“The child was on the burning deck, from where everyone but him had fled”, my inner child sang lines from Casabianca, in a low voice.
Standing on top of a huge shipping container, warmed by the scorching midday sun, in the middle of a barren field, the only movement I could discern were the tall trees near the horizon. For a moment, I felt like the boy in the poem. I was on the outskirts of Auroville, a small township near Puducherry in South India, trying to imagine what our host, Sumeet, would see every morning from the roof of his new house. There was a housing shortage in Auroville, he said, and this container would be turned into a multi-story residence, carving out windows and doors and elevating it on concrete blocks (rigid rules governed the construction of structures here and the container being a mobile structure could occupy temporarily this space) –
Let me rewind a bit.
HOW DID I END UP IN THIS CONTAINER?
We were a couple of doctors from Mumbai, curious to see the results of a 45-year experiment on spiritual and community life. Our guide was Sumeet, whom we had met in Mumbai, in his previous Avatar as a surgeon, he was now a full-time resident of Auroville. Holidays in Puducherry, ten kms. away, we had come to meet our fearless guide.
WHAT IS AUROVILLE?
Founded on land sanctioned by India, in 1968, by “The Mother” (Mirra Alfassa) as a project of the Sri Aurobindo Society, Auroville (Dawn City) was a revolutionary concept. In the words of La Madre, “Auroville is destined to be a universal city, where men and women of all countries can live in peace and progressive harmony, especially creeds, all policies and all nationalities.”
We couldn’t have asked for a better guide; Sumeet’s belief in Auroville and its guiding principles matched his enthusiasm for showing us little-known corners not normally seen by visitors. Although the weather was sweltering here in Auroville, the green canopy made possible by the hundreds of thousands of trees planted by the Aurovilians made the temperatures tolerable. The barely paved roads inhabited mostly by cyclists and some motorcycles, the squat buildings with an elegant design that blend in with the surroundings and the friendliness of the inhabitants, date back to another era.
THE MEDITATION CENTER
Our first stop was the Matri-Mandir (temple of the mother), with its glittering dome (due to the gold plates embedded in the glass that covers it), which can be seen for miles around. Based on Mother’s vision and built for meditation, it looked like a gigantic glowing golf ball on top of a mountain, waiting to be thrown. Inside, we went up a spiral ramp, after donning the provided white socks, to preserve the pristine beauty of the sanctuary. We reached the inner chamber, in the center of which was a crystal ball. A single ray of light is always directed at the ball, with the help of mirrors, from the top of the structure. The room was dark and the silence was absolute for about twenty minutes, the only illumination was the light that fell on the glass globe. In the presence of tranquility, peace gently settles like a feather that drifts down to earth and remains motionless for a few moments.
Now we were ready to see Auroville.
WHAT DOES MARCAR AUROVILLE DO?
I approached the Auroville experiment with an open mind. Having not done research on Auroville, I had no preconceived notions that clouded my mind or offered opinions to influence my judgment.
Auroville follows the principle that no money is exchanged and that all Aurovilians have to work. Everyone must share the fruits of labor. A utopian concept? Not quite.
NO PAPER MONEY
A monthly stipend of INR6000 ($ 100) is paid to the bank for work performed, and instead of paper and currency, Aurovilians are given account numbers to connect to their central account. So, instead of paying, buyers in the market, cafes and canteens, simply sign a register; an admirable system, which relies heavily on the honesty of the Aurovilians.
The population of Auroville is just over 2000 (roughly over 800 are Indian, the other 1200 are from over 40 countries, mainly continental Europe). Approximately fifty villages in the bioregion contribute to a workforce of almost 5000, necessary for the municipality.
Auroville attracts some of the best minds in the field of architecture, who over the years have produced eclectic, yet eco-friendly and traditional designs, made from local materials such as rammed earth, stabilized bricks, sun dried mud bricks or adobe and adobe walls. Sumeet showed us a two-story structure made primarily of bamboo ladders and Tetrapack roofing material, mounted on a recycled sugar cane cart, which had apparently withstood the fury of cyclonic winds a few months ago.
The combination of old techniques with new technologies has resulted in this city being planned along lines that environmentalists can only dream of. The zones for specific purposes, such as residence, agriculture, administration and industry, are assigned with very rigid rules established for the construction of new buildings. (Sumeet container-home ignored this rule)
The school, an unconventional cluster of colorful round buildings (each for a grade through high school), has a large open-air dining room that was empty, being Sunday.
“Do not waste, do not want,” the guiding principle.
Auroville’s infrastructure has organic agriculture, water management, rainwater harvesting, waste treatment, and renewable energy. We also saw a ‘Free Shop’ where residents deposit their unnecessary clothing and personal items for other Aurovilians to take away. One man’s trash is another’s treasure!
Crafts such as making clothes, candles, bags, incense sticks, etc. They are run by Aurovilians with manpower provided by local Tamils.
We said goodbye to Sumeet in the late afternoon and returned to Puducherry, impressed but introspective.
QUESTIONS ABOUT AUROVILLE
1.) Why are the numbers in Auroville, whose target population is 50,000, static at just 2000, even after 45 years? Aurovilians, who return only a few weeks a year, keep their residence locked for the rest of the year. A municipality with rigid rules governing new structures can never grow if existing ones are not used.
2.) How does Auroville approach its share of lazy and lazy?
3.) Six thousand INR is a very small amount to subsist. In practice, this means that to be a year-round Aurovilian, you need a separate means of income.
4.) The locals who work here do it for a minimum wage. There is no doubt that they have benefited economically and socially from Auroville, but they are being exploited by some Aurovilians, who need cheap labor, especially for their businesses.
5.) Clothes, bags, etc. sold here are of very good quality and quite expensive. In order to “share the fruits of labor”, are all profits reinvested in the municipality?
When asked, Sumeet admitted that he had no answers to these questions.
Back home, my research for this article brought out a BBC film made in 2008, which alleged that local children studying here were subjected to pedophilia, a charge that was later investigated and found to be unfounded. But the lax rules charge for admitting people into their fold is valid. It’s not difficult these days to check anyone’s background. Rather than always expecting people to be good, Auroville with its zero police system could at least ensure the safety of its citizens by toughening its admission laws.
I also came across a blog from a former Auroville resident who described a fun “silent improv” session, which she endured and also the gibberish, which she had to put up with during her stay. So is Auroville a collection of seekers and philosophers or is it a group of hippie hangovers? Is it a haven for people looking for lax laws or non-conformists trying to establish their own?
It is true that a day is a woefully short time to measure something.
I feel like Auroville is maybe all of these and none of them; the elephant in the old Buddhist tale of the six blind men and the elephant. One feels the tail and imagines a rope, another touches the leg and swears that it is wide as a pillar, and so on. Reality is the sum total of all your experiences. But, individually true too.
Every Aurovilian finds comfort in some aspect of life there, be it spirituality, mother’s teachings, community life, or ecological surroundings.
Achieving such a revolutionary vision can never be quick or easy. Given the vagaries of human nature, it’s truly commendable that Auroville exists and is thriving. For Auroville to achieve the pinnacle of Mother’s vision, infinite patience and more time may be required.