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Between Monks and Monkeys

Nek Chand Rock Garden, Chandigarh - an eccentric wonderland!

INDIA | Tuesday, 10 January 2012 | Views [7110] | Comments [1]

One of the strange groups of figures in the Rock Garden.

One of the strange groups of figures in the Rock Garden.

On th way back to Delhi I stayed a night in the city of Chandigarh, and took a bicycle rickshaw to Chandigarh’s most visited attraction, the Nek Chand Rock Garden.

The wide, flat roads were lined with trees and the traffic flowed freely so it was a really pleasant drive, apart from the constant whining of my driver. He would have much preferred to take me to the Rose Garden instead of the Rock Garden because it was a shorter distance to pedal.

Wikipedia has this to say about Nek Chand and his Rock Garden:

Nek Chand was a roading inspector who began collecting materials from demolition sites around the city in the 1950s. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh 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 eighteen years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals.

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

At the Rock Garden, a crudely painted sign outside the kiosk read: Admission: Adult 10 years to 100 years, 10 rupees. Above 100, free!

That evening I wrote in my diary: It was like a mixture of a funfair and Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona. The various areas of the garden were divided by high, meandering walls with low gateways and tunnels built of mosaic-covered concrete. Most of the mosaics were made of broken crockery but I also saw chunks of ceramic isolators from power lines, broken glass and unidentifiable bits of pottery.

Once Nek Chand had got an idea into his head, he liked to work it to death. One area was filled with crowds of grinning identical toothy animals which vaguely resembled reindeer. In another, there were at least a hundred female figures arranged in straight rows. They were about a metre high, with multi-coloured saris, and stared straight ahead through white ceramic eyes. Built on the same basic plan, the position of the arms  -  lifted, by the sides, gesticulating and so on -  gave the crowd a touch of variety, but also added to the slight sense of eeriness about the display.

I  felt a little as if I had landed on another planet. I wandered on through seemingly endless different areas, past groups of musicians, seated figures, standing  figures, gods, monkeys, dancers, birds, figures with  three heads and other bizarre and unidentifiable creatures. Reality and artifice were occasionally hard to separate. In one section there was a large baobab tree with a mass of twisted roots cascading down a wall, and I only realised as I looked more closely that concrete roots had been intertwined with the tree’s own root system. A dirty little stream ran along beside the path by the tree. Looking up, I saw a miniature village with houses and temples perched on the top of the high bank above me.

I found I was not only an observer, but an object of intense scrutiny as well. Long lines of school children were looping around the garden, and many of them seemed to find me at least as interesting as the art works. There were lots of giggles and waves and the occasional “Hello, how are you?” as we passed each other. 

Eventually I emerged from yet another crockery-encrusted tunnel into a big open space. This was obviously the centre of the garden. It was here that the funfair aspect of the place was most apparent.

At one end was a massive concrete arcade of about twenty arches topped with huge white horses. Underneath each arch, long chains supported a big wooden swing. Both children and adults were happily playing on the swings. As I made my way around the space, I found a hall of mirrors, a little refreshment kiosk and an aquarium. A lively crowd was dancing to loud music on a raised concrete dance floor, the men and women in separate groups. 

The mosiacs on the surrounding walls in this area were the most sophisticated and colourful I had seen so far, with some really  lovely  representations of  animals, peacocks, monkeys and various abstract patterns.

On one side was a  kind of arena with tiers of  wide steps covered in bright mosaics. Just in front of the steps was a full-sized stuffed camel with an elaborate saddle and bridle. If you paid the turbaned men in charge, you could climb on board and pose for pictures. The camel was even jointed so it swayed slightly in a lifelike way. But just a minute! I distinctly saw the camel blink as I walked past. It was alive all right, and stood staring around with a disdainful expression on its face.  Not much of a way to spend one’s life, and I think I would have preferred a stuffed one after all.

I bought a bottle of mango drink and sat on a mosaic-covered wall under a tree, watching the animated crowd. How wise the locals had been to protect this unique expression of eccentric art, and now here they were, swinging, dancing, chatting and generally having fun.

