In the early part of 2016, while on the road in South India, we stayed in two cities that we loved. Both Mysore and Vizag helped us remember that there is joy and beauty in a bustling historic city, and left us with hope that perhaps cities in India can evolve differently. We’ve avoided many cities during our travels, except perhaps as conduits for further movement, but a few others have captured our attention; places like Kohima in Nagaland and Lucknow in UP, both for very different reason, but both large and crowded, grew on us and drew us in. But all these four places have one thing in common, they are all seeped in history, legends, folklore and are clinging on to times past, and we love them for it. But then we got to Punjab and its new capital city of Chandighar, a city like no other in this country, with no crowded old town and crumbling monuments, and we were impressed.
With wide open tree lined avenues, neatly laid out colonies interspersed with parks and green spaces, Chandighar is the model city Nehru envisioned over 60 years ago for a newly independent country. A new India that would build perfect towns and cities, pleasant places to live in, clean and green, for an India heading into a new world. Unfortunately for Nehru, like many of his grand ideas, this one didn’t seem to take root beyond the lovely shared capital and union territory and replicate itself across the country. But Chandigarh today would make Nehru proud, indeed, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it makes us all proud. Nehru’s vision, implemented by the renowned French architect, Le Corbusier, and his team, is still intact and is likely to remain so.
We spent four days in Chandigarh, using it as a base to explore surrounding areas, at the home of a close family friend. While the city is not necessarily a traveller’s paradise, it is a wonderful place to spend a few days, and explore a different side to Punjab. With orderly traffic, drivers that obey rules and regulations, neat homes with clipped lawns, litter free streets, Chandigarh has often been called the pensioners paradise. And maybe it’s true, but rather odd, because why wouldn’t a young person want to have that kind of quality of life? Chandigarh has everything one might need, from busy markets with adequate parking spaces set far back from the road (designed in such a way), clubs, bars and restaurants, yummy Punjabi street food, a lake in the centre of the city and good public transportation. From our hosts we heard that when the city was planned, regulations were put down for the height of homes, the required space between a road and a home, the need for proper sidewalks, the height of a boundary wall and gate, organised markets with parking spaces designed to ensure minimum disruption to traffic flow, the style of an office building and so forth. And driving around you can see that even today, six decades later, people and the administration, adhere to these rules and regulations, ensuring that the city stays the way it was meant to be, with lots of greenery, wide roads and sidewalks and absolutely no highrises. Office buildings, for example, have all been built at an angle, such that one side receives adequate sunlight in the first half of the day and the other side in the second half; one of the many small but important parts of the whole design.
In 1947, when Punjab was divided during partition, the state (which was all of Punjab, Haryana and parts of HP), lost its capital, Lahore to Pakistan. And thus a new capital was created, at the foothills of the Shivalik range, carefully chosen for its geographic location and proximity of a potable water source and also because there was no other major town or city in that region. It would signal the beginning of a new India without past prejudices and encumbrances of old traditions. While Le Corbusier is credited for the design of this unique city, the plans were first drawn up by an American, Albert Mayer, who had to step aside when his partner died in a plane crash. Le Corbusier was then brought in to complete the project and incorporated many of Mayer’s plans and ideas along with his own vision of a modern urban center, which is probably why the layout and design of Chandigarh feels like a town in America or Canada. The original plans, the detailed conversations and correspondence between the architects, designers, and Indian bureaucracy over the years, and black and white photos of the city can all be viewed at the Government Museum and Art Gallery. In 1960 the new capital was ready and on 1st November 1966 when Haryana was created from the eastern Punjab region, the capital then became a shared one and ultimately a UT, an arrangement that continues to this day.
Walking through the leafy grid like layouts of the houses, you can be forgiven for remembering the 1960s American song ‘Little Boxes’, a satire on the development of suburbia. But thankfully, despite all its order and placid nature, Chandigarh is still an Indian city, filled with gregarious Punjabis and is nothing like the song. There is colour everywhere, from the painted ‘jugnoo’ autos to the well dressed confident women walking down the streets, and from the funky (and slightly weird) statues in the rock garden to the many birds that flock to Sukhna Lake. Much like the rest of the state you will see turbans of all colours, eat some great food and be treated to the warm and generous hospitality of the Punjabis. A visit to Chandigarh is inevitable if you want to explore neighbouring places, like the religious centre of Anandpur Sahib or the erstwhile princely state of Patiala, but stay a day or two in the city and experience an Indian city like none other.
Some Useful Information:
What to See: Chandigarh, being a modern planned city, doesn’t have much by way of sights of historical value, but there are still plenty of places to visit in Chandighar. One can easily spend a leisurely day or two taking in its sights, including Le Corbusier iconic buildings, now a UNESCO world heritage site, the Rose garden with hundreds of varieties of roses, the tranquil 3 square Km Sukhna Lake and the quirky Rock Garden, originally created in secret by Indian bureaucrat Nek Chand, from waste materials salvaged from various demolition sites around Chandigarh.
Where to Eat: Chandigarh has the usual assortment of fast food chains, cafes and restaurants you will find all over the country, but if you are looking for some authentic Punjabi food head over to Pal Dhaba in Sector 28. Be warned, like everything else in Punjab the food is rich and the servings are huge!
Don’t Miss: The Government Museum, close to the Rose garden which houses some lovely paintings and antiquities in addition to a dedicated building on the history of Chandigarh containing photographs and original plans of the city along with some fascinating correspondence between Nehru, the Government of Punjab and architects and planners of Chandigarh.