Chandigarh: Paradigm shifts

Chandigarh, brave new Chandigarh, born out of the harsh plains of Punjab without umbilical cord.

Charles Correa, The Architectural Review, London, June 1964.

Let this be a new town unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith into the future,” proclaimed Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister as he spelt out his brief for the city of Chandigarh. Chandigarh was planned as the new capital city of east Punjab in order to house refugees from Pakistan. Nehru saw Chandigarh as a symbol of modern India, a city that would propel the nation into modernity, planning that would create a new kind of citizen for the newly independent democratic nation-state. Since then, the building of Chandigarh has served as a training school for a whole generation of Indian architects who have then gone onto express the modernist idiom in several other cities.

Planning on ‘Terra Nullis’

Contrary to popular belief, Chandigarh was not planted on ’empty’ harsh plains waiting to be inhabited. For the first phase of Chandigarh, 8,500 acres of fertile land, consisting of 17 villages were acquired in one go under the land acquisition act of 1894. In another few years 24 additional villages dotted with agricultural land and mango groves was acquired. Much of the conflict that surrounded this land acquisition and the displacement of farmers (landed and not-landed) does not form part of the dominant narratives surrounding the history of this planned city. Plots were sold to the general public with the first preference reserved for displaced groups and individuals.  Amidst political chaos and the socio-economic travails of a fledgling nation state, the new city, about 250 miles north of Delhi, was to serve an important socio-psychological purpose.  This was India’s heroic break with its past erasing along the way the immediate tumultuous happenings and much older town planning traditions. Nehru argued that the site for the new town is “free from existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions.” (quoted in Kalia, 1087).

A team of foreign architects were brought in to propel India into modernity by planning a modern Indian city. The initial plan was conceived by the American architects Albert Mayer and Mathew Nowwicki who planned a city divided into superblocks and attempted an idiom that fused Indian and western traditions. The final plan and design of the key buildings however was the work of Swiss-French Architect popularly known as Le Corbusier. His team consisted of his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and an English couple Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. Corbusier took the superblock from Mayer’s plan and converted these into sectors – self-sufficient neighbourhood units – each sector had its own marketplace, schools and religious institutions.

In sector one, the head of the city, Corbusier placed the major government offices – the secretariat, the high court and the assembly building. To one side of this grid plan was placed the University and a medical research hospital whereas on the other side was the industrial area. The city was to be surrounded on all sides for a radius of 5 Km by forested land. An existing rivulet running through the city was framed on both sides by green spaces and called the leisure valley. The sectors or “containers of family life” as Corbusier envisaged them were segregated on the basis of social class (even as the planners claimed that houses would be planned for all sections of residents) and traffic circulation too was segregated into a hierarchy of roads ranging from v1s to v7s – V1’s would be the high speed roads with mixed traffic whereas the V7s were designed as bicycle paths.

The capitol complex towards the north dominated the plan by its sheer monumentality and symbolism woven into each architectural gesture. Notable amongst the structures at the capitol complex is the open hand monument. This is a graphic representation of an open palm that is placed on top of a tall column and pivoted in a manner so as to move with the wind. The open hand is placed within an open air theatre called the trench of consideration. Two symbolic ideas in this structure revealed the social and political dreams of the moment. The trench of consideration was envisaged as a place where the citizens of the city would gather and deliberate upon the matters of the state. The open hand symbolized the idea that this city was open to give and open to receive ideas. In this way, through architecture and planning a new kind of relationship was to be forged between the citizen and the democratic nation-state. Ironically, the open hand monument today is closed to public gatherings. That the plaza surrounding the trench of consideration is used as a heavily guarded parking for high court judges speaks volumes to the huge gap between planning intentions and real urban politics. The city itself has a complicated political situation for it serves as the capital for two states – Haryana and Punjab even while it is governed by the Central government (is an union territory).

Between heritage and smart urban futures

Today, it would be impossible to refer to Chandigarh in isolation. On the south the city grid has expanded into Mohali – which is the Punjab extension of Chandigarh and to the west is Haryana’s planned city – Panchkula. Together the region is referred to as the tri-city area. The 5Km designated green belt now only exists in small pockets. Chandigarh too has moved from the initial Nehruvian-Corbusier ideal of being a socialist city into becoming the quintessential neo-liberal city. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the changed land use of the industrial sectors in Chandigarh to an area that now houses large malls and boutique hotels. Large tracts of land continue to be acquired as the tri-city area expands into its periphery to make place for IT parks, Aero city, Knowledge city and developer led real-estate projects. Chandigarh today has the highest per capita car ownership in the country.

More recently, Chandigarh has seen movement in two seemingly opposing directions.  – The Archaeological Survey of India (along with Chandigarh administration) has submitted an application for Chandigarh to be in UNESCO’s list of world heritage cities. At the same time, the city is a keen participant in the smart cities challenge. The city proposal for smart city outlines a high tech solution to a range of citizen services including traffic management, sanitation and building construction. How these two visions for the city will be reconciled remains to be seen. The smart city challenge initiated a series of citizen workshops, online groups and discussion forums addressing the future of the city. While this was an interesting and perhaps an unprecedented attempt at involving the citizens of the city in its planning, it is also important to note that missing from these publics are working class populations particularly the migrant labour populations. In its race towards infrastructure development the city relies upon this group to labour and create and yet the labouring populations are not (and have never been historically) included as citizens of the city (they create). It is time that these subaltern voices are given their place and ‘right to the city.’

Details of our Chandigarh workshop can be found here



Charles C.  Report from Chandigarh. The Architectural Review, London. June 1964.

Kalia, R. 1987. Chandigarh: The making of an Indian City. Oxford University Press

Text by Anu Sabhlok
© All rights reserved.
Image by Jeesu Jaskanwar Singh
© All rights reserved.

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