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Exploring Chandigarh, India’s most radical city & a look inside the revolutionary Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden

Crowded, frenetic, chaotic - just a few of the words that come to mind when I think of India’s magical cities, so upon arriving in Chandigarh, in Northern India, I wondered if I’d somehow been transported to another country. A marked difference from the rest of the places I’d already visited, the city of Chandigarh is laid out in a grid format complete with 56 sectors, reminding me more of the USA than the India I knew and loved. Arriving on a night bus from McLeod Ganj, I was amazed to wake up to wide boulevards and modern geometrical architecture. Designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, Chandigarh is India’s first planned city. Commissioned by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his vision was a dream city like no other in India and it actually materialized in the early 1960s, Chandigarh is now one of the wealthiest and cleanest cities in the country.    

My main reason for wanting to visit Chandigarh, aside from seeing the famous gridded city, was to visit the Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden (India’s second most visited attraction, after one of the most beautiful temples in India, the Taj Mahal). 

stone boys made from broken tiles standing in stone at new hand fantasy rock garden
Some of the fun statues at Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden

Nek Chand was way before his time when it came to recycling and minimizing wastage; in my mind he’s perhaps the original recycling artist. Born in Pakistan, in 1924, he moved to Chandigarh during the partition and began working for the Public Works Department. As Chandigarh was being transformed into the city it is today, Chand was dismayed at the amount of waste he’d find discarded daily, so he began collecting it to take home. Over the next eighteen years he worked transforming the materials he’d collected into recycled works of art, spread over 13 acres, on a hidden plot of land. What he created was astonishing; full-size courtyards and concrete walkways lined with waterfalls and mosaic murals made from broken crockery and coloured glass. And thousands of figurines and animals, today you can see statues of women standing proud in their bold broken bangle saris, while boys are frozen in time wearing mosaic t-shirts made from discarded pieces of broken plates. 

statues of women made from broken bangles at new hand fantasy rock garden chandigarh
Stone women wearing broken bangle 'saris'

But authorities discovered the surreal fantasyland in 1975, and as it had been created on land that wasn’t Chand's, it was in serious danger of being destroyed. For ten years, Chand managed to get the people of Chandigarh onside and his space was successfully turned into the tourist attraction it is today, now seeing an amazing five thousand visitors each day. 

four small girls explore the Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden
School children explore the grounds

The city itself and the Nek Chand Fantasy Garden are well worth a visit, I’d recommend combining them with a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and a journey up to the hill station of Dalhousie or McLeod Ganj, where you’ll find the Tibetan Government in exile and the chance to see a teaching by the Dalai Lama.

I was backpacking at the time I visited Chandigarh so slept in the basic and very budget-friendly Divyadeep Hotel, but there are lots of higher end options throughout the city. 

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