Saturday, September 15, 2012

Taj Mahal of Bhopal – a proposal for its “adaptive re-use”

Many would not know that Bhopal too has a Taj Mahal. Although, now neglected and dilapidated, yet it stands dominating a large pond overlooking what is reputed to be the largest mosque in Asia – Tajul Masajid. It was built by Nawab Shahjehan Begum who, like her namesake Mogul Emperor Shahjehan, was a great builder. Constructed over a period of 13 years from 1871 to 1884 it was considered one of the largest palaces in the world. It was so magnificent that the resident representative in Bhopal of the Viceroy was highly impressed and suggested to the Begum to change its name from its original Raj Mahal to Taj Mahal. There are recorded reports of the unqualified praise that was showered on the Bhopal monarch by the visiting Viceroys for the excellence that the palace displayed in its architecture and intricate interior decorations.

After independence the palace was unfortunately given away rather thoughtlessly by Nawab Hamidullah Khan for relocating the Sindhi refugees who flocked to Bhopal after the partition of the country. Not a very wise decision, it induced unmitigated damage to the palace and, what’s more, after the refugees vacated it, it has been subject of abject apathy and neglect. Progressively going to seed, the state government woke up as late as in 2005 to list it as a heritage property so that the Department of Archaeology could try and restore it to a semblance of its original glory.

 Nothing much, however, happened except some partial restoration – nonavailability of adequate funds being the biggest drag. In 2011 because of the interest shown by the local tourism corporation for reusing it as a hotel the palace was de-notified to get over the obstructive rules and regulations governing a heritage structure. This too, however, did not yield desired results as no corporate house seems to have evinced any interest.

In the meantime, a few committed conservationists have been working overtime to prepare proposals for the palace’s revival. The Bhopal Citizens’ Forum has also been pursuing the matter with the Commissioner Archaeology. Last Sunday, Ms. Sheuli Mitra, Associate Professor in the local School of Planning & Architecture made a presentation for “adaptive reuse of Taj Mahal, Bhopal” to the Citizens’ Forum. A very well conceived plan, it not only proposes to re-use a very valuable property of immense proportions right in the middle of the town with excellent connectivity to the city’s outlets it also attempts to expose the unique mix of Hindu, Islamic and Western architectural designs of the palace to the outside world. Branding its architecture as Indian baroque, Ms. Mitra highlighted the building’s environmental responsiveness by way architectural designing and the much-ahead-of-time water harvesting system using the surrounding landscape and ingenious civil engineering.

The proposal contains use of some suitable portions for the hospitality sector and others for restaurants overlooking the fairly decent-sized water body specifically for offering delectable Bhopali cuisine. It proposes exposure of Bhopal’s traditional arts and crafts by way of exhibition and marketing them in the manner that was prevalent during the Nawabi era. It also proposes to use the adjoining Benazir Palace for a convention centre and market to the outside world its ready-to-use hamams.

The proposal was submitted to the state government about a year and a half back and is, apparently, gathering dust in some musty office. The Citizens’ Forum is going to pursue it with the government.

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