A Sprawling Secret Garden Built Illegally in India

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Feb. 3 2014 8:38 AM

Nek Chand's Sprawling Rock Garden, Built Illegally and in Secret

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When Nek Chand became a roads inspector in 1951, the north Indian city of Chandigarh was in the midst of a dramatic reinvention. Following British India's 1947 division into India and Pakistan, Chandigarh's small villages disappeared, demolished to make way for the grids, gardens, and sleek modern architecture that would eventually comprise India's first planned city. As construction continued through the 1950s, piles of debris — pottery fragments; bottles; glass; tiles; rocks — littered the landscape.

Chand encountered these demolition sites and saw not junk, but potential. He began collecting materials from the scrap heaps, transporting them by bicycle to a forest gorge in Chandigarh's north. It was there that, in 1965, he began work on his own planned city: a sculpture garden filled with thousands of human and animal figures all made from recycled debris.

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This one-man operation was, by necessity, a secret project. The forest area Chand chose for his garden was a government-designated no-build zone, classified as a conservation area since 1902. Authorities remained unaware of Chand's ever-expanding sculpture park until 1975, when, led there after Chand confided in the city’s chief architect, they were astounded to discover 12 acres of statues, courtyards, man-made waterfalls, and pathways that Chand had been patiently working on every night.

Despite the illegality of Chand's secret garden — and initial threats of demolition — state authorities heeded public sentiment and allowed the project to expand, even providing Chand with a salary and a crew of 50 workers so he could devote himself to his creation full-time. In 1976, the rock garden opened to visitors. It now sprawls over 30 acres, featuring parades of dancing women, gangs of monkeys, and a hillside animal stampede — all rendered in rock, glass, and pieces of colored tile.

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Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.