates. You know, none of these will be there the next time you come."

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