I visited Bhopal for the first time over years ago, when I was doing research on my soon to be released novel, The Indian Kings of France: the fascinating story of the Bourbons of Bhopal, and I have returned on several occasions.
During my research, I was fortunate to meet members of the Royal Family who are the owners of the charming Jehan Numa Palace hotel which is a must destination when visiting the city.
The capital of Madya Pradesh unfortunately is still known world-wide for the tragic catastrophe of Union Carbide which marked its citizens for ever; but since then it has recovered from the terrible trauma and there are many reasons to visit the city. The older part of the city still bears the stamp of the Nawabs of Bhopal, who ruled the city until independence. During the 19th century, Bhopal was governed by a succession of four extraordinary Queens known as the Begums of Bhopal. These women, in a man’s world, gave the city its roads, civic institutions and important mosques and palaces. Regrettably, the local government has not taken care of this heritage and most of the palaces are in an appalling state unlike other former Kingdoms in India.
Shaukat Mahal the beautiful palace built by the Bourbons and given as a gift to the Begums is now sadly in a terrible state of decay though it is an architectural marvel of Indo-European architecture.
Please do not let this discourage you, as Bhopal is worthwhile visiting. The influence of the Bourbons , two of which were Prime Ministers of the state during the rule of the Begums, is ever present in all the historical buildings through the Fleur de Lys which was even included in the Royal Court of Arms of the Royal family. In any case, during my research, as I mentioned earlier I visited Shaukat Mahal, Sadar Manzil and Gohar Mahal which had all been all Royal
residences and of course the Bhopal Church constructed by Prince Salvador of Bourbon. Another very interesting place to visit is the Center for Performing and Visual Arts known as Bharat Bhawan and designed by the famous architect Charles Correa in harmony with the surrounding landscape.
I would also recommend the National Museum of Mankind, this institution is spread over 200 acres on the Shamla Hills near the Upper Lake. It is among the largest open-air anthropological museums in India, and showcases tribal art and culture. The museum is located on a prehistoric site and is dotted with painted rock shelters. The outdoor space has been divided into various thematic exhibitions, which contain life-sized dwellings from coastal, desert and mountainous habitats, built by different tribal communities. Located on the hilltop, the indoor museum contains 13 galleries. There’s also a library, an audio-visual archive, and a collection of ethnographic specimens within the premises.
Bhopal has two extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage sites: The Bhimbekta Caves ( 46 Km away which are a cluster of 14 rock shelters which house some of the best prehistoric rock art in the world. The cave paintings date back to the Mesolithic period, and explore themes such as hunting, dancing, music and animals. They also depict animals such as bisons, tigers, lions, wild boars,
antelopes, and elephants, as well as religious and ritualistic symbols. They have been made primarily with red and white colours, with the occasional use of green and yellow. These colours were prepared using natural dyes, minerals, coal, and animal fat.
The other World Heritage site that being a Buddhist fascinated me is Sanchi as it contains some of the finest examples of ancient Buddhist architecture in India. Located at a distance of 40 Km, Sanchi is most famous for its Great Stupa, which was built by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. The stupa has four monumental gateways or ‘toranas’ covered with exquisite carvings. These depict scenes from Buddha’s life, Jataka stories and Buddhist history. Sanchi was a major Buddhist centre from the 3rd century BC until the 12th century AD, and also contains the ruins of several other stupas, temples, pillars, monasteries. Absolutely fascinating!
No visit to Bhopal can finish without going what is for me probably one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. Built by Shah Jehan Begum, the 8th ruler of Bhopal , the Taj-ul- Masjid, is considered one of the largest mosques in Asia. Currently under renovation it is a building of rare beauty.
On my last visit, I decided to split my stay between the Jehun Numa Palace Hotel and the new Jehun Numa Retreat. And what a treat it was. Both establishments pride themselves in their gastronomy but all the vegetables and most of the fruits at the Retreat are sources from their own vegetable gardens that are dotted throughout the property and tendered with love by local women. The retreat is set in the midst of a lush park and has 28 suites exquisitely decorated by Her Royal Highness Begum Bano. The rooms and common areas are an epitome of what I call, understated luxury where even the smallest detail has been considered but nothing is pretentious. The pool and spa is also beautiful and simple in tone with the rest of the property.
Bravo to His Highness Prince Zafar Rashid of Bhopal who is the director of this wonderful property and to his mother the exquisitely elegant and ravishing, Begum Sonia who I saw inspecting the property and assuring herself that even the most seasoned traveler would not leave disappointed.
And may I also suggest that if you are interested in history as I am, there is no more fascinating story than that of the Bourbon prince, Jean Phillipe, the son of the Constable of France and who ended up as Head of the Imperial Army of the Great Moghul, Akbar. His descendants, as I have mentioned before came to Bhopal and Prince Balthazar I and later his son, Prince Sebastian were both Prime Ministers of Bhopal. So why not write to the current head of the family, Prince Balthazar IV of Bourbon-Bhopal and request an audience and listen to the fascinating first hand account of the adventures of the Indian Bourbons.
I highly recommend all my readers that when they next come to India they visit Bhopal. You will not regret it.