Planned Chaos in Chandigarh

Rolling into Chandigarh I had high expectations. A couchsurfer invited me to come and stay and I thought it a great opportunity to see this city famed for its urban planning, much like Islamabad in Pakistan.

When Pakistan split from India in 1947 the capital city of the state of Punjab was Lahore, which went to Pakistan. Like Pakistan’s need for a new, organized city to house the government, India needed a new capital for Punjab (and Haryana state).

The city was built with an eye for the future. Carefully planned city development projects began with internationally known architects and artisans such as Le Corbusier and his International Style. They were called upon to create something India could proudly show the world.

The city is laid out nicely with accessible transportation and gardens. But India is more known for cows blocking traffic than standards of city planning. Walking the streets in the short two days I spent here, I thought a lot of development is left unfinished or taking place such as sidewalks and sewers, but perhaps it is the unrepentant Indian city shining through. A variation of an idiom come to mind with this place: “You can take an Indian to Chandigarh, but you can’t take the Indian out of Chandigarh.”

Unfortunately, my couchsurfing host failed to appear to meet me and his communication became weak. So I struck out for lodging and found the city to be needlessly expensive. This is compounded by the fact that the English cricket team also arrived the same time as me for their anticipated matches with India, a trip that was in doubt since the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

I first visited an area with International Style government buildings, court rooms, and judges dressed in English style drinking chai. Yes, long black robes and wigs. I came to see the famous Open Hand statue which is also a symbol of the city.

The cluster where this statue is kept was at least planned well enough to keep me from getting to it. Security gates guarded all entrances and I received 3 different sets of instructions on how to get to this monument before aborting the goal.

Le Corbusier's Open Hand

Le Corbusier's Open Hand

On the last attempt I was directed to a road upon which a machine gunner sat in a bunker. My instructions were to take this road, but he looked at me with disbelief in his eyes and shook his head, “Please…. please” which gave me the impression I was trying to enter the Prime Minister’s personal quarters instead of one of the best known landmarks. I had no permission slip, could not be told where to get such slip, and told the statue is not reachable. Indian bureaucracy at its finest: I can’t help or know who can help, but since it’s not my problem you should go. There are a billion people here after all.

So I went. To the Nek Chand Rock Garden. Nek Chand is a guy who crated art pieces out of recycled trash and industrial waste for 18 years before the government took notice and turned his work into a legitimate public space.

Nek Chand Rock Garden

Nek Chand Rock Garden

For some reason in 1996, while Chand was on a lecture tour, his funding was cut off and the park was vandalized- a mistake that has since been corrected. Its said the park sees more visitors than even the Taj Mahal in India with over five thousand people daily visiting!

I’m glad the admission is kept cheap though the forty-acre sculpture garden has its charms with waterfalls, passage ways, and an amphitheater of sorts.

Pieces of light sockets, broken ceramics, clay pots, and other industrial waste adorns the walls and exhibits inside. Figures and strange creatures stare back at you in numbers.

It was interesting, but the combined punch of the city didn’t knock me out. A dorm-like hotel turned me away (no foreigners), my couchsurfing host bailed on me, and I couldn’t see the damn Hand statue… not auspicious for me.

This city has been brought to my attention before in Art History courses and the quick glimpse I got was interesting but its not the India I came to see.

I took the cheapest room I could find at 400 Rps (was paying 100 in Dharamsala not that I should expect the same, but still) and left for Rishikesh.