Created by Nek Chand
A 40-acre park of paths, courtyards, plazas, waterfalls and thousands of lively sculptures made from recycled materials, the Rock Garden was built in complete secrecy in dense forest outside the city of Chandigarh, India, over four decades.
Nek Chand was a humble roads inspector for the Department of Public Works in the north Indian city of Chandigarh. In his off hours, in the middle of the forest, he began to build a secret place. This place, a rock garden, created over the course of four decades from urban and industrial waste, would eventually expand to cover 40 acres of land. To the surprise of this unassuming man and those around him, Nek Chand’s Rock Garden would become the world’s largest visionary environment and India’s second largest tourist attraction after the Taj Mahal.
Nek Chand Saini was born in 1924 in the village of Berian Kalan, Tehsil Shakargarh, in what is today Pakistan. In 1947, during the Partition, he immigrated with his family to India. Chand would end up moving to Chandigarh, a modern city being designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The construction of Chandigarh would first require the destruction of several small villages, which were leveled to make space for this utopian Indian city, the first planned city in India.
Something from Nothing
Chand had long been fascinated by the idea of creating something from nothing, of converting waste into beauty. As a child, he built forts and castles from found materials. He populated his magical kingdoms with figures he shaped from clay. Rocks and stones especially captured his imagination. Chand was sure that within each one resided a human being or a god or goddess. As the utopian city of Chandigarh sprang to life around him, Chand wondered if he too couldn’t create a kingdom of his own.
An opportunity came to Chand while working as a roads inspector for the Chandigarh Capital Project. Hired in 1951, Chand was a conscientious employee, but one who longed for something more. He began to dream of creating a magical place. At the end of his work day, Chand would disappear into the forest and there tend to his vision. The space he selected was a gorge in the forest on the outskirts of the city of Chandigarh. This area had been designated by the city as a land conservancy, a green space that would separate the city itself from its government buildings. Building anything on this land was strictly forbidden. Disregarding risks of imprisonment and the garden’s destruction, Chand worked diligently—and secretly—for 18 years.
A Visionary’s Best Friend, His Bicycle
This dream would have been impossible, Chand says, without his bicycle. He and his two-wheeled friend roamed the hillsides in search of materials. On some days, they traveled more than 20 kilometers, seeking out stones and debris that Chand would later transform into shapes of his imagination. Describing the conditions in which he worked, by cover of darkness, fighting off clouds of biting mosquitoes and snakes, Chand says, “I used to work alone in the jungle and my bicycle was the only means for me to get out safely.”
Despite these risks, Chand was consumed by his dream and time flew by. In his words, “It began really as a hobby. I started not with the idea that it would become so famous. Every day, after I finished my government job at 5:00, I would come here to work for at least four hours, as I did on almost every holiday. At first my wife didn’t understand what I was doing everyday but after I brought her to my jungle hut and showed her my creation, she was very pleased.”
The Keys to the Kingdom
The authorities, however, were less enthusiastic. In 1975, a government work party was sent to clear the jungle. To their surprise, they found 12 acres of meandering pathways, courtyards and hundreds of sculpted dancing women, musicians and animals of every sort. This discovery led to controversy, which put both Chand and his garden in jeopardy. In the end, the singular vision of one man won out. Chand was relieved from his work as roads inspector. He was given a state salary and a workforce of 50. From this point forward, he could dedicate himself completely to his vision. With more hands to help and the government’s support, work progressed at a faster pace. Chand’s Rock Garden opened to the public in 1976. In 1983, the Rock garden was featured on an Indian postage stamp.
Converting Waste into Beauty
Since its inception, the recycling of waste has been an important part of Chand’s Rock Garden. In addition to creating a magical respite for the local population and visitors, the Rock Garden has the added benefit of ridding Chandigarh of heaps of its urban and industrial trash. Chand set up collection centers throughout the city. His biggest suppliers were venues generating lots of waste; hospitals, hotels, and restaurants. Chand also set up local networks through which broken ceramic ware, rags, tiles and other refuse were funneled to the garden and there recycled.
Popular reception to the Rock Garden has always been positive. Resistance from Indian bureaucrats, however, has presented some challenges. In 1996, while Chand was in the United States, the city withdrew the park’s funding and vandals attacked the Rock Garden. Damage has since been reversed. In 1997, the Nek Chand Foundation was created to protect and promote the Rock Garden internationally. In 2001, the Nek Chand Foundation, Inc. was established in the U.S. to ensure continuing support of the world’s largest visionary environment. In 2001, Chand and 15,000 fans celebrated the Rock Garden’s 25th anniversary. Today the Rock Garden is overseen and administered by the Rock Garden Society and is enjoyed by over 5,000 visitors each day.
The Rock Garden is open daily, from 9AM to 7PM in summer and 9AM to 6PM in winter. It is situated in the north of Chandigarh, Sector 4, and known to everyone in the city. The Rock Garden can be reached via the Shatabdi Express train, which runs two to three times daily from New Delhi to Chandigarh.
“I have long suspected that an ‘education’ in art could possibly be detrimental to a truly talented person. Mr. Chand’s creation pleases me all the more because his Rock Garden confirms my suspicion a thousand-fold.”
—P. S. Knight, English sculptor
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