Is India’s answer to Milton Keynes the perfect city?
Chandigarh has been voted the happiest city in India. 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 find your way around.
“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 in the UK this weekend 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.
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 and mango groves, 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 major public buildings, many of them in concrete.
They include the governmental Capitol Complex, which are among a worldwide group of uncompromisingly modernist Le Corbusier buildings which 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 30 miles north.
What a contrast of cities, 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.