With well over a million inhabitants, BHOPAL, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, sprawls from the eastern shores of a huge artificial lake, its packed, fascinating, walled old city surrounded by modern concrete suburbs and green hills. The nineteenth-century mosques bear witness to its enduring Muslim legacy, while a couple of good archeological museums house hoards of ancient sculpture and Bharat Bhavan, on the lakeside, ranks among India's premier centres for performing and visual arts. Despite all this, however, Bhopal will always be known for the tragic 1984 gas disaster, which still casts a long shadow over the city and its people.
Bhopal has two separate centres. Spread over the hills to the south of the lakes, the New Market area – much of it recently pedestrianized – is a modern mix of shopping arcades, Internet cafés, ice-cream parlours, cinemas and modern office blocks. Once you've squeezed through the strip of land that divides the Upper and (smaller) Lower lakes, sweeping avenues, civic buildings and pleasure gardens quickly give way to the more heavily congested old city.
Famous for "zarda, purdah, garda and namarda" (tobacco, veils, dust and eunuchs), Bhopal's lively bazaar (Tues– Sat), centred on Chowk, retains a strong Muslim ambience, with overhanging balconies intricately carved with Islamic geometric designs. Each of the narrow streets radiating from the central square specializes in a different type of merchandise, including "Chanderi" silk saris, bass drums and clarinets, tussar silk, silver jewellery and Bhopal's famous beaded purses. At the heart of the market loom the rich red-sandstone walls and stumpy minarets of the Jami Masjid. Built in 1837 by Kudsia Begum, its whitewashed domes and gleaming gilded pinnacles lend an exotic air to proceedings in the square below.