Not long after the partition, the separation of India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Nehru ordered a building a modern city in Punjab, enough to accommodate a population of 150.000. He contacted French/Swiss architect Le Courbusier and asked him to come up with designs for the first planned city within India. This famous modernist builder and designer/creator travelled to India and appointed two other Western architects to work on creating a new city in an area of farmland and nature.
We travelled to Punjab with an important objective; I had to conduct a couple of talks at the Chitkara Univerisity in Chandigarh. One of my business partners in India had asked me to share my thoughts about the emerging telco industry to a group of 200 MBA students. I really enjoy working with ambitious and smart young people and it didn’t take me long to say yes to the offer. Boarding the plane to Chandigargh was special; it was very easy to find the gate, as we noticed a lot of Sikh men with long beards and bright turbans around us. The flight from Mumbai to Chandigargh is about two hours and it lands before at first outskirts of the Himalaya’s. The airport is a spotless place, a compact air-hub only twenty minutes from the city center.
Punjab feels like the Italy of India. It’s a masculine society with loud music, loud cars, loud colors and a mouthwatering cuisine with numerous Indian evergreens. The men are well groomed, a lot of them seem to be ready for the filming of a fashionable Punjabi videoclip. The living standards are high and Chandigarh is the city with one of the highest GDP per capita in India. As a result, a lot of the fashionable men (and women) are driving around in flashy cars; Mercedes and BMW are favorable car brands, the local car dealers seem to be making a lot of money selling these imported vehicles. Having a lot of high-income families in this town, the restaurant- and bar business is booming. We stayed there for a couple of days and noticed more upscale bars and restaurants per square mile than in any other Indian tier 2 or 3 city.
Entering the city of Chandigarh felt a bit weird. Le Corbusier created a very open city, with long straight lanes and a lot of green parks. The city is divided into so called ‘sectors’ and every sector is created based upon the same city planning principles: there is a green park in the center, surrounded by blocks of middle class houses. Each sector has its own commercial center, with markets, bars and restaurants. It is said that about 80% of the population eats at restaurants or bars on a daily basis. Our hotel, the JW Marriot, was very near the unofficial entrance of one of those sectors and I went inside during my morning run. Like everywhere else in the city, the sector was spotless and well organized. The only thing that reminded me of being in India were the stray dogs, the occasional auto-rickshaw and a couple of Sikh men going out for an early walk in the morning. Other than that, this could even be a Dutch residential town: the modest brownstone houses lack everything to make them really Indian: no flashy colors, no over the top design, no loud billboards. In front of each row of similar houses, there is a solid footpath. The streets are spotless, and you will not find any street sellers and chai wallahs. Only the very occasional cow, looking for his or her next fix of greens, reminds you of being in India.
One could come up with multiple reasons for visiting Chandigarh, but the key reason for many of its visitors, is to visit the impressive Le Corbusier-buildings and its original street plans. At first, one would probably feel a bit remorse. A lot of straight roads and brownstone buildings in a well-organized setup could feel a bit like walking around in an Eastern German city during the 70’s; the creators of this incredible city had only used a very limited set of materials and a very modest palette of colors. Furthermore: all buildings– houses, markets and government buildings – are low rise. The local government still doesn’t allow people to build high rise story houses and buildings, mainly to maintain the unique setup of this Punjabi city.
The cherry on the pie in this city could be found in the north. We booked a cab to bring us to the Rock Garden, which is situated beside a lot of Le Corbusier buildings. Rock Garden is a highlight in itself. I entered this park without any expectations, but it almost immediately blew my mind. The park is a creation by a former Pakistan citizen, Nek Chand. He moved to Chandigarh in the 50’s to start working as a government employee. In his spare time, in the evenings and weekends, he started working on what became his dream; the transformation of waste materials into a spectacular nature park. For many years he worked on creating his dream in complete secrecy, nobody knew what he was doing in this green area of rough land in the northern part of the city. Eventually, his work was discovered and some of the local government officials were so struck by his work that they started helping him with the execution of this. The park covers over 20 acres of formations, art, mosaic creations and waterfalls and one can easily spend over 2 hours in this must-see attraction.
Chandigarh is everything but a truthful representation of a traditional city within India: its clean, organized and modest, with one unique bonus: the cars don’t honk. Honking is illegal all across India, but this is one of the very rare cities where police officers will actually fine you for honking; it’s very quiet and pleasant to walk around.
Everyone who is interested in sociodemographics, culture, design and/or architecture should visit this unique city. It’s easy to combine it with another Indian evergreen: Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple and a unique city situated close to the Pakistan border. An aircon cab brought us there in little less than 5 hours.