It’s hard to correlate romance with a city that has permanently etched its name in the list of disaster cities, thanks to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in December 1984 (which killed an estimated 8000 people and permanently disabled another 4000).
Yet, as one looks down on the swooping vista where two or more lakes are joined together almost till the eye can see, one can sense that this is a place that had a romantic past. Upper Lake (Bada Talaab) is a beautiful water body created during the time of King Bhoj. The Lower Lake (chota talaab) on the other hand was created during the Mughal empire. This lake is separated from the Upper Lake by an over-bridge. Across the lake from the hillock providing the panoramic view is the old city, with the two 18-storey tall minarets of the Taj-ul-Masjid standing high whereas the palace is shrouded in tall bush, grown taller in the recent generous monsoon rain – that has also filled the lakes to their brims.
It was a long long time ago – as this is an old city born in the 11th century – an Afghan soldier, Dost Mohammed, fleeing from Delhi because of the chaos arising from Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s death arrived here and was among the first residents to live here. The soldier-turned mercenary met the Gond queen Kamlapati here and conquered many lands for the feudal territory, finally usurping her land too after her death. Legend says that Kamlapati used to frequently visit the lake on moonlit nights, resting her pretty body on soft cushions on a lotus barge that drifted over the gentle waves of the lake/s. Bhopal was the second largest Muslim state in pre-Independence India, after Hyderabad, and was one of the last states to sign the Instrument of Accession in 1947. The titular Nawab of Pataudi is today regarded as the head of the royal family of Bhopal, with Sharmila Tagore (famous Bollywood actress) a frequent visitor to the city where her family owns prime property, including in close proximity to the lake region.
Even today, as soon as there is a lull in the monsoon rain, sail boats and motor boats head out across the lake, with the city’s citizens enjoying the rare opportunity of water sports – something that is completely lacking in most other parts of the country. In fact, India’s first National Sailing Club was established here and offers kayaking, canoeing, rafting, water skiing and parasailing facilities. A statue of Raja Bhoj, located in Bhojtal – as the Upper Lake area is better known after the BJP-led state government renamed it in 2011 — looks away from these sporting activities towards the city center, chowk area. Around the fringes of the lake sit fishermen with their rods and lines, with a good chance of getting a good catch on this the largest artificial lake in Asia – which was created after a dam was built on the Kolans river. The lake is also used to cultivate water chestnuts and supplies 40 per cent of the city’s water supply. The Van Vihar National Park is located on the south-eastern part of the lake.
Bhopal is the capital of Madhya Pradesh but is much smaller than Indore, which is the state’s commercial center. Its new airport is also less used with only a few flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad every day. Occasionally, tourists are drawn to the city, as it is also the gateway to Sanchi – known for its stupas and one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists – which is located 46 km north-east of Bhopal. The Great Stupa at Sanchi is the oldest stone structure in India and was commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century B.C.
The residents of Bhopal don’t want to easily leave this place, even though business is slack and employment opportunities are limited. Given the beauty of its lakes and the relatively quiet lifestyle of the city, this is indeed a pleasant place when compared to the noisy, ugly, over-crowded and polluted cities that are the capitals of other Indian states. So long as it rains like it does here and the lakes are full, Bhopal will remain an enviably beautiful place!