When I first went to Chandigarh in 2009, I reasonably visited the main buildings designed by Le Corbusier, troubling the urban grid only by the rather conventional tour of Nek Chand’s rock garden. When I came back last month however, I got the opportunity to explore Burail, one of the few villages of Chandigarh, thanks to my former colleague in Mumbai, Mayank Ojha who dedicated his undergraduate thesis research to it and from whom I owe the following information. Situated in the city’s Sector 45, Before the construction of the capital city of both Indian Punjab and Haryana in the 1950’s following the partition of India and Pakistan — Lahore being the capital of Pakistani Punjab — Burail was a village that could not do much against the eminent domain that expropriate its agricultural land. The farmers managed to organize however to obtain the right to keep the political autonomy on the village’s land itself within the limits of the “red tape.”
With time, the village became an intense place of economic production where people of Chandigarh go for products they do not find in the rest of the city (car mechanical parts, household electrical equipment, fresh vegetables…) and where migrants from outside the city can find shelter. Such an economic activity without urban codification led the village to grow significantly in density to become a built mass where the sky is often framed narrowly by the various vertical extension brought to older buildings. The labyrinthine aspect of the small streets inside Burail contrasts with the square properties of its limits that create a form of inhabited wall as an interface between the inside and the outside.
This wall tends to create what I would like to call “building-city” in the recurrent cases of proletarian fortresses like Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, Algiers’s Casbah, Paris’s Haussmannian social housing and even more literally, Caracas’s Torre David. Despite the porosity of these framing inhabited walls that opens to various narrow streets, these building-cities uses their density to defend themselves against any form of aggression from outside. Troubles occasioned within Burail are mostly handled by the community itself that recurrently shows its political solidarity as Mayank explains: three years ago, a 5-year old child was kidnapped away from the village and killed. The commerce owners in Burail shut down their stores for three days and many inhabitants of the village faced the anti-riots police forces that were deployed around it (see this article in Chandigarh Tribune. Beware of explicit images).
The existence of Burail as proletarian fortress is particularly remarkable in the context of a city that has been designed as an inhabitable machine by Le Corbusier. Two urban schemes are thus opposing each other: the rationalist grid of the modernist city and its labyrinthine anomaly. Burail is not a machine, it has not been designed in advance to optimize the set of its functions. On the contrary, it grew and continues to grow immanently based on programmatic needs and opportunities of a moment. My reading of it is resolutely political and incomplete in regards to Mayank’s research that examined more precisely urban typologies and programs’ function within the village. I include here a few of the many documents he created for it, as well as a few photographs I took myself.
Addendum (January 20, 2014) by Mayank Ojha: “The village was originally a part of the three tier, decentralized system of governance in India (Village panchayat > district committee > state government). After being engulfed it was being taken care of by the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh with a representative of Sector 45 (90% of whose population resides in Burail). Very recently, all villages within the grid have been transferred to the Chandigarh Administration, which means, along with the city, they are being directly governed by the Government of India in Delhi!”