India's Vast Trash Garden a Monument to Recycling

Pallava Bagla
in Chandigarh, Punjab, India
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2002

A glorious testament to the artistic and intrinsic value of trash stands in the middle of the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, India's storied northwestern state on the border of Pakistan.

Called the "Rock Garden," this sprawling amusement "kingdom" has been made completely from waste materials. Created by celebrated artist Nek Chand, the garden highlights the value of materials many people consider trash.

For Chand, the Rock Garden is an expression of his hope for humanity and an idea that came to him four decades ago. "It all started out of personal curiosity," said Chand, emphasizing that while others looked at trash as a problem that needed to be "hidden away," he saw it as something that could be creatively transformed into art.

In the late 1950s, Chand was an ordinary man, a road inspector with the engineering department of Chandigarh's city government. Today, he is a celebrity who makes cash from trash by constructing works of art for many cities in Europe and America.

Chand began building with recycled materials when he constructed a small hut to represent the "reuse-reduce-recycle" concept. He started building his trash garden in the 1950s with urban and industrial waste, using everything he could lay his hands on, including stones and boulders to represent humans and animals.

Little did he know what he was starting.

Today, a visitor to the 10-hectare (25-acre) sprawl that is Chand's ode to sustainable development is amazed—discarded tube lights, rusting oil drums, broken tiles, shattered china and sanitary ware, glass bangles, unused building material—all are transformed through vision and art into a fantastic world. Street lights, burnt bricks, electrical fittings and wires, caps from soda bottles, bicycle handle bars, and even human hair harvested from barbers' shops—all are grist for Chand's art.

Sanjay Gupta, program coordinator of solid waste management at the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, Srishti, in New Delhi, said, "The Rock Garden is certainly a path-breaking endeavor and an ideal example of the effective utilization of what is dubbed as everyday trash in cities."

The Rock Garden is designed to look like a lost kingdom. Doorways and archways constructed out of discarded bags of cement seem to characterize the theme, and the scale is larger than life.

At the garden's entrance, a forecourt with numerous chambers, including a "king's throne," greets visitors. Birds, monkeys, tigers, soldiers, and village women—all fashioned out of trash—inhabit this surreal world. At least 5,000 sculptures are viewed by perhaps the same number of visitors each day.

Subhadra Menon, an ecologist and executive editor of the Indian environmental magazine TerraGreen, said, "Nek Chand's is a very commendable effort," and added that it is strange that the concept of the Rock Garden has not been widely replicated across India, a country where recycling comes so naturally to most people.

Chand is unassuming about his creation, seemingly unaware of the buzz it has created. He sees his work as "engineering," not an artistic expression at all.

Continued on Next Page >>


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