Pondicherry may be French; Pondicherry may be Tamil—but it is also home to an unusual international community named Auroville, which has its roots in the philosophy of an early 20th century Indian philosopher called Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo’s best known disciple, and the person who carried on and embodied Aurobindo’s philosophy, was a Frenchwoman who is now known only as The Mother.
The philosophy of Aurobindo and The Mother revolves around the unity of all mankind, meditation, community service, giving back to the earth, and the attainment of ‘divine consciousness’.
All of these principles were brought into play when, in the late 1960’s, The Mother (Aurobindo had since died), proposed the establishment of Auroville. The many thousands of followers who had been flocking to the Aurobindo ashram through the 60’s were of two distinctly separate types. As someone at Adishakti told me: "There were the European and American hippies, people who lived on drugs and free sex. And there were the very conservative, upper caste Hindus." Obviously, there was bound to be friction between the two groups—and The Mother managed to solve this to a large extent by proposing the creation of an ‘international city’ just outside Pondicherry, where the hippies could shift.
So, in 1968, on land donated by various followers, Auroville was founded. At its heart, in an urn shaped like a lotus bud, was placed the Auroville Charter (handwritten by The Mother), along with handfuls of earth from all across the world.
Auroville was envisaged as a place that would eventually house 50,000 people, who would be involved in activities as wide-ranging as production of handicrafts, environmental research, meditation, etc. The first task, however, was the greening of the land: the area was a barren, dry stretch. For years, says Jean (another of the Adishakti crowd), "We used pickaxes and shovels, digging up the ground, removing stones, and planting trees." Today, just over 40 years and a million trees later, Auroville (about 700 acres) is to a large extent, forested land.
It is also an interesting and unusual area. Auroville, while in India and subject to the Indian Penal Code, has some exemptions that mark it as an international community. For example, the Indian police has no jurisdiction here, unless it’s invited; Auroville is responsible for its own security.
After hearing all that about Auroville, I decide it’s time to pay it a visit. From Adishakti, it’s about 4 km, past a quaint Tamil village called Edayanchavadi, and to the Visitors’ Centre at Auroville. Parking is just outside the Visitors’ Centre.
The Auroville Visitors’ Centre is a small, fairly compact set of buildings and open spaces. There is a book shop (where the most prominent works are the writings of Aurobindo and The Mother); a café; and a boutique shop that sells hand-crafted items—stylish clothing, scented candles, handmade paper products and so on—made in the Auroville community. There’s an untidy garden of medicinal plants (not really visitor-friendly; none of the plants are labelled or explained); an equally uninspiring Eco-Exhibition (that’s what it’s called: just a series of panels on what you can do—and what Auroville has been doing—to preserve the environment. There’s a small stall where jams, scented candles, incense and other Auroville products are sold; and there’s a place where you can sit under the trees and have tea, coffee, lemon juice, locally made fruit juices, and other goodies like banana chips (delicious wafer-thin slices of raw banana fried in coconut oil) and cookies.
Auroville’s best known monument, however, is the meditation centre known as Matrimandir (literally, ‘The Temple of the Mother’ or ‘The Mother Temple’). This was begun in 1971 and is in the form of a huge, glittering golden globe that sits in the middle of what is known as the Park of Unity: a vast expanse of greenery, including a 100-year old banyan tree that’s spread over a diameter of approximately 50 m. To go to the Matrimandir, you have to first get a pass (free) from the Visitors’ Centre. For this, there’s a prerequisite: you have to first sit in a hall and watch a 10-minute film about Auroville and the Matrimandir.
Since I’ve come all this way, I decide I might as well see the Matrimandir. So I watch the film, collect my pass, and trudge off down the 1 km dirt track through the woods, to Matrimandir. On the way, I’m passed by cyclists and by an electric shuttle (available for the elderly or disabled; note, though, that the shuttle won’t take you right up to the end; you’ll still need to walk about 200 m). It’s a pleasant walk past lovely old palms and other trees, with butterflies flitting about. I pass the banyan, and then arrive at Matrimandir. It sits in the middle of spreading green lawns and an amphitheatre made of red sandstone. It will eventually be surrounded by twelve gardens, currently in the process of being created. The Matrimandir gleams like a somewhat tacky jewel—the huge circular tiles on the outside are 24 carat gold leaf (sandwiched between sheets of glass and fused together). The inside, according to the video at the Visitors’ Centre, consists of a hall that’s all white—white marble walls and ceiling, white carpet below. Visitors like me, however, only get to see the Matrimandir from the outside; if you want to go in and meditate, you need to apply well in advance to the Visitors’ Centre.
So, not having applied (and actually, not harbouring much of a desire to meditate, anyway), I take some photos and head back to the Visitors’ Centre. I buy a glass of lemon juice (refreshing), go to the ladies’ (smelly), and then walk back home to Adishakti.
Today, 2,000 people from 40 countries live in Auroville. For them, I guess it’s a great place to be. For me, it was just another experience, and not one I’d want to repeat. Partly, perhaps, because I’m not an exceptionally spiritual person. More probably, because I got the uncomfortable feeling that the entire setup was very commercial—a ‘scam’, as one Adishakti artiste labelled it. The principle of simple living and high thinking just doesn’t seem to be reflected here; it’s all very targeted towards the affluent, what with the expensive boutique, the swimming pool (yes, they have one: the fee is Rs 250 a day) and a general air of having lots of money and plenty of free time in which to meditate on things other than having to earn a living.
I’m sure Auroville has its fair share of people who genuinely want to do good, and who work hard in that endeavour. Unfortunately, from what I saw, that wasn’t quite the impression I got. Still, it’s a peaceful, green area, so that’s some consolation. Worth one visit, but that’s it.