Auroville, India: a hippy dream unrealised

The visionary town’s mission of love and unity has got stuck in exclusion and hostility

It has been more than a week since I swapped the dusty chaos of India for the more humid chaos of Vietnam. While much of the tardiness of this post is to do with the administration of life in Ho Chi Minh – mainly finding where I can buy moisturiser that doesn’t contain bleach – I also wanted to put some space between myself and my last destination in India: Auroville, where I spent five days.

For those unfamiliar, Auroville is an experimental, international community in the heart of Tamil Nadu, South India, that was founded in 1968 based on principles including human unity, non-possession and environmental protection: a hippy commune, for the less generous.

Portraits of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother above a model of the Matrimandir complex
Portraits of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother above a model of the Matrimandir complex

It’s esoteric name is a derivation of Sri Aurobindo, one of India’s most influential ‘swami’s’. However the name, and the place, is the brainchild of Aurobindo’s spiritual business partner, ‘The Mother.’ Real name Mirra Alfassa, The Mother was a wealthy Parisian Arab who together with Aurobindo built a spiritual philosophy and ashram in Pondicherry that hundreds, if not thousands, still visit every year.

“Auroville’s core mission statement is to create a place that ‘belongs to humanity as a whole'”

Auroville, though, is a different kettle of fish. Its birth came at a time of global counter-revolution – when peace and love were the buzzwords of a hopeful generation high both on liberating the oppressed and LSD. Accordingly, Auroville’s core mission statement is to create a place that “belongs to humanity as a whole”, where nationality is irrelevant, all property is shared and where inhabitants are expected to strive toward “the next phase of human evolution”.

Inspiring infrastructure

Arguably, this tiny community of less than 3,000 people from 55 different countries has achieved some inspiring things. The most impressive of these is the reforestation of much of the town area; nothing more than a barren red dust bowl in 1968, the town is now covered in lush green tropical forest that is a joy to amble lazily through on the rusty old bicycles for hire.

Numerous organic farms are also now flourishing, some of which are experimenting with pioneering permaculture techniques. Equally ambitious projects are addressing housing – using only natural materials to build affordable homes that are both sustainable and better for their inhabitants’ health than the airless concrete boxes many of us are forced to occupy today.

The icon of Auroville – the golden Matrimandir temple – is also an architectural wonder. Work began on this 20 foot high luminous golf ball back in 1971 and was completed 37 years later in 2008.

“Entering the Matrimandir feels like stepping onto the set of Kubrick’s 2001”

Entering the Matrimandir from beneath and ascending silently up its internal spiral white staircase (in white socks so as not to stain the hand woven white Marino wool carpet) bathed in pinkish gold light feels like stepping onto the set of Kubrick’s 2001 – it is a truly unique place dedicated to the admirable ideal of self-realisation outside of the confines – and conflicts – of organised religion.

The Matrimandir
The Matrimandir

A local town, for local people

However, while environmental and architectural achievements have been forthcoming in Auroville, its higher principles – particularly those concerning human unity – have been more challenging.

From my first afternoon in Auroville I sensed an atmosphere of exclusion; both visitors and local villagers seemed to be kept at arms length from the main life of the town.

The visitors centre is the main herding ground for the former group, where bus loads of wealthy, plump north Indians with grey-brown, cosmetically bleached skin drop by daily to watch a promotional video and then shuffle, bursting out of their denim hot pants and Polo shirts, toward the Matrimandir via a well cordoned-off path.

“Only visitors with true grit and determination will discover anything”

Only those visitors with true grit and determination will discover anything beyond these two hubs, and you certainly won’t see anything of the true life of the town unless you are staying with an Aurovillian.

This, ideally, needs to be arranged weeks if not months in advance through a website that does list the town’s homestays and guest houses, but which has no search facility – meaning you can only find out about prices and availability by individually emailing each property. Many also have a week minimum stay as a requirement.

This is the first of many hurdles for those keen on delving a little deeper into Auroville and makes it a difficult place for the laissez faire traveller – like myself – that is planning on the road based on word of mouth and only has a few days to spare. Indeed, as I discovered, Aurovillians do what they can to discourage us.

