No one spends much time in Bhopal itself, but the "City of Lakes" is not without its charms, and a handful of sights are worth setting time aside for. Note that most places are closed on Monday, and on Friday mosques are off-limits, unless you're Muslim.

A visit to the Chowk (Bazaar), in the heart of the Old City, can be a wonderful way to gain insight into the daily lives of Bhopal's warm, friendly citizens. Its ramshackle streets are lined with old havelis and atmospheric stalls; it's impossible not to get involved in the village vibe, where shopping, hard-core haggling, and gossiping occupy one's time. Shop around for embroidered velvet cushions, tussar silk, silver jewelry, and intricate beadwork. While you're in the Chowk, visit lovely Jama Masjid; built in 1837, it features gold-spiked minarets, distinguishing it from the "Pearl Mosque," or Moti Masjid (1860), farther south. Sporting three large white Mughal domes and two soaring minarets, Taj-ul-Masjid, one of India's largest mosques, was started at the end of the 19th century by Bhopal's eighth ruler, the great queen Shah Jahan Begum, but was only completed in the 1970s.

Designed by the preeminent Indian architect, Charles Correa, the breezy, modern Bharat Bhavan (Shamla Hills; tel. 0755/266-0353; Rs 10, Fri free; Feb-Oct Tues-Sun 2-8pm, Nov-Jan Tues-Sun 1-7pm), overlooking Upper Lake, is one of the best cultural centers in the country, showcasing some wonderful contemporary and tribal art exhibitions.

If you're set on seeing a white tiger, Van Vihar National Park is the place to do it. Zoo conditions at this "safari-park" are better than elsewhere in India, but it's still a depressing place to see a wild animal (Zoo Rd.; Rs 100, vehicle entry Rs 30; Wed-Mon 7-11am and 3-5:30pm; carnivores are fed around 4pm).

Exploring the Buddhist Complex at Saanchi

Now a deserted site resembling an X-Files set, the monuments of Sanchi have not only survived despite nearly 2,000 years of neglect, but the stupa at Sanchi is considered India's finest and most evocative example of ancient Buddhist architecture. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka -- famous for converting to Buddhism during a personal spiritual crisis after massacring thousands during his military campaigns in Orissa -- was responsible for laying the foundations in the 3rd century B.C. Set upon a squat hill affording lovely views of the surrounding countryside, the complex of stupas (fat, domelike monuments housing Buddhist relics), monasteries, and temples probably owes its location as much to the serenity of the site as it does to its proximity to the once-prosperous city of Vidisha, where Ashoka's devoted Buddhist wife, Mahadevi, lived. Located at the confluence of the Bes and the Betwa rivers and two important trade routes, the Buddhist complex elicited the patronage of Vidisha's wealthy merchant communities. Even during the invasions of the Hun, life at Sanchi appears to have gone undisturbed, and is believed to have continued until the 13th century A.D., when a resurgence of Hinduism and an increasingly militant Islamic movement led to a decline of Buddhism in India. The site was deserted for more than 500 years before its rediscovery -- again by a British military adventurer-type -- in 1818. Today, aside from the attractive complex of ruins, Sanchi is little more than a railway station, a few guesthouses, snack stands, a museum, a restaurant, and a shop.

During the excavation that has taken place over the last century, the ruins of around 55 temples, pillars, monasteries, stupas, and other structures have been unearthed. It appears that Sanchi is unique in that its monuments cover the gamut of Buddhist architectural structures -- dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.

The star attraction is Ashoka's large hemispherical stupa, which rises from the ground like a massive stone-carved alien craft. Around the middle of the 2nd century B.C., a balustrade was erected around the stupa, and the mound was covered in stone by the rulers of the Sunga dynasty. Facing the cardinal directions and contributing to the mystical appearance of the main stupa are the four intricately carved gateways, erected around 25 B.C. under the later Satvahana rulers. These striking entranceways feature finely detailed panels depicting incidents from the life of the Buddha and tales from the Jatakas. Note that at that time, the depiction of the Buddha in human form had not yet emerged, so instead he is depicted symbolically, as a bodhi tree, lotus, wheel, pair of feet, or stupa.

The Sanchi monasteries consist of a central courtyard surrounded by cells that served as the sleeping quarters for the nuns or monks. Of these, the best is Monastery 51, which was first excavated in the 19th century.

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