The other night, I came face-to-face with Clint Eastwood.
I found him at the Cowboy Restaurant, Bar & Lounge, a new nightspot in Bhopal. Silhouettes of bucking broncos gleamed from the lamps overhead. A waiter handed me a cowboy hat. And then I approached Eastwood – poised on a poster for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
That iconic title says something about the Indian city’s image. Bhopal is known for plenty of bad and ugly, with good reason. Seared into public memory, this is the site of the December 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, arguably the world’s worst industrial disaster. After 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate seeped out from the pesticide factory, thousands of people died, and hundreds of thousands were left to struggle with serious illnesses. Such misery cannot be forgotten.
Yet Bhopal also deserves a break. As a city with a tranquil waterfront, outstanding museums and an intriguing history steeped in Islamic heritage, it aches for discovery by tourists. It’s time to tip a hat at its good.
Think of Dresden. The German city lost 25,000 people and much of its gorgeous architecture when it was bombed during the Second World War. But now, it tantalises visitors with its classical music, abundant greenery and reconstructed Old Town.
The same broad-minded principle ought to apply to Bhopal. Travellers need not fear risk of toxic exposure. Bhopal’s main attractions lie well beyond the wards affected by gas 32 years ago. Meanwhile, the city doesn’t rely on groundwater for drinking water, instead drawing water from the Upper Lake and Kolar Dam. Rather, travellers can reach farther back in time, and revel in a city that was once ruled consecutively by four Muslim women, from 1819 to 1926.
Known by the honorific Begum, each woman won praise for her administrative prowess and feisty spirit. The first of these rulers, Qudsia Begum, delighted in riding camels, elephants and horses. Her daughter, Sikander Begum – known for her zeal for judicial reform and education – also had a belligerent streak. After Sikander’s disgruntled husband lashed out at her with a sword, “her favourite sport became terrorising [him] with gunfire and arrows, or by cavalry charges”, wrote one of her descendants, Abida Sultaan.
Mixing bravery with devotion came naturally to Sultan Jahan Begum, who ruled for 25 years. This burqa-clad globetrotter embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1904, enduring choppy seas and desert attacks. Later, in 1911, she attended King George V’s coronation in Britain, and subsequently toured Paris, Vienna and Budapest. In Istanbul, the Sultan of Turkey presented her with a prized relic: a sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammed.
Portraits of the Begums hang in the halls of Jehan Numa Palace, a luxury heritage hotel in Bhopal that offers buffet feasts, a pool and an adjoining horse track. “Bhopal is really virgin land in terms of tourism,” says the hotel’s general manager, Gaurav Rege. Though his hotel gets ample corporate business and local patronage, tourists account for only 8 per cent of occupants.
Some overseas visitors do stop at the Jehan Numa on their way to Sanchi to view the famed Buddhist stupas and their intricately carved gateways. Others grab a bite before heading to Bhimbetka, an important and mysterious site of ancient rock art. Wildlife enthusiasts have also paused for breakfast, en route to a tiger-spotting adventure in a national park.
But staying within city limits has its own rewards. Locals are particularly proud of Bhopal’s vast man-made lake, known as Upper Lake. At the water’s edge, weightlifters work out at sunset. This 31-kilometre water body was created in the 11th century, but meets a contemporary need for contemplation. Rowing boats convey visitors to the Shah Ali Shah dargah, an island shrine that draws people of all faiths. Devotees make wishes with bits of coloured thread.
Serenity can also be found at the historic Taj Ul Masajid, a huge sanctuary of red sandstone and graceful minarets. Inside, young madrassa students lean over their prayer books. From here, visitors can wend their way to the vibrant lanes of the old quarter, where kebabs, rotis and handmade sweets vie to satisfy roaming appetites. Shalwar kameez and sari shops are crammed together with outlets for household items and stationary. Crafts from north-eastern India are laid out for display in the graceful courtyard of Gohar Mahal, once the retirement refuge of Qudsia Begum.
Beyond the old quarter, hop into an auto rickshaw or taxi. Save the pedestrian energy for the Museum of Man, a scattered array of open-air exhibitions and dense galleries that provide insight into the anthropological diversity of India. Other attractions are dotted along the surprisingly smooth, broad roads conjured by modern city planners. For those weary of traffic jams in Bangalore and Mumbai, Bhopal seems like a breeze.
My favourite destination is the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum. Don’t expect an inert display of baskets and beads. This innovative museum – inaugurated in 2013, and still evolving – illustrates tribal myths and belief systems, rendered on a huge, theatrical scale. High ceilings, dramatic lighting, surreal juxtapositions and vivid colour contribute to an immersive experience.
Drums dangle from trees. Colourful rods spiral from a woman's neck into the sky. Carved birds cavort in mid-air. It's the kind of place that would inspire Julie Taymor, the creator of The Lion King musical.
The museum was put together by more than 1,000 tribal artists, helmed by a contemporary Bhopal painter and curator, Chandan Bhatty. Bhatty managed to coordinate members of the state’s seven major tribes: the Gond, Bheel, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol and Bhariya. Together, they put in 18-hour days to complete the work, over a period of two years.
“We tried to capture the essence of their understanding of life,” says Shampa Shah, a ceramic artist who worked as an independent consultant for the museum. That meant creating an ambience that would make visitors “feel the presence of the spirits”, she adds.
Next door lies the State Museum of Bhopal – not as flashy as its neighbour, but still worth a visit. Impeccably preserved stone sculptures invite sustained attention, such as the 10th-century rendering of Hindu goddesses Vaishnavi and Kaumari. Upstairs, visitors can glimpse the softer side of Shah Jahan Begum in paintings and photographs. She nurtured poets, wrote verses herself and resided in her own lavish version of the Taj Mahal.
Unlike its namesake in Agra, this Taj Mahal is now little more than a fragile wreck. Tourism officials intend to forge a public/private partnership to build a luxury hotel on the site. Only scattered touch-ups reveal a hint of colour. It’s one of the city’s few disappointments. The Begums deserve better.
Limited funds and scant technical expertise have hampered the government’s efforts, explains Narayan Vyas, a retired archaeologist from the Archaeological Survey of India. However, he points out that restoration is proceeding steadily in nearby Islamnagar, which briefly served as the capital of the Bhopal princely state.
As for nightlife, the city is certainly more subdued than Mumbai. Yet a pioneering cultural complex called Bharat Bhavan presents a range of live music, from the Chhattisgarh folk diva Tijan Bai to the smooth Hindustani vocals of the Banaras gharana. Bharat Bhavan is now working on making more than 1,400 recordings of its live performances available in a publicly accessible archive.
Designed by the renowned Indian architect Charles Correa, the lakeside cultural centre also stands out for persuading visitors that contemporary folk paintings should be seen in the context of modern art. The idea of rigid categories is thrown out the window.
And Union Carbide? There’s no need to trudge through the weeds surrounding the decrepit factory. A fine way to honour the dead, and understand the difficulties of the survivors, is to visit the Remember Bhopal Museum (www.rememberbhopal.net). The museum tells the story through powerful oral histories, stark black-and-white portraits and posters once held aloft by activists.
It’s a poignant and haunting reminder of the disaster, but 32 years on, Bhopal has much to offer beyond its tragic history.