Abandoned Taj of Bhopal

   - darkometer rating: 4 -
A currently (in December 2016) abandoned and atmospherically dilapidated palace complex in the city of Bhopal in central India. It's far less well known than its famous namesake in Agra, but much more something for dark tourists, especially those with a predilection for a bit of 'urban exploring'.   
More background info: Yes, there's more than one Taj Mahal in India! The celebrated mausoleum of that same name in Agra may be more famous, but this one in Bhopal is also a wonderful architectural marvel – except that it is in a state of semi-ruin. But it's precisely this that makes it attractive from a dark-tourism perspective, of course.
The Taj of Bhopal was built in the late 19th century as the residence for the Begum of Bhopal, Sultan Shah Jahan (also not to be confused with the other Shah Jahan associated with the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Red Fort in Delhi!)
'Begum' means either wife of a Nawab (ruler of a princely state within the British Raj period), or a female ruler in her own right, as is the case here. That in itself is quite remarkable – having female rulers in a Muslim state! But she apparently was also a remarkable woman in many other respects. Apart from being an effective and respected leader she also authored several books and, not least, is credited with major architectural achievements, including not only the Bhopal Taj Mahal but also the initiation of the grand mosque Taj-ul-Masajid right opposite the palace across the artificial lake (the mosque, though, was only finished long after her death).
The architecture of the palace is quite a mix of styles, incorporating not only Mughal Indian elements but also Arabic and European features.
Following the partition of India (see Wagah and Amritsar) the last Nawab of Bhopal allowed refugees from Pakistan to stay at the palace. The royal family of Bhopal, however, ran out of money and one by one moved away after India's independence.
And so, over the next few decades, the palace increasingly fell into disrepair and parts of it had collapsed by the time it was declared a heritage monument by the state of Madhya Pradesh (of which Bhopal is the capital city) in 2005. Then in 2014 it was handed over to the Madhya Pradesh tourism department.
The latest plans are to convert the palace into a 5-star luxury heritage hotel, with money from a private investor. This will indeed require extensive restoration work costing a fortune. So when I read in the Hindustan Times that allegedly the hotel is scheduled to be finished and open by the end of 2017, that sounded rather doubtful to me. But if anybody could keep me updated on these developments I'd be very grateful (contact me).
When I was there, all that had been done was that the excessive vegetation that had grown all over the open areas of the courtyards had been largely cleared away, so that the place was at least much more easily accessible. But the architecture as such was still left untouched, as far as I could make out. So it was the ideal time to visit, in the urban exploration sense of 'ideal'. Unadulterated beauty in decay!
Not everybody in Bhopal is happy with the plans of turning the palace into a luxury hotel. That way, they argue, it'll become a gated refuge only for an affluent elite, while the normal population would no longer have any access. They have a point, of course. I've seen how tight security is around places like the exclusive Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in Bhopal.
On the other hand, not doing anything with the currently abandoned Taj Mahal place would only mean that it would be left to disintegrate even more, become unsafe to enter and eventually ruined beyond any hope of repair. So this place should be visited soon, while it is in the state I experienced it when I visited at Christmas time 2016.
This also means that this chapter will probably have to be moved to the 'lost places' section before long. Once the conversion into a hotel is finished, the palace will be saved as an architectural complex, but as a dark-tourism/urban-exploration destination it'll cease to count.
What there is to see: The place is almost totally uncommodified. By the gate is an old plaque, which at the time of my visit (December 2016) was half broken and thus only partially legible. It gave some basic historical information (see above).
In addition I saw a smaller plaque on the door that promised an “audio guide” with a phone number given (but I didn't use it).
Anyway, the main thing here is just the visually stunning ruins themselves. I visited the place as part of a longer guided tour of Bhopal (see also Union Carbide plant) on the suggestion of my guide, who must have sensed that it would be something to the taste of a dark tourist too (rightly so!). And I am glad he did suggest it.
Once we were through the grand gate and past its two caretakers we were basically left to our own devices and could explore everywhere as we liked. And there was indeed lots to discover.
