The core of the experience for visitors to Auroville, a remarkable some 30-year-old “utopia” in the south of India, is a reinforcement of faith.
Here is living proof that dying environments can be restored, diverse people can live and work together in harmony and a sustainable community can combine the most advanced technology and science with deeply spiritual living.
In February 2001, I found myself in Madras at the conclusion of three bemused weeks on an air pass in India. One goal remained unfulfilled: to see for myself the unique community some 100 miles south of Madras of which I’d read so much.
Many of my former students, I knew, had gone to live and work there for extended periods; a few had remained.
A community born from the philosophy of Indian spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, Auroville has been endorsed by the United Nations, subsidized by the government of India and hailed by such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, the late Indira Gandhi and anthropologist Margaret Mead.
From Humble Beginnings
When the first settlers arrived in the ’60s, what they found was an arid, badly eroded, overgrazed 12-square mile tract of largely nonproductive coastal plateau.
Many wondered how they could possibly survive there. But thanks to years of hard work and passionate commitment, the community is now home to over 1,000 inhabitants representing 22 nationalities and scattered over 80 small communities.
Over two million trees have been planted in a staggering effort that has transformed the Auroville landscape.
There are rolling acres of waving grasses, casuarina pine trees and jackfruit, cashew and mango orchards. Dams, reservoirs, terraces and bunds have been constructed to raise the water table, provide water for irrigation and prevent soil erosion during monsoons.
I arrived at the town after a grueling 4-hour trip by public bus from Madras and was welcomed at Bharat Nivas, the impressive visitors’ center.
Modern Technology, Ancient Wisdom
Wandering about the settlements, I saw a breathtaking diversity of housing ranging from huts of woven palm fronds and bamboo to graceful stucco-and-wood cottages and jaw-dropping spaceship designs in poured concrete, as well as earth-fired, postmodernist studio residences.
Everywhere there was evidence of sophisticated aesthetics and venturesome innovations. Many houses were equipped with photo voltaic panels, and over 30 windmills provided power for pumping water into the various settlements.
The town has two small “free” stores, which invite donations and distribute freely to residents whatever has been received. In some 30 handicraft units scattered around the settlements, skilled workers manufacture and export incense, apparel, leather articles and many other items that are sold in two Auroville boutiques.
All Aurovillians who are engaged in activities that generate income skim off the top what they require for their own needs and for the business and donate any surplus to a common fund that supports those whose jobs don’t bring in rupees.
All permanent residents who don’t have outside sources of income are provided with a subsistence diet, shelter and a modest allowance for incidentals.
I learned that in 1988 the Indian government created the Auroville Foundation, which established a governing board of nine persons to monitor affairs at Auroville.
Auroville has benefited over the years from UNESCO grants and contributions from worldwide private philanthropies.
The Spiritual Center
The defining moment of a visit to Auroville is the introduction to the Matrimandir (a Sanskrit word meaning “dwelling place of the mother”). It is located at the geographical center and it is also the spiritual center of the town.
Here, close to a venerable banyan tree flanking a wide, shallow amphitheater, is an astounding sight: an enormous sphere, supported by four pillars, seeming to emerge from a crater in the ground, like consciousness emerging from matter.
This awesome structure was conceived by Mirra Alfassa Richard, the disciple and chief administrator of Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram Society, usually referred to by society members as “the Mother.”
The Matrimandir was planned by her as “the living symbol of Auroville’s aspiration for the Divine.” It was to be a place for concentration, “for trying to find one’s consciousness.” There was to be no dogma, no religious rituals, no flowers, no incense, no music.
Throughout the year, Auroville residents as well as hundreds of visitors come to the Matrimandir to meditate and to experience spiritual renewal. Inside the great sphere, the inner meditation chamber is lined with white marble.
In the center of the intense whiteness of the chamber is a large crystal globe. Sunlight pierces a vent in the roof above and is transmuted by the sensational translucent globe into a rainbow of delicate pastels.
I found myself there, sinking into the profound silence, aware of a powerful tug into a wordless dimension of feelings and heightened sensitivity.
A Restoration Of Balance
Later, over tea at Bharat Nivas at a table with four Aurovillians, I tried to speak of the unutterable peacefulness and radiance of that chamber and the bewitching effect it had on me.
Conversation with the four confirmed the certainty that these are no tie-dyed, crystal-dangling free spirits. Their comments – friendly, candid, rueful – indicated that they consider themselves tough pioneers and rugged individualists in a living laboratory, dealing with real, pressing and pivotal concerns affecting the entire planet.
They were deeply aware of the Mother’s vision and its imperatives; “Earth needs a place where men can live away from all the national rivalries, social conventions, moralities and contending religions.”
As to Auroville’s inner dynamics as measured against the Mother’s lofty prescriptions, its residents confessed some shortcomings.
There have been some major conflicts when one working group felt the activities of another were inconsistent with its vision of the community. To date, they said, these confrontations have been between radical environmentalists and others more interested in modern technology and urban planning, but no challenges have proved irreconcilable.
As I left Auroville, I felt strangely exhilarated.
The elation was linked, I realized, to renascent hope. Having lasted well beyond the 15-year shelf life of the average visionary utopia, Auroville indisputably raises the possibility that people – in this case a bewildering national and ethnic mix – can reinvent community and point the way to a sustainable planetary civilization.
To visit Auroville is to regain a sense of how nurturing and hospitable to diverse life-forms and human civilization our Earth can be.
First published in International Travel News. Reprinted by permission.