Bhopal - Then and Now
Updated: Mar 15
Two hundred years in retrospect, Bhopal is one of the few areas of the country that was allowed to grow uninterrupted over hundreds of years. Some sources trace its name back to the 11th century Malwa King, Bhoja. To add a buffer between him and his adversaries, he established the settlement and the lake that flanks its West (Bhojtal, which is ubiquitous with the city today). Several centuries passed under the Paramara and Gondwana dynasties, the latter of whom retained their autonomy by submitting to the Mughal Empire that dominated much of the region.
Bhopal, which was still only a small village, had its first major turning point after the death of the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb in 1707. This event set off a power struggle, and the chaos of succession splintered many parts of the once powerful kingdom. It was here that Dost Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun soldier in the Mughal army rose to power. After aligning with a Gond kingdom, he ultimately usurped its ruler and gained control of the territory in the early 18th century. Here he decided to expand the walls around the village essentially upgrading it into a well-protected fort. Today you can gaze out at the ramparts of this fort (named Fatehgarh, in honor of Dost Mohammad’s favorite wife) and be transported back hundreds of years, overlooking the lake just as the Nawabs of Bhopal did.
This point marked the genesis of Bhopal State, and led to a still ongoing period of growth. Throughout Dost Mohammad’s life and those of his successors, he grappled with the Maratha Empire. After surviving multiple wars, Bhopal eventually became a princely state in British India under Qudsia Begum, who took over the reigns following the assassination of her husband in the early 19th century. This event ushered in a century of revered female rulers known as the Nawab Begums of Bhopal (1819-1926). Aligning with the British, Bhopal’s architectural renaissance ensued, witnessing the construction of the present city’s most iconic structures like the Taj-ul-Masajid, Moti Mahal, Gohar Mahal, Noor-us-Sabah, and the Saifia college to name a few. Many of these historical sites have been preserved to this day, while others function as a part of the city in the form of hotels, colleges, or markets.
Additionally public works and education became more of a focal point. This period of peace and the inclusive religious and political views of the Begums was one of progressive reform. During the reign of Nawab Hamidullah Khan who ascended the throne in 1926, India achieved independence and through the ‘Instrument of Ascension’ in 1949, and the princely state became a part of the Union of India. Seven years later, it was integrated into and became the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, and remains so to this very day. Since then, despite being the site of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the world in 1984, the population has more than quadrupled and is now a diverse blend of both ancient and modern. What gives Bhopal its unique spot in history is that it was one of the few places able to preserve its cultural fabric through one of the most turbulent periods in Indian history.