Though this blogpost is not related to hiking yet I have included it here because this fantasy land named Rock Garden is very unique in itself and is visited by millions of people around the world just next to The Majestic Taj Mahal. The Rock Garden is a sculpture garden in Chandigarh, India i.e. my hometown. It is also known as Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden after its founder Nek Chand, a government official who started the garden secretly in his spare time in 1957.
Today it is spread over an area of 40 acres. The garden is most famous for its sculptures made from recycled ceramic items. Lies near the Sukhna lake, it consists of man-made interlinked waterfalls and many other sculptures that have been made of scrap and other kinds of wastes such as bottles, glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots etc. which are placed in walled paths. In his spare time, Nek Chand started collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Nek Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for 18 years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals.
His work was in danger of being demolished, but he was able to get public opinion on his side. In 1976 the park was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was given a salary, a title Sub Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden, and 50 labourers so that he could concentrate full-time on his work. It also appeared on an Indian stamp in 1983. The Rock Garden is still made out of recycled materials. With the government’s help, Nek Chand was able to set up collection centres around the city for waste, especially rags and broken ceramics.
Nek Chand was not only an artist and a sculptor he took many roles to make the rock garden the veritable wonderland that it is. He imagined stories for each portion of the garden and crafted the characters as well as the worlds that they inhabited. Every architectural feature was deliberately created to blend into these worlds. The use of materials like discarded electrical sockets and pebbles for walls and partitions not only fits into the overall aesthetic of the garden but also fits into the different narratives that infold in each section.
From the very early stages of conception of the garden, Nek Chand collected rocks from rivers. Not only were these of different sizes and textures, but they all also had interesting shapes. These particular rocks are believed to be from the vicinity of the Shivalik Hills. Nek Chand has used rocks throughout the garden, and their form was very inspiring for him. Not only did they influenced the shape of his own creations, but they also became a character in the grand narratives that he imagined.
In 1958, without any concept of the garden that we see today, Nek Chand simply began collecting rocks from the banks of the Ghaggar River. He gathered these stones and rocks because of their odd and interesting forms. For him, these almost anthropomorphic shapes resembled forms of gods and goddesses, and therefore he believed that the rocks possessed a life of their own. He carefully selected and carried each of them on his bicycle, and when he began clearing a space for this collection he unknowingly embarked the process of creating the rock garden.
Apart from the use of concrete as a building material, terracotta has also been used quite heavily in the rock garden. The humbleness of the material, clay makes it fit in harmoniously with the aesthetic and ideology of the garden. These terracotta water pots or matkas not only have a pleasing look, stacked on top of each other, they also help the acoustics. This wall was part of the musical theatre and both the big and small-sized pots produce different sounds which prove to be a peaceful treat to the ears of listeners. Nek Chand incorporated musically and sound as part of the rock garden, along with his focus on its visual aesthetic.
Among all the elements of nature that Nek Chand wanted to incorporate into his garden, water plays an important role. He carefully placed ponds, waterfalls and other water features throughout the space to create a balance with nature and also to provide variation among the terrain. This pond gets its colours from a mix of broken ceramic tiles. Though it is now empty, one can imagine the beauty of seeing the colours through the ripples of water. Nek Chand imagined narratives for his creations and this pond is surrounded by rocks that are to be seen as musicians. The hut in the back was made as a place to store the musical instruments of these musical artists.
Nek Chand made sure to provide some relief to birds who seek shelter from the sun or rain. This wall mimics nature, this kind of nesting places could be easily found in the hills.
This serene but stately hut is Nek Chand’s original place of devotion, where he began putting together his creations. The workshop in which the sculptures came into existence stands at the heart of the garden. To keep his creations hidden Nek Chand had built a high wall of loosely arranged tar drums. When the decision for the expansion of the rock garden was taken, Nek Chand shifted his workshop to a different location within the garden and this structure was repurposed for the use of visitors.
Nek Chand created a world within the rock garden. He thought of not only the layout as an aspect of design but also imagined narratives for the different characters that he crafted. Every aspect of the garden, therefore, became a part of the set up that facilitated the flow of the narrative. The walls, for example, were imagined as mountains that divide the landscape of the garden.
This area is one of the most majestic places within the rock garden. It shows Nek Chand vision of creating a space that would be appropriate for the different kings, queen, gods and goddesses that he sculpted. The upper area is a grand imagining of a royal palace. A beautiful waterfall flows through it.
Some of the most primitive construction materials like terracotta, pebbles, thick mud, mortar have been used in the rock garden to construct walls, roofs, pillars, display platforms, and partitions. The recycling of material gave the rock garden a very distinct aesthetic that is associated with Nel Chand and the city of Chandigarh.
As you cross this area a bridge allows visitors to easily cross the river and its corners are designed in such a way that it seems to be tangled with a giant tree. In the rainy season, when the water level rises, visitors can walk on the broken pieces of the grinding wheels of ‘chakkis’ used to grind grains.
Adding architectural features to the different corners of the rock garden makes each part of it visually interesting and engaging. Nek Chand had the remarkable ability to think of the whole while also making each small section so interesting that one can spend many moments admiring each detail.
An important aesthetic feature of the garden is the sense of compression and expansion of space. In moving from one section of the garden to another, the visitor goes through narrow passageways and arrives into broad open courtyards, an integral part of Nek Chand’s design.
