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A soldier's city

travel Updated: May 08, 2010 16:40 IST
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I was at Bhopal reading The Begums of Bhopal, an interesting book by Shahryar Khan, when I read about Islam Nagar, a city founded by an Afghan soldier called Dost Mohammed. His story is one of unscrupulous opportunism. While he was employed as the Mughal army commander of Mangalgarh in Bhopal, the army fell into disarray following Aurangzeb's demise. Seizing the opportunity, the Afghans usurped Mangalgarh and Berasia.

Founding a city
The Gond Queen approached him for help. Her kingdom had been seized by her husband's assasins and she wanted revenge. Dost Mohammad restored her kingdom by defeating her adversaries. For this he received a princely sum and a village from the grateful queen. After her death, he usurped her kingdom back and established his capital at Jagdishpur. With Dost Mohammad came the Islamic influence on the culture and architecture of the place. Naming it Islam Nagar, he built a fort and palaces before moving his capital to Bhopal. Unfortunately, not many in Islam Nagar know of Dost Mohammed or the capital he built there.

Driving through the dusty, deserted road we reached the outer gates of the once prosperous city. Judging by the remnants of the walls and the tiny village that Dost Mohammed constructed for his queens, it was difficult to imagine it as the busy place it once was. The place was desolate except for monkeys romping around. An old chowkidar was chasing a huge tribe of monkeys seated on the ramparts of the fort. An involuntary sigh emerged as I set my eyes on the Chaman Mahal (Garden Palace).

The Chaman Mahal is a picture of cool serenity in a charbagh. Amidst luxuriant gardens and fountains stands the red sandstone structure, with lovely columns and arches adorned with floral motifs. The spacious baradari and the unpretentious niches reminded me of Mughal palaces. A Sheesh Mahal near the doorway complemented the hammam.

The watchman who kept me company pointed out the double-storeyed Rani Mahal, which was built for the queens and women of the zenana. Set amid a rectangular garden and walkway, the palace seems to have been built with an eye for comfort rather than luxury.

Blending architecture
Although Dost Mohammad gave new dimensions to the palaces of the Gonds, a couple of old structures remain in their old form. On the verge of dilapidation, the Gond Palace stands at one side eclipsed by the beauty of the newer palaces. Its cowshed, stables, fountains and tanks are now inhabited by cattle and bats. Standing on the balcony of the palace my eyes spied the two mausoleums in the distance, across what must have once been a river.

Were they the mausoleums of Dost Mohammad, I asked the caretaker. He wasn't sure. Keen on discovering the tomb of the soldier turned monarch, I made my way to the massive banyan tree from where a path led to the tomb.

A group of men were gossiping under the tree but none of them knew about the tomb. Going past the paddy and maize fields, I spotted three mausoleums. Once there, I halted in my tracks. There was no way to enter. The tombs were shrouded by a thick curtain of foliage, and the dense undergrowth covered any possible path.

I turned around and saw the same group of men walking towards me. The old guide led me through the thorny bushes, pulling away vines and creepers. My feet sank into the undergrowth as I muttered fervent prayers. Braving my way through the bushes I finally clambered into the safe haven of the tomb, soiled with bird droppings, with an ancient marble tomb-stone bearing Arabic inscription.

Tomb raiding
"Is this the tomb of Dost Mohammed Khan?" I asked.
"Yes, take a picture," said the guide.
"Can you read the inscription?"
"No, I can't. It is in a foreign language," confessed the man. He then yelled out to the crowd outside -- "Can any of you read?"
No one could.

If this was not the tomb of Dost Mohammed Khan, whose was it? The books and brochures all said that one of the three tombs in the area ought to be his.

The elderly denizens of the village wanted me to write about the run-down condition of the tombs and mausoleum. I could understand their feelings. After all, here rested the founder of Bhopal, a powerful monarch not known by many and now neglected and forgotten, called Dost Mohammed Khan.

Tanushree is a freelance travel writer

Getting there
Islam Nagar is just about 11 km from Bhopal, which is well connected to all the major cities by air, railways and road.

Bhopal has many hotels for all kinds of budgets. Many of them are located around the beautiful lake.