I was approached by two high school boys with a microphone. “Excuse me, madam. We are from Mt Carmel School. Can I ask you what you think of the Nek Chand Rock Garden?”                                                                                                                     

“It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” I said, which was true.                                                               

 “And what do you think about the city of Chandigarh?”

 “I like it,” I replied. “It seems like a prosperous city, it’s easy to get around, and you have lovely wide streets and plenty of trees. I’m enjoying my visit very much.”

They were obviously intensely proud of their city and were on a Clean up Chandigarh campaign, encouraging people to pick up their waste. I wished them luck with it. Although  the  level  of  garbage  was  not on a  par with Dharmashala, there was still a fair amount of rubbish strewn around the city.

It  was now early afternoon. I had read that Chandigarh had a number of good museums. They all seemed to be clustered around the same part of town, so I decided to have a look. I eventually made my way back to the entrance after following a few false trails. Once I got there it was very easy to book a bicycle rickshaw at a pre-pay booth outside the gate, and within a few minutes we were on our way to the Museum sector.  

The driver dropped me outside the art museum, a blocky affair designed by Le Corbusier and located in a spacious park. Inside I paid my 10-rupee entry fee plus a 5-rupee charge for using a camera. The museum had plenty of bored-looking guards, but I seemed to be virtually the only visitor, and I had a marvellous time. I began with a lovely display of textiles, including a couple of very old Tibetan thangkas and some exquisite examples of Kantha embroidery. All the labels on the exhibits were conveniently written in English.

As I climbed the stairs to the upper level, I paused to admire some reproductions of Buddhist frescoes from the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. Upstairs, I came across a beautiful collection of small bronze statues of graceful Indian gods and goddesses, musicians and dancers. In another room, a large exhibition traced the way in which the image of the Buddha has changed through the centuries.

From there I wandered into a room full of modern art. This interested me less than the next area, where there was a display of Indian miniature paintings from the Mughal era. They were like little jewels; exquisitely detailed paintings of Rajas and their courtiers, dancers, musicians, elephants and camels, as well as a few works depicting the daily life of ordinary Indians. One of my favourites was a lively drawing of a man being chased by a dog, losing his shoe and upsetting a pot in his panic.

By this time it was mid afternoon. I had only had a bottle of juice since breakfast so I was starting to feel really hungry. Outside the museum gates, I hailed a passing rickshaw and headed back to Sector 22. Earlier I had noticed a sign saying Nik’s Bakers. It seemed like a good place for a meal.

Nik’s Bakers features in Lonely Planet as number seven in ‘70 things to do in Chandigarh.’ (The Nek Chand Garden is second behind a fancy Chinese restaurant.) It could best be described as a multiethnic fast food joint. The illustrated menu featured Indian, Chinese and Italian food, toasted sandwiches, ice cream, cakes and lots of lurid looking desserts. I ordered green tea and a grilled cheese and mushroom sandwich. It arrived at my table within a few minutes. The sandwich was stuffed full of mushrooms and came with a side order of very good French fries.

I paid 173 rupees including a tip for the waiter. This made it the most expensive meal I had eaten so far in India but it was delicious and very filling. Price didn’t seem to be a problem for the locals - the place was very noisy and full of families and couples, many of whom had chosen the Western foods on the menu.

I left Nik’s feeling full and satisfied and walked the five minutes round the block to my hotel, blessing Le Corbusier and his grid-based town planning.

 If you liked this story, you might be interested in reading "Between Monks and Monkeys", written after my first time in India (teaching English in Dharamshala) in 2010. Available as an Ebook for US$1.99 on Kindle, NOOK, I-tunes 

etc, or as a paperback (email me for details.)


Tags: chandigarh, nek chand




Our father sri N.V.Shastry worked in chandigarh as an architect in 1950s and I used to visit Chandigarh during my summer holidays . I was fortunate to see Chandigarh as baby, when the most important master pieces , like Assembly, Secretariat , High Court , designed by Corbu were being constructed . I really a had a woderful time visting them, Now my wish is to visit Chandigarh which is 50 years 'young' and have the pleasure of visiting Nek Chand Garden which has become a landmark .

  Ramamohan Rao Nori Dec 21, 2012 6:13 PM



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