Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh is amongst the most astonishing and best loved gardens of India. Built out of found materials (salvaged) and hand crafted by visionary garden maker Nek Chand, this experiential garden provides the humanity that Modernism’s iconic city, Chandigarh lacks.
Spread over several acres, the construction of this Rock Garden began in the 60’s, as a personal experiment by Nek Chand Saini, a road inspector for the PWD in Chandigarh. It remained hidden from the local authorities for several years. The construction of the high court complex provided a perfect foil for the garden to remain undiscovered.
Since its subsequent discovery the garden has received much admiration which resulted in the expansion of the garden.
Nek Chand’s work is extraordinarily optimistic. Corbusier had emphasised outdoor living in solariums and elevated terraces, while his vast plazas in Chandigarh remain vacant; in this garden by Nek Chand, the ground plane is used as an important social connector. The garden is constructed like a child’s vast playground or even a vivid dreamscape.
It comprises of a series of outdoor rooms that have been threaded together sequentially. The revelation of the spaces contained is slow and there is much to be discovered with every visit.
Built in phases and having grown organically, the garden consists of a series of topographic experiences. The journey into each space is quite unique. There are compressed passages that suddenly open out into expansive areas, subterranean experiences of total darkness that gradually meld into light, luminous waterscapes (rills, waterfalls, and sheets of water), heights to scale and bridges to cross.
As each space retains a sense of mystery that leads to many delightful revelations, the garden manages to evoke responses of delight, wonderment and anticipation in the visitors.
Also the sounds of falling water and bird calls are unexpected in the midst of a hot dusty city.
The most fascinating part of the garden is the extensive use of salvaged materials. Ordinary discarded materials, remnants of everyday life, not heroic souvenirs of extraordinary experiences, but objects that have served their purpose are now repurposed as sculptures, as building materials or even as surface finishes.
Oil drums, terracotta pots, broken ceramic tiles, ceramic holders from electrical fixtures, glass shards, bangle pieces and metal remnants have all been employed in creative ways. Materials are used individually or together for their compositional qualities; the handcrafted garden is like a three dimensional quilt of residual materials. The work has a collage like, incidental quality.
Nek Chand’s extensive collection of rocks (of varying sizes and forms) collected from proximal hills and seasonal rivers have been incorporated into the garden and are a predominant building material. The garden has been designed to heighten the sensory perception of the materials that have been used.
Sculpture is an intrinsic part of this garden and entire villages replete with residents and livestock come alive in the garden. These villages have been sculpted out of clay or concrete and dressed in multi hued bangles shards, or broken ceramic. The sculpture and materials celebrate the colour and exuberance of Indian villages, including ones that were razed to make space for the new capital.
Biomorphic sculptures too have a place in this garden, roots of trees form screens and trellises that complement staccato views provided by hedges of discarded materials, they are even seen to grow in the gaps created in the masonry walls.
The extraordinary success of the garden is in the fact that it mediates a relationship between people and their environment. It also encapsulates much of that which Chandigarh lacks! Corbusier’s utopic vision has been humanised in this garden.
Unlike the rest of the city, the garden is easy to enjoy and assimilate by all. No great theories surround this space. Yet it is a sort of living museum that contains a layered social history of the region. It is an accretive conglomeration of memories, stories and ideas.
It is difficult to have a singular reading of this garden. It resembles a child’s fantasy environment and is based on the idea of discovery. This garden has the ability to move people, and innovatively brings art and landscape together.
Amidst the disheartening trend of depleting public spaces in Indian cities, this garden is outstanding. It remains a carefully constructed environment where craft, art, landscape and personal spirit intersect to create an exceptional public landscape for the city.
Text And Photographs By Varna Shashidhar