Chandigarh: Le Corbusier and Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

I have a few more travel posts from India: three or four, including this one, which documents my visit to the IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research) at Mohali, a city adjacent to Chandigarh, which is here:

Chandigarh is an unusual city in two respects: it’s the capital of two of India’s adjacent states, Punjab and Haryana (I think this is unique in India; all its states are outlined on the map above). Further, it’s a planned city, envisioned by Jawaharlal Nehru and created out of uninhabited land, with the city’s overall layout and its government buildings designed and built by the architect Le Corbusier and colleagues in the 1950s. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

It was one of the early planned cities in post-independence India and is internationally known for its architecture and urban design. The master plan of the city was prepared by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, which transformed from earlier plans created by the Polish architect Maciej Nowicki and the American planner Albert Mayer. Most of the government buildings and housing in the city, were designed by the Chandigarh Capital Project Team headed by Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. In 2015, an article published by BBC named Chandigarh as one of the perfect cities of the world in terms of architecture, cultural growth and modernisation.

Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex was in July 2016 declared by UNESCO as World Heritage at the 40th session of World Heritage Conference held in Istanbul. UNESCO inscription was under “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier an outstanding contribution to the Modern Movement”. The Capitol Complex buildings include the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Punjab and Haryana Secretariat and Punjab and Haryana Assembly along with monuments Open hand, Martyrs Memorial, Geometric Hill and Tower of Shadow.

I’ll show below the architecture of the Capitol Complex, but the planned nature of the city means that there’s no real city center, and several Indians complained to me about this on my trip. But it is spread out and spacious—a break from more crowded cities like Delhi or Kolkata (I took the three-hour train to get to Chandigarh from Delhi), but it doesn’t really feel like an Indian city.  Curiously, though it’s not at all crowded and industrial, it’s one of India’s most polluted cities. Here’s a figure that appeared in the Hindustan Times on the first day I visited. The pollution is caused largely by crop-burning, not by industry or cars:

I photographed the view from my hotel room the first dawn when I awoke, because I was told that it was often too smoggy to see the nearby hills, which happen to be foothills for the Himalayas to the north:

My host on this trip was the genial Rhitoban Ray Choudhury (“Ray”), a young assistant professor who knows a lot of my friends because he studied in the U.S. and works on problems of evolutionary genetics, including the parasitic wasp Nasonia (it lays eggs in Drosophila pupae) and  Wolbachia, a parasitic bacterium that produces weird evolutionary dynamics because it can sterilize or kill the offspring of its carrier. Here’s Ray (right) with some of his grad students after one ample dinner (previously documented here). Left to right: Manisha, Alok, Renuka, Ray:

Renuka works on termites, which fortuitiously have nests on the IISER campus. These are odd termites because, like leaf-cutting ants, they grow and cultivate a particular fungus on which they feed. So far they’ve been impossible to culture in the lab, though, and the fungus dies immediately after removal from the nest. But the student (I’ll try to get those names) showed me one of her termite colonies on campus:

One morning Alok and Reunuka took me on a tour of Chandigar’s Capitol Complex to see Le Corbusier’s buildings. You can read about them here, and it was too sunny to take good photos, but here are some. First, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, known as the Palace of Justice. All these buildings are designed to fend off the sun in summer’s brutal heat and maximize wind cooling:

A High Court judge enjoying his tea outside (and checking his cellphone, India’s new national pasttime):

An Indian swastika, a symbol of good luck, on a wall being steam-cleaned:

I was told that this structure, which isn’t used for anything, was built to test the design of the other buildings: whether such an open structure could be effective in cooling off the interior:

The famous Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but only completed 20 years after his 1965 death. It’s 85 feet tall, made of steel, and weighs 50 tons. It’s supposed to symbolize “the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind”, and was designed to look like a flying bird as well. It rotates in the wind.

 

The Palace of Assembly, or Legislative Chamber. Here’s where the lawmaking gets done for the two states. We were allowed to go inside and see the assembly chamber, but no photos were allowed. It was pretty imposing inside, with a big chair where the boss sits and a huge painting of Gandhi on the wall. There are no windows in the chamber, which is apparently quite cool in the summer. The first photo is mine; the second from Wikipedia:

 

The Secretariat Building, where the bureaucrats work:

My conclusion: the buildings are nice, and were innovative, but they are crumbling, getting dirty, and, as the Indian Express noted, “a mess, in dire need of facelift” (see also this article from the Guardian about the complex’s being plundered, with parts sold off). But it’s worth seeing them, especially the Hand Monument and the interior chamber of the Legislative Assembly.  Tours are free, must be conducted by a guide, and you have to go through a process of showing ID and filling out forms to be allowed onto the Complex grounds. Security is quite tight.

