26-28 May 2009
When I first thought of a title for this blog post, it was simply why I liked Chandigarh so much. The city had a great first impression on me. As I began to discover it a little more, I began to see its faults. Not that it has many faults for the occasional tourist. For tourists, there cannot be a better city than Chandigarh. The city is spick-and-span. Everything is in its proper place. The roads are wide and traffic flows freely. There are plenty of parks and gardens for many pleasant walks. It is truly a place of leisure and relaxation, where even work may not seem such a bother.
Chandigarh is everything that most of India isn’t. Any new city, if left unattended, can quickly degenerate to the natural sorry state of its inhabitants. It would not take long to litter it. Worse still, slums and land encroachment of the kind found in Chennai or Mumbai can come here too. I can only conclude that it is largely the behaviour and good civic sense of locals and tourists alike that continue to keep Chandigarh the beautiful city it has always been. One’s surroundings have a way changing one’s behaviour. There is pride in a city that is clean and beautiful. That most of the city’s population is either rich upper or middle class may have something to do with this interest in keeping their city clean. In any case, I am certain that the people of Chandigarh will stand up and fight should their city begin to lose its magic.
It is precisely the same argument that makes me think that I do not like Chandigarh all that much. It is not representative of India. It emphasizes the disparity between India’s rich and poor by a strange absence of the latter. There are no visible signs of poverty. The city is just too expensive for any of them to survive. Beggars along footpaths or street hawkers at traffic lights are not to be found. How could they survive when people commute mostly by their own vehicles? When there are few traffic lights, how could they hawk their wares along main roads intersecting at free circles? Chandigarh is a lovely city but it is not India. It is a clever city. It has rejected the worst of India and protected itself by a system that favours the rich. In its progressive stride and vision, it is not to be blamed. The rest of India has failed to keep up.
Chandigarh has the highest per capita car ownership in the country. The roads are so wide that it almost seems to be a city built for a motorist rather than an inhabitant. Le Corbusier built this in post-independent India when the motor age was still in its infancy and expected to grow. He built it on the premise that affluence is going to come. He built this to last for at least a century. How differently would he have designed it in the age of global warming? Would he have designed the city to minimize the need to commute? Would he have made each sector more self-contained, co-locating offices and residences within walking distance of each other?
It turns out that Le Corbusier had this idea that each sector should be self-contained with schools, clinics, temples, parks, offices and businesses. Although the design framework is being used to these original principles, for practical reasons there are many cases where it is difficult to avoid commuting. All the best shops in town are organized into Sector 17. We have the Punjab University in Sector 14. Bus stations are in Sector 17 and Sector 43. Government offices and accommodations are near each other in Sectors 1, 3, 4 and 9. Museums are located in Sector 10. In a place like Bangalore, you could walk a couple of minutes to find a shop and buy bottle of water. You can’t do that in Chandigarh. You may have to walk many blocks to find a shop within the same sector. General convenience is lacking.
A lot about the city can be learned by visiting the City Museum. Much of the groundwork had been done by a couple of architects who came before Le Corbusier. Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki realized that large multi-storeyed buildings would not suit Indians who were rather used to village-style community living. Drawings of these architects show 2-storeyed clustered houses with awnings and jallis (stone tracery or lattice-work) that derive inspiration from village India. They defined the variable sized and curvaceous neighbourhood units which was adapted by Le Corbusier to become today’s fixed sized rectangular sectors of 800 x 1200 m. Roads, streets and paths are organized in a model of 7 Vs. V1 are the highways while V7 are small lanes leading to individual houses. V4 streets are meant for shopfronts. The city was opened in 1953 and work on Phase 2 began in 1966. It is said that Phase 2 is still incomplete as a result of 4 villages which refuse to come under Chandigarh’s urbanization. In particular, Burail Village can be seen on the map as a large unmapped area in the middle of Sector 45, a preservation of an ancient way of life in the midst of progress.
Today a 16 km greenbelt surrounds the city to protect it from over-urbanization and loss of green spaces. Parks are many and excellently maintained. Yesterday morning I took a long walk leading north from my place in Sector 17. I followed the Leisure Valley passing Shanthi Kunj, Rose Garden, General Hospital, Ramakrishna Mission, Floral Sculpture Garden and finally Punjab University. (At the university’s Musuem of Fine Arts, I stopped for an hour to look at paintings. The security guard was kind enough to let me in although the place was not yet open for the day.) Even on a weekday, many come out to enjoy the morning freshness, to exercise or take a leisurely stroll in the parks. There is perhaps an awareness of health and fitness but the beauty of Chandigarh surely motivates people to begin their day early. This morning I repeated the morning walk, this time following the Leisure Valley southwest, passing en route the Children’s Traffic Park, a government Yoga Health Center and the beautiful Fragrance Garden. There seems to be a garden at every turn. The Topiary Garden in Sector 35 was disappointing mainly because the gardeners have been overambitious in their creations. In the evenings, Sukhna Lake is busy with joggers, walkers, couples and friends just hanging out.
