A somewhat kooky, though rather charming, fantasyland of stone characters inhabit Nek Chand’s 25-acre rock garden in Chandigarh, Northern India.
The city is unlike any other in this intensely chaotic country. Chandigarh’s grid-like street layout was designed in 1952 by the ultra-famous Swiss-French iconic architect of the 20th century, Le Corbusier. It was Nehru’s vision of a city “symbolic of the future of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, and an expression of the nation’s future.” Chandigarh garners both lavish praise and harsh criticism simultaneously. Critics complain that its overly rigid design is utterly alien to all other cities in India while most local residents take tremendous pride in its squeaky clean and extremely wide, tree-lined boulevards that endlessly, and gloriously, traverse the city in a ninety-degree, chockablock pattern. Unlike most other Indian cities, no squishy, holy cow droppings can be found anywhere here. This rather unique city concurrently serves as the capitol of the two neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana but is part of neither since it functions as a “Union Territory” administered by India’s federal government.
Mr. Nek Chand, a humble road inspector, worked in this newfound city during the initial days of its construction in the early 50s. He was aghast by the vast amount of waste being generated as local villages were cleared to make way for new construction. Over time, tons of refuse surreptitiously made its way to Chand’s jungle abode where his urban junk collection soon took on a recycled life as a significant element in what turned out to be an extraordinary sculptural vision he had for the future. In 1958 Chand, an untrained artisan, began molding shattered shards of crockery, broken bangles and teapots, discarded electrical sockets and a disorderly array of scrapheap waste plus bits of rock and loose pebbles that would ultimately be reformed into his whacky creations. His legions of water women, wayward pipers, mischievous monkeys and cheeky stick figure creations began multiplying in the secret (and illegal) sculptural paradise he was building in his backyard, which kept expanding into acres and acres of unmonitored government land lying beyond.
Fifteen years later in 1973 his sensational fantasy sculptural paradise was stumbled upon by a government survey crew.
Technically, Chand’s utterly amazing creations should have been demolished but in a miraculous moment of wisdom the city council decreed his rock garden as a spectacular cultural amenity. They assigned him fifty workers and gave him a salaried stipend for the rest of his life that guaranteed he could complete his dream. Decades later, at age 85, Chand was still supervising new construction in his dreamland backyard paradise just like a little kid gone bonkers in a fantasy world that today includes a haphazard labyrinth of crooked walkways, meandering bridges, gushing waterfalls and endless winding grottoes surrounded by astounding battlements with towering turrets and numerous narrow chasms and tiny passageways tourists must negotiate. The thrill is simply riveting.
Walt Disney could never have dreamed to accomplish such amazement on a dime.
I’m not sure if they named the city of Chandigarh after Nek Chand or if somewhere along the way he might have seized part of that city’s moniker as his surname . . . but I wouldn’t put it past him. It leaves one wondering since this very simple, though highly ingenious man had so easily absconded with so many other bits of the city.
Today it is said that Nek Chand’s rather eccentric, Gaudi-like, ditzy rock garden is second only to the Taj Mahal in the nation’s number of annual visitors.
Finally, Chandigarh is on the map. Let us praise the little guy.
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