The other touristic highlight in Chandigarh, which attracts far more people, is the Rock Garden, secretly built by a bureaucrat in his spare time and made totally out of scrap material and discarded stuff like plates and broken bangles. Wikipedia:

The Rock Garden of Chandigarh is a sculpture garden in Chandigarh, India. It is also known as Nek Chand’s Rock Garden after its founder Nek Chand, a government official who started the garden secretly in his spare time in 1957. Today it is spread over an area of 40 acres (161874.25 m²). It is completely built of industrial and home waste and thrown-away items.

. . . It consists of man-made interlinked waterfalls and many other sculptures that have been made of scrap and other kinds of wastes (bottles, glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots, sinks, electrical waste, broken pipes, etc.) which are placed in walled paths.

In his spare time, Nek Chand started collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for 18 years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre (49,000 m2) complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals.

His work was in danger of being demolished, but he was able to get public opinion on his side. In 1976 the park was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was given a salary, a title (“Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden”), and 50 laborers so that he could concentrate full-time on his work. It appeared on an Indian stamp in 1983. The Rock Garden is still made out of recycled materials. With the government’s help, Chand was able to set up collection centers around the city for waste, especially rags and broken ceramics.

The place is amazing, and I’m surprised that anything could be hidden in India for 18 years—even though it was in a gorge—for people are everywhere. Here are some photos of that amazing place:

A wall made out of broken electric fittings:

And one from broken crockery:

Weird animals and figures—Nek Chand had quite an imagination!

It goes on forever!

x

These objects are made from broken bangles, the glass bracelets worn by gazillions of women in India. Who knew that one could use them in such a creative way?

A Bangle Bird:

Bangle Men:

Indian tourists abound, far more than at the Capitol Complex. And, to be sure, the Rock Garden is more interesting. Here are some of the artificial waterfalls:

Selfies. The biggest change I’ve noticed in India over the last five years has been the rise of cellphones, which are now ubiquitous and so cheap that even the very poor can afford them. While that’s all to the good, it of course leads to Selfie Disease!

Defaluters will be fined! (100 rupees is about $1.50):

 

28 Comments

  1. rickflick
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Chand’s rock garden sculptures are remarkable. I’d have to say the fellow was obsessed at the least. There are other examples of this garbage-art approach. Maybe psychiatry should name this state of mind.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Chand’s sculptures might be classified as Trash Art:

      https://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/12/non-trashy-recycled-and-trash-art/

    • Christopher
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      My local PBS station, KCPT, ran a show for years that focused on “garbage-art” and folk art called Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations and I recommend anyone who is a fan of such works (and bad jokes) to seek out the old programs.

      My only complaint is that I would much rather have seen the gorge remain a wild-ish forrest buffer and that the ugly barren concrete monstrosities that the city is made of were decorated and enlivened with his wonderful creations. Le Corbusier’s concrete CRAPital complex has all the beauty of Soviet architecture.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        I will disagree with your take on Le Corbusier. His architecture is complete as they were designed and built. The addition of murals and mosaics is not necessary, and would probably be a failure in most cases simply because they would distract from the pure forms. The comparison to Soviet architecture is completely unjust.

        • Christopher
          Posted January 7, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Ah well, to each their own I guess. I think Corbusier is highly overrated. Concrete can make some nice buildings, like an expensive eco-hotel in Puerto Rico I once saw on a Globe Trekker travel show but I cannot for the life of me see why Corbusier is held in such high regard. It is a style that leaves me absolutely cold, much like Philip Glass compositions or Jackson Pollock paintings. I’m sure I could analyze why these things leave me feeling dead inside but I’m not sure it would help me understand the opposite point of view.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted January 7, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            There’s a problem with concrete, in that it’s a fundamentally ugly material. Unlike stone or brick which has a texture, concrete gets dirty and shabby very easily. And also, its unrelieved massiveness means that it’s easy to build a horrendously brutal and ugly structure in concrete and surprisingly hard to build an elegant one.

            I’d be the first to admit there are spectacularly graceful structures in concrete – Millau Viaduct or some of the high German motorway viaducts of the 70’s like Kochertal come to mind. (Millau has a steel deck, but the piers are concrete). But they’re the rare and justly celebrated exceptions.

