The city brimming with natural and cultural beauty carries the legacy of its patrons and administrators for centuries. This capital city of Madhya Pradesh, situated at the heart of the state, is one of the greenest cities in India. It complements the traditional architecture against the planar terrain in terms of urbanity and modernism. The city consisting of historical, cultural, and economic influence, Bhopal, was selected as one of the first twenty Indian cities to be developed as a “smart city” under PM Narendra Modi’s flagship and was also voted as the cleanest state capital city in India for three consecutive years (In 2017, 2018, and 2019). 

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Taj-Ul-Masjid _©Source Wikimedia

Geography: 

Geographically Bhopal is sprawled between the Vindhya and Singarcholi mountains. The city has uneven elevations and includes small hills within its boundaries. The most prominent hills here are namely Idgah and Shyamala hills (in the northern region) and Katana hills (in the south). The beautiful cityscape of Bhopal consists of wide roads, lush greenery, luxurious urban spaces, and modern buildings in undulating, continuous terrain.  

The city is also widely known for the lakes it houses adding up the romance to the beautiful cityscape. It is also called the “city of lakes” for its natural and artificial lakes. These include the largest and oldest lakes and are the primary source of water supply across the city. The two main lakes are the Upper Lake (Bara Talab) and the lower lake (Chhota Talab). The upper lake makes up the 1000 years old heritage of Bhopal and is an important element in shaping the city’s architecture.  

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The lake view of Bhopal _©Source redbubble

Culturally, Bhopal showcases an array of traditions. It has been ruled by both Moghul and Maratha rulers and traces of each culture can still be seen throughout. The Bhupali culture is such that both Hindus and Muslims visit and greet each other during their respective festivals. The exchange of sweets and good wishes takes place during major festivals like Diwali, Eid, Ganesh Pooja, etc.  

The city that shows the significance of its history in every corner is not just culturally but economically rich too. It has a variety of large and medium industries that operate in and around the city; making it an important financial and economic destination in Madhya Pradesh. It is home to multiple educational and research institutions along with installations of National importance like ISRO’s Master Control facility, BHEL, and AMPRI. It also houses the Regional Science Centre- one of the constituent units of the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM).  

History:  

According to folklore, Bhopal city was founded in the 11th century by the Parmar King Bhoja from Dhar. The town thus gets its name from the king. It is said that the city was first called Bhojpal, which later became Bhopal. According to the tales, king Bhoj was suffering from leprosy. One of his physicians suggested he build a lake with water from 365 rivers and take a bath in such a lake. Later, when the lake was built it was called Bhoj Tal (Tal meaning Talao/ Lake) after the king’s name. This led to people calling the city Bhojpal and eventually Bhopal

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Statue of Raja Bhoj _©Source Sunil Deepak

According to another tale, the city was named after another king called Bhupala thus, it was called Bhupal, which later became Bhopal.  

Architecture: 

The architecture of the city is mostly influenced by the Nawabs of Bhopal, who ruled the city for centuries. They helped develop the most attractive tourist destinations in today’s date, like the Taj-Ul-Masjid, and Taj Mahal palace, both showcasing the influence of Indo-Islamic and European architectural styles. Another architectural marvel of Bhopal is Bharat Bhavan. It is a prominent cultural center of the city and holds multiple theatre and film festivals every year. The complex was designed by Ar. Charles Correa. It includes an art gallery, an open-air amphitheater, and a tribal museum.  

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Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal _©Source archdaily

The architectural history of Bhopal can be said to have started with the pre-historic man when he wandered along the slopes of Dharmapuri and Lal Ghati along the Bara Talab (upper lake). The human presence in this location was attested by the cave paintings and the rock shelters. Although the caves and rock shelters lay in ruins currently, it is believed that they formed the base for the architectural heritage of the city. One can find evidence of pre-historic dwellings in Bhimbetka caves (around 35km from Bhopal city). The rock paintings in the caves show examples of pre-historic human residences during the Paleolithic era. The Bhimbetka caves are located between the Sal and Teak forests housing a total of 600 caves, out of which only 12 are accessible to visitors. A short trail leads around the caves that were discovered in 1957 by Wakankar. The Bhimbetka caves were announced as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. 

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Bhimbetka caves, Bhopal _©Source Blogspot
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Bhimbetka caves, Bhopal _©Source Blogspot

During king Bhoja’s rule in the early 11th century CE (1010-1053CE), Bhopal served as the guardian city to Bara Talab- which became the grace of the city and stands strong even today. Since this period, the city has been through many phases and destructions but the city core remains intact which is prominently observed through its built heritage representing the successive layers of history.  

