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guard shelter in front of the Secretariat building
...It takes three hours to get from Delhi to Chandigarh on the high-speed Shatabdi Express. When smog hides the Himalayan backdrop (nearly everyday during the summer months), the view of the Haryana countryside from the small train window is empty save for the occasional narrow chimneys of a brick kiln half-buried in clay. Most Indians regard Chandigarh as a great place to live—a clean, comfortable, contemporary alternative to traditional Indian urban life. The passengers on the train—on average more affluent, literate, and anglicized—give an indication of the typical citizen of Chandigarh. After two hours in the barren dessert, the train station emerges into view as if out of nowhere.

There is no question Corbusier made an impression on India. The power of the cult of personality is not to be underestimated in India and Corbusier is no exception. Brief, but almost mythical, accounts of Corbusier appear in Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown and Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh to say nothing of countless architectural and intellectual journals. Yet Corbusier is by no means the only personality in the story of Chandigarh and what makes the city’s history so fascinating is the extent to which the lesser-known contributors are totally left behind. Ask anyone on the street who Chandigarh’s hometown hero is and they will tell you the story not of Corbusier, but rather of Nek Chand the retired civil engineer who sifted through the construction debris left behind by European architects and built acres and acres of gaudy (quite literally) "rock gardens" that remain the city’s premier tourist attraction.

The history of Chandigarh goes back a bit farther than Corbusier’s involvement in the project. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly 300 years after the arrival of the East India Company in Gujarat, the British control of the subcontinent began to weaken. In 1942, Gandhi returned from a ten-year political hiatus to introduce his "Quit India" campaign. Three years later, the victory of the Labour Party in England made the so-called "India crisis" a priority and the move towards independence gained of momentum. Meanwhile, the Muslim League was insisting that the Hindu Indian National Congress recognize the need for a separated Muslim state despite Gandhi’s warnings that the consequences of such a partition would be disastrous.

In 1947, the British announced the appointment of Lord Louis Mountbatten as the new viceroy and the imminent independence of India effective August 14, 1947. An independent British referee was given the unenviable task of splitting the Punjab in two to accommodate the demands of the Muslim League. The former capitol of Punjab, Lahore, fell on the Pakistani side of the border and in the few weeks before independence, the Hindu population of the Lahore dropped from half a million to a mere 1000, leaving the divided state of Punjab, as Gandhi had anticipated, in total disarray.
As the dust settled, the new Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, set about planning a new capitol for Punjab. Unlike Gandhi (who was assassinated in January of 1948), Nehru saw the future of India as an advanced, modern country. The ideological schism between Nehru and Gandhi is at the foundation of much of the contradiction that continues to characterize modern India. Gandhi helped lead the country to independence by championing the agrarian values of traditional India. Nehru, on the other hand, hastened to look forward. In a 1950 interview with the Hindustan Times, Nehru described the Chandigarh project as "an expression of India’s faith in the future." A quarter of a century before—around the time Le Corbusier called the house a "machine for living in" in Vers une Architecture—Gandhi had declared coldly that "machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization. It represents a great sin." In many respects the story of Chandigarh is a story of Nehru’s struggle to define the concept of a modern Indian life, the very notion of which Gandhi would have objected to. The most powerful impression I left Chandigarh with was that the heart of the city’s personality is not a building or a plan, but rather a search for what modern life in India is meant to be.

It is several miles by rickshaw from the depot into the standardized grid of boulevards and avenues that immediately distinguish Chandigarh from any other Indian metropolis. Inside the city, the monumental buildings of Corbusier’s Capitol Complex for which the city is renown are not so easy to find. The complex lies on the northeast edge of the city like a fleet of massive ships stranded in the sand of the Punjabi desert. To even catch a glimpse of the Assembly’s silhouette requires another dusty rickshaw ride out to beyond the fringes of town. Time treats architecture badly in India and these buildings are no exception. Concrete ages gracelessly and the general disrepair of the complex has left the buildings looking old beyond their years. The heat forces everyone into shelter and the vastness of the open spaces is exaggerated by the absence of pedestrians. Both the Secretariat and the High Court building have catered to the automobile by transforming rear access into main entrances, thus totally neglecting the central space intended to be the common focus of the entire complex, turning the intended circulation patterns inside out. Large Himalayan hawks circle hundreds of feet above the plaza—a foreboding sign to any visitor considering the trek between the High Court and the Secretariat under the midday sun...