Bhopal is a city in central India, and the capital of the state
of Madhya Pradesh. It is roughly 360 miles south of the Indian capital,
New Delhi, and has a population today that approaches 1.5 million.
Bhopal's population was only 850,000 in 1984 when, as a result of
the Union Carbide gas leak, half a million people were exposed to
The capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal was built on the site of
the 11th Century City of Bhojpal, founded by the Parmara King Bhoj
(1000-1055). The city was originally known as Bhojpal, named after
Bhoj and the dam ('pal') that he is said to have constructed to
form the lakes surrounding Bhopal.
The present city of Bhopal was founded by one of Emperor Aurangzeb's
Afghan soldiers Dost Mohammed Khan, who took advantage of the chaos
that followed Aurangzeb's death in 1707 and managed to establish
his small kingdom in Bhopal. Although the kingdom was small, it
survived several wars and became a princely state in British India
|The upper lake
of Bhopal. Pastels by Jeff
Stride, used with permission.
Bhopal reached its height of culture, arts and public works under
the enlightened rule of the Begums, a 19th century dynasty of Muslim
women. Although not officially recognized as a Begum, Mamola Bai
(1744-95) ruled for 50 years from ‘behind the curtain’
(purdah) on behalf of her late husband’s ineffective sons.
The accepted rule of the Begums dates from the accession of the
18-year-old Qudsia Begum (1819-37), who seized control after the
assassination of her husband. Although she was illiterate, she was
brave and refused to follow the purdah tradition. She declared that
her 2 year old daughter Sikander would follow her as the ruler of
Bhopal, and none of the male family members dared challenge her
decision. She was legendary for the care that she took of her subjects,
eating her meals only after receiving the news every night that
all her subjects had taken meals. She also invested in public works,
building the Jama Masjid of Bhopal and a beautiful palace, the Gohar
Mahal. Qudsia carefully prepared her daughter Sikandar to rule,
laying the foundations for what would become Bhopal's golden age.
In 1844, Sikander Begum (1844-68) rose to power. Her name, which
means ‘Alexander the Great’ in Arabic, proved prophetic
in its description of her physical power and courage. Sikander was
trained in the martial arts, fought in many battles, and never observed
the purdah. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, she sided with
the British and crushed those who revolted against them. However
Sikander was also an enlightened modernist and a reformer, presiding
over administrative, social and educational reform that made Bhopal
a haven for scholarship and culture and a centre for building, arts
Her successor, Shah Jahan Begum (1868-1901) proved a marked contrast
to her powerful mother but she still left a considerable mark in
architecture, music, poetry and the arts. In fact, like her Mughal
namesake emperor Shah Jahan, she bore a particular passion for architecture,
and invested heavily in a series of elaborate public works that
beautified the city.
Sultan Jahan Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan Begum, succeeded her
in 1901, ruling until the succession of her son (and the end of
the Begums) in 1926.
the largest mosque in India. Pastels by Jeff
Stride, used with permission.
She further advanced the emancipation of women and established
a modern municipal system. She had her own palace Sardar Manzil,
but she preferred the quiet and serene environment at the outskirts
of the city. She developed her own walled mini-city, named Ahmedabad
after her late husband (not to be confused with Ahmedabad, Gujarat).
Sultan Jahan combined Muslim piety with ardent reform and became
an international figure as first president of the All India Conference
on Education and first chancellor of the Muslim University of Aligarh.
The peaceful rule of Begums led to the rise of a unique mixed culture
in Bhopal. The Hindus were given important administrative positions
in the state. This led to communal peace and a cosmopolitan culture
took its roots. Even the Pathans, famous for their roughness and
soldier-like nature, acquired a taste of culture and indulged in
poetry, arts and literature.
Today, Bhopal remains a city of considerable beauty. The two lakes
of Bhopal still dominate the city; bordered along their shores are
the old city with its marketplaces, magnificent mosques and palaces,
and the new city with its verdant, exquisitely laid out parks and
gardens, broad avenues and streamlined modern buildings.
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City of Bhopal