Chandigarh was different from the other Indian cities we visited and it wasn’t just the wide, quiet and sometimes tree-lined boulevards,the clean footpaths and streets lined with designer shops coupled with the general absence of noise, cows and trash. Most Indian cities look as if someone had thrown paint at a map and where the paint landed, a building went, a park was placed, a road followed. As a consequence of this, Indian cities are vibrant places but at the same time, they seem to be improvised with fragility and a sense of incompleteness that you don’t associate with cities in the developed world. Chandigarh is different, like a polite version of these cities, without the multitude of people, smells and chaos that test and frequently overwhelm your senses. It’s not a fluke that Chandigarh is the way it is. As Independent India’s first planned city, it serves as the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana. Its development was headed by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French modern architect and urban planner, who was interested in providing better living conditions for residents of crowded cities (and India has more than its share of residents living in crowded urban conditions).
|Example of Le Corbusier's Chandigarh's legacy, concrete and geometric.|
The Indian Punjab capital was a post-Partition response to the influx of refugees spilling over the newly formed border with Pakistan. The refugees were mostly Sikhs and Hindus coming from Pakistan Punjab. Ten to twelve million people were said to have crossed the border between Pakistan and India. Not all of the movement was peaceful, as captured in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, “every day trains are crossing that new border, carrying nothing but corpses……The trains are stopped at the station and everyone is butchered. On both sides of the border”. It’s a theme also expressed in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children “the mass blood-letting in progress on the frontiers of the divided Punjab (where the partitioned nations are washing themselves in one another's blood)” or in Khushwant Singh’s novel, Train to Pakistan, “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped”. You can add that while Hindus killed Muslims and Muslims killed Hindus, everyone killed the Sikhs.
|Indian gentlemen enjoying the lake front.|
With the partition just over a decade old and memories still raw for many, Le Corbusier developed a city of planned living that aimed to house a displaced populace, in a style not seen anywhere else in India. The wide boulevards dissect “super-blocks” or sectors, roughly arranged in a way that Le Corbusier’s concepts of living, working, circulation and the care of body and spirit could be achieved. For body and soul, there’s copious parks and a large lake, Sukhna Lake, that was one of Le Corbusier’s gift to the city. Chandigarh’s modernist architectural style also form part of Le Corbusier’s legacy, characterized by geometric structures made from brick and unhewn stone, a style that’s been described as Pyongyang-meets-Lewis-Carroll (that won’t be the only nod to Lewis Carroll in this story). Nehru, India’s first prime Minister described it as “the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may not like it, but it has made you think, and imbibe new ideas”. I, for one, liked it. This may be due to the fact that after a month of bumpy bus rides and delayed train trips that linked one chaotic, dusty and noisy city to another, Chandigarh felt peaceful, easy going, relaxed. Of course, despite the order we found here, Chandigarh did prove to be the only place in India where I managed to get mugged, proving that there is always chaos in order. It also marked the first time in a month that we had seen a KFC or McDonalds. McDonalds is limited in India in that they don’t use beef so as not to offend Hindus or pork so not to offend Muslims, so the main burger in Indian McDonalds isn’t the Big Mac, it’s the Chicken Maharaja Mac. After a month of a vege diet, we ate at both, with dire consequences for some of our party (let’s just say Dehli Belly has nothing on the Chandigarh Runs).
|Mosaic tribal women.|
A couple of days after the Chandigarh Runs and the cricket mugging, we went to visit a rock garden. This is no ordinary rock garden, more of a visit to an alternative universe, a down the rabbit-hole experience (there’s another Lewis Carroll reference). Developed through the imagination of one man, Nek Chand, his Rock Garden spreads out over 40 acres, consisting of a fantastic combinations of waterfalls, of sculptures and statues, of tunnels that lead to hidden delights, through waterfalls and valleys. This is a real-life equivalent of Pan’s Labyrinth, brought to life through the workings of one man’s mind, where inexplicable and improbable objects are built. Furthermore, to add to the strangeness of the garden, it’s made entirely from recycled waste.
|Not sure what these are.|
Nek Chand’s rock garden exists as further allegory of how order can be made from chaos. No material is wasted. Everything from electrical sockets to discarded scrap metal, unwanted pieces of wire, broken glass and glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots and sinks, electrical waste, old toilets and pieces of china are turned into the cartoonish and surreal, an imagined world that at times calls to mind characters from amine movies, at other times Dali-esque or Gaudi inspired sculptures. The garden had its origins during the rush of road construction that accompanied Chandigarh as it expanded. Chand, a road inspector, was amazed by the amount of waste generated by the road-making project, and began collecting waste that he used to create his sculptures, the modest origins of the now sprawling rock garden, recycled into his vision of what the divine kingdom of Sukrani would look like. Chand’s garden is in a forest buffer in a gorge near Sukhna Lake, where he worked on his vision secretly at night, undiscovered and unappreciated for ten years until town planners stumbled upon his work, no doubt perturbed that it was spread out over acres of public land. For a while, it seemed that the garden would go, snuffed out by officious local officers. After all, Chand was effectively squatting but after the very real threat of removal and demolition, some enlightened soul in the territory’s government (no doubt, concerned with public opinion which was heavily on the side of the Rock Garden being preserved), belatedly granted the garden a reprieve as well as conferring on Nek Chand a salary, a title ("Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden"), and a workforce of 50 labourers so that he could concentrate full-time on expanding the enterprise and reveal the entirety of his vision. This renewed effort has led to a mosaic of creation, of unrepressed expression, a psychedelic journey that can be taken without the need for hallucinogens. This is Wonderland, just not that as imagined by a well to do Englishman.
Normal ways of writing would struggle to capture what the garden is like so forgive me for a temporary lapse into a stream of consciousness: Deformed and demented women in colourful ceramic saris, colourful mosaic tribal people and leering monkeys, armies of workers standing attention above passages that take you from one wonder to the next, inlaid with dazzling fragments of roofing tiles. Extravagant peacocks, animals whose species cannot be determined, men who look part hobbit, part monkey, part man, part bear, some embellished with real human hair. Artificial mangrove roots made from cement intertwine with the roots of bulbous baobab trees. Castles encrusted with glass, geometric structures with cascading waterfalls, mossy retreats accessed by secret tunnels and overlain with arches. A village that that hangs off the side of a hill, complete with houses and temples. Rainbows of electrical wire, umbrellas of broken porcelain, giant swings that can accommodate several people soaring out from huge arches that resemble Roman aqueducts crowned by long-limbed ceramic horses. Real birds take advantage of small nook and crannies as nesting sites, their song adding to the atmosphere, mingling with the cries of bewitched visitors. Small, constricted pathways led to open plazas flanked by pavilions and palaces. Grinning reindeer or antelope with jewelled eyes stare vacantly at the several thousand visitors who come to this wonderland each day.
|Army awash with colour|
Nek Chand himself said he drew inspiration from Le Corbusier, “It is an extension of our modern planning but it wasn't planned as such, in the same way. It was a gift from God, this talent, and when I developed this. I found the items and recycled them to create something new and different”.
He certainly achieved different.