Hungry to travel, we planned a trip to Himachal. We had to decide between Chandigarh and Delhi to be our pit stop. But being architecture – geeks we chose Chandigarh, even though it meant loosing more time in travel.
What Chandigarh was all about- Tons of Le Corbusier. Lots of Chole Kulche. Napping on park benches and gardens. Having an entire double decker bus to ourselves. High energy. Great weather.
We reached Chandigarh railway station at dawn. And boy oh boy, that was a clean railway station! The cleaners were wiping the walls clean like we do at our homes in Diwali. As a result of 24 hours journey in sleeper coach, our bodies felt dirtier than the benches we sat on. After cleaning up in the waiting room, we went to the ISBT in sector 17. We kept our luggage in the cloak room as we had to board the bus to Himachal from there. These were our ways for a cheap trip turning out to be a pocket friendly and thrill- pill.
Trees dot the fabric of Chandigarh- along the roads, in open plazas, everywhere! And mulberry is one such tree that you spot all around. Coming out from the ISBT, we found big mulberry trees loaded with berries as with the onset of summer, they start bearing fruit. While satisfying our taste buds, a few lines from James Riley’s poem on the mulberry tree came to my mind:
“Today as I dream with both eyes wide-awake/ I can see the old tree and its limbs as they shake/ And the long purple berries that rained on the ground.”
Chandigarh Tourism runs a hop-on, hop-off double-decker tourist bus. It leaves from sector 17 and runs to prominent sites like the Rose garden, Museum and Art gallery, Bougainvillea Garden, Rock Garden and Sukhna Lake for just 50 bucks a person. As there were no other tourists that day, it was like we had our own private bus to scout the beautiful city and enjoy the panoramic views of sparkling parks, eating joints, and majestic hills, at our own pace!
Our first stop was Sukhna lake, a majestic man-made lake with Shivalik ranges forming its backdrop. We took a small stroll and clicked a few pictures. After that, we headed towards the next famous destination of Chandigarh, Nek Chand’s wonderful, whimsical Rock Garden.
The whole experience of visiting the Rock Garden was extraordinary, disorientating and deeply impressive. Throughout the garden, Nek Chand has used space in sharply contrasting ways, from almost oppressively narrow, steep-sided lanes and tiny Alice-in-Wonderland doorways to large, confident waterfalls and open terraces. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s use of concrete in the city, yet what Nek Chand produced is folk art and labyrinthine paths. It stands in extraordinary contrast to Corbusier’s modernist city and its grid pattern roadways. Though being about half a decade old, it still has the same charisma and awesomeness. You are spellbound by the site of hundreds and hundreds of figurines covered with colorful broken crockery, tiles, bangles and what not!
GOVERNMENT MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY
If it is not Monday or outside the hours of 10:00 AM to 4:45 PM, you may visit the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Sector 10. The Government College of Art and the Museums of Architecture & Natural History surround it. It has become a haven for tourists, researchers, students on a school visit and families because you can spend an entire day here. And for us, its campus meant, a nice place to rest. As we were awake since 4 in the morning, we were tired and the benches shaded by the trees proved to be very cozy to take a half an hour nap.
No one else was there the afternoon we visited. We paid admission for ourselves and half-admission for our camera. The curators intended the exhibition to have placid and mesmerizing effects on the eyes of the onlookers. And I must say they were quite successful in doing so. And if one happens to be a lover for art and crafts and architecture, then this place is the ultimate paradise.
Corbusier conceived the Capitol Complex as the head of Chandigarh’s sectored body, and the City Centre in Sector 17, two-thirds of the way up the grid of arteries, as the heart. The green space—surprise, surprise—was considered the lung. And as an conclusion to our day, we decided to visit the Capitol Complex.
Unlike other cities such as Mumbai, which are a mixture; Chandigarh is easy to navigate, sector-wise, as the sectors are all in line. In Mumbai, it takes more-and-more-proximate-but-never-definitive directions from five pedestrians to get anywhere.
The rickshaw deposited us shy of the gate. In front of the guard booth, an army officer kept vigil. He had arms and a rifle, which were enough to make us feel nervous. As we walked towards him, we did rapid character development and hammed up to look like non-hostile tourists (which we were). An even pace, cautious bob of the head, clearly displayed hands, chattering amongst us. While we didn’t expect bullets flying towards us, the thought of how severely dangerous an error would be under the circumstances of upcoming elections affected that kind of dread in us.
Fear not, we passed through unscathed. The officer took our identity cards in his possession and allowed us to go visit the campus of Capitol Complex. We were warned not to wander anywhere near the Assembly building and the High court or any other building other than the Open Hand.
No one else was there the time we visited. As soon as you enter the campus, you can see the 28 meters high Open Hand looming over you, heavy and dominating. It’s not until you reach the monument that you see, the hollow crowned by the Open Hand. The floor of this consideration, ‘considering to think, see, to talk about what’s real’, was 5 meters deep. It consists of two amphitheaters. Two because Corbusier’s philosophy was that ‘ there are always two sides to a question’.
We descended to the sunken courtyard designed as ‘ pit of contemplation’ where the public affairs would be discussed. It appeared more to us as a place, hidden in view, where cult meetings would take place. We could imagine cult leaders addressing their followers from the podium. Corbusier designed the place so carefully that a person won’t need a microphone, but the acoustics of the place will handle it all.
And it was while sitting there, clicking weird pictures that one of us squealed that the Hand is moving! Yes, we didn’t know it till then that the Monument is mounted on a ball bearing. It allows it to turn with the wind, not aimlessly, to express what life really is, constantly moving.
The true and simple meaning of the Open Hand is to Give and Receive.
Symbol of Faith in the world of Catastrophe.
You don’t need knowledge of symbolism in architecture nor longer than a day in Chandigarh to become familiar with the Open Hand and its authority in enhancing the brand name of the city. Also interpreted as a flying bird, for the citizens of Chandigarh, it is symbolic of freedom, freedom to be who they are and what they can do.
HIGH COURT AND ASSEMBLY BUILDING
Till the time we were sitting there, two surveillance conveyances had already come to check in on us. The barbed-wire-and-jeep-patrolled perimeter was enough to dismay us. So, after spending a significant amount of time in the pit of contemplation, we walked to the High Court, hopeful that no one will catch us. Since the officer had warned us not to wander anywhere near the other buildings, we gratified ourselves by clicking pictures with the architectural marvel, as a proof that affirmative, we had visited the much-celebrated building.
Though Corbusier conceived the entire complex as the head of the new capital, looking behind us, we could not see any of the city. Lush trees and extensive landscape surrounded us, with no building in sight. The only structure visible was the sculptural hill that Le Corbusier had designed for the Assembly Building, at the Southernmost part of the complex that divides the city from the Capitol Complex.
Returning back to the security booth, the army personnel had changed. The camoed officer flicked through our identity cards. On sight of State Maharashtra, he apprised us of his roots there. Like true Indians, meeting in a foreign country, we exchanged greetings. “Aree tumhi pan, mi pan!” There is no greater happiness than meeting a person speaking your language in a state where the language and people, both are alien!
We witnessed something on our way to the main road which you would never expect in an urban area. In the darkness of the night, the landscaped areas along the sides of the road started glimmering of golden speckles of dozens of fireflies. We stood there unable to believe. And then, suddenly it started sparkling all around. What joy such brilliant tiny moments can bring!
We didn’t fear, we dare. This is what women do everywhere. It turned out to be a successful girls going. And that was an end to Chandigarh but a perfect beginning to a great travel story.