Relaxing in the lobby of the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in Bhopal, the sepia images of a royal past caught my attention. It was a picture of the Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum Sahiba, one of the long line of Begums, who ruled Bhopal with an iron fist and a warm heart. The palace was built by General Obaidullah Khan, commander-in-chief of the erstwhile Bhopal State Force and the second son of Sultan Jahan. With a view of the entire city and the surrounding countryside, it was aptly named Jahan Numa Palace – the palace with a view of the world.
The palace reflects Obaidullah Khan’s many passions, including a love of horses, and of swords seen in the eclectic collection gracing the hotel walls. Its marbled and antique strewn interiors, the elegant stairway, the rich silk of story-telling carpets, indigenous art and craft on display is replete with history and exudes class without excess. As I walked in the colonnaded verandahs and verdant lawns, I could sense a timeless courtesy, gracious hospitality and fine elegance.
Jehan Numa Palace courtyard
The history of the princely state of Bhopal in central India is unique among the states in India. “For many, the Jehan Numa Palace is synonymous with Bhopal, a city brimming with culture and natural beauty. It is reminiscent of the distinctive influence of the Begums of Bhopal who redefined Bhopali tradition with its combined Muslim and Maratha heritage. They lived king-sized lives, as leaders and commanders, patrons of the arts, benefactors and competent administrators, world travellers and regal hosts,” says Faiz Rashid, Director, Jehan Numa Palace.
Four queens who ruled in succession
At a time when women’s liberation was unheard of, Bhopal was the only state that was ruled by a succession of four queens, beginning in 1819 and going on till 1926. That an Indian state in that era – or any era for that matter – could have been ruled successfully for over a century by women rulers is incredible. This 107-year-old rule was unprecedented in pre-Independent India, and all the more unusual because it happened under Muslim rule. They were hailed as competent rulers because of the developments they initiated in the city, including a postal system, railways and modern waterworks. Being pragmatic rulers, they negotiated and maintained good relations with the British, who in turn treated them with respect.
While Qudsia Begum (reign 1819-44) took the first steps towards women’s liberation in the city when she came out of purdah at the tender age of 18 following the assassination of her husband, her daughter Sikander Jahan Begum (1844-68) proved a worthy successor and fought many battles. Third in line was Shah Jahan Begum (1868-1901), under whose patronage several elegant buildings came up in Bhopal, the best known of which is the Taj Mahal Palace. The last of the Begums was Kaikhusrau Jahan Begum, who ruled from 1901 but abdicated her throne in favour of her son in 1926.
Sights to see
Everywhere in the city, footprints of the Begums are visible. The influence they wielded is spoken of with nostalgic pride and their touch of aesthetics is discernible in the city planning, with its wide roads and walls lined with Gond art. One highlight is undoubtedly Moti Masjid, or pearl mosque, built by Sikander Jahan Begum. Another gem, located in the heart of the old city is the imposing Jama Masjid, built by Qudsia Begum. It is a stupendous work of art crowned with gold spikes atop the minarets. Equally impressive is the Gauhar Mahal, a 19th century royal palace with pretty courtyards, balconies and hallways.
But the crown of all mosques is the Taj-ul-Masjid, Shah Jahan Begum’s dream project. It is believed to be one of the largest stone mosques in Asia.
The building’s huge main hall, two towering minarets, inter-arched roof, cool marble flooring, prayer hall with scalloped ceilings and a spacious courtyard surrounded by fortress-like pink walls is thronged daily by the devout and by tourists. The Sadar Manzil and Shaukat Mahal, former palaces both, also add to the old-world charm of Bhopal.
One can go museum-hopping in Bhopal, considered the museum capital of India. Bhopal has a fun Science Museum and the Birla Museum, which epitomises the rich culture of Madhya Pradesh. It showcases tools from the Neolithic age. The State Archaeological Museum houses a remarkable collection of old scriptures, paintings, 12th century bronzes, photos of the begums, statues and relics from different parts of the country. The anthropological National Museum of Man (Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya), which has 30 prehistoric rock shelters with ancient paintings, is worth a peek. The authentic dwellings, built and maintained by Adivasis using traditional tools and materials, on display here reveal India’s immense ethnic diversity.
But the highlight is the Tribal Museum where you can see artworks hanging from trees and leaping at you from walls, or, in one gallery, from a two-storied wooden porch in the middle. The building is as striking as the exhibits, which celebrate the ways of life practised by seven major tribes in the state through their crafts. The five massive surreal galleries showcase replicas of tribal houses, ritual sites and stunning artisan pieces including trees carved into elaborate wedding pillars. Another couple of galleries showcase the state’s cultural diversity.
After a round of sightseeing and museum-hopping, I headed to Under the Mango Tree, the signature restaurant of the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, where I relished typical Nawabi fare like Baingan Mirch ka Salan ( Nizami style curry with aubergine and green chillies), Bateyar Qorma (farm-raised quails cooked in a Nawabi traditional recipe), Machli ka Salan (a royal recipe prepared using locally caught samal fish) and Bhopali Rizzala (another royal dish of chicken cooked with coriander and poppy seeds).The piece de resistance was the Filfora (Bhopali preparation of coarsely ground meat flavoured with garlic, dry red chilli and mint).
No trip to Bhopal is complete without tasting the street culinary offerings like fluffy poha topped with spicy sev, eaten with crispy jalebis. For breakfast, one can also savour the delectable biryani (not biryani) in the small eateries near the Chowk area.
I nibbled on the legendary meetha paan (betel leaf stuffed with spices and sweetened with dates, rose and sugar syrup) and culminated my culinary trail with a cup of Sulaimani chai, a strong tea brewed with sugar syrup and a pinch of salt.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.