Crossing the narrow passages you are welcomed by a pond with a water fountain made by using discarded parts of an old bicycle giving it a distinct feature. The white hubs are the fountain. Nek Chand imagined narratives for his sculptures and even created a suitable world for each story that served as a backdrop. This pond is for use of his lovey, queens, the one that lives in the castle mentioned earlier. Nek Chand made the wall partition behind the fountains in such a way that queens could peek into the gathering without being noticed. The wall is made of broken electric wall sockets and the fountains as mentioned earlier are made of recycled bicycle parts which are covered in small chips of stones.
The moment you cross the pond you will find the courtyard with a well-installed to quench the thirst. Nek Chand’s narratives and stories imagining different worlds and characters are an irreplaceable part of this fantasy land.
The Doll Museum
When Nek Chand began work on the concept of doll museum in 1970s, he collected waste fabric from all the tailor shops he could find. Each of these dolls was than designed and made by his own hands. He spent many years creating this collection of beautiful dolls while also honouring all his commitments. This proved challenging at times, and he was not always able to devote his attention to the work but in the end, each of these beautiful creations has a unique design. Without any space to display them, many of these dolls were damaged with time. To honour Nek Chand, his son recreated these newer dolls in the same aesthetic and concept. The museum was inaugurated on the second anniversary of Nek Chand’s death.
Within this imaginary village that Nek Chand’s son created for these dolls, he made sure to include a small temple. As seen throughout the rock garden, spirituality played a very important role in Nek Chand’s core ethos. He found different ways in which to incorporate it into his artistic creations. So, when this museum was made after his death, his son made sure to include some of the core ethos & themes. In this scene, he shows sadhus or ascetics who dedicate their whole life seeking higher truths through meditation and prayer. They renounce the material possessions of daily life and live away from others. Here, the villagers visit them to seek guidance and counsel, as due to their higher level of spirituality they are believed to possess greater wisdom.
Then there is a village scene showing women cooking food, whereas the man is farming in his fields. Along with the other scenes of daily life, occasions such as Indian wedding along with its many colours and rituals are presented here. Up head, the groom is seated on the horse and accompanied by his family, friends and relatives. the bride is a little further back and is making her journey towards the house of her husband.
One of the most endearing scenes within the village is children sitting together writing on their ‘takhtis’ as the teacher gives instructions. In a rural school children and their teacher gather outdoors, maybe under a tree. The students sit on the floor, learning with the aid of very simple resources. The artist’s skill is evident from the use of materials like discarded fabric and turning it into many wonderful things.
Among all the village scenes of rural Indian life that were created in this doll museum, this one is the most exciting. The ladies of the village gather together to enjoy each other’s company. Sharing a few laughs and singing some traditional songs, they also swing on makeshift swings that are hung from the branches of large trees. Amongst these beautiful dolls, it is impossible to not become part of their joyous world.
The next scene depicts the village women fetching water from the common well located in the village. The carry ‘matkas’ the traditional water storage earthen vessel to carry water to their homes. The women use to discuss their lives with each other.
Nek Chand’s early days were spent in a village and he always held those years close to his heart and felt that rural life for the artist is through the representation of the members of a family, of all ages that are gathered together for a meal. The traditional method of cooking over a fire has also been represented here.
One of the scenes you would encounter upon in the doll museum is women selling colourful bangles. The bangles have also been extensively utilized by the artist to colourful statues which you can see in the last phase of the rock garden.
A village scene is incomplete if you haven’t seen women spinning a charkha. In 18th-century charkha was used to create a thread. Charkha is basically a device to spin yarn by taking a clump of fibres and teasing a bit of them out, then twisting it into a basic string shape. The wheel is a free-moving, spun by a hand or foot reaching out and turning it directly. The artist here showcases this ancient craft, depicting rural life.
The third phase of the garden has larger and more formal structures, which can be easily made out from the staircases covered with colourful broken tiles, in the open-air theatre area. The arches and bands are on the lines of a village setting. The mosaic technique of making images and patterns out of small pieces of tile or glass is from ancient times but Nek Chand’s interpretation of it gives this space a vibrant and festive feel.
Nek Chand was a lover of nature and incorporated the natural elements within the rock garden. Not only did he make innovative use of them, but he also recreated them. In some parts he created trees, in others he made animals. There are monkeys, bears, elephants, horses, camels, peacocks and other birds throughout the garden.
Nek Chand turned his sculptures into characters and also made them representative of his ideology and life experiences. Reusing materials that were discarded by others was at the core of Nek Chand’s art and the way that he used them was extremely unique. These sculptures, for example, show his use of broken glass and bangles. He used this waste material to make the elaborate costume of the female sculptures. The glistening of the glass and the myriad colours makes them distinct.
Throughout the rock garden, you come across people from different walks of life. This group here represents the men in uniform, such as policeman and other security forces. Nek Chand very innovatively made their uniforms, helmets and caps.
Nek Chand worked without formal plans but directed his workers to construct what he describes. The heart of the garden are the “great swings” dozens of swings that hang from huge concrete arches resembling ancient Roman aqueducts. There are also some special mirrors a which make you small, tall, distorted and funny.
Your eyes cannot escape the labyrinth paths, mosaic masterpieces, waterfalls who stand in mute testimony to the inventiveness of a genius man called Nek Chand. Nek Chand Saini passed away at the age of 90 leaving his rock-solid legacy behind. His work is an ode to creativity.