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.
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.
Situated in the green belt known as the Leisure Valley, Chandigarh’s museums
form part of a cultural complex that includes the neighbouring Rose Garden.
The Government Museum & Art Gallery is best of the lot, housing a sizeable and informatively displayed collection of textiles, Harappan artefacts, miniature paintings and contemporary art, including five original Roerichs and a couple of A.N. Tagore’s atmospheric watercolours. The ancient sculptures are the most compelling exhibits, notably the Gandhara Buddhas with their delicately carved “wet-look” lunghis and distinctly Hellenic features – a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests.
A stone’s throw to the west, the small but appropriately modernist Chandigarh Architecture Museum illustrates the planning and construction of Chandigarh, with models and photographs in a concrete pavilion based on one of Le Corbusier’s designs. Beyond that, the Natural History Museum has a few stuffed animals, some bits of fossilized mammoths and diorama depictions of early humans, and is thus most popular with school kids.
Visits to the Capital Complex are by guided tour only – security is tight here, and has been since 1995, when Punjab chief minister Beant Singh was assassinated in front of the Assembly building by Sikh nationalist hardliners. The complex’s most imposing edifice is the eleven-storey Secretariat, Chandigarh’s highest building, which houses ministerial offices for both Haryana and Punjab, and has a roof garden with good views over the city. The resemblance of the adjacent Legislative Assembly building, or Vidhan Sabha (home to the legislatures of both states) to a power station is no coincidence: Le Corbusier was allegedly inspired by a stack of cooling towers he saw in Ahmedabad. Opposite the Secretariat is the most colourful building in the complex, the High Court (also serving both states), which
is said to incorporate elements of the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri, and is decorated inside with huge woollen tapestries. North of this is the black, 13m-high Open Hand monument, Chandigarh’s adopted emblem. Weighing all of 45 tonnes, it revolves on ball bearings like a weather vane and stands for “post-colonial harmony and peace”.
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.
Pinjore, 22km north of Chandigarh and 7km south of Kalka on the Shimla road, is one of many sites associated with the exile of the Pandavas as chronicled in the Mahabharata. It is best known for its walled Yadavindra Gardens on Kalka Shimla Road, which originally belonged to the rajas of Sirmaur, but under the Mughals were taken over by Aurangzeb’s foster brother, Fidai Khan, who erected three pleasure palaces for his wife amid the cypress trees. Legend tells that the raja reclaimed his summer retreat by sending a female fruit-seller with goitre to the imperial impostors. On being told that the woman’s unsightly swelling was caused by the local water, the begum and her entourage fled. The gardens are on seven levels, bisected by waterways with fountains; the best time to visit is in the evening, when it’s all aglow with pretty lights.
Nearby, excavated remains of the tenth-century Bhima Devi Temple – destroyed during the Muslim conquest of the area – have been assembled in a pleasant park with four exhibition rooms that the caretaker will open for you if he’s about. The temple is contemporary with Khajuraho, and one or two of the reliefs are similarly erotic, though well worn.
Top image: Rock garden of Chandingarh, India © Prachi Mohan Srivastava/Shutterstock