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.

Escaping an attempted assault on a train in Tamil Nadu, India

An opportunistic teenager tried to assault me on an empty train, providing a timely reminder of the dangers of solo travel

I am very sad to report that I just escaped an attempted assault on a train in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Arriving at Puducherry Railway Station – which has no live information boards – I wandered around, passing a hoard of irate, shouting men at the station master’s office, and tried to find out the platform for my train. A man at a tea stall told me platform three.

And so I dragged my luggage over the foot bridge to find an empty train and platform. I sat on a bench and a boy in a school uniform, aged somewhere between 12 and 14, appeared from the train. I asked if this was the train to Chennai. He spoke almost no English but seemed keen to try to help me and told me to follow him onto the empty train – indicating there was something or someone there that could help me. Looking in and seeing just a dark, empty carriage and with no one else around, all my alarm bells were ringing and so I said no perhaps three or four times. However, he came out and carried on talking and gesturing, and I began to believe he was genuine. He was also about four and a half feet tall and weighed maybe 70lbs dripping-wet, and so I reluctantly followed him.

Now – before you all cry “IDIOT!” (though you would, perhaps, be right) I would like to say as a caveat that this is often how I have found my way on Indian trains; the children are usually very keen to help and run and fetch parents or station and ticket staff. Although this has only ever been on busy or semi busy trains.

However, following this boy in I very quickly realised my initial suspicions were correct. He pointed in to an empty bunk and as I peered around the curtain I felt grubby little hands reach up and try to grab my face and neck. I reacted quickly, pulling back sharply and screaming all my colourful East London vernacular at him full blast, at which point he clearly thought better of it and stepped back as I fled the train.

Back on the platform, one cleaning lady on the stairs peered over but promptly resumed sweeping – clearly deciding she had seen and heard nothing. I grabbed my bag and hurried back up the stairs, at which point the boy emerged from the carriage and smirked at me as I struggled up and over the foot bridge.

On the main platform I found a station guard and reported what had happened. To say he was unconcerned is an understatement. I did, however, find out that my train had been delayed – by 14 hours. Hence the shouting men and empty platform, I realised. I told a nearby French woman what had happened and she seemed equally unmoved by the story – far more concerned about the lateness of the train and what she was going to do to pass the time.

I now find myself in an excruciatingly expensive taxi to Chennai as a very early flight tomorrow meant I couldn’t wait for the train, while the attempted attack combined with a lot of luggage made me unwilling to try for a bus. However, messages from Ola – India’s version of Uber – about sharing my location in order to “stay safe” are not filling me with confidence. Nor are the two unexpected “tolls” the driver tells me I need to pay on the way. I’m also paying cash as Indian bureaucracy makes registering your card for payment a Herculean task and on my last Ola ride the driver insisted I pay 100 rupees more than what was being stated on both of our apps due to the inconvenience of taking me to my destination. (As a side note, each time over the past week that I have tried to report this through the Ola app the “driver collected extra cash” reporting option has been in “error” mode).

And so, on the final day of my second trip to India I find myself reminded that as strong and tough, as experienced and well travelled, as savvy and personable as I may think I am – I am, in truth, a skinny little white woman travelling alone. As such I am vulnerable to enterprising opportunists or career criminals either looking to rape and/or rob me, many of which see me as nothing more than a wallet to be plundered (this is where the “white” is relevant in the above self-statement) and/or a potential vessel for their adolescent penis’s (peni?). It also makes all the terrible stories I have heard from other women – including one who was sexually assaulted in a guesthouse in hippy commune Auroville, where the authorities also did nothing as the man in question “owned most of the town” – all the more real. No longer are these avoidable situations that only naive women and inexperienced travellers find themselves in. They can happen to anyone – including me. A sobering and perhaps timely lesson.

Healing the past and forging the future through Mahatma Gandhi – my visit to Madurai, Tamil Nadu

In Madurai I faced the past and saw the path to a better future through India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi

I got my first post-colonial telling-off in Madurai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in South India. Freshly arrived from a gruelling 14 hour train journey from Varkala – Kerala’s main beach town, I had headed straight out to visit the city’s main attraction – the Meenakshi Amman temple. Having negotiated the usual wide eyed staring and giggling on the bus, dodged the canny street sellers at the station and had a delicious lunch at the famous Murugan Idli shop, I was feeling confident, comfortable and relaxed.

This perhaps showed, and was not – I found out – entirely welcome. Not long after entering the pedestrianised temple area I realised I was being followed by a middle aged man that was visibly drunk. Unusually for India, he was not the first I had noticed since arriving in the city – with a few gently swaying men lining the streets near the idli shop including one that stared inexplicably at my flat and well covered chest as I passed.

This man, however, was more persistent and began trailing me despite my trying to shake him by browsing at one of Madurai’s many fine sari shops. In a second attempt at evasive manoeuvres I stopped again at a stall and started chatting to a woman selling devotional sandalwood powder. It soon became evident, though, that he wasn’t going anywhere. I asked the woman for help: “Please – I think this man is following me.” Stepping up from behind me, the man responded:

“I am not following you. You are following me. This is my India. I am intelligent man, I am respectful. This is my India.”

The tirade continued in broken English for a minute or two as he swayed unsteadily, and I can’t recall everything he said. However it followed the same line and I felt, quite clearly, that I was being reminded in no uncertain terms that the sun has fully set on the British Empire and it’s barbarous rule over India.

He moved off and the woman at the stall communicated to me through hand gestures and a gentle pat on the arm not to take any notice – that he was just drunk, while a friendly nearby book seller invited me to take refuge at his stall until the man had definitely disappeared.

While my confidence was a little dented I wasn’t too shaken by the incident and I don’t want this to read as an indictment of Madurai or its inhabitants. This is a single occurrence in two long visits to India otherwise marked by a warm and friendly reception from everyone I have met.

Indeed, I am amazed that this is only the first time I have been reminded of my country’s terrible occupation of India. I felt I knew enough of our colonial atrocities, however visiting the Gandhi Memorial Museum in the north of the city the following day made the horrors of British rule all the more vivid. The museum, which houses the blood stained lungi the Mahatma was wearing when he was assassinated, lays out the history of the Raj from the first dealings of the East India Trading Company under Elizabeth I to final independence in 1948, and is a deeply moving tribute to one of the world’s most remarkable freedom fighters.

Gandhi’s philosophy and vision, encapsulated in his 11 principles that include non-violence, truth, non-possession, fearlessness, equality of all religions and peoples (the latter centred around the removal of untouchability in the Indian caste system) are the benchmark to which humanity should aspire but which no nation – not Britain nor India – has yet lived up to. His message around sustainable and measured consumption – in which he advocated buying locally produced goods and only as much as is needed – is one we are only coming to realise the importance of today as the excesses of rampant consumerism are ravaging our environment – turning our rivers and oceans into toxic plastic-filled cesspools. Here in India this is heartbreakingly evident on almost every festering street corner and open water source – the smell of which is often harder to bear than the sight – as well as the sunless smoggy skies of its major cities.

Politically the globe is also polarising at a rate not seen for eighty years since fascism took hold in Europe and tore the world apart (during which – in his magnanimity – Ghandi supported the British). Virