Photo by Rod Waddington, via Flickr.
For almost two decades, self-taught artist Nek Chand worked in secret. In the cover of night, he’d sneak away to a clearing deep in a forest owned by the government on the outskirts of the Indian city of Chandigarh. It was there that he built his very own shangri-la: a garden filled with glittering sculptures of gods, goddesses, and other mystical beings.
Today, Chand’s Rock Garden, as his oasis is known, is the second most popular tourist destination in India, after the Taj Mahal. But its road to completion was both long and hard-won.
Born Nek Chand Saini in 1924, he was the son of a farmer and grew up in a small village in the northern region of Punjab. His education ended after high school, at which point it was assumed he’d work on his family’s land. In his free time, Chand created little figures from clay, adorning them with broken bits of bangles. He had no idea that this childhood hobby would foreshadow his life’s work.
Photo by Giridhar Appaji Nag Y, via Flickr.
His path shifted dramatically, however, during the partition of 1947, when India and Pakistan broke into two separate nations. Chand and his family were forced to flee the only home he’d known, and by 1951, he landed in Chandigarh. In the wake of conflict, the city was being rebuilt as the new regional capital, and the French architect Le Corbusier had been tasked with transforming it into a utopian metropolis. Construction was rampant, and jobs were plentiful.
Chand found a position as a road inspector during this boom, and spent his days overseeing aspects of Chandigarh’s brisk expansion. The construction involved the razing of 27 towns to make way for new infrastructure, and he watched as landfills bloated with the debris that was left behind. There were piles of broken crockery and dismantled mopeds and bikes, flecked with the shiny remains of saris and jewelry.
He was attracted to this rubble. There was something in it that reminded him of his past: the little village where his mother told him tales of the gods, and where he collected detritus left behind by the town’s vendors. Soon, he began gathering Chandigarh’s discards, too. They became fodder for Chand’s very own city—one at odds with the urban megalopolis he occupied during the day.
Photo by Rod Waddington, via Flickr.
Everyday after work, around 5 p.m., Chand would load his bicycle with found materials and head to a remote patch of forest, which he cleared with just his hands. “There were no roads to come or go,” he remembered of the site. “Who would come here and what for?”
There, he revived his old habit of sculpting gods from what most people would consider garbage. Cohorts of monkeys, dancers dressed in colorful cloaks made from bangles, and smiling moon-faced deities swathed in shards of pottery began to cover the forest floor. He surrounded them with waterfalls, meandering paths, and small temples forged from rocks. Many of these elements were inspired by fond memories of the lush plants, wild animals, and fantastical stories that filled his rural hometown.
“I made one thing, then a second, and then a third and I liked the results,” Chand later recalled in an interview. He saw life in the refuse and rocks he collected, and transformed them into mystical totems. “I began creating a city of gods and goddesses. You could see life in the rocks and see all the gods and goddesses in the rocks,” he said.
Photo by S.N. Johnson-Roehr, via Flickr.
Chand worked on his Rock Garden in secret for almost 20 years, until 1975, when the city government sent a team to clear the forest, intent on clearing it for more construction. They discovered the growing oasis in their way, and luckily, a number of Chand’s supporters banded together to save the Rock Garden. By 1976, the city agreed to preserve it—and even gave Chand a salary and staff to continue its growth. It opened to the public the same year; the artist happily showed visitors around his arcadia as they began to come in droves.
Chand and his crew continued to expand the garden until the artist’s death in 2015, at the age of 90. Today, it is preserved by the Nek Chand Foundation, and stands as a testament to one man’s vision of utopia. Chand didn’t share Le Corbusier’s desire to create the perfect city by felling everything that came before it. Instead, he built a monument to the natural world—and to the gods he believed created it—from the recycled discards of “progress.”