I rose abruptly, as always, just moments before my 7 a.m. alarm would go off. Today was a big day; I was about to begin the most anticipated part of my first trip to Pondicherry [Read: Pondicherry – First Impressions] – a guided trip of Auroville. For the uninitiated, Auroville is an experimental township a few miles outside of Pondicherry city, conceived out of the vision of Mira Alfassa, a.k.a, the Mother. The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, are spiritual leaders and pioneers of the Integral Yoga system, and have a large global following. More importantly, they were influential figures in post-colonial Pondicherry. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram, an establishment founded by the pair, even today, is amongst the most affluent and influential stakeholders in the area.
I’d just about roused myself from my customary ‘after-rise’ stupor, when I heard a knock on the door. Oh! By the way, did I tell you, I’d been put up in the same guest-house where Sri Aurobindo first took a room, after moving to Pondicherry? Swell, eh?! Anyway, I opened the door to find my guide for the day smiling down upon me. The tall kindly 30-something boy, a local Aurovillian, who’d been born and brought up in the township, would go on to become a good friend of mine in the months to come.
After an early breakfast of onion-dosa, chai, and chota Gold-flake, at a local eatery, we made our way to Auroville. The moment we took the exit on the East Coast Road higway to get inside Auroville, I felt a noticeable drop in temperature. South-India being notorious for its soaring mercury, this was a welcome change.
We paused en-route at the Auroville Bakery — another quick chai and a couple of muffins followed. As I attempted to pay for the pair of us, my guide gently stopped me, and proceeded to sign what looked like an attendance roster.
My friend, who we will henceforth refer to as G, went on to explain that Auroville runs on its own currency, known as ‘maintenance’. Every resident Aurovillian is provided a monthly ‘maintenance’ in return of services rendered to the community and for upkeep of property. At most place inside Auroville, barring the Visitor Center, cash is not accepted. If you’re a long-term guest at Auroville, you’ll have to acquire your own Aurocard, which comes loaded with ‘maintenance’. This is used to barter goods and services within Auroville.
The Almost Ethereal Spirit of Auroville is Symbolized by Matrimandir
As G and I whizz off on the bike, we venture deeper into the island of tranquility that Auroville appears to be. We catch a glimpse of the fabled Matrimandir – the magnificent central structure around which Auroville is built. An architectural wonder at the least, the temple is of huge spiritual significance for the practitioners of Integral Yoga. The huge spherical dome is covered by twelve golden discs, that radiate sunlight, giving it an almost ethereal aura.
Matrimandir, although considered a temple by many, doesn’t belong to any religion, sect or faith, and remains open to the public by appointment. My friend tells me how he volunteers to assume the role of night-guard every once a month, and the joy of watching moonlight shine upon the structure that Aurovillians fondly refer to as “the soul of Auroville”.
Innovation & Sustainability – Cornerstones of Auroville
Onwards, and G begins to introduce me to the ‘innovator’ side of Auroville. One of the community’s strongest principles is to encourage innovation, particularly in the fields of earth/nature conservation, and you see it all around you. We begin at the superb Earth Institute that carries out groundbreaking research in alternative housing methods, and encourages earth-friendly settlements. Then there are other projects such as the Bamboo Center and the Spirulina project, but what really blows me away is Svaram — the brilliant center that innovates in alternative musical instruments, and sound healing.
Be sure to stop by at each center, talk to their artisans and perhaps even sign-up for a workshop or two if you can spare the time.
Of New Friends and Acrid Chai…
As the official tour of Auroville and its community projects comes to an end, G offers me a special treat. He plans to see a couple of his friends, and wants to know if I’d like to join in. Gleeful, and always over-eager to meet local peeps, as usual, I accept the kind offer. First up, we go and see Rishi, who G tells me is his childhood friend. Rishi has just secured a piece of land within Auroville to build his own forest. We take a detour off the marked path, and traverse deep inside the Auroville forest. After a point, we run out of road, abandon the bike and continue on foot. Imagine my surprise as I stumble into a clearing behind G, only to find a white dude holding a machete in one hand and a twig in the other!
Turns out, Rishi is French by nationality, but born and brought up an Aurovillian. Despite a college education in Paris, Rishi has returned to the land of his birth. Later, G tells me this is fairly common amongst foreign nationals that have called Auroville home. Many kids born here go back to their home country for university, but find it hard to come to terms with the world outside, and often return to the protected paradise of Auroville. As we sit under Rishi’s hand-made hideout in the tree, and attempt to brew some ‘chai’ on firewood, the two friends speak about staking out his newly acquired piece of land. Names of a handful of tree species that I’ve never heard of get thrown around. G explains how the land that now houses the dense forest of Auroville, was a barren wasteland, when it was purchased (or was it leased? I can’t remember for sure) from the Tamil Nadu Govt. After considerable toil, somebody finally discovered that Acacia, a species considered intrusive in many lands, was the only plant that would thrive in these lands. Several more years of back-breaking hard work, and sustainable innovation later, the present day Auroville began to peek out of the bleak barren-ness of this land.
A somewhat acrid cup of chai later, we make for our last stop of the visit. This is one person I’ve been looking forward to meeting for a while. Ramesh Ramalingam is the maker of these amazing little toys I’ve been seeing popping up all over Pondicherry. They are called ‘bendi’, and are made of copper coil, wood and fabric, and make for one of the best souvenirs I’ve ever come across. G tells me how Bendi was conceived out of an attempt to create alternatives to plastic toys, which are considered a major environmental threat. Ramesh, the young man who now owns and runs this project, started off as an apprentice working with a French guy who first envisioned it. The Frenchman left from Auroville before the project could entirely take shape. Ever since, Ramesh has run the show from production, to marketing to distribution. The project today, employs more than 20 local women and sells the toys at boutique stores across several cities and also across e-commerce giants like Amazon and eBay. We reach Ramesh’s house situated in a wonderful canopy near pony farm.
We’re immediately greeted with a feast of ‘idli’ and warm smiles. Ramesh has the burly Tamilian physique of a man that has seen plenty of hard, manual work. Between him and G, they tell me stories of their childhood. A crazy tale ensued about Ramesh wanting to fly as a child, and in the process climbing on top of a temple to jump with an umbrella, landing on his backside and breaking a bone in the process. As the fits of laughter subside, Ramesh talks about the challenges of keeping his house and maintaining it on his own. He talks about growing pressure from the community to increase output, and a different perspective to Auroville emerges.
There’s all kinds of things you will hear about Auroville. Many of them, not what you’d call positive. You’ll hear half-whispered claims of an elitist attitude amongst a section of the community. You’ll hear murmurs of discrimination. You’ll hear stories of oppression, and god knows what else! The longer you spend within the bubble that Auroville in fact is, the more you will notice an invisible, but very real barrier that seems to separate the expat members from the local communities. Having said that, there are also great examples of integration and friendship between locals and expats, and there are countless reasons to appreciate what has been attempted here. Although on a small scale, considering the vastness of India, Auroville is an worthy example in alternate, harmonic and sustainable living, worth considering, and perhaps replicating elsewhere.
For experiential, solo travellers, this is the perfect foil for exploring a very diverse community and engaging in life-enriching experiences. In my next post, I will introduce you to some of the things you could experience while on an extended stay within Auroville. Until then, I leave you with a quote from the Mother, that perfectly sums up the spirit of Auroville:
Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.