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Bhopal Sunset (Ambuj Saxena)

Bhopal: A destination not a disaster

Ben Redmond spent six months working for an NGO in India's most notorious city and discovered a hidden gem

Ben Redmond

On the 2nd of December 1984, Bhopal entered into the global consciousness when Union Carbide’s imposing pesticide plant vented clouds of toxic gas which drifted over the nearby slums. Thousands died and the health problems derived from the poisoning still persist today. The industrial disaster has come to obscure other perceptions of the city. A Google search for ‘Bhopal’ produces many pages of unhappy reading.

As such, this thriving city which is home to 1.5 million people has never established itself on the tourist map. Bhopal is the capital of Madhya Pradesh, a state the size of Texas, but its reputation has been eclipsed by tragedy. Approaching the main railway station, the Union Carbide plant is seen clearly, looming over the sea of corrugated iron shacks.

A place full of life

Leaving the station, you are thrown into the full chaos of the Islamic old town. Here, sprawling markets of exotic produce hide crumbling architectural relics. Traffic roars through the streets spewing black smog. The incomprehensible mass of activity is fascinating and every conceivable industry takes place by the side of the road. Huge cauldrons of bubbling oil are loaded with samosa. Men sit around in their vests exchanging banter over cups of chai. There is a sharp contrast between the crumbling elegance of the buildings and the anarchic streets.

This area is the historic heart of the city. It was here, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, that a succession of Islamic rulers held jurisdiction over the ‘Princely State of Bhopal’. This dynasty included several powerful women who made a progressive mark on the city. Bhopal’s Islamic heritage is displayed in the numerous mosques which offer sanctuaries of calm within their spacious courtyards. The most impressive of these is the Taj-ul-Masajid, one of the largest in Asia. Its pink minarets tower above the city. Inside, all the noise is stilled and the only disturbances are friendly kids eager to practice their English. A large tree within its walls gives shade and provides a good spot for people-watching.

If the chaos of the old town is not for you, the city also holds a modern centre. New market is the hangout of the city’s liberal middle classes and feels a century away from its conservative counterpart. While still not hugely westernized, this area is calmer and more affluent. Here, shopping has evolved into a leisure activity instead of a necessity. Many residents of suburban Bhopal don’t bother to venture into the Old City, and seem even a little nervous of its pandemonium.

The more modern districts of Bhopal are pleasantly green. Most of the polluting industries have been siphoned off by the nearby city of Indore. The wide boulevards create a spacious feel, although they never quite lose the general disorder that marks urban life in India. Exploring this area using the local buses, which are run like warring clans by private operators, may not suit all visitors. However, there are always plenty of rickshaws. A little friendly haggling and you will never pay more than a couple of pounds for a journey.

Picturesque lakes

The most defining landmarks of Bhopal are its lakes. There are several around the city and even the smallest are worth visiting. Upper Lake, however, is the premier destination. It holds all the kitsch and excitement of a seaside destination, despite being stranded in the centre of the subcontinent. There are stands where ice cream and popcorn are sold alongside more traditional Indian snacks. Young couples stroll side by side, and even hold hands in the more secluded park. Excited children are led past precariously balanced on camels and skittish horses.

Rowing boats and pedalos are available to rent, although the price fluctuates wildly according to how much you are prepared to haggle. It is well worth taking one out and visiting the island temple a little way off shore. If you are feeling less energetic however, then there are great views and picturesque sunsets to be enjoyed. Several restaurants have sprung up along the waterfront, providing a perfect place to relax, drink chai and take in the scenery.

Upper Lake also offers more formal attractions. There is an enormous museum of anthropology, the ‘Museum of Man’, which houses outdoor reconstructions of traditional villages from around the world. Hiring a rickshaw to take you round is recommended, unless you have the whole day to spare and plenty of stamina. If you can find it in the huge grounds, there is also a sprawling indoor section of the museum which gives a fascinating insight to the huge variety of tribal peoples living across India.

Just down the road from the Museum of Man, there is an opportunity to see India’s premier wildlife by bicycle. Van Vihar National Park is closer to a zoo than a national park (luckily for the cyclists) but still offers the chance to glimpse tigers and even an Asiatic lion. On the plus side, there are no fences between you and the less dramatic animals. There is plenty of birdlife to be seen on the route alongside the lake, even occasionally wild pig, snakes and water monitors.

Bhopal’s surrounds

Bhopal also makes a good base for exploring further afield. It is a short journey from two designated World Heritage Sites. If these attractions were elsewhere, there would be crowds of camera-clad enthusiasts descending on them. Instead they manage only a thin trickle of interest. The first, Bhimbetika, is a naturally sculpted labyrinth of sandstone outcrops. This rock formation is worth exploring in itself, a fascinating landscape of otherworldly shapes. However the main draw is the collection of rock paintings and etchings that date back to the Mesolithic period. There are hundreds of these artworks littering the area and though there is a path to guide you through, the sense of restriction is minimal. People have used these rocks as shelter for millennium and the area is still pulling people to it. Carry on up the road from the car park and there is a small temple which draws a steady stream of pilgrims.

The second world heritage site in the vicinity is Sanchi, a series of impressive Buddhist Stupa 30km north of Bhopal. The monuments were built by Emperor Ashoka, an important figure in Indian history, who lived during the 3rd century BC. He was said to have converted to Buddhism after witnessing the carnage of his own empire building. The site was rediscovered in 1818 after 600 hundred years of abandonment and eventually restored. It is one of the oldest Buddhist sanctuaries surviving today. Many of the stupa carry elaborate carvings depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and work.

