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Building Blocks: A look at public spaces built after 1947

The memorial to Indira Gandhi is a magnificent tribute to the geological diversity of India.

On the Rocks: The rocks spread across the 55-acre Shakti Sthala, in New Delhi, come from across the county

There’s a little Kashmir in Delhi, created by landscape architect Ravindra Bhan for a leader who was enchanted by the beauty of this “paradise on earth”. Between green mounds, an undulating terrain and a water body is Shakti Sthala, the memorial to former prime minister Indira Gandhi. It sits between Raj Ghat (the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi) and Shanti Van (Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorial), nestled between peepal, pilkhan, dhak and banyan trees. While there are no statues or monuments in her memory, what is built is intangible. One never leaves Shakti Sthala without lingering and pausing to ask: “Is that all? A rock?”

It’s not one but nearly 800 rocks scattered across 55 acres. It was 1985, when Bhan was in conversation with then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi about the memorial. He was told to create something to remember her by, which would add value to future generations. Bhan used the tools of landscape design — plants, water and rocks — to represent the idea of India. They got rocks from all over the country, from Ladakh and Assam to Lakshadweep.

With help from the Geological Survey of India, Bhan was able to fashion a geological park, then a first of its kind, representing the geographical crust of India. “I travelled to different parts of the country with geologists. Some rocks were on mountain tops, some in ravines, some in ditches, some even in rivers. We had to transport them via helicopters, on road and by rail, till they all arrived at the site. Most of them were 8- or 9-ft-high, many weighed anywhere between 50 and 60 tonnes. We had to embed each with iron straps so that they don’t topple over,” he says.

From the metamorphic gneissic rocks, with their alternating light and dark grey bands, to the pink rosettes, from imprints of fossils to finding crystals embedded in stone, each rock is a study of the earth itself. There are ochre-coloured rocks that look like driftwood stumps, one that looks like Nandi, the guardian deity, even those that wear their green copper bands around themselves, rather handsomely. “These rocks came from every state. The granite from Tamil Nadu was very different from the granite in Rajasthan. From sandstone, limestone, quartz to fossilised trees, we represented India’s diversity in landscape,” says Bhan.

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The chief of them all is at the samadhi. Standing 16-ft high and weighing nearly 60 tonnes, the iron ore (banded hematite jasper) rock is the spot where Indira was cremated. Symbolic of India’s Iron Lady, the banded iron formations from Odisha are a fitting tribute since it was the last place she visited. When the project was finally done in 1989, the path leading to the main rock was finished with the hard eru wood, which weathered well and was comfortable to walk on, be it winter or summer. However, it has been changed to unimaginative paving.

At the lowest level is the waterbody that gets its water from the Yamuna, affording the entire area a spirit of peace and respite. The earth mounds and galaxy of trees also cancel the outside noise. Even as India readies to host the International Geological Congress in March 2020, one hopes there will be more attention to this magnificent site that is in urgent need of an interpretation centre.