“Aurovillians only: no visitors, no guests, no sales.”

And one need not be a psychic to get the message – it is literally printed on signs in many of the communal project areas. These include the ‘Pour Tout Distribution Centre’ inside the “Solar Kitchen”: “Aurovillians only: no visitors, no guests, no sales.” The Solar Kitchen itself is a little less off-putting; outsiders are allowed but only as guests of an Aurovillian, only after 12.45pm and only with a day’s advance booking.

Most of the farms and businesses are also set well back from the main roads with very little signage, while amenities including the library and health clinic are almost actively concealed. The former took me a few attempts to find as the front looks like a residential home – no signs or information anywhere. When I did venture inside, to say I was about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit would be an understatement.

Colonial overtones

For those in the surrounding villages I suspect the situation is far worse. During my four day stay the only local Indians I saw in the town were staff at the visitors centre and tending the grounds at the Matrimandir, as well as a few fruit sellers by the car park.

“Guest houses and shops run by local Indians are decidedly unwelcome”

In the outskirts, where I was staying, a few guest houses and shops run by local people have emerged but they are decidedly unwelcome. When I told an Aurovillian where I was staying his demeanour turned frosty indeed and I heard similar reports from other guests. One was curtly informed that Green’s Guesthouse was not “part of the community” – the implication being that trying to gain access to certain sites and activities would be difficult, or impossible, as a result.

Judging by the extortionate prices in the boutiques in the visitors’ centre, Auroville’s cottage industries – textiles, handmade cosmetics, home wares etc. – make a bomb by local standards, while the price for staying with an Aurovillian starts at around double the price of the guesthouse I was staying in. Aurovillians, it seems, do not want to share this wealth with locals.

“Aurovillians do not want to share the town’s wealth with locals”

The physical contrast between the town’s picturesque forests, farms, cafes, boutiques and the manicured gardens of the Matrimandir (incidentally, guests can only access the orb and its gardens as part of a tour booked at least a day in advance) and the surrounding area is also stark.

No more than a metre from the invisible yet impermeable border of Auroville normal India resumes: piles of stinking plastic rubbish is piled high, picked through by dogs and stray cows, most of which sit just metres away from hastily constructed breeze bloc houses equipped with outdoor plumbing and adorned with live-wires.

“I am often ashamed to see the way my fellow Aurovillians behave around local people – as if they are higher beings.” Housing Engineer

And so it seems that in Auroville, peace, love and unity are only available to Aurovillians – the majority of which are white Westerners. I had this impression confirmed by the director of one of the town’s housing projects, who – to quote him directly – said he was often “ashamed to see the way [his] fellow Aurovillians behave around local people – as if they are higher beings.”

To underline the slightly sinister, colonial feel of the place is also to say nothing of claims made by an Indian local to a BBC journalist in 2008, that the town harbored paedophiles that would pay to rape Indian children.

Human unity, then, has by far been the most difficult ideal for Auroville to live up to, and it’s not even close.

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To find out more about Auroville, see https://www.auroville.org/ 

 

 

Pondicherry on the cake: the French colonial grandeur of Puducherry, India

Pondicherry is a place of beauty, grace and tranquility that feels out of time, both eerie and deeply seductive

My last post not withstanding, Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a wonderous place.

I arrived in town around mid afternoon, fresh from the 7am train from Madurai (one of the dirtiest and least friendly places I have ever visited) that was followed by a hair raising bus ride from Villupuram (most trains go here rather than Puducherry Station), where even the locals looked concerned and during which one woman berated the driver for a good ten minutes on his homicidal driving.

Thus, it must be admitted that the bar was set quite low for Pondicherry, or ‘Pondy’ as the locals lovingly refer to it. However, stepping into the heritage part of the city (“white town”, would you believe) I soon began to feel like Alice in Wonderland, or a visitor to the twilight zone.