The city is said to have been ravaged in the 13th century CE when Dost Mohammed laid the foundation of the city ramparts near the older decayed settlements of Bhopal. Dost Mohammed Khan was a Pashtun soldier in the Moghul army who started providing mercenary services in the politically unstable regions of Malwa. He conquered and annexed Bhopal Taul from the Gond queen Kamalpati. In the 1720s, he developed Fatehgarh Fort on the highest plateau towards the North of Bara Talab, which eventually developed into Bhopal city in the upcoming years.  

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Fatehgarh Fort, Bhopal _©Source tourmytrip

Bhopal city during this period underwent multiple civic constructions resulting in a varied and sophisticated urban fabric. Public buildings such as Fort walls, Hammams, Hathi Khannas, Serais, and Mosques, were constructed with funds collected from the common people.  

Hammams were the public bathing areas. They were chambers with no windows. Serais were the shelters for visiting merchants who were visiting the city for a temporary period on business occasions. Hathi Khannas were similar shelters as that of Serais, except they were used for keeping the elephants of visiting Mahaots (Elephant keepers). 

The streets during this period were narrow, measuring approximately 4m in width. The buildings surrounding the streets were not too tall and generally went up to 3-4 floors maximum – giving a sense of enclosure to the streets. The houses had verandas in front of them called Pattias and were used as sit-outs by the residents. The Pattias of different buildings matched with each other in a synchronized manner. They were the centers of daily interaction between people as they would sit on the pattias daily in the evening for communication.  

Another common meeting point for the residents was the Akharas. These are the Indian versions of gymnasiums; except they are mud pits equipped with all facilities for physical training and fitness. 

One of the most imminent events in the history of Bhopal was when Pul Pukhta was constructed in 1794 CE. It was a dam spanning across Ban Ganga and Patra Valleys and was built of stone masonry. The dam collected water into a small lake (one-tenth of the Bara Lake) and was later named Chhota Talab (small lake). 

Bhopal was repeatedly attacked till about 1819 CE, and thus the city does not showcase any major construction during this period. Until a treaty with the British East India Company was formed, which safeguarded the city against invasions.  

During the reign of the four queens between 1819-1926, Bhopal’s architecture underwent major changes. Bhopal city is thus also known as “The land of Begums”. It is the ONLY state that was ruled by a succession of four queens during a time when the liberation of women was unheard. The unusual 107-year-old rule was unprecedented in the pre-independent era since it happened under Muslim rule.  

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The Begums of Bhopal _©Source Hiba Shaikh

This Begum rule marks an important event in the history of Bhopal as they redefined the traditions of the city. They maintained good relations with the British and received respect from them in return. They introduced a touch of aesthetics into Bhopal’s architecture and built influential nostalgic structures which were apparent in the city planning. They lived king-sized lives and the structures built during their rule are evidence of that.  

An example of such grandeur would be the Jami Mosque (Built during 1833-1856 CE). The Jami Mosque was built during the rule of Qudsia Begum. She was the first lady to rule the city (between 1819-1844) at the tender age of 18 when her husband was assassinated. The Jami Mosque showcases minarets that are visible from all parts of the city.  

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Jami Mosque _©Source tourmyindia

The second Begum that ruled Bhopal after Qudsia Begum was her daughter Sikander Jahan Begum (between 1844-68). She fought many battles during her rule and proved herself worthy of succession. During her rule, Moti Mahal was constructed in the Northern part of Gohar Mahal which became a prominent heritage of Bhopal. It was built by the Begum in 1847 CE and became an administrative center for the residentials.  

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Moti Mahal _©Source tourmyindia

The buildings constructed during this period became the foundation for the beginning of a new urban center in Bhopal. The individual buildings formed a part of the overall city image and each was equally important as any monument. This displayed a sense of power and authority. The Khirniwala Maidan Complex is another example of architectural wonders from this period. The complex took 50 years to complete and still achieved a sense of oneness by controlling architectural elements like parapet design, uniform building height, the plinth level of buildings, etc.  

In 1848, Sikander Jahan Begum commissioned David Cook, an English engineer to develop lakefronts and plan water systems across the city. This was the first time the town was introduced to proper water management systems.  

During the same period, Baoli (step wells) were introduced. Baoli is an architectural marvel Bhopal is most famous for. It is a stepped well constructed out of red sandstone. It has two stories above the water level and the steps lead one into the water. The steps are flanked with stone carved walls. A presence of columned chambers is observed above the water level giving an aesthetically pleasing appearance.  

Around the same time, the city also showed remains of an Aqua-duct in Jehangirabad. It is present on the Southern-East bank of the Chhota Talab. The water can be pulled up to 15m with the help of Chawars (A leather bag used in pulling water from wells with the help of animal power such as bulls). The water is pulled into the water channels on top of a gradually sloping wall, which then after traveling a certain distance flow into a pond. This pond, back in the day, served the Noor Bagh and also met the needs of Afghan troops who used to quarter in the area. 

