Chandigarh: A gridded legacy🛣

The vivid colours of a rainbow appear mystical to most beholders and so does the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. The garden was envisioned as a dream kingdom and made entirely of nature’s bounty by its author-architect Nek Chand Saini, a PWD road inspector of early 1900s.

Village folk made from broken bangles and glass pieces at the Rock Garden
Village folk made from broken bangles and glass pieces at the Rock Garden

Nek Chand was witness to the trauma and pain following the partition of India in 1947 and looked up to nature for solace and comfort. Even as a child, he longed for a world where gods, humans, animals and birds would live in harmony with each other amidst nature. Pursuing his childhood hobby of collecting natural stones, rocks and waste materials – industrial and urban in his spare time, holidays and after work; he ferried them on his bicycle to a secret gorge in the neighbourhood of river Ghaggar and deposited them thematically.

A world of mosaic at the Rock Garden
A world of mosaic at the Rock Garden

Ceramic tiles, mosaic pieces, broken sanitary ware, damaged electrical sockets, broken bottles, and bangles were all part of his painstaking collection. A worthless effort prima facie but for Nek Chand, it formed part of a large scheme that embraced his passion and love for nature’s treasures. 

The walled structure is entirely made from discarded electrical sockets and insulators at the Rock Garden
The walled structure is entirely made from discarded electrical sockets and insulators at the Rock Garden

His commitment and resolve strengthened with years and almost single-handedly continued the secret project until the year 1973 when the stash was discovered by the government. By then, he had converted the seemingly wasteful items into nearly 2000 sculptures and art forms with intricate designs and texture spread around an extant of 12 acres of illegal forest land.

An amphitheatre of mosaic at the Rock Garden
An amphitheatre of mosaic at the Rock Garden

Walled paths, man-made waterfalls, amphitheaters and courtyards, miniature villages, tableaus, landscapes fitted into the scheme. Public opinion however made the government soften its stand and Nek Chand was appointed as a caretaker together with some labourers for continuing the work in a more planned manner. With sustained momentum, the project expanded into 4 phases that included a lovely dolls museum, large amphitheater and life-like animals on pillars in a land area of 40 acres.

The landscape and waterbodies are man-made in the Rock Garden
The landscape and waterbodies are man-made in the Rock Garden

The quality and immensity of Nek Chand’s work became visible when more Indian and overseas visitors started to admire the uniqueness and value of his creation. Recognizing the impact of this work and collection, the Indian Government awarded Padam Shree to Nek Chand in 1984. The Rock Garden — a single man’s vision that transformed a vast wasteland into boundless and uniquely spectacular nature’s landscape — is today a jewel in Chandigarh’s crown. 

Rock Garden is the pride of Chandigarh
Rock Garden is the pride of Chandigarh

The Punjabi parathas are a toast to the partakers and invariably forms a generous portion of rather powerful breakfast menu in these parts. The hot and freshly fried gobi (cauliflower), aloo (potato) and green chilly laced with butter prime the gourmand’s senses; a stock of thick yogurt and savoury pickle are essential accompaniments and the energy is invariably sustained.

The glitzy Elante Mall, one of the most spacious in North India, is a landmark of luxury brands while the Shastri market and the Sector 17 arcades offer great street finds (at impossible prices) for obsessive shoppers. With winter around the corner, warm garments and jackets are easy pickings, largely facilitated by large wholesale garment and apparel production centres in close proximity (Ludhiana).

The Elante Mall is said to be amongst the largest 10 malls in India
The Elante Mall is said to be amongst the largest 10 malls in India

Chandigarh is home to many gardens and picnic spots – Rose garden, Japanese garden, Butterfly park and the Sukhna lake are commonly frequented by local residents and tourists.

