Photo by Giridhar Appaji Nag Y.
When Nek Chand pedaled his bicycle alone through darkening trees, the Punjab jungle was far from quiet. Light rain fell on foliage with the sound of an invisible whispering crowd. Woodpeckers hidden in the banyan wood hammered monotonous rhythms, and the hollering of peacocks rose above a layered insect drone. The bicycle’s creaky wheels thumping over roots and Nek’s own breath, labored from miles of hill riding with a heavy load, added to the chorus. And, of course, there was the rattling load itself, which towered precariously over the basket: cracked pink tea cups and powder blue saucers, mismatched ceramic tiles, half a porcelain urinal, water jugs without handles, and—the prize haul of the day—a sackful of broken bangles in deep reds and golds. Tucked in around the scrap, as always, the round river stones that Nek treasured above all other materials, for he felt certain that gods and goddesses dwelled within their cool, heavy peace. The brisk scent of eucalyptus floated down around him, part of the fog, as the Nek steered his bicycle toward the bottom of the gorge.
Throughout the 1950s, Nek Chand dutifully worked his day job as road inspector in the prospering new city of Chandigarh near India’s recently drawn border with Pakistan. As Lahore ended up on the Pakistan side and the Indian Punjab needed a capital city, 26 villages had been leveled to make way—hence the forlorn mounds of scrap ripe for the picking. But it was here — the bottom of a densely vegetated gorge in the failing light, under clouds of mosquitoes that hungrily awaited his return each day after five o’clock — that the young man was free to fulfill what he knew was his true purpose, to create dreamscapes in honor of the gods and goddesses.
He unloaded the bicycle in a clearing where a few simple tools and a bag of cement stood ready, and Nek began to build. In clearings linked by winding paths, sculptures of past days, months, and years loomed out of the greenery: surreal animal regiments floating on a sea of broken plates, crescent-bodied river stone creatures with eternally patient expressions, dancing tribes of women in mosaic gowns, mythical jungle warriors, miniature elfish houses, high walls adorned with undefinable forms. All of it was made of garbage, sometimes coated in smooth layer of cement, and all of it was secret. Built on government land without permission, it was also illegal. The only person Nek had ever brought to his fairy tale garden was his wife. For 18 years, the secret remained theirs alone.
By the early 1970s, Chandigarh had outgrown itself. Plans were made and work crews brought in to extend the city into the surrounding jungle. In 1973, at a gorge northeast of town, the bulldozers stopped in their tracks and the men gaped. By this time, the curious garden spanned 12 acres and contained thousands of sculptures. Some city officials were furious and demanded the structures be destroyed. Others, buoyed on a wave of public support, wanted the garden opened to the public. Eventually, they got their way. The city gave Nek a salary and a work crew of 50 to expand and maintain his dreamscape. Now known officially as the Chandigarh Rock Garden, it covers 40 acres and is one of India’s top tourist attractions.
In a 2005 interview, 78-year-old Nek Chand was asked whether he ever imagined millions of visitors would travel to Chandigarh to see his creations. “No,” he answered, a humble and slightly bewildered look eclipsing his dark eyes, “Never. It is a God gift.”