This Is India Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

It’s built to resemble European city plans and just got a new five-star resort.

This Is India Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

Chandigarh’s stunning rock garden

Photo by Laura Itzkowitz

“This is Mecca for architects,” said the guide from Chandigarh’s tourist office as we strolled down a small street, stopping to see a manhole cover imprinted with a map of the city. We were in the metropolis Le Corbusier, which his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, planned and built from scratch in the 1950s following India’s partition when it lost Lahore to Pakistan. Modeled on European city plans with wide boulevards, orderly traffic patterns, and plenty of green space, Chandigarh is one of India’s most livable cities and a pilgrimage site for architects and urban planners, although it hasn’t really come onto the tourist radar, until now. Recently, multiple things happened to put it on the map: Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex gained recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the five-star Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa recently opened with a series of villas and luxury tents beside the Siswan Forest, and the midcentury house where Jeanneret lived for 10 years was inaugurated as a museum.

Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex
When planning Chandigarh, Le Corbusier envisioned the city as a human body, with the Capitol Complex as the head. There are three main buildings: the high court, the legislative assembly, and the administrative complex; to see them, you need to sign in at the Tourist Office. Designed in Le Corbusier’s signature modernist style, the concrete buildings have clever architectural features meant to keep them cool in the hot Indian climate. The legislative assembly is especially striking thanks to a colorful mural Le Corbusier painted himself. You can’t enter the courthouse, but your guide can escort you to the rooftop of the administrative complex for a bird’s–eye view.

Le Corbusier Centre
For a deeper dive into Le Corbusier’s work, head to the Le Corbusier Centre in his old office in Sector 19 (Chandigarh’s neighborhoods bear numbers instead of names). Here you can see black-and-white photographs, drawings, maps, and furniture designed for the Capitol Complex and the city as a whole. Admire samples of Jeanneret’s chairs and tables that infamously were auctioned off by the Indian government and snatched up as prized items by midcentury collectors in Europe and the United States.

Pierre Jeanneret Museum
A visit to the Jeanneret Museum—inaugurated on March 22—is worth it for a glimpse into the life of Le Corbusier’s cousin and right-hand man. Although Le Corbusier never lived in Chandigarh, Jeanneret resided in this house from 1955-65, when he stayed on as the chief architect of Chandigarh and the town planning advisor to the government of Punjab, training scores of young architects. Downstairs, placards and photographs illuminate the architect’s work, while upstairs you can see his simple, unadorned bedroom—poetic in its minimalism—and imagine what it must have been like to live there.

Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa

Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa
Courtesy of Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa

Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa
A complex of 60 luxurious rooms, tents, and villas (some with private pools), the Oberoi Sukhvilas is a tranquil enclave poised on the edge of the Siswan Forest Range, about a half-hour from the city center. With inlaid wood and wicker furniture, the design harkens back to the colonial era but features high-tech touches like iPads that control the room temperature, lights, and door. The Anant Mahal restaurant serves traditional Punjabi cuisine. Pro tip: Arrange a cooking lesson with the chefs to learn the ins and outs of regional specialties like Kerala coconut vegetable stew, then take a dip in the infinity pool overlooking the forest. The soon-to-open spa will feature Western and Ayurvedic treatments.

Siswan Forest Range
Nature lovers and adventure seekers will love the Siswan Forest Range, an 8,000-acre protected area on the outer edges of the Himalayas. On a guided hike or mountain biking excursion with the Oberoi Sukhvilas’s adventure guide, you’ll see some of the forest’s many species of birds, including wild peacocks, flora like marijuana (which grows in large swaths here), and maybe even a leopard if you’re very lucky. For a truly special experience, the Oberoi Sukhvilas can arrange an off-roading excursion in the hills for a champagne toast at sunset in the forest’s highest lookout point, where the panoramic views stretch all the way to the foothills of the Himalayas in the distance.

Rock Garden
When in Chandigarh, don’t miss a visit to the incredible Rock Garden created by Nek Chand, a humble transit worker who, in the 1960s, began collecting scraps of porcelain ware and arranging them into mosaics. Chand worked after dark, keeping his little garden project a secret so it wouldn’t be destroyed by the authorities. When they finally discovered it, the rock garden covered several acres and had hundreds of sculptures. Although built illegally, the city decided to keep it, and it’s now grown to a massive complex of interconnected gardens full of sculptures, colorful mosaics, and waterfalls, beloved by all who visit.

>>Next: A Wheelchair Won’t Prevent This Young Woman From Traveling the Globe

Laura Itzkowitz is a freelance journalist based in Rome with a passion for covering travel, arts and culture, lifestyle, design, food, and wine.
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