bhopal and begums art piece by the lake

Bhopal and Begums

I was invited by Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart (MPTM) in India to attend a travel fair organised by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board from 27-29 October 2017. It was the fourth time that MP Tourism Board organised MPTM, and the objective of the travel fair was to promote Madhya Pradesh as an all-year round destination for domestic and inbound tourists.

For the benefit of my non-Indian readers, Madhya Pradesh is a state in central India. Due to its geographical location, Madhya Pradesh is called “The Heart of India” and is the second largest state in the country. Madhya Pradesh is not often known overseas as a popular tourist destination, unlike Delhi, Taj Mahal or Rajasthan, but the state is rich in heritage, culture and wildlife. For those who like to explore tribal culture, hilltop forts, erotic sculptures in ancient temples and India’s best tiger reserves, Madhya Pradesh is the destination to go.

Despite having been to many places in India, I have not travelled to Madhya Pradesh until that October. Those who know me too well as the ‘Indophile’ from Malaysia, I’m always keen to see and experience more of India, therefore having the opportunity to attend MPTM as media and to be in Madhya Pradesh was something that I had looked forward to.

Begum Rulers

Situated centrally in Madhya Pradesh is the capital city, Bhopal. Bhopal city was named after a 11th century ruler, Raja Bhoj who established the capital over two lakes that were formed as a result of a dam (or pal) built over the rivers that flowed through his kingdom. The capital was named Bhojapal or is presently known as Bhopal.

bhopal and begums raja bhoj statue upper lake
Raja Bhoj statue at Upper Lake

Although Bhopal was founded in the 11th century, it was later transformed as an important albeit small kingdom under the rule of Dost Mohammed Khan, an Afghan soldier and erstwhile general of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. When Aurangzeb died in 1707, the downfall of the Mughal Empire began with rebellions and wars which then led to the depletion of the imperial treasury and exhaustion of the army. In the midst of the chaos and violent feuds, the opportunistic Dost Mohammed Khan fled to Bhopal to establish his own kingdom there.

After surviving several wars, Khan and his descendants created a Muslim dynasty in Bhopal that emerged as one of central India’s leading royal families. Bhopal became a princely state in British India in 1818.

But what is most interesting about the royal families that ruled Bhopal especially in the 19th century was that it was dominated mainly by women rulers – Begums – which was unique in those days. For 157 years of Bhopal’s 240-year span, the city was ruled by its Begum queens, namely, Qudsia Begum, Sikander Begum, Shahjahan Begum and Sultan Jahan Begum.

The Begum queens disregarded the purdah, picked up shooting, horse-riding and military tactics, and defied many norms of Islamic governance in India, much to the chagrin of many men in order to fight and prevail over them to hold the throne. During their reign over Bhopal, the city went through a rapid pace of development whereby the Begum queens revamped Bhopal – they developed efficient public infrastructure and water supply, built roads, implemented administrative reforms, modernized the military, reduced state debts, established schools and colleges especially for girls, promoted the general well-being of its citizens and ensured that all diverse communities lived in peace and harmony.

Apart from public infrastructure works and systems, the Begums also built palaces and sandstone mosques, the former have become derelict unfortunately while the latter especially the Taj-ul-Masjid still dominates the cityscape of Bhopal. Much of the old heritage and architecture can be seen in the walled city of Old Bhopal of which I had the privilege to see and imagine the grandeur of Bhopal royal on a walking tour curated by India City Walks.

Here are some of the photos taken during the guided walking tour:

Iqbal Maidan: The maidan was named after the famous Urdu poet Allama Mohammed Iqbal who had visited Bhopal at least four times between 1934 to 1938.

bhopal and begums sunrise at iqbal maidan
Sunrise at Iqbal Maidan

Sadar Manzil: Built by Shahjahan Begum.

bhopal and begums sadar manzil
Reception Hall of Sadar Manzil

Shaukat Mahal: It is said that Qudsia Begum commissioned a French architect to work on the Shaukat Mahal project which was a blend of post-Renaissance and Gothic style architecture.

bhopal and begums shaukat mahal
Gateway of Shaukat Mahal

Taj-ul-Masjid: Taj-ul-Masjid means ‘Crown of Mosques’ was built by Shahjahan Begum who wanted a replica of Jama Masjid of Delhi in Bhopal. Taj-ul-Masjid is one of the largest mosques in India and Asia which can accommodate up to 10,000 people at a time.

bhopal and begums inside taj ul masjid

Taj Mahal: Not to be confused with Taj Mahal in Agra by Emperor Shah Jahan. This palace was originally called Raj Mahal but the British was so impressed by the architecture that they suggested to Shahjahan Begum to have the name of the palace changed to Taj Mahal. After all, the Begum’s namesake is Shah Jahan 🙂 Sadly, the palace suffered a lot of damage just after Partition in 1947 and by 2008, large parts of the palace complex have collapsed.

bhopal and begums taj mahal facade
Taj Mahal of Bhopal

bhopal and begums taj mahal inner courtyard

bhopal and begums taj mahal palace complex

Parts of the Taj Mahal palace complex

bhopal and begums view of taj ul mosque from taj mahal
View of Taj-ul-Masjid from Taj Mahal

Bhopal Today

Just like any other city in India, Bhopal has the old and new city. The old city still retains its majestic old mosques, the palaces – though neglected – still leaves traces of aristocracy of its former Begum rulers. On the flip side, the new city of Bhopal impresses visitors with its picturesque lakes, broad avenues, parks and gardens, and…cleanliness. The first thing I noticed on my first day in Bhopal was how clean the streets are! With high sense of civic awareness and strict implementation of laws, Bhopal is one of the few greenest and cleanest cities in India. With this contrasting cityscapes, Bhopal is certainly an interesting destination enough to break your journey across The Heart of India.

Upper Lake of Bhopal

bhopal and begums art piece by the lake

 *My stay in Bhopal was part of the invite to Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart (MPTM) 2017. Opinions expressed in this post are my own.


bhopal and begums katpegimana

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