The Land of Corbusier

We are reaching the end of our travel fellowship, with only a few days left in this golden city called Amritsar. It has been an amazing journey thus far, and this country has offered us experiences and histories far beyond our expectations. Travelling to Chennai, Auroville, Delhi, Chandigarh and now Amritsar, each and every city never failed to amaze us with their people and their city.

Before arriving to this city, I’m glad to say that we have surveyed through almost every corner of Chandigarh with our oogley eyes that feasted on the works by the famous French architect, Le Corbusier. This stop at Chandigarh has been the most awaited part of the trip for me for it is indeed an architecture paradise for a building nerd like me. Imagine a city with every piece of land designed by a single genius mind of an architect, with its roads and landscape specifically laid and chosen in each sector to align to this grand idea of a living utopia. The whole city was designed and built for the people after the partition when violence and unrest were at its peak. And so, Corbusier aligned his urban vision of efficiency and with India’s hope for peace and harmony. The open hand symbol that is observed everywhere in Chandigarh represents just that, conveying a message of peace and reconciliation with the unity of mankind. A similar concept to the utopian vision in Auroville, but obviously constructed and visualized so differently.

With the entire built environment not exceeding three storeys, the concept behind this garden city is conserved and so very much preserved even in these modern times. We had the privilege of speaking with some of the architects working here as well. They shared their insights and spoke about the challenges faced while practicing their profession in this city. It was amazing to hear their stories and imagining their city change and progress as much as it can through their testimonies shared. The greatest story shared was by Mr S.D. Sharma, one of the oldest architect in Chandigarh who has worked with the first teams of planners when Chandigarh was in its works, which meant that he had worked alongside Le Corbusier himself! And also with Pierre Jennenret and even Albert Mayer. Amidst all these foreign names that sound grand and familiar to those reading and studying about architecture and urban planning, what impressed me the most was not his entire resume on the people he has worked with but it was his humble heart and attitude when he talked about these people and his city. He was deeply in love with Chandigarh and worshipped Corbusier for his ideas and concepts that conceived this city to what it is today. Even as this city faces modern urbanisation issues, he remains optimistic and idealistic about Corbusier’s dream about this living utopia. His passion for his profession and city was contagious and soon, all three of us were in awe of his own works and stories told.

Indeed, this city is different from the other cities of India. Some may find it boring and too static, but talking to the locals and residents here might change your perspective. The convenience of every self sustaining sector and the efficiency of roads and traffic here is uncomparable to the liveability of other cities in India. Even after travelling to other parts of their country, they always seem to come back to this small city that they’ll always call home. Utopia might always seem to be an idealistic dream that is unattainable but perhaps Chandigarh has already become the epitome of the perfect city that the people here have always dreamt of.

 

Beat the heat.

It has been over a week here in India, and somehow I still can’t get used to the heat. We started off in Chennai where the temperatures were supposedly more bearable at thirty eight degrees as compared to the high forties that Delhi has reached in the past couple of days. This country is currently facing its worst-ever heat wave and we’re in the middle of it. Yet, it is in this devastating heat that I’m reminded of the spirit and eco-friendly way of life in Auroville.

Before embarking on this travel fellowship, Auroville had remained a mystery to me. With little media coverage and limited written articles on this queer town, it seemed that only their official website (www.auroville.org) proved to be the most informative source. I can’t say much for my travel partners, but I surely had my doubts on the idealism that Auroville takes pride in. After all, a place where equality and human harmony are prioritized and worshiped seemed too good to be true. Perhaps, this town is riding on some new religion or spiritual lifestyle that mandates its residents to live in a particular utopian-like manner, or so I thought.

It was only after visiting Auroville myself that my perspective of this little town started to change. What was most apparent to me there was never the religiosity of the place (despite the fact that the portrait of their founder, the mother, was hung everywhere we went), but it was the heart and passion of the people that spoke the loudest. From conversations with residents who grew up there, to meeting with volunteers and interns who were drawn to that place because of their ideals and work, Auroville was much more than what the mother envisioned it to be. Their emphasis on reforestation and sustainable living led Auroville to become the training ground and the prime example of successful efforts to combat climate change through ecological transformation and even veganism. The wide array of tasty vegetarian food choices is definitely something to be mentioned here, as vegan options were always available in the menus. Although it was a pity that we didn’t manage to visit the Sadhana Forest to understand a bit more about their transformation work to revive the wasteland on the outskirts of Auroville, staying in the heart of Auroville was already more than sufficient to see how every resident tried to lead a sustainable lifestyle and was appreciative of the conscious cooperative spirit that each Aurovillians had.

 

It seemed almost unfair that the world puts India in a box when there is so much diversity and creativity looming around in her cities. I was undeniably awed by Auroville and their way of living (albeit still a little skeptical about their spiritual beliefs and teachings of their founder – the mother and her spiritual partner, Sri Aurobindo), and I’m sure that India has much more to offer than this small town in the outskirts of Puducherry. As we move on to the next part of our travel fellowship and into the city of Chandigarh, I’m praying for strength to continue on in India’s crazy summer, along with a heart excited to see what the next city has to offer.