Today, when the gas leak of 1984 marks any association with Bhopal, it becomes important to trace the city’s rich past to get a true sense of the loss that Bhopal suffered due to the tragedy. Besides the terrible human cost of the tragedy, the event also marked a profound deviation from the sustainable urban practices that are intrinsic to the city’s history and built legacy. In that sense, Bhopal also lost its cultural identity. There are many lessons to be drawn from the sustainable building practices that have marked the relationship between the city and its various kingdoms. It is this continuity of pioneering engineering and sensitive use of the natural resources that needs to mark our present association with Bhopal, as well as inform the planning of its future growth.

Bhopal – city of lakes

Sprawled across the Vindhya and Singarcholi mountains is the beautiful city of lakes – Bhopal. Spanning 20-25 km across, Bhopal is a well planned, fast developing city. Wide roads, lush greenery, luxuriant urban spaces and modern buildings in a continuous, undulating terrain make up its beautiful cityscape. Adding romance to this environment are the lakes of Bhopal. The largest and the oldest of these lakes, supplies the city with water – the Upper lake, commonly known as ‘Bara Talab’ (Hindi for Big Lake), constitutes the thousand year old heritage of the city. Holding this lake is the equally ancient dam – King Bhoja’s Dam, a reminder that Bhopal’s origins lay in a far-sighted environmental management that has stood the test of time. In the heart of the city today, lie many such silent documents of the history of Bhopal – many of them in a ruined, unattended and uncared-for state.

Tracing Bhopal’s history

Prehistoric man wandered the slope of Dharampuri and Lalghati abutting the Bara Talab. Cave paintings and rock shelters in these areas attest to the presence of human habitation here. However, not much else is known about the city of Bhopal before 1000 CE.

During King Bhoja’s time (1010-1053 CE), Bhopal was probably an important guardian city to the water body Bara Talab. The fortified grid iron city of Bhojapala was located towards the east of the lake. About 35 km. towards south-east of Bhojapala was its sister city called Bhojpur. This city in King Bhoja’s kingdom, perhaps its capital, was a bustling centre of trade and commerce. Bhojpur was also located towards the east of an enormous lake, the Bhima Kund or Sagar Taul (both ‘kund’ and ‘taul’ in Hindi mean lake). Whereas the Bara Talab was 13.8 sq. km. in area, the Sagar Taul was 650 sq. km., almost forty seven times the former. It is amazing to discover that both these lakes were man-made, created by cleverly exploiting the terrain. By constructing only three dams, these two vast lakes were created, probably during King Bhoja’s time or even earlier. The Sagar Taul was located such that only two relatively small gaps in the natural wall formed by the hills had to be dammed to enclose an enormous area. The smaller of the two gaps was closed by a dam 90 m. long, 14 m. high and 90 m. wide flat top. Both of these were earthen dams made with huge sandstone blocks, some of these being 120 x 90 x 75 cm. in size. The scale of these two reservoirs is a testimony to the bold vision of the planners and the skills of artisans of that period.

The Sagar Taul was destroyed when Hoshang Shah cut the 90 m. long dam in around 1334 CE. Gond (the indigenous inhabitants of the region) legend has it that it took an army three months to cut through the dam. For three years, water gushed out of the broken dam before it was empty. For the next thirty years, the lake bed was not habitable. Many settlements down the Betwa River were destroyed because of the flooding. Others including Bhojpur were abandoned due to flooding. The removal of this vast sheet of water also altered the climate of the Malwa region, and what is today the western portion of the state of Madhya Pradesh, considerably. The huge stone blocks of the broken dam can be seen strewn across the valley. These are probably the only remainders of the once prosperous city of Bhojpur.

