Chandigarh is the state capital of both Punjab and Haryana, but part of neither, being a Union Territory administered by India’s federal government. Its history begins in 1947, when Partition placed the Punjab’s main city of Lahore in Pakistan, leaving India’s state of Punjab without a capital. Nehru saw this as an opportunity to realize his vision of a city “symbolic of the future of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, (and) an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. The job of designing it went to controversial Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier.
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Begun in 1952, Chandigarh was to be a groundbreaking experiment in town planning. Le Corbusier’s blueprints were for an orderly grid of sweeping boulevards, divided into 29 neat blocks, or Sectors, each measuring 800m by 1200m, and interspersed with extensive stretches of green. Chandigarh’s numbered sectors are further subdivided into lettered blocks, making route-finding relatively easy. Le Corbusier saw the city plan as a living organism, with the imposing Capital Complex to the north as a “head”, the shopping precinct, Sector 17, a “heart”, the green open spaces as “lungs”.
Some applaud Le Corbusier’s brainchild as one of the great architectural achievements of the twentieth century, but detractors complain that the design is self-indulgent and un-Indian. Le Corbusier created a city for fast-flowing traffic at a time when few people owned cars, while his cubic concrete buildings are like ovens during the summer. The city has expanded from the first phase comprising sectors 1 to 30 (there is no Sector 13), through a second phase – sectors 31 to 47 – and is now into the third phase with (half-size) sectors 48 to 61. Satellite towns emulating Chandigarh’s grid plan and sterile concrete architecture, such as Panchkula in Haryana and Mohali in Punjab, have sprung up on either side.
Despite Chandigarh’s shortcomings, its inhabitants are proud of their capital, which is cleaner, greener and more affluent than other Indian cities of comparable size, and its rock garden is India’s second most visited tourist site after the Taj Mahal.
The Rock Garden
Close to the Capital Complex, the Rock Garden is a surreal fantasyland fashioned from fragments of shattered plates, neon strip-lights, pots, pebbles, broken bangles and assorted urban-industrial junk. The open-air exhibition was a labour of love by retired Public Works Department road inspector Nek Chand. Inspired by a recurrent childhood dream, he began construction in 1957. His intention was to create just a small garden, but by the time it was discovered in 1975 – to widespread astonishment – it covered twelve acres. Though it was completely illegal, the city council recognized it as a great artistic endeavour and, in a conspicuously enlightened decision, awarded Chand a salary to continue his work (which he did until his death in 2015), and a workforce of fifty labourers to help. Opened to the public in 1976, the garden now covers 25 acres and contains several thousand sculptures.