The incredible Rock Garden in India: from junk to unique art

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Katerina Bulovska
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One of the most visited sites in North India owes its existence to the vision and talent of one child from a rural village in the Shakargarh region. Nek Chand grew up fascinated by his mother’s stories about mighty royals and their magnificent kingdoms. Often he would go to the local forest and create sculptures and fortresses from broken bangles imitating the appearance of the persons and buildings from the enchanting tales.

However, after his graduation, Chand and his Hindu family were forced to leave the village after it became part of Muslim Pakistan. In 1955, they settled in Chandigarh, a city that was reconstructed to look like a metropolis and Chand found employment as Road Inspector in the Engineering Department of the Chandigarh Capital Project. But the artist in him was not satisfied with the job and began making other plans. During the daytime, Chand supervised the construction of the roads while working on his secret project at night.

In 1957, he started collecting broken bangles, beautifully shaped stones, bottles, glasses, tiles, forks, metal wires, broken bathroom sinks and many other items and brought them on his bicycle to the improvised hut that he built in the forest. Later in an interview, he would say: “I had many ideas, I was thinking all the time. I saw beauty and art in what people said was junk.”

Dancing girls at Rock Garden, Chandigarh. Author: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y. CC BY 2.0

His sculptures were similar to the ones he created in his childhood: dancing girls, musicians, animals, abstract forms, even the little streets of his village are represented in the Rock Garden. Nek Chand only worked at night, well aware that this project was an illegal one, as he was building on city land.

Waterfall and path at Rock Garden, Chandigarh. Author: Nagesh Kamath. CC BY-SA 2.0

But after fifteen years, the Rock Garden was discovered by the city authorities who intended to destroy it. However, after the first Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh visited the garden, he described it as the most unusual place he had ever seen and was firmly against its destruction. Eventually, the city council agreed not to demolish the garden and in 1976 it was officially inaugurated.

Rock Garden, Chandigarh in India, statues of people built using waste materials. Author: Vinay8861. CC BY-SA 3.0

Mr. Chand’s work was finally recognized and publicly admired, and the council appointed him a director of the garden, even providing laborers for the extension and preservation of the site. Soon, he started building larger structures, doorways, archways, amphitheaters, vestibules, high waterfalls, and pavilions; nowadays the garden looks like a lost kingdom. The kingdom appearance is completed with the stone throne decorated with gods and goddesses in the area known as the main court (Durbar).

Waterfall at Rock Garden. Author: Rod Waddington. CC BY-SA 2.0

Mr. Chand and his artwork were praised worldwide and he received many awards, such as Paris’ most prestigious Grand Medal of Vermeil in 1980 and the Padma Shri award, one of the highest civilian honors in India, in 1984. In 1982, the first Indian postage stamp was printed that featured his Rock Garden. Mr. Chand continued building what he loved, and many of his sculptures are on display in the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the National Children’s Museum in Washington, and the RIBA gallery in Liverpool.

Rock Garden, Chandigarh. Mosaic made of tiles which have been discarded. Author: Nagesh Kamath. CC BY-SA 2.0

As Chand’s popularity grew, so did the envy in the city council, although they were the ones who took all the profit from the garden. They decided to build a road that would pass through the garden, but luckily a public protest stopped them. However, the council had taken away the laborers and the garden was neglected.

Rock Garden in Chandigarh. Author: Shanmugamp7. CC BY-SA 3.0

But the world wasn’t ready to let Chand’s work and dedication to simply vanish. Volunteers from different continents that were fascinated by his work came to restore the garden. They formed the Nek Chand Foundation, that even today follows the mission of preserving the rock garden, which occupies an area of 40 acres and has more than 2,000 statues.

Nek Chand in his Rock Garden’s office in Chandigarh, India. Author: Gilles Probst. CC BY-SA 4.0

The best time to visit the Rock Garden is during the Teej festival when it is decorated in accordance with the festive spirit. Mr. Chand has remained the director of the garden until his death in 2015. He continues to live on through his eccentric masterpiece, probably the only one of its kind in the entire world.