Today, Bara Talab continues to grace the city of Bhopal as Bhoja’s dam still stands strong. The city of Bhopal, which began as a settlement in the 11th century CE, has been through numerous phases of destruction yet the core has survived, its built heritage representative of successive layers of history. Ravaged in the 13th century CE, it had become an overgrown decayed village by the end of the 17th century CE. By 1722, Dost Mohammad Khan had conquered and annexed Bhopal Taul from the Gond queen Kalmapati. Near the older decayed settlement of Bhopal Taul, Dost Mohammed laid the foundation of the city ramparts. The citadel of Fatehgarh was established on the highest plateau towards the north of Bara Talab. The fortified Bhopal city, also called ‘Sher-e-Khas’, enclosed an area of 1.5 sq. km. with a city wall that was 10m. high, 2-3 m. thick and 1.2 km. in total length. Quite a lot of civic construction took place during this period, resulting in a varied and sophisticated urban fabric. It is likely that people paid taxes for these constructions such as the fort wall, ‘hammams’, ‘hathi khannas’, ‘serais’ and mosques. The ‘Hammam’ was a public bathing area with many windowless chambers. The ‘Serais’ were structures where the visiting merchants were given shelter during their business visits to the city. The ‘hathi khanna’ was an enclosure similar in form to the ‘serai’. It was meant for housing the elephants and their ‘mahaots’. (Hindi for elephant keeper). The streets were narrow, the maximum width being 4m. The buildings on the street sides rose to three to four floors giving a strong sense of enclosure to the streets. The ‘pattias’ (Hindi for platform in the front of a house used as a sit-out) of various buildings matched each other in an ordered manner. People spread out on to these ‘pattias’ in the evening and these become centres of daily social intercourse and gossip. Another meeting point for the residents of Bhopal was the ‘akhara’. An Indian version of the gymnasium, the ‘akharas’ had mud pits and other facilities for physical training and fitness.

A major extension to Bhopal became imminent when Pul Pukhta was constructed in 1794 CE. Pul Pukhta was a stone masonry dam 275m. long and 21m. wide. Spanning the Ban Ganga and the Patra valleys, it collected water in the form of a small lake one-tenth the size of Bara Talab, and was named Chhota Talab (Hindi for small lake).

No major construction took place due to repeated attacks on the city till about 1819 CE when an alliance with the British East India Company finally materialized. This treaty with the British safeguarded the city against invasions. Consequently, economic prosperity returned. The administrative nucleus of the city till this time had been the Fatehgarh citadel.

The Jami Mosque was erected during 1833-56 CE during Qudsia Begum’s reign, with its golden minarets visible from all points of the city. The large plateau north of the Gohar Mahal became prominent with the construction of the Moti Mahal. Built by Sikandar Jehan Begum in 1847 CE, this palace became the administrative cum residential nucleus.

The building of this complex was the beginning of the creation of an new urban centre. The individual buildings were a part of the overall image, the assertion of a statement displaying power and authority. Although the Khirniwala Maidan complex was constructed over a period of fifty years, a sense of oneness was achieved by controlling elements such as parapet design, uniform building height, the level of the plinth etc. Some of these bear an obvious French influence. In 1848 an English engineer, David Cook was commissioned by Sikandar Jehan Begum to develop the lake fronts and plan the waterworks system.

The ‘baoli’ (Hindi for step well) at Bara Bagh is a beautiful example of stepwell architecture. Constructed in red sandstone, the ‘baoli’ has a two storied space above the water level. The steps leading into the water are flanked with stone carved walls and the columned chambers above the water level are aesthetically pleasing. Jehagirabad also has the remains of an aqua-duct which can be seen on the southeast bank of Chhota Talab. Water was pulled up to a height of about 15m. by ‘chawars’ into the water channels on top of a gradually sloping arched wall. ‘Chawars’ were leather bags used to lift water from wells with the help of animal power such as bull power. This water travelled a distance of 1.75 km. and flowed into a pond. This pond serviced Noor Bagh and also met the water needs of the Afghan troops quartered in the area.

