The BBC has named what it believes to be the most perfect city in the world last year, and you won't believe which city received the honour. Many people in India could never believe that this tag could go to an Indian city, even though it happens to be the best and first-planned city of independent India and the joint capital of Haryana and Punjab – Chandigarh.
Having heard of Chandigarh as an epitome of urban planning in India and a quintessential garden city, we decided to make a stop here on the way to the hills for our summer break. Our first impression when we arrived here was one of disappointment as we drove past slums, weather-beaten concrete buildings and badly kept residential areas surrounded by barbed wire fences.
However, our mood brightened as we soon came to spacious avenues, bougainvillea-sprayed walls and the swathes of greenery in sector-16 that is the hallmark of Chandigarh. The gulmohar and jacaranda trees lining the roads were in flower, adding colour to the monochromatic cityscape.
This is the Chandigarh we had visualized – a place to see India as it would like to be seen – a garden city dotted with verdant parks – prosperous, comfortable and cosmopolitan.
Chandigarh is considered a holy book for architects and urban planners as it was a whole new city designed and developed from scratch, with the involvement of masters of modern architecture like Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Matthew Nowicki and Albert Mayer. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to create a new capital of Punjab (since the old capital of Lahore was by then part of Pakistan), which reflected the progressive outlook of the newly independent India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation's faith in the future. After the death of Matthew Nowicki, when Swiss-born French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (famous as Le Corbusier), was handed the commission to build Chandigarh in 1950, he conceived a people-oriented city of sweeping boulevards, lakes and gardens and grand civic buildings, executed in his favourite material, reinforced concrete.
His cousin, the designer, urban planner, writer and painter – architect Pierre Jeanneret – supervised the execution of the design. So this architectural marvel came into being – turn the clocks forward 60 years and the parks, monuments and civic squares are still flourishing, albeit aged somewhat.
To understand the architecture of Chandigarh, we first visited the City Museum in Sector-10 and its surrounding art and archaeology-themed attractions. Housed within the Government Museum and Art Gallery complex, the architecture museum explains the construction of Chandigarh through models, architectural drawings and photographs. Chandigarh Architecture Museum gives you the entire history of Chandigarh's planning and development, including the abandoned first plan for Chandigarh by Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki.
You can also visit the Le Corbusier Centre at his old Sector 19 office, which he used while conceptualizing the city. The Centre displays his life and works and permits future generations to acquaint themselves with his legacy. Fascinating letters, documents, sketches and furniture are on display. There is a souvenir shop which provides interesting knick-knacks.
Le Corbusier, famous for being the flag-bearer of Modern Architecture, conceived the city as a 'human being,' and designed Chandigarh in a modular fashion along the lines of a living organism. The Capitol Complex which contains the administrative and judicial buildings, is the head, the business and shopping district of Sector17 is the heart, the parks in and around Sector 16 form the lungs, the residential blocks form the torso, and the roads form the circulatory system.
Le Corbusier retained the Mayer and Nowicki master plan framework with The Capitol, City Centre, the University, Industrial area, linear parkland and the neighborhood unit, but opted for a mesh of rectangles instead of curved lines which was Mayer's style. Exposed brick and boulder stone masonry in its rough form produced unfinished concrete surfaces, in geometrical structures, that have become Chandigarh's signature architectural style.
At the epicentre of Le Corbusier's planned city are the imposing concrete High Court, Secretariat and Vidhan Sabha, which are shared by the states of Punjab and Haryana. All three are classic pieces of 1950s architecture from the proto-brutalist school, with bold geometric lines and vast sweeps of moulded concrete. Corbusier's other prominent buildings in Chandigarh are the Museum and Art Gallery, School of Art and the Lake Club. Most of the housing was designed by Pierre Jeanneret, the English couple Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, and Indian architects.
The city was designed in an orderly grid of avenues, streets and boulevards which divide Chandigarh into neat blocks called sectors, which are numbered and sub-divided into lettered blocks. Each sector of the city is self-contained and pedestrian-friendly, with low-rise housing, shops, schools, places of worship and recreational parks. Most visitors concentrate their attention on Sector 17 (for shops and restaurants) and Sector 22 (for hotels).
