A fine balance
Welcome to India’s most liveable city
Chandigarh has been voted India’s happiest city. It has the nation’s highest per capita income and is one of its most popular tourist attractions. It houses a UNESCO World Heritage site and is sometimes called “The City Beautiful”. And it can be very confusing to navigate.
“Where exactly are we?” I ask Ravi Modka as we drive along a street that looks very like the one we’ve just driven along ... and the one before that. “This is Sector 10,” he says. “Opposite Sector 10 is Sector 16. We’re heading for Sector 9, and opposite that will be Sector 17.” There are, at the last count, 59 sectors. I need Ravi.
Chandigarh, the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana, was independent India’s first planned city. Seventy years ago, the country’s partition — subject of the film Viceroy’s House, released this week in Australia with Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten — divided Punjab between India and Pakistan. Lahore, the existing state capital, was allocated to Pakistan, so the Indian half needed a replacement. The then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru grasped the chance to create something startlingly radical. “Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India,” he said. “Unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” He saw it as “the first large expression of our creative genius flowering on our newly earned freedom”.
A gently sloping agricultural plain, dotted with hamlets, was chosen as its site, and Le Corbusier, the celebrated Swiss-French architect, was drafted in to supervise the grand plan. He based it on a grid pattern and designed some of its main public buildings, many of them in concrete. They include the governmental Capitol Complex, which is among a worldwide group of uncompromisingly modernist Le Corbusier buildings that were given World Heritage status last year. But they’re not the city’s big tourist draw, which will come at the end of my day-long tour.
Ravi, an affable 22-year-old guide, is doing a master’s in economics at Chandigarh’s high-rated Panjab University. He comes from Shimla, the hill station about 50km north. What a contrast, I say as we drive through Sector 8 (I’m slowly picking this up): Shimla, sprawling beyond its old British core; and Chandigarh, all order, reason, planning, an experimental Western city in an Eastern setting.
“Yes,” he says. “Everything is so organised here. Many people are rich and we don’t have any violence. And you’ll notice that we don’t have people leaving litter in the streets.” So is it a largely middle-class, professional city?
“Higher middle-class, you might say. Sometimes a family of four might have eight servants working for them. Everyone who comes here says the same thing — that it’s a very un-Indian place.”
We follow broad tree-lined boulevards, almost unnervingly calm by Indian standards. They suggest the leafy, gracious New Delhi that Sir Edwin Lutyens devised for King George V. Odd, I say, that Chandigarh, a city celebrating India’s independence, should recall the colonial power the country had so vehemently rejected. Particularly after one of Chandigarh’s architects, the American Albert Mayer, said he wanted to avoid the “over-scale sterility and stiltedness of New Delhi”.
“Yes, that is indeed an irony,” agrees Ravi. There are differences between the two cities, however. New Delhi’s architecture is a sympathetic fusion of Asian and European; Chandigarh’s bristles with Brutalism. Straight roads are the key. “The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous,” said Le Corbusier. “It is a paralysing thing.” New Delhi, by contrast, incorporates curves, most stylishly at Connaught Place, the network of concentrically circling roads at its commercial hub.
Chandigarh has the air of a garden city, but for all the greenness of its parks, it’s the monsoon-weathered concrete that registers most forcibly. It was built on community-focused, environmentally conscious principles, with the various sectors given their own shopping centres. “Many city dwellers are still villagers at heart,” said Mayer.
We reach Sector 10C, where a broad piazza is dominated by the long, low Museum and Art Gallery, designed by Le Corbusier. Over the past couple of weeks, the visitors’ book has been signed by people from Japan, Mexico, France, China, Britain, Russia, Australia, Canada, Spain, Germany, the US, Lebanon, Korea and Swe-
The High Court of Chandigarh, top left; Panjab University, top; tree-lined avenue of Chandigarh, left; Hugh Bonneville, Neeraj Kabi and Gillian Anderson in