From the perspective of modern architecture, Chandigarh is a gem. There are many splendid buildings/structures and some of my favourites are:
- Student Center, Punjab University – a cylindrical structure and quite simple in design. A ramp curves up around the building, like a vine on its support. The ramp is first a balcony and then a corridor until it merges into the building.
- Gandhi Bhawan, Punjab University – a complex building with many perspectives. Whichever way you look at it, it is poetic. The walls curve around and end in angular openings that form sort of majestic porticos. Roofs too dip and climb in curves before terminating in pointed lines and sharp angles. This clever use of curves and lines form the beauty of this building. They combine the essence of nature and her laws with man’s visions and aspirations. You may think of it as a giant origami in concrete. You may think of it as a bird or a ship. You can walk around it many times and each time the building will lend itself to a different interpretation. The building is supposed to be reflected in its surrounding pool of water. The pool was dry while I was there.
- War Memorial at Bougainvillea Garden – opened in 2006, it pays tribute to the martyrs of Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh. Though not an impressive structure at first sight, try walking into it and walking out of it. A circular ramp winds down around the sculptural flame at the center and them climbs up by a similar ramp. There is movement in the interplay of horizontals (empty slots) and verticals etched with the names of the fallen brave. The flame at the center is punctured with a large hole. How shall we interpret this – the emptiness of war, the wounded soldiers, the flame that continues to burn despite its flicker?
- High Court – I seriously wonder how on earth people get beautiful pictures of this building. The court was a busy place with lots of people and cars in constant movement. There are sufficient trees in full foliage to obscure the view of the facade. Then there is ongoing construction work nearby.
- Secretariat – I saw this impressive building from a distance. The size combined with repetitive elements are imposing. I had a written permission from the tourism office to enter the Capitol Complex but the Haryana side was closed due to a public holiday; the Punjab side of the building was open but no one was there at the security office to issue me a security pass. I was told to wait for an hour for someone to return from lunch. I had no patience to wait. Bureaucracy and inefficient government services hold their sway here as in rest of India.
The Art Gallery is a place that must not be visited in a hurry. If you are uninitiated into Indian history and art this is a good taster. There is a good collection on textile art from phulkaris to Chamba rumals, from kanthas to thangkas. Miniature paintings of the Mughal period are to be admired for their details. Rajput paintings too are full of detail and vivid colour. The religious and secular paintings of Sobha Singh captivated me. “Guru Nanak”, “Sisters of Spinning Wheel” and “The Origin of Taj” are just three of them. The gallery has many sculptures of Kushan and Gupta period including many images of Buddha.
No one leaves Chandigarh without seeing Nek Chand’s Rock Garden. It’s a world of fantasy perfect for kids but I am less certain if it’s great art. It’s a garden made of rocks and also of everyday things we use and discard. It’s perhaps a statement about reuse and recycling but also about creativity and looking at common things in a different way. In this world of fantasy, we pass its inhabitants of birds, animals, people, families and their lives. Unlike in a zoo or a museum, the roles are reversed for once – we pass through as objects in a living world that is their own. Their world is perhaps more real than our own, a world in which they see things as they are, in which there is no illusion and they are simply the elements that define them. Similar figures are arranged in their dozens as replicas in shape, form, texture and colour. This repetition creates this world of theirs into which we are passing visitors and mere illusions.
Buses from Delhi are frequent and they take about 5 hours. I actually arrived at Chandigarh by a super long ride from Ki monastery in the Spiti Valley. I had to change at Shimla. The entire journey took me 22 hours!
Expensive with rooms starting from around Rs. 900. I had not done any research on Chandigarh and so I had to settle for a dorm bed for Rs.200 above the bus station, ISBT at Sector 17.
I had a number of meals at a restaurant at ISBT below my accommodation. In fact, the dorm bed comes with one complimentary meal per day at this restaurant. Good stuff, clean and well priced.
Plenty. Chandigarh is beautiful city of parks, footpaths, gardens, sculptures and wonderful architecture. I purchased a complete map of the city, sector by sector, published by Ideal Publishing House. I didn’t need anything else to get around the city and all its tourist spots.