Pinjore Garden, Chandigarh
Pinjore Garden, Chandigarh

A 65-km road trip to Kasauli, a laid-back hill station of Himachal Pradesh northeast of Chandigarh and midway to Shimla, is worth the climb (at 6000 feet) along mountain chains that wind treacherously along vertical cliffs on one side and deep valleys on other. Traffic runs alongside the narrow Kalka-Shimla mountain train, but the roads constantly need repair and reinforcement work at several locations owing to landslides and falling boulders – nature’s response and wrath at encroachment. Kasauli predominantly serves as a communication and surveillance centre to the Indian Airforce due to its vantage and border location. Tourists are frisked for security checks before they are allowed to walk around the area. The Hanuman temple at the highest peak is reachable by a series of vertical flight steps and pathways from which the scenic backdrop of the snow-clad Himalayas in the north and plains of Punjab towards the south are breathtaking sights. Visitors are to be constantly wary of the troop of monkeys, the sentinels of post, against prying in handbags and searching pockets for food, and would be well advised to carry a stick or stone to ward them off.

On the Chandigarh-Shimla highway
On the Chandigarh-Shimla highway

In 1950, the Swiss-born French painter-sculptor, Le Corbusier was invited by the contracted architects to create a design for the new city of Chandigarh after partition of India. This was gladly accepted as the assignment had the goodwill and confidence of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the Indian Prime Minister. He came to India first in 1952, and stayed until 1965, bringing with him architectural designs and urbanism, town planning techniques and philosophy keeping in mind their endurance in urban development. With an able chief engineer as his ally, Le Corbusier wasted no time in transposing his vision and ideas to life.

Le Corbusier with the Master Plan for Chandigarh, 1952
Le Corbusier with the Master Plan for Chandigarh, 1952

Chandigarh was benefitted immensely during his 17-year crusade when prominent city buildings (and monuments) such as high court, secretariat, the assembly building took shape. The conceptualization and demonstration of managing sunlight in buildings was a hallmark of his design and is still a topic among civil engineering curriculum today. His tenure culminated in a Master Plan of the new city of Chandigarh that reinstated the fact that ‘modern life demands, and is waiting for a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city…’. It is amazing how the conceptualization of the sectoral development and tenets of road design created almost six decades ago have withstood the rigours of time and feverish urban development of today.

The city grids are impeccably designed with ample space for sidewalks, cyclists, and service lanes.
The city grids are impeccably designed with ample space for sidewalks, cyclists, and service lanes.

The road and sectoral network are uniquely positioned to ease traffic and preserve order; the layout of the roundabouts and the vast overlap of service lanes and sidewalks facilitate easy traffic flow posing little or no intervention by crossing pedestrians – an out-of-this-world experience to the Bangalorean.

The Le Corbusier Centre which displays and exhibits the life and works of the architect and his team is one of the earliest buildings constructed in Chandigarh and has a historic value to Chandigarh.

At the Le Corbusier Centre - The work place of the architect where the entire city was designed. The museum showcases drawings, pictures, and documents relating to the creation of Chandigarh.
At the Le Corbusier Centre – The work place of the architect where the entire city was designed. The museum showcases drawings, pictures, and documents relating to the creation of Chandigarh.

Located in the north western part of the subcontinent, the city is believed to be a part of the Indus Valley Civilization and more explicitly, the 5000-year-old Harappan heritage found at several places belowit. The almost identically planned cities – Chandigarh’s sectoral and Harappan grid layouts – complement one another in the planned settlement. In retrospect, while tourists and future generations are able to acquaint themselves with the cultural heritage, Chandigarh richly deserves the capital status of the states of Punjab and Haryana.

The grid pattern of city linking sector to sector. Each sector (now expanded to 60 from initial 30) has its market, residential layouts and shopping area.
The grid pattern of city linking sector to sector. Each sector (now expanded to 60 from initial 30) has its market, residential layouts and shopping area.

As it was time to leave Chandigarh, its timeless heritage and order of urbanism lingered in. In a fitting tribute to its visionaries, the city continues to regard order and clutter-free traffic as key social elements for the unequivocal need for cohabitation. The experience left us wondering if any of the modern technologies would yield clues for adaptive solutions in this respect. That would allow other cities to perpetuate proven models for urban planning. A rare occurrence of an Indian city built entirely to plan in a grid-like fashion.

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The author Saji can be reached at sajisalk@gmail.com.

Till next post, take care !!

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