Adventures in ‘the Most Organized City’ in India

Chandigarh, after all, was once countryside. Some 58 villages stood where the city now does, and only 16 are still intact. Along with the slums that formed later, they make up an impoverished periphery to a city whose per capita income, car ownership (three to four per household) and real estate prices are among the highest in the country. Now the city’s population is over double the half million it was built to hold. “No one ever thought to prepare for rickshaws and pavement hawkers, the fringe people,” said Mr. Wattas.

The pollution was at an “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” level, according to Lisa’s weather app, the entire time we were there, and Lisa was a little spooked by the stray dogs. But we had a great time going to bars and massive nightclubs in Sector 26, and eating many great dinners and lunches (among them, Gopal Sweets, The Great Bear Kitchen & Brewery and Pal Dhaba, at a plastic table in a strip mall parking lot) for so little we both struggled to get rid of the $100 in rupees we’d gotten at an A.T.M.

Following Lisa’s lead, I walked through the city whenever I could, to see what perfection looks like when life happens to it.

The rock garden, too, wouldn’t exist without the Partition. Nek Chand’s family was living on the side of the divide that became Pakistan in 1947. They fled to New Delhi for safety, then Chand moved to the still-under-construction Chandigarh. During the building of the city, some 40 villages were razed. Chand became a road inspector for the public works department; afterward, he collected debris from those villages that had been destroyed, and carried it on his bike to a secret spot in the forest outside the city.

Chand’s debris haven was in a Corbusier-designated urban wilderness near the Capitol Complex where building was illegal, and for 18 years he’d go there at night to craft sculptures out of discarded electrical sockets, broken tiles and the like, along with rocks he collected from the river.

“He wanted to depict the stories about gods and goddesses, kings and fairies,” said Mr. Wattas. “And it grew, but it was in a forest area and he was afraid that there would be an official reprimand.” But he couldn’t stop. His secret project ballooned to 12 acres of courtyards and twisting passages. The 2,500 sculptures he made, Mr. Wattas said, look like the kind of tribal figures you’d find in village homes. Having lost his own village, Chand wanted to create a magical, indestructible one out of the wreckage of other villages. All of the doorways are designed so you have to bend down, in a gesture of respect, as you do while entering a temple.

When the authorities did find the site in 1975, it ignited a huge debate between city officials who wanted to tear it down, and those who thought it ought to be preserved. People began making treks into the forest to see this act of passionate art. Eventually the government not only relented in preserving the site, but also gave Chand an official title, a salary so he could continue his artistic work full time, and a crew of 50 to help him expand it.

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