The Museum, Art and Picture Gallery Complex itself is a classic example of Le Corbusier's modernist style. Level 1 has the reception hall, foyer, reserve collection storage, conservation laboratory, temporary exhibition hall and auditorium. The main galleries are on Level 2 while Level 3 has the administrative and research wings. Facilities for the disposal of rainwater have been made so that it runs into pools through canals on the two sides of the building. The museum is designed to make good use of sunlight, a good example of energy efficiency.
The courtyard with a ramp reminded me of Le Corbusier's Sanskar Kendra in my home city of Ahmedabad. The museum has outstanding collections of miniature paintings from Kangra and other princely hill regions, paintings of the Himalayas by Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, elegant carvings of the Buddhist Ghandara civilisation, Punjab's phulkari (embroidery work), Sobha Singh's much-reproduced portrait of Guru Gobind Singh, Chamba's embroidered coverlets, Kantha textiles from Bengal, Thangkas from Tibet and Nepal, narrative paintings from Rajasthan, and contemporary paintings including Tagore's atmospheric watercolours and Satish Gujral's works.
Among the key exhibits are a Gandharan 6th century standing Boddhisattva, an 11th century Vishnu holding a conch shell from Kashmir, a 2nd century stone Hariti, a beautiful shawl showing the life of Alexander, a 15th century Manjushri sculpture from Nepal. At one end is the Child Art Gallery with colourful artworks. Also head to the Natural History Museum to check out its fossil exhibits, model dinosaurs and a diorama chronicling the evolution of man, from Australopithecines to Homo erectus, with a caveman using an electric torch to illuminate his cave art! Nearby, the National Gallery of Portraits features a panorama of photographs that depict freedom fighters for Indian independence. Wander the surrounding gardens and enjoy the peaceful ambience.
Nearby, the Rose Garden has about a 1000 kinds of roses in various colours, neatly maintained lawns, fountains and winding pathways. But summer was not the best time to visit these gardens since seasonal flowering is best in February. Away from the town centre, the Garden of Fragrance has sweet-scented varieties such as jasmine and damask rose. And we found huge crowds at the Rock Garden in Sector-1, which is certainly Chandigarh's top tourist draw.
The Rock Garden was designed by Nek Chand, who was not a sculptor but a road inspector for the Public Works Department in the newly planned Chandigarh city. Starting in 1957, he spent almost 20 years personally creating more than 2000 sculptures using stones, debris and other discarded junk that was left over from the 50-odd villages that were destroyed in order to build the city of Chandigarh, which he recycled into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, sprawling across a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake.
Entering this fantastical, 25-acre sculpture garden is like falling down a rabbit hole into the labyrinthine interior of one man's imagination. In this complex of waterfalls, caves and undulating slopes, it was fun for our children to identify everyday use discarded objects innovatively used for the sculptures and installations – concrete and steel drums, neon strip-lights, electric fuse switches, broken crockery and bottles, bathroom sinks and bicycle frames, shattered pots and plates, ceramics and other junk.
Highlights include a legion of dancing girls made from broken glass bangles and a graceful arcade of towering arches with dangling rope swings. While we enjoyed the fairytale atmosphere of the passages, arched walkways, water bodies, bridges, caves, cascades and fort-like walls, we found some of the extended areas to be rather repetitive and were happy to get out and visit the adjoining Sukhna Lake.
Electric carts shuttle tourists from the rock garden to Sukhna Lake. Le Corbusier and Chief Engineer P L Verma developed this water body as a tranquil place for the people of Chandigarh. It has ornamental gardens, a children's fairground, places to eat and drink, and pedalo boats for rent.The promenade is much frequented for walking, jogging, recreational strolls and skating, while the lake is also used for rowing. There is a Lake Club beside the water body which also attracts birds. The pride of Chandigarh, city residents volunteer in summer to preserve this lake and many festivals are held here.
Chandigarh Tourism runs an open-top, double-decker tourist bus leaving from outside Hotel Shivalikview which takes you around the city's main attractions. Near Sukhna Lake is the Capitol Complex, which is heavily secured, and our friends showed us the black, revolving, Open Hand monument, the city's symbol, signifying Chandigarh's people are 'open to give, open to receive'. To visit the complex you must first register and will then be given a free, accompanied tour.