The Rock Garden of Chandigarh

A self-taught sculptor’s secret garden.

 A picturesque waterfall in the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

A picturesque waterfall in the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

On 25 acres in Northern India sits a dream-like rock garden - an ethereal combination of sculpture, architecture, and landscape.

The man behind the garden is Nek Chand, who was born into a Hindu farming community in the rural Punjab. Chand grew up immersed in the fairy tales his mother told him and loved to play in the nearby forests and rivers. When he grew up, Chand became the first person in his village to attend high school, but returned to continue working on his family's farm. There he built giant scarecrows out of cloth, his first sculptural project other than a piece he had created as a child from broken bangles.

Soon, however, Chand and his family were forced to flee their home due to violence surrounding the partition. They re-settled in Chandigarh where Chand began to work for the city as a construction supervisor.

 Nek Chand surrounded by his sculptures. Image Credit: The Guardian

Nek Chand surrounded by his sculptures. Image Credit: The Guardian

It was at this point that Chand began work on what would eventually become the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. In 1958, six years after being displaced to Chandigarh, Chand began to create a sculpture garden in a hidden forest clearing. He worked at night and in secret, creating statues from bits of pottery, iron, bottles, bicycle frames - refuse from the villages of Chandigarh that had been destroyed to make way for a new, more modernized city. Chand saw beauty in what others passed off as garbage, and peddled these bits of glass and pottery north on his bicycle to the clearing that was slowly becoming a garden.

The project continued in secret for a little over a decade, largely because the land Chand had chosen was designated as a conservation area in 1902 and was a no-build zone. In 1975, however, Chand revealed his project to the city's chief architect. Instead of following the laws that would have called for the project’s demolition, the authorities caved to public pressure, and not only allowed Chand to keep building, but provided him with a salary and a crew of 50 workers to continue the project. The garden opened to the public a year later.

 Statues of dancers in Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

Statues of dancers in Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

Now, Chand’s original 12 acres have expanded to 25, occupied by the same dream-like sculptures and waterfalls. At times the garden seems like a small village, as over 5,000 visitors a day join sculptures of queens, dancers, monkeys, elephants, schoolchildren, and more. Atlas Obscura describes how the “whole area has been created for a whole body experience of walking, touching, and enjoying the beautiful community that began as a small rock collection.” It seems the garden is as much concerned with how the people inside it occupy its space as with the art objects inside it.

The garden is also an homage to Chand’s farming community in the Punjab. Many of the paths through the garden are similar to village streets, and the fairytale-like ensemble of statues reflects Chand’s childhood imagination.

 

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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