We concentrated on the smaller courtyards to the sides of the grand large gatehouse, the main grand courtyard in the centre of the complex and the beautifully colonnaded halls of the wing facing the lake and the mosque. Other parts of the complex further west and north were so ruined as to be inaccessible.
This is a case where images say more than words, so instead of trying to describe it further, I'll refer you straight to the photo gallery below!
Location: in the heart of old Bhopal, on the northern shore of the artificial Motia lake, opposite the grand Taj-ul-Masajid mosque.
Google maps locators:
Main gate: [23.267, 77.393]
Colonnaded halls: [23.2666, 77.3924]
Putlighar Minar: [23.2717, 77.3975]
Access and costs: uncertain
Details: when I visited this place it was as part of a longer guided tour, and I seem to remember that my guide slipped the two caretakers at the gate a few notes, but I couldn't see how much. So I guess it is the usual custom of “baksheesh” that gets you in.
Whether it is even officially allowed for regular tourists to get inside, is a bit unclear. Maybe it was only through my guide's special connections that we were allowed in. Maybe you can just “baksheesh” your own way in with the caretakers. Maybe you won't be let in as a foreigner at all unless you have a local fixer/guide (cf. Union Carbide plant). If the conversion into a hotel is really going ahead soon, I presume that no public access will be allowed until it's finished (and then presumably only for paying hotel guests).
To get to the gate independently you will most likely have to take a taxi or tuk-tuk. From the big Taj-ul-Masajid mosque you can walk it, just head north along the road that separates the two artificial lakes. Just before the road leads through a gate, turn left to get to the palace's main gate. The gate as such is stunning to behold. If you can't get in, though, you will have to make do with that and the view across the lake from the mosque and roadside.
Time required: we looked around the place for about an hour, but you could potentially spend much longer here, especially as a photographer, whereas those without a keen interest in either dilapidated palatial architecture or photography would probably not want to stay longer than a couple of minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: See under Bhopal.
A bit to the north-east of the Taj Mahal palace is another intriguing-looking old architectural relic, the Putlighar Minar, apparently a former minaret, but now abandoned and standing alone. It has a scary-looking spiral staircase on the outside, without handrails or anything, and with several steps already missing. Just looking at it made my legs feel wobbly. There's a flag flying at the top … and I wonder how they got it up there … I wouldn't risk using those spiral steps to such a height.
The main attractions of Bhopal in terms of dark tourism, the Remember Bhopal Museum and the abandoned Union Carbide chemical plant are a couple of miles to the north and north-east.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: One of Bhopal's main attractions is right opposite on the other (southern) side of the artificial lake facing the palace: the grand Taj-ul-Masajid mosque.
See under Bhopal.
  • Bhopal Taj 01 - gateBhopal Taj 01 - gate
  • Bhopal Taj 02 - balconyBhopal Taj 02 - balcony
  • Bhopal Taj 03 - entrance door and archBhopal Taj 03 - entrance door and arch
  • Bhopal Taj 04 - insideBhopal Taj 04 - inside
  • Bhopal Taj 05 - domeBhopal Taj 05 - dome
  • Bhopal Taj 06 - first courtyardBhopal Taj 06 - first courtyard
  • Bhopal Taj 07 - main courtyardBhopal Taj 07 - main courtyard
  • Bhopal Taj 08 - atmosphericBhopal Taj 08 - atmospheric
  • Bhopal Taj 09 - symmetryBhopal Taj 09 - symmetry
  • Bhopal Taj 10 - columnsBhopal Taj 10 - columns
  • Bhopal Taj 11 - courtyard seen through archesBhopal Taj 11 - courtyard seen through arches
  • Bhopal Taj 12 - door and decoBhopal Taj 12 - door and deco
  • Bhopal Taj 13 - grand mosque seen from the ruinsBhopal Taj 13 - grand mosque seen from the ruins
  • Bhopal Taj 14 - abandonedBhopal Taj 14 - abandoned
  • Bhopal Taj 15 - different shapesBhopal Taj 15 - different shapes
  • Bhopal Taj 16 - beauty of decayBhopal Taj 16 - beauty of decay
  • Bhopal Taj 17 - colour reflections on broken glassBhopal Taj 17 - colour reflections on broken glass

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