The first curiosity was the almost complete absence of trash on the streets – far from the putrid piles of stinking plastic waste that adorn every other spare inch of India, the streets of Pondicherry barely sported a scrap of litter. This was enforced/encouraged by many signs extolling the virtues of not littering such as “Pondy won’t be the same if you litter” and – my personal favourite – “Beauty is our city, preserving it is our duty”. I was – and remain – stunned.

Second were the buildings; while I was aware the French had colonised Pondy, I didn’t expect that to mean much today – an assumption I perhaps based on Mumbai, which feels fully Indian despite a few grand old English buildings. However, what I found in Pondy were streets of pristine or gently fading eighteenth and nineteenth century French houses, schools, government buildings and churches; their gleaming white plaster columns supporting balconies decked in highly varnished mahogany and dripping in verdant vines and their walls painted joyful summer shades of egg yolk, rose and azure blue.

Moreover, these beautiful buildings were set into extraordinarily green and leafy boulevards, most of which led to the central Bharathi Park that is encased within ornate wrought iron gates and which itself is a magical green space bursting with fragrant foliage that provides shade for gently dozing tuk-tuk drivers and India’s ever tormented canines. At the centre of the park is a white marble monument so pristine it seemed to be radiating light for ten metres around – a gift, I later discovered, from Emperor Napoleon III commemorating the charitable endeavours of a notorious “harlot” of Hindu legend.

Exiting the park I then found myself facing Pondicherry’s sparkling seafront, the centre of which is marked by a glorious ten foot black marble statue of the Mahatma that – again – is remarkably pristine. The shoreline is equally spotless and was filled with Indian families basking in the late afternoon sun. Walking along the main beach road I also found a monumental garden dedicated to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the law maker responsible for drafting India’s first constitution, at the back of which is an excellent free library that anyone can enter and peruse to learn more about the thoughts and policies of modern India’s most influential politicians and law makers. Later in the evening I discovered that the entire seafront is pedestrianised after 6pm to allow for completely safe evening promenading.

Perhaps most exciting for Westerner backpackers spent on veg curry and chappati, though, are the many, MANY wonderful French cafes and eateries that Pondy has to offer. There are far too many to list, but I would highly recommend Hot Breads and Baker Street for some of the best patisserie I have EVER eaten and the Art Cafe and Artika for a late afternoon coffee. Prices are high by Indian standards but for a two day blowout – it’s just the ticket. Restaurants range from the extravagant rooftop garden Rendevous to slightly lower key L’espace, the latter of which I enjoyed a beautifully cooked and seasoned poisson du jour avec pommes frites for 300 rupees, or £3.30. I didn’t try Rendevous due to prices touching the 900 rupee mark (which of course is still incredibly cheap by European standards), but which I am reliably informed boasts succulent steaks and an excellent wine list.

Finally – the shopping. As most who know me know, I generally hate shopping, especially when bargaining is involved. However, Pondy’s many handmade silver shops convinced me to part with some cash, as did a one-off craft market by the seafront and the extraordinarily modern and fresh boutique Ma Pondy Cherie, where I picked up a t-shirt from Mumbai based street fashion designer Jas Charanjiva, showing an Indian woman in traditional dress but flourishing a full-finger golden knuckle duster engraved with ‘BOOM.’

In terms of traditional Indian life, Pondy has little to offer – this is firmly an enclave for the wealthy and, more than in other Indian towns, white foreigners. I have not seen so many fashionable Europeans and glowing alabaster children idly cycling through leafy parks since Paris. There is also something a little sinister in the town’s order and cleanliness – something I have read is made possible by the fabulous wealth the Sri Aurobindo ashram generates from the thousands of spiritual seekers that visit every year from the West. As such the institution owns most of the real estate in the the town, and – I believe – is behind the strictly enforced clean street policy. Thus, while one cannot deny Pondicherry’s grace, beauty and elegance, I was left questioning exactly who gets to enjoy its peace and tranquility on a residential basis and at what cost. Nonetheless Pondicherry is a joy to visit, and a welcome respite from the glorious – but trying – chaos of mainland India.