“ Address: Sector No.1 / Chandigarh (U.T.) / India / Telephone: 91 172 740 645 „
India's Weirdest City
Chandigarh is possibly India's strangest city. It's not strange for any particularly weird things that go on there or any bizarre festivals, temples or such-like. What sets the city apart is its architecture and layout. It has a reputation as India's first planned city - by which I mean a city that is as it was designed to be, rather than one that evolved over centuries or millennia. The city was created in the 1950s to provide a home for hundreds of thousands of people displaced as a result of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. What had been just a large empty piece of land in the shadow of the Shivalik Mountains, very quickly rose to become the capital of two states - Haryana and Punjab - as well as the capital of the newly formed Union Territory of Chandigarh.
I've written previously about the city centre and the chi-chi shops of Sector 17. One of the other key tourist attractions (in so much as they exist in a city that attracts very few international tourists) is the surreal and wonderful Chandigarh Rock Garden.
I live just up the road from the UK's oldest rock garden at Lamport Hall in Northants and I have been heard to comment that it looks a bit like a pile of builders' rubble covered in moss. Cruel and harsh perhaps, but I'm generally only joking. In the case of the Chandigarh Rock Garden, the joke would be on me because that really is how it started - as a way of recycling builders' rubbish.
The History of the Chandigarh Rock Garden
As the workmen of the Punjab laboured night and day to build their new city, a humble transport department employee called Nek Chand was working on his own special secret project. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the growing city he cleared a small patch of ground and set about making a garden from stones and waste he found about the place. He made some sculptures from waste materials and the garden started to grow in size. He worked in secret for 18 years, hiding his work from the city's officials for fear it would be destroyed.
This does sound utterly ridiculous doesn't it - how could anyone hide a garden for so long? It put me in mind of Douglas Adams and his ultimate device for hiding things (I think it was in the second of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy) which he called the "Someone else's problem field". In this concept any object - in this case a 12 acre preposterous rock garden - can be made utterly invisible because it's simply someone else's problem and need not be worried about.
When Chand's work was finally discovered the officials were thrown into a quandary. On one hand the garden was totally illegal, had no planning permission and by rights they should tear it down to set an example to other naughty people. On the other, it was also great fun and a significant work of art and he'd probably saved them a fortune on rubbish disposal and landfill costs (if such things existed in those days). Common sense prevailed and instead of a jail sentence and a visit from the bulldozers, Nek Chand got a job, a salary and 50 workers assigned to help him create the Chandigarh Rock Garden. Today it covers more than 25 acres, receives around 5000 visitors every day and is a great example of Indian eccentricity and architectural creativity. The only other place I can think to liken it to would be Antonio Gaudi's work at Park Guell in Barcelona.
We visited the Punjab in November 2007 and were staying just outside Chandigarh, a couple of days before Diwali. We hired a driver and car for the day and set off to see the key sights of Chandigarh, including the Rock Garden. I had (unusually for me) done absolutely no research on the garden before I went - I knew plenty about the City Museum, the Lake and the Rose Gardens, but for some reason I'd not been inspired enough to check out the websites and learn about the Rock Garden. It was on our itinerary for the day because our friends told us we had to go. So we arrived without any pre-conceived ideas or expectations.
We drew up outside and left the car in a large car park. The boys went off to buy the entrance tickets which set us back the grand sum of 5 rupees per person - about 7 pence. Because Chandigarh receives so few foreign tourists, they don't bother to follow the usual Indian system of charging foreigners much higher fees than locals. From the outside we were greeted by rows of life-size goose sculptures on the walls and these were the first hint of what was to come.
We entered through a low arched doorway and found ourselves surrounded by surfaces decorated with broken crockery, walls of broken toilet pans and mosaics of electrical sockets. There are chunks of sinter from kilns which look like eerie extra-terrestrials. This first phase is bizarre but, by the standards of what's to follow, it's quite pedestrian.
The pathways wind through arches and low doorways in a way that's alien to this city of straight lines and oblongs. We found ourselves beside a small hut that had been the place where Nek Chand started his project before moving on to an oriental style waterfall area with flowing water and the first of the animal and human sculptures - a set of ladies with baskets on their heads are leading their geese to the water, whilst high above their heads, more people are standing on the walls looking down at you.
Apparently the people and animals made of thrown away items are somehow symbolic of the need to protect living things by protecting their environment - the link between life and waste. Well that's what I read somewhere but to be honest, I just prefer to think that Nek Chand liked making model cows, dogs, monkeys and ladies in fancy dresses. We wove our way back and forth along the paths, cooing at the ingenuity and admiring the statues. You could easily become overwhelmed by all the figures but they are just so cute that every turn brings another wonder and you can't stop wondering at the imagination of their creator.
The further we walked, the more surreal our surroundings became until there were thousands of mosaic people and animals (some identifiable, others just fantasy beasts) all around us. In one section there are row after row of small people and animals that are decorated with broken glass bangles. Now I have to admit that the bangle birds and bangle ladies did raise my eyebrows a little. Could there really be that many broken bangles generated in the city of Chandigarh or is it possible that Nek Chand might have broken them himself? Or maybe he had a hotline to a local bangle-factory, siphoning off the broken ones like a biscuit fan begging for the broken digestives.
We visited during a festival for the international Nek Chand Foundation which was also taking place over Diwali so I don't know if some of the activities were special for that reason. We came into a large plaza area with a band playing in front of some seating where the walls decorated in giant mosaics of cats and lions, peacocks and dragons, sunsets and scenery. A man with a camel (in Chandigarh that's not a common site) was offering rides to the public. People were swinging on long swings suspended from mosaic ceilings and there were fast food stands selling food and drink. This seemed to be the main entertainment area of the gardens and the last major section.
By this stage we'd seen pretty much all of the site and found we couldn't find a way out again. There must have been a turning we missed or a sign we didn't see because we had to basically retrace our steps the whole way back to the start. This seemed both silly (especially since the standard of the work builds as you move through the gardens and there was little point in then going back again) and dangerous. I couldn't work out how anyone would get out of the place in the event of a fire or a civil disturbance.
Worth a visit?
Absolutely - it's an unmissable attraction if you are in the area.
The only thing I'd like to see changed (apart from clearer signposting) would be to have a map or guide available to explain what you are seeing as you go round the gardens. I couldn't help thinking that there must be a lot that would make more sense if it was set into some kind of context. Which areas were done first? Which materials came from where? What animals were chosen for the statues and why? What was the inspiration for the waterfall section? I was left with dozens of questions and - despite googling like a demon - I still don't have the answers I want to help me make sense of my experience. I asked hubby what he thought was missing and predictably for a man with a bladder the size of a peanut, he'd have liked more public toilets. You can draw what conclusions you like about our different responses to the Rock Garden experience.
The Rock Garden of Chandigarh
Tel: +91 172 740 645
The Rock Garden is open every day from 9 am to 7 pm in summer and until 6 pm in winter.
Entry prices are Rs. 5 for adults and Rs. 3 for children.
The garden stretches over twenty five acres and displays several thousand sculptures set in large mosaic courtyards linked by walled paths and deep gorges.