Bhopal has a number of mosques. The most famous and the largest among them is the Taj-ul-Masjid in old part of town. I don’t know about the present, but in the past it must have been a town dominated by Muslims.
‘That’s the reason why BHEL was started,’ comments my mom’s cousin who retired many years ago from BHEL. I am staying in his two bedroom apartment which he purchased many years ago for a few lakhs of rupees. Today it is worth more but property prices here are so much lower in comparison to Bangalore. An important landmark near his house is the Piplani petrol pump where I had alighted on my way into town from Raisen.
‘The government did not want a Muslim majority in Bhopal,’ he adds. Only on paper we are a secular nation. Everything we do does not suggest that.
Bhopal’s public transport is lacking in one aspect but it is better in others. There are no public buses like in Bangalore but it is easy to get around places using shared tempos. Tata Motors has come up with Tata Magic. It is a vehicle built for the specific purpose of shared transportation in places where public transport is otherwise lacking. Riding in one doesn’t cost much and it is a suitable replacement for a bus. The only problem is that these vehicles are privately operated and will depart only if there are enough passengers. It can be a long wait sometimes, particularly in off-peak hours. During the late hours, getting around can be a real problem.
After many days on the road, a comfortable stay here is rather welcome. Home cooked food is in order but because Mr Chelvaraj and his family have been here for decades, their cuisine is a mix of both North and South. They prefer rotis to rice in general.
I hop into a Tata Magic, change once and get off at Moti Masjid. From here a short walk brings me to Kamla Park where I take a little stroll. This is a nicely maintained park. To the east, it faces the Lower Lake. My next visit is the Bharat Bhawan, a well-known cultural center of town. I have to blame my own bad planning for coming here so early in the morning. I learn that it opens to the public only in the afternoon. Disappointed I wander along the shores of the Upper Lake. What a surprise! I have not expected or even known that Bhopal has such a large and clean lake. At this hour, the paddle boats given out for rent are idle along the shoreline. A couple is kissing under the shade of a tree on one of the benches, an unusual public scene in India. They are so busy feeling each other that they don’t notice me walking close by.
From here it is a short walk to the Museum of Man, also known as the Maanav Sangralaya. This place is so vast that it bowls me over completely. It is truly a place to discover the myriad cultures of India, particularly of rural India. Near the entrance are terracotta horses so common in rural Tamil Nadu. They often decorate open village shrines. Then I pass thatched round huts, a type of construction common in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The decorations inside these huts are plaster frames studded with mirrors. The walls are mud-covered. Their natural texture and colour appeal to me. There are huts constructed in different architectural designs. There are a couple of temple chariots elsewhere. Facades sculpted in stone give a glimpse of great havelis from Jaisalmer of Rajasthan. Elsewhere, a trail introduces folk tales and myths from different parts of the country. These are presented through a mix of paintings, terracottas, painted pottery and hero stones. Later I come across different types of houses made of wood and bamboo from the North-Eastern part of India. The decorations on a building from Nagaland is quite impressive. I realize that this is not a museum of dead cultures and lost times. In much of India, people still live like this. This museum is a window to real India without having to visit these remote places. Towards evening I go indoors to visit the superb collection within. Frankly, the place is too much to cover in one visit.
There is a nice restaurant here and I stop there for lunch. I order makka roti with aloo. Usually this type of roti is ordered with sarson ka saag but he doesn’t have that and offers me aloo instead. It takes time for my lunch to arrive but it’s worth the wait. The roti is nicely done and the aloo is tasty. I am tasting makka roti for the first time. I have to say that it is very similar to arsi roti so common in Tamil Nadu which my mother sometimes makes at home.
I have wandered in the Museum of Man way too long. I rush to the Taj-ul-Masjid which I reach at the hour of evening prayer. It is a beautiful mosque of three large domes and two tall minarets. The southern minaret is covered partly by scaffolding. The red facade is offset beautifully by white domes, smaller white domes over the minarets and white chhatris at the top of the pishtaq. The mosque has beautiful interiors of arched spaces and marble floors. The mosque appears to be of the traditional ninefold plan of hasht bihisht.
People are afraid to leave their footwear outside. They carry them in their hands into the mosque, some leave theirs at the stairs. I wait till the prayers are done. Later I go in to admire the interiors. By now the sun has set. Muslim boys are playing cricket in the ground behind the mosque. I walk back my way to the Moti Masjid. I spend a few minutes here but darkness has set in. It makes no sense to linger any longer. I walk through the streets of old Bhopal. I pass a market of dry fruits and nuts, the vendors calling out to passing customers. Almonds, walnuts, dried grapes, dried figs, pistachios, cashewnuts are spread out in heaps. There is variety in each of them. I buy some of them but leave out the pistachios which are the most expensive of the lot.
I am sure Bhopal has much more to offer and a more leisurely stay is in order. But I have to be on my way for my journey is long. I have to be content with a day’s sample of Bhopal.