India – Chandigarh

Welcome to Chandigarh

Welcome to Chandigarh

It’s just a short hop from Shimla to Chandigarh; 65 miles and a couple of hours if you get caught in slow traffic. I was very interested to see Chandigarh because it sounds like India’s version of Milton Keynes; a new city built on a grid system, so totally unlike anything else in India. The cleanest city in India; the highest per capita income in India; and a union territory serving as the capital of two states – Haryana and Punjab.

Capital Complex

Capital Complex

Originally the master plan of designers Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki, work started on it in 1949 but a year later Nowicki was killed in a plane crash and Mayer lost heart and interest in the scheme. It was then handed over to the cult-status architect Le Corbusier to create a new design (although he took many of Mayer’s ideas without crediting him, apparently!) Work was completed by 1960. However, the fact has to be faced: as a tourist destination, it does leave something to be desired.

Rose Garden

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a Rose Garden

We arrived in the city to be welcomed by our guide Rajinder, and our first port of call was the famous Rose Garden of Chandigarh. Now, I’m sure that during the rose season this is a feast for the eyes, with rows upon rows of roses catching your attention. Apparently, February is the time to go. In October it’s as dull as ditchwater.

Morning Tours

Morning Tours

The good news was that meant we could move quickly on to the main sight of Chandigarh, the Capitol Complex, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. An amusing notice informs you of the set times you can visit: “Morning tours – 10am, 12pm, 3pm” – an interesting definition of the word morning there. Security is high and in addition to the airport style checks you have to bring your passport with you, which they look after whilst you’re on their grounds. The Complex provides its own guide to accompany you around the site, which creates an interesting powerplay when individual tourists also have their own guides. At one stage during the tour there were two other guides arguing furiously with the first guide about the accuracy of what he was talking about. Our Rajinder was the more laid-back kind of guy and just smiled at them all silently.

Law Courts Le Corbusier style

Law Courts Le Corbusier style

We were walked to the centre of the complex which houses the Law Courts. We were given time (far too much time if truth be told) to admire Le Corbusier’s modernistic architecture. If you’re a Le Corbusier Fan (as several people seemed to be) this represented all your dreams come true. If you’re like me, it resembled some coloured concrete slabs attached to what looked like the car park at the National Theatre in London. As our guide was giving us all the background information, an Indian lady approached and basically took over his spiel, droning on for ages about how her late husband was friends with the great man. This was absolute nectar to the LCFs who begged for more insights about his favourite blend of tea and which side he dressed. You could see the real guide getting more and more frustrated that his tour had been hijacked. The other guides chipped in with the occasional bon mot. Rajinder just smiled at them all silently.

Open Hand

Open Hand

Eventually freed from her clutches (along with the guide we just abandoned her while she was still talking at us – sounds rude, but honestly there are limits) we walked up past the Open Hand sculpture, which stands as Chandigarh’s emblem, and very impressive it is too, even if it does look more like a dove of peace than an open hand. There are a few buildings either side of the huge walkway to admire – if that’s your sort of thing – before you reach the Legislative Assembly building. This houses the state debating chambers for both Punjab and Haryana. Security is even tighter here so no cameras allowed – which also means no phones. Can we take our bottle of water in? Yes, said Rajinder. Yes, said the official guide. No, said security at the Legislative Assembly reception. Rajinder smiled at them all silently.

Legislative Assembly

Legislative Assembly

The guide takes you into the debating chamber for Punjab; apparently the Haryana one is identical but less plush, from which I deduce that Punjabis pay a higher Council Tax than Haryanvis. It’s an impressive sight, with brightly coloured seats and a ceiling that looks like a lava lamp has exploded. On one wall is a grand portrait of Gandhi, positioned so that at one particular moment every day the outside sunlight shines directly into his eyes. However, there was no consensus among the guides as to what exact time that might be.

Government Buildings

The view the guards didn’t want you to see

After having been refused permission to enter the Haryana chamber several times (they really want to keep it private, it must be a dump) we returned outside, equipped with our phones and water bottles. A right turn takes you towards the Government Buildings, which the guides insisted we could photograph but which caused consternation amongst the Sikh guards who blew several fuses at a bunch of hapless tourists. One furious Sikh gentleman almost came to blows with the guide, remonstrating in no uncertain terms that there was to be no photography whatsoever. I can’t speak Punjabi, but his message was pretty clear. Another Sikh officer watched from the sidelines, laughing ecstatically at what he obviously took to be the funniest thing since the Congress Party promised to deal with corruption. Rajinder smiled at them all silently.

University

University

We said our various goodbyes to all the extra guides and returned to the car. There was one more stop on Rajinder’s whirlwind tour of Chandigarh – a visit to the University. Indian universities can be very interesting places to visit; I remember how we were challenged – pleasantly but firmly – on our visit to Allahabad University. However, the university at Chandigarh is quite a dull affair; dark redbrick bland office blocks lined by grass on long straight roads without an ounce of soul. Would we like to walk around? Nah, just take us to the hotel. Thanks Rajinder.

Beware of the livestock

Beware of the livestock

We had treated ourselves to two nights at the new Oberoi Sukhvilas in Chandigarh – actually it’s about half an hour outside the city heading northwest. We had a standard room reserved, which I’m sure would have been lovely, but…. Would we like to upgrade to a Royal Tent? Would we Buffalo. However, first we had to navigate the three hotel geese. They did not like me one bit. Every time I tried to walk somewhere it seemed they tried to block my path. Even the gentleman who escorted us to our quarters had a run in with them.

Upgrade!

Upgrade!

The tents were identical to those at the Oberoi in Ranthambhore, but with two added delights: an automatic toilet, that raised and lowered the seat in accordance with movement sensors; and (best of all) a private pool. Oh My Giddy Aunt, that was pure heaven. Our second day had been planned as a rest day, and we spent the entire time round the pool. We couldn’t bring ourselves to move to the restaurant for lunch, so room service brought us Lamb and Chicken Tikkas and a bottle of Chablis which we enjoyed in the sunshine. My toes are curling with pleasure at the memory.

Shanu in the bar

Shanu in the bar

The Chandigarh Oberoi is a delight; the tents are quite some distance from the main reception, so you call for a buggy to transport you round the grounds – this is particularly important at night. Breakfast was in a special restaurant close to our tent, where we enjoyed a superb choice of food and immaculate service from Rishahb; dinner was in the main restaurant where our every culinary wish was met by Shruti and her team; cocktails were generously created by the entertaining Shanu in the bar. He asked if he could design cocktails for us, based on whichever spirits and extra touches we liked. Mine involved gin, rosemary and a blowtorch. We named it Forest Fire. And people ask why we keep going back to India….