After the successful rule of Sikander Jahan Begum, her daughter Shah Jahan Begum took the throne (served between 1868-1901). She was responsible for the development of Shahjahanabad in 1870 which is a suburb towards the North of Bhopal. It was surrounded by city walls from all sides and included social spaces like ‘Bazaars’, Galla Mandis (Grain markets), storehouses, Serais, residential quarters, and institutions. The city showcased an Id-gah (Mosque) at the highest peak of the landscape. In the center of the city, a three-terraced lake was created with water cascading from one to another. 

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Shah Jahan Begum (1868-1901) _©Source Bourne and Shepherd

The palaces and residences of the noble people were designed along the three lakes. The uppermost lake of these three was called Motia Talab, the intermediate was called Noor mahal Talab, and the lowest lake was called Munshi Hussaini Talab. The primary source of water to fill the lakes was the surface run-off water during seasonal rains. An additional reservoir was constructed to the north of the city to maintain the water level in these lakes. The water was collected and brought to the lakes with the help of an elaborate system of brick-lined vaulted drains. They passed through different important structures such as splashing fountains, gurgling cascades, and sheets of water (Chadars) before finally bringing water into the lakes. These structures were carved out of stones and they were generally added with rose water or Kewda water for cool and fresh air. 

Noor Mahal and Taj Mahal palace were constructed during the same period. These royal residences were connected through a rail line. Taj Mahal Palace is a great example of Hindu and Islamic architecture. Its beautiful architecture attracts tourists and travelers from around the world. Cusped arches, huge gateways, screen windows on the top floors, elaborate plasterwork, vast moldings, and squat domes with Jharokhas (an overhanging enclosed balcony) are some of the features on display. The inner courtyard of the palace showed colonial influence on its facades. 

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Taj Mahal Pace_©Source Blogspot

Another architectural wonder from this period was the Benazir Palace, situated Northwest of Taj-Ul-Masjid. It was built in 1875 and is planned in H- shape. It shows the presence of terrace gardens and Gurgling fountains. The palace has a series of steps and plinths in the form of a Ghat that descends into a lake. It was built as a summer palace for the Nawabs. The palace was made with steel columns and carved louvered partitions and showcased extensive carvings on the walls of the Hammams. It is an excellent example of the use of passive thermal control. The palace was also used for accommodating state dignitaries. A gateway was added later to the palace, which is the most ornamental gate of the old Bhopal. It has multi-foliated arched openings and staircases in far corners that lead to the Chhatris (Domed Kiosks).  

The last Begum to rule Bhopal was Sultan Jahan Begum, who ruled between the period 1909-1926. She was the Begum of the future, meaning she ruled in the present with eyes set on the future. Sultan Jahan Begum was a patron of learning. She supported and constructed the Sultania Girls School and Alexandria Noble school (also known as Hamidia High School) during her rule. She helped develop many important buildings during her reign but eventually, she abdicated her throne in 1926 for her son. 

After the end of the Begum rule, Bhopal began to see the dominance of colonial architecture. It happened after 1901 CE (until this period, they had merely influenced the city’s vernacular architecture). This resulted in the addition of public buildings such as Revenue courts, Court of Justice, Minto Hall, Civil club, Hamidia Kutubh Khana (library), Imperial bank, and the Edward Museum. Along with public buildings, many residential bungalows were constructed in picturesque locations. The architecture of the buildings mostly followed the European style, including raised plinths and high ceilings. These structures did not showcase any decorative elements and thus, it reduced the scope for the local craftsmen to showcase and exercise their skills which were passed on to them through generations.  

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Minto Hall _©Source Patrika

The vast history of Bhopal is not only a witness of the different rulers that ruled the city; but also encompasses a variety of architectural influences from the said periods. The development of the city in terms of urbanization and architecture only shows how the structures were designed in consideration and harmony with their surrounding nature and sustainable practices. The town that faced changing times, destruction, and resurgence throughout its history from the different dynasties- ranging from the ancient tribal communities to both Hindu and Muslim rulers- is a living example of a legacy left behind by the said eras. And one can witness these legacies throughout the city- in terms of built heritage.  

References:

Bhopal (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal 

(no date) Bing. Microsoft. Available at: https://www.bing.com/search?q=bhopal%2Barchitexturez&qs=n&form=QBRE&sp=-1&pq=bhopal%2Barchitexture&sc=2-19&sk=&cvid=3D5F435E2C5845DEA5F32731D3196F59&ghsh=0&ghacc=0&ghpl= 

Deshpande, R. (2021) The Architectural Heritage of Bhopal – top 10 places for architects., archEstudy. Available at: https://archestudy.com/architectural-heritage-of-bhopal-top-10-places-for-the-exploring-architect/

Visiting Bhopal – the land of begums, architectural wonders and museums (2019) The News Minute. Available at: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/visiting-bhopal-land-begums-architectural-wonders-and-museums-103309 

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