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

Katerina Bulovska
Statuettes at Rock Garden, Chandigarh

The Rock Garden of Chandigarh is one of the most visited sites in North India. It owes its existence to the vision and talent of one man from a rural village in the Shakargarh region.

Nek Chand Saini 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, Nek Chand and his Hindu family left their village as it lay in the region that was to become Pakistan after the Partition of India.

In 1951 they settled in the modernist metropolis of Chandigarh, where Nek Chand found employment as a road inspector in the Engineering Department of the Chandigarh Capital Project.

But the artist in him was not satisfied with the job and he began making other plans.

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

During the daytime Nek Chand supervised the construction of the roads.

At night he worked on his project in secret, well aware that this project was an illegal one, as he was building on city land.

In 1958, he started collecting broken bangles, beautifully shaped stones, bottles, glass, 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.”

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

His sculptures were similar to the ones he created in his childhood, including dancing girls, musicians and animals. Even the little streets of his village are represented in the Rock Garden.

But eventually, in 1975, the secret sculpture garden was discovered by city authorities who declared their intention 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

Nek 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 of the site.

He soon started building larger structures. With numerous archways, amphitheaters, vestibules, high waterfalls, and pavilions, nowadays the garden looks like a lost kingdom.

The kingdom appearance is completed with a stone throne decorated with gods and goddesses depicted as if in their noble court, or Durbar.

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

Nek 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 an Indian postage stamp was printed that featured his Rock Garden.

The artist continued creating what he loved. Many of his sculptures can be seen 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 Nek 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 Nek Chand’s work and dedication simply vanish. Volunteers from different continents who were fascinated by his work came to restore the garden.

They formed the Nek Chand Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to 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. Nek Chand remained the director of the garden until his death in 2015.

Las Pozas: Surrealist Garden in the remote jungles of Mexico created by a British eccentric

He continues to live on through his eccentric masterpiece, probably the only one of its kind in the entire world.