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