Nearby this site, on a smaller scale yet just as impressive, are the Udaigiri caves. These receive less publicity than Sanchi but are equally worth a visit. Over the centuries numerous Hindu shrines have been hewn out of a huge rock outcrop by local people. The descendents of these sculptors presumably still live in the small settlement beneath it. Hundreds of idols are carved from the stone and for a small tip the caretaker will show tourists around. In the darkness of the shrines visitors can glimpse numerous Hindu deities as well as the odd roosting bat and large spiders.

Sanchi and the Udaigiri caves could be done together as a day trip from Bhopal and the same is true of Bhimetika. If you want to ensure relaxation, hire a car and driver for the day which will cost around 20 pounds. This could be particularly justified for Bhimetika which is a fair walk from the bus stop. However, the buses provide a more interesting and sociable journey, at the price of a little discomfort. By turning up in the chaotic bus station and stating your destination, you will be bundled into the correct vehicle by whoever is in charge of proceedings. The bus journey will cost around 50p.

Lasting impressions

It is not monuments that leave a lasting sense of a place. Bhopal, to me, is conversations on noisy buses via Hindi phrase books. It is the flavour of unidentified delicacies in the market and the enthusiastic hospitality of the stallholders. It is near-collisions while balanced on the back of mopeds and threading through the rush of traffic. An accumulation of conversations and events, all adding up to an understanding of the city.

While the events of the Bhopal disaster should not be brushed aside, if the city is understood only in the context of tragedy, the wounds are only deepened. My abiding image of Bhopal is vitality. It is a city with a strong, independent identity, not simply a montage of suffering. It is this vibrancy and resilience that reveals the true extent of the Bhopal disaster and offers hope for the future.

Ben Redmond recently returned from six months conducting research for a rural development NGO in Bhopal. You can see more of Ben's work on his website: benjaminredmond.co.uk.

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 Your Comments (5)

  • 7th July by mattyboy876

    I was in Bhopal a few weeks ago and did the Sanchi, Udaiguri caves trip. 20 GBP for a days car/driver hire may be possible if you've spent 6 months there, but if you go to the tourists office in the city or aiport and order a taxi/driver for the day, it cost me 2500rs... around 35GBP for the day.....still well worth it though.


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  • 13th July by lorryc

    Ben, interesting reading. I'd be like to hear more about the work you were doing in Bhopal.



    Though I agree that Bhopal certainly has many interesting places, beauty spots and a certain vibrancy to it that differs from most Indian cities I think that this article misses one fundamental issue. The situation in Bhopal is not a historical event, and the people affected are not suffering only from residual effects of gas exposure.



    Tens of thousands of people continue to live on contaminated land and drink toxic water thanks to Dow Chemical (successor of Union Carbide), and the Indian governments refusal to clean up the factory site. This is an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe that the government are keen to brush under the carpet in favour of promoting lakeside development and encouraging the growth of multi national corporations in India with complexes such as the DB mall, where the 'liberal middle classes' can safely indulge in 'leisure activities' while paying no attention to the abuse of human rights that continues to happen in their own city.



    The people in Bhopal are indeed vibrant and resiliant, none more so than those who continue to be affected by the aforementioned government and corporations criminal negligence in the name of profit and vested interests. Their vibrancy and resiliance is evident every time they fight an unfair court ruling, every time they protest in the street and every time they challenge the injustice that continues to be dealt to them today

     

    I do hope more people visit Bhopal, and experience many of the delights of the city and surrounding areas that you have rightly described above. But not on the pretense that it is a thriving city which has been blighted by a historical event that people continue to dwell on. The issues surrounding Bhopal are so much more complex than that and the buck, to some extent, has to stop, with the Indian Government. They would very much like for us to visit Bhopal, walk along the beautiful lakeside gardens, explore the various museums and marvel at the fact that they actually have McDonalds in Bhopal ( I'm not suggesting that you did ! ). They might even like for us to mingle with the chai wallahs, and have an 'authentic' Indian experience. As long as we don't listen too carefully, because we might not like what we hear.



    Though the city cannot 'only be understood in the context of tragedy' it must be recognised that it most definitely is a tragedy which continues today and the 'montage of suffering'  is likely to increase as future generations continue to be affected by the ongoing contmanination around the factory site. Hope for the future does lie in the spirit of the people in Bhopal. A future for many in Bhopal, however, will only come with justice, clean up and recognition of wrongdoing. 

    Check out www.bhopal.org for more info about the continuing situation.



    Lorrai


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  • 2nd August by andy morris

    Interesting stuff, Ben, but I'm with lorryc on this. The original corporate crime has gone unpunished and the disaster has been exacerbated by corruption, corporate bureaucracy and legalese, which the long-suffering population of Bhopal have not been able to fight collectively or individually.

    The original "compensation" settlement agreed between Union Carbide and the Indian Government - which, incidentally, never trickled down to the victims - was based on a life being valued as GDP divided by the population of India. I can't remember the exact figure (very little) but it clearly demonstrates the cynicism of corporate America generally and Union Carbide specifically. Now part of Dow, just about the biggest chemical giant in thew world, Dow refuses to accept any further liability for the Bhopal disaster while the senior execs enjoy their luxury retirements.

    There is a great, if chilling, book on the subject.  I'll post a link when i find one if anyone's interested.


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  • 2nd August by andy morris

    Re the previous post...here is the link

    Five Past Midnight in Bhopal


    by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro


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  • 4th February by Bhopale

    While agreeing with lorryc and andy morris here, I think it would be better to try and highlight the travel destinations in and around Bhopal. This has the potential of generating employment through tourism. Catch fish, give fish etc.



    Thanks Ben for trying to bring up a Bhopal Beyond the gas


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