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Not Quite the City of the Future: Stopover in Chandigarh

More than merely a useful stopover en route to Amritsar or Shimla, the entirely planned city of Chandigarh is celebrated as a daring experiment in modernist urban design. It's the creation of Le Corbusier, the father of modernism, whose grid-plan "living organism" design was a response to Nehru's dream to build, in his words, "a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation's faith in the future." When Punjab was divided after Partition, Lahore went to Pakistan, leaving the state without a capital; Chandigarh -- a groundbreaking experiment, built from scratch during the 1950s -- was envisioned as the new headquarters. When Punjab was once again divided into smaller states, the city became a Union Territory serving as the administrative capital for both Punjab and Haryana. Le Corbusier is largely responsible for designing the mesh of rectangular units, or "sectors," into which the city is divided. Characterized by broad boulevards, large landscaped parks with abundant trees, and quadrants of tidy, self-sufficient neighborhoods made up of buildings with louvered screens (brise-soleil), exposed brickwork, boulder stone masonry, and unfinished concrete surfaces, Le Corbusier's city doesn't quite function as the living organism it's intended to be. Urban decay and waste have crept in, and the sheer scale of the city -- much of which is given over to civic administration -- lends it a slightly ghostly, alienating atmosphere (especially on weekends). With the city layout designed to keep residences away from main roads, and the rigid grid system ensuring plenty of space between buildings, the city lacks the frenetic buzz that's synonymous with urban centers around the country. Chandigarh ends up feeling very un-Indian, something of a shock if you've just arrived from a metro like Delhi. But architecture buffs will find Le Corbusier's structural contributions intriguing. If you're particularly interested, start with a visit to the Architecture Museum (Sector 10), where the story behind the city is revealed through a dated display of archive materials which includes original design sketches, plans, and newspaper articles. The museum forms part of a larger Cultural Complex, where you might want to explore the Art Gallery (Tues-Sun 9:30am-5pm) which includes Modernist works. To get a sense of the scope of Le Corbusier's project, you really need to drive around the city and evaluate a selection of the buildings (even Nehru admitted not liking them all). If you don't want to shell out on a taxi, you could use the city's Hop on Hop off Bus, which stops at key points around the city (half-day ticket Rs 50). The main architectural attractions include the Capitol Complex (Sector 1), where the geometrical concrete buildings of the Legislative Assembly, High Court, and Secretariat represent structural innovation. At the southern end of the complex piazza, the Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) building is capped by a startling cupola, a pyramidal tower, and a cuboid tower, while within the portico is a bright Cubist mural by Le Corbusier himself. Also within the complex is the Open Hand Monument, a giant metal hand standing 26m (85 ft.) high that is able to rotate in the wind. Symbolizing the give-and-take of ideas, the hand has become the city's official emblem. Technically, tours of the complex start from the reception area, but these half-hourly episodes don't always materialize; check with someone from the Chandigarh Industrial & Tourism Development Corporation (CITCO; tel. 0172/270-4761 or -4356) in advance.

Known as a garden city, Chandigarh prides itself on having the largest Rose Garden in Asia (it's in Sector 16, but a real let-down) Chandigarh's real highlight -- and in fact reason enough to make a detour to the city -- is the breathtakingly alternative Rock Garden of Nek Chand ★★★ (Sector 1, adjacent the Capitol Complex; Rs 10 adults; 9am-6pm), a surreal fantasyland created by "outsider artist" Nek Chand -- a former road inspector -- from rocks, concrete, and urban rubbish. Set on 8 hectares (20 acres) of wooded landscape, the "garden" comprises a series of mazelike archways, tunnels, pavilions, waterfalls, and bridges, with passages leading from one open-air gallery to another. Each gallery is occupied by unusual characters, figures, and creatures fashioned from an unbelievable array of materials Chand started collecting in 1958; almost half a century later, the garden continues to grow. Unfortunately, the garden's fame has grown exponentially, too, so it's advisable to arrive early in order to avoid the crowds that descend, especially on weekends.

Chandigarh can be visited en route between Amritsar and Shimla, or directly from Delhi by train. The best connections between Delhi and Chandigarh are several daily Shatabdi Express trains or the Himalayan Queen. From Amritsar, choose the Paschim Express, a section of which also links Chandigarh with Kalka, starting point for the "toy train" to Shimla, a slow but memorable way of getting to the famed Raj-era hill station. The railway station (tel. 0172/270-8573, 0172/264-1651, 131, or 132) is in Sector 17, around 8km (5 miles) from the city center. For railway inquiries, call the city reservation center (tel. 0172/270-8573; Mon-Sat 8am-8pm, Sun 8am-2pm). There are also daily flights from the capital; the airport is 12km (7 1/2 miles) from the city. Chandigarh Tourism (tel. 0172/270-3839) has offices at the airport and at the railway station.

Unless you're hell-bent on racing on to your nest destination, there's no reason not to book into the Taj Chandigarh (Block No. 9, Sector 17-A; tel. 0172/661-3000; www.tajhotels.com), which is the city's smartest hotel by a long stretch. Although it's geared towards business folk (not to mention numerous VIPs and politicos in town on "official" business), there's a fine pool and plush rooms to come home to after trying to make sense of Le Corbusier's vision. Doubles cost Rs 11,000, but you should be able to score a "rate of the day" deal; at the same time, book a table for dinner at Black Lotus ★★, the in-house Chinese restaurant. If you'd prefer Indian food, ask the concierge to point you in the direction of Pal Dhaba -- famous for its mutton -- in Section 28; alternatively, head to Swagath, which is particularly good with seafood.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.