While the North of Bhopal echoes its rich history with notable structures and monuments like mosques, bazaars, and narrow lanes; the South of Bhopal reflects the contemporary side.
By Sulakshna Wadhwa
Bhopal, a city in the heart of India and a kaleidoscope of the old-world charm and new-age plush is often neglected when planning one’s travels. We recently visited this city of lakes and found ourselves amongst many global travellers who were pleasantly surprised, more than once, like we were. This capital city of Madhya Pradesh is a beautiful tale of contrasts woven over the years and some crafted in the contemporary landscape. While the North of Bhopal echoes its rich history with notable structures and monuments like mosques, bazaars, and narrow lanes; the South of Bhopal reflects the contemporary side of the now cosmopolitan city housing luxurious malls, cafes, hotels. We put together the many experiences to help one explore this multifaceted city.
Upper Lake and the intriguing history of Bhopal
Bhopal is regarded as the City of Lakes since it is home to several lakes. The most popular one being the Upper Lake which is also known as Bhojtal, named after King Bhoj, the oldest man-made lake. An interesting backstory suggests that the lake was built by a king to cure his skin disease. When doctors couldn’t help him, the king turned to a saint’s advice to build and bathe in a lake combining water from 365 tributaries thus giving birth to the popular Upper Lake or Bada Talaab.
Upon driving or walking past the corner of the lake, a statue of the king greets onlookers. The Upper Lake is of significance to Bhopal because it is the primary source of water for irrigation on livelihood and agriculture in the area depend.
Apart from its contribution to the city in many practical ways, Upper Lake is also a frequently visited spot by locals and tourists to indulge in some water activities like boating, motorbiking, sailing, parasailing, rafting and kayaking. These activities are offered at the Boat Club, located on the East of the lake. If you’re simply looking to indulge in a quiet evening, the promenade by the water body offers public seating for one to enjoy the serenity of a sunset, the lake, and the company of some bougainvillaea. Despite its large footfall, and the presence of many food hawkers around, the cleanliness exuded at the promenade is note-worthy. Many cafés surround this place to offer a splendid view and quick bites as it’s a popular hangout spot.
While a visit to the Upper Lake was a glimpse into a typical Friday evening in Bhopal, it was the enchanting embrace of modernity by the city which makes it welcoming for global travellers.
Bhopal’s rich history meets modern-day luxe
Imagine entering through a Romanian Green door opening up to a restaurant with Sicilian interiors, open kitchen like a typical Italian household and light Italian music descending on your ears. We bet you would be convinced you’re about break bread at a restaurant in Italy. The waft of the freshly prepared wood-fired pizzas from had teleported us to a pizzeria in Rome until we remembered reading the name La Kuchina before the entering this experiential restaurant in Jehan Numa Palace in Shamala Hills.
The dine-in experience over scrumptious authentic food and warm hospitality at La Kuchina was the first tell-tale sign of the impressive global attributes exuded by this heritage property. When you enter a place as rich in its history, you expect ancient architecture to be dominant. While this 19th Century royal home preserves its classic aesthetics in fine details it marries the contemporary world effortlessly through nuances reflected in its restaurants, courtyard and rooms.
A walk down the lobby presents intriguing portraits narrating tales of the Begums of Bhopal who ruled the city. The history behind this saga of the ancient and modern world is as interesting as the palace property.
It was built in 1890 during the rule of Nawab Sultan Jehan Begum, and named after her by her second son General Obaidullah Khan. After the death of the General in 1924, the palace continued to be a secretariat till 1952 to eventually becoming a hostel rented to the Government, and then becoming the office of the Geological Survey of India till 1981. It was finally in 1983 that Jehan Numa opened its doors to the public becoming a world-class heritage hotel in 1983 and earning the title of Heritage Grand Hotel in the year 2000, the first of its kind in Central India.
The experience here too is that of a Royal when one can witness the palace’s well-bred horses pacing on the track by the pool early in the morning and in the evenings. A respite for the leisure traveller is that this view can be enjoyed straight from an imperial room’s colonial balcony.
This place has been a Bollywood favourite and has earned the loyalty of some of the most popular faces; we can safely conclude why. The top of the game cuisines across thematic restaurants, the rich heritage, beautiful interiors and most importantly the warm hospitality that begins with Indian Greetings- Namaste! (As the staff folds their hands at every step), ends with extreme attention to detail of any guest requirement.
Co-existing with nature
After experiencing a weekend at the state-of-the-art palace, we didn’t expect any further surprises, at least not the ones that would surpass our expectations. A visit to the Van Vihar National Park on a Monday with the drizzle as our companion led us to a view right in the lap of nature. A national park that overlooks the Upper Lake, lets one cycle as they find themselves encountering the rich wildlife. If you’re fortunate, you would see a deer leisurely take a walk on the road stretch, or you can spot the herd adjacent as you enter. Drive, walk or ride further and you will be witnessing many members from the wildlife community such as Tigers, Sambhar, Cheetal, Albino Sloth Bear at a safe distance among 200 species of chirping birds in the background of this preservation of flora and fauna.
A visit to this natural forest will make you want to be around its company and you will be amused to learn that you can live on the edge of this very forest at the Jehan Numa Retreat. A humongous haven for travellers, it is truly exemplary of co-existing with nature. The rooms here built in cottage fashion invite natural light descending through the glass pane of the windows, and open to an outdoor veranda seating invites conversation between nature and the guests.
These magnificent rooms are a bear hug to a city dweller as they provide abundant space, and reconnect one to the often-forgotten joy of spending quality time in lush green company. This natural touch extends to an open-shower allowing one to soak in the sun and truly calling it a refreshing morning.
The conscious effort to towards sustainability is note-worthy through the elimination of plastic usage. The one with nature feeling accentuates as you set out for a stroll amidst this 12-acre of greenery in the heart of India. This ultimate outskirts’ experience is made a memorable one with the farm-to-table concept. Imagine having fresh vegetables and fruits plucked straight from the soil of Jehan Numa Retreat expertly prepared by the team, and served as succulent fresh meals beaming with the aromatic freshness of the garden against the windy chills of Bhopal.
We enjoyed this experience of gourmet organic food at Under The Jamun Tree, an open-air restaurant under the shade of a Jamun tree which looks mesmerizingly beautiful with traditional lamps illuminating the experience. Every minute here truly reminds one how an Earthy experience should feel.
A walk, further along, took us to what we thought was a nursery filled with plants, but to our surprise, it was a full-fledged café serving food that is easy on the palate and health. It stood under the shade of surreal hues of the sunset blanketed sky and lit with ferry lights painting a picture of paradise.
A Potpourri of culture and architecture
Inhabited by an equal population of Hindus and Muslims, the culture in Bhopal is an interesting one. A major reflection of this culture can be witnessed in the architecture of the many monuments, and experienced through its cuisine. Some of the must-try local delicacies include kebabs, biryani, chaat, poha jalebi, Bhopali paan. The must-visit places include Taj-Ul-Masjid, India’s largest mosque, Dhai seedhi ki Masjid, Asia’s smallest mosque. Tribal Museum, Birla Mandir, Bhimbetka caves are among the other must-visit places in Bhopal.
When travelling to Bhopal:
Distance from the airport to the main city – 12 kms.
Major railway stations in Bhopal – Bhopal railway station in Old Bhopal, Habibgunj railway station in New Bhopal.
Getting around Bhopal – Buses, Autos, Private cars.
Average internal commute time – 15 minutes.
(The author is a Mumbai-based travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)