            Re the crack about Soviet architecture, when you’re building a tower block for housing there’s not much you can do – you’re going to end up with a huge concrete box. I noticed (from the train) that many such tower blocks have been painted in bright colours, or patterns of colours, and that certainly does relieve some of the greyness of concrete. It’s a high-maintenance solution, but what else could you do?

            cr

            • GBJames
              Posted January 7, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

              I visited Poland in 1995 for a funeral. One of the strongest impressions I had was of Soviet era construction and how ugly it looked. It appeared to have been intentionally designed to denigrate even the idea that aesthetics has value. Even the telephone poles seemed to have been designed to be ugly. It all seemed to be concrete.

              • Posted January 8, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                Or designed to be homogeneous and hence also cheap?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 8, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-ugly concrete telephone pole…

                I can’t comment on Poland since I was mostly asleep on the train going through it. But I think you’ve reinforced my point about concrete. There may have been good financial reasons why no-frills concrete construction was used. Post-war reconstruction and all that. I could name plenty of Western suburbs that suffered from the same thing.

                But for the exact opposite, check out the stations on the Moscow Metro, which are justly renowned for their looks. (I mention them because they mostly are Soviet era. I won’t reference the centre of Moscow, which is full of elegant buildings beautifully maintained and painted, or the many delightful stations on the Trans-Siberian line, because I guess those things were built pre-Soviet).

                I’m just not sure whether the idea of Soviet architecture as being grey and clumsy is true or just based on a popular misconception that everything behind the Iron Curtain must automatically have been grey and depressing.

                cr

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 8, 2018 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                I think Keith Douglas may have out in a nutshell what I took several paragraphs…

    • Andy Lowry
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Reminds me a bit of Howard Finster’s “Paradise Garden.” There’s quite a bit of work in there with broken glass and pottery, and a small building made out of Coke bottles and concrete.

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    “Defaluter” must be a common misspelling in India. Google turns up other examples.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Defaluter – one who defaces high-falutin’ concepts.

      cr

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    just so you all know, these travelogues are immensely … immensely … good … but I might not post comments on all of them.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 8, 2018 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      Same here. 🙂

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    How did he manage to hide building things on 12acres of conservancy land for 18yrs?

    • Posted January 7, 2018 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      That was my question, one that nobody could answer. It’s more telling because it’s in India, and I’ve never been ANYPLACE in India where someone didn’t wander by, particularly because this site is so close to where Chandigarh was being built. India is FULL of people.

  5. BJ
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    So, did Nek Chand build everything in that initial twelve acres of the Rock Garden? Regardless of whether or not it was all done by him, it’s remarkable. Unfortunately, I will probably never see it, as I have no desire to visit India (there is much I would like to see there, but I don’t do well in crowded, hot places).

    By the way, Jerry, you repeated the middle paragraph from Wikipedia’s description twice.

    • Posted January 7, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Ah, I’ll fix that. The article said that he eventually got some helpers later on, but he did a lot by himself. But the whole thing was his conception.

      • BJ
        Posted January 7, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        That’s remarkable. I can’t imagine doing something so amazing, especially in my spare time! The again, I’m not an artistic person. I struggle to draw a stick figure with a ruler.

  6. yazikus
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    My favorite sign from my time in India was posted along the north Ganges. It read:
    Swimming is prohibited. Survivors will be fined.

  7. Christopher
    Posted January 7, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    and speaking of the “selfie disease”, I just found a story on the BBC news app about the frequent deaths in the country due to people attempting to take selfies with elephants. The article claims that India has had more
    (reported) selfie-deaths than any other country in the last few years.

    • David Coxill
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Do they all merit Darwin awards ?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      If you check out the statistics, I believe elephants kill far more people annually than sharks.

      I will remember that next time I go swimming and if I see an elephant drifting past, I’ll get out of the water quick. 😉

      cr

      • GBJames
        Posted January 7, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        And stay away from sharks in the garden!

  8. Posted January 8, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I read somewhere (I have no idea exactly how true this is) that more people now have a cell phone than a toilet! (World-wide.)

  9. nicky
    Posted January 9, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    In South Africa we have the “Owl House” by Helen Martins in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo, but it is not on the scale of Nek Chand’s ‘Rock Garden’. May we still use ‘amazing’?
    A bit different, more traditional, but also amazing, is the ‘Vigeland’ sculpture park in Olso.
    Why does so much of Chand’s work vaguely reminds me of some of Gaudi’s work?


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