The ambitious development of Shahjehanabad was started under Shahjehan Begum in 1870. Shahjehanabad was a suburb towards the north of Bhopal. It was complete with ‘bazaars’ (Hindi for markets), ‘galla mandies’ (Hindi for grain markets), store houses, ‘serais’, residential quarters and institutions. An Id-gah (Hindi for mosque) was located at the highest point in the landscape and Shahjehanabad was enveloped by a city wall. Three terraced lakes were created in this area with water from one cascading into the next. These formed the central area of Shahjehanabad. The palaces and residences of the elite were located along these lakes; the uppermost of these lakes or ‘talabs’ being the Motia Talab spread across a 230 m. x 230 m. area; Noormahal Talab as the intermediate level lake spread in a 175m. x 230m. area; and the lowest was the Munshi Hussaini Talab with 115 m. x 230 m. spread. The three lakes were dependent on the surface run-off water from the seasonal rains. To maintain the balance and the level of water in these lakes, an additional reservoir was constructed to the north of Shahjehanabad. An elaborate system of brick-lined vaulted drains exited to collect water and bring it to the lake. These channels passed through important buildings before delivering water to the Talab. The channels were transformed into splashing fountains, gurgling cascades, and silent ‘chadars’ (sheets of water) or passed through beautifully carved stone streams. Rose water or ‘kewda’ was added to this water to cool and freshen the air.

The Noor Mahal and the Taj Mahal were the royal residences and were connected by a rail line. One can see a curious mix of Islamic and Hindu architectural elements in the Taj Mahal. There are cusped arches, massive gateways, screen windows at upper levels, extensive mouldings, decorative plasterwork and squat domes with ‘jharokahs’. (Hindi for a type of overhanging enclosed balcony). The detailing in the inner courtyard facades seems to have a colonial influence. Towards the north-west of Taj-ul-Masajid, across the Motia Talab, was the Benazir Palace, constructed in 1875, where the Bhopal2011 workshop took place. It is an ‘H’ shaped building with enclosed terraced gardens and gurgling fountains. A series of steps and plinths descended to the talab in the manner of a ghat. Benazir palace was meant to be the summer palace of the Nawab. Built with steel columns and carved louvered wooden partitions, it has extensive carvings on the walls of its hammam. The palace is an excellent example of passive thermal control. The Benazir Palace was also used to accommodate state dignitaries. Lord and Lady Minto stayed here during their visit to Bhopal in 1909. The gateway to the Benazir Palace was added at a later period. This is the most ornamental and ceremonial gate of old Bhopal. It has multi-foliated arched openings with staircases in far corners leading to ‘chhatris’ (Hindi for domed kiosks). The openings have canopies with pitched eaves.

The Colonial architecture, after 1901 CE, which until then had merely influenced vernacular architecture, became more dominant. Additions to the public buildings in this period included the Revenue Courts, the Court of Justice, Minto Hall, Civil Club, Hamidia Kutubh Khana (Library), Imperial Bank and the Edward Museum. Along with these, a number of residential bungalows were built on picturesque locations. The buildings of this period are mostly European in character with high ceilings and raised plinths. They were devoid of decorative elements and, hence, gave little scope to local craftsmen to exercise the skills and knowledge that had been passed down to them.

This distancing of built heritage from environment and culture has grown over the years and has manifested in an inappropriate choice of techniques, materials, styles and resources. In the course of development, we have been indiscriminately destroying our heritage. It is imperative that we preserve all that is of value from our past and also create, with vision and sensitivity, a future heritage for Bhopal.


The architecture and urban design employed through the ages in Bhopal, shows deep respect for nature and sustainable planning practices. From ancient tribal kingdoms to Hindu kings to Muslim dynasties, the city has been witness to changing times, destruction and resurgence, all of which have left their imprint behind in the form of built heritage. The gas leak today seems to eclipse all else that Bhopal stands for. Understanding and awareness of the tragedy needs to be spread such that it is integrated into the city’s heritage rather than be seen as an isolated, overpowering narrative. Most of the city’s built heritage, including that related to the disaster, is in dire need of attention and repair. The people need to be made aware of the historic legacy of the city in order to embrace and learn from Bhopal’s past failures as well as its achievements, and for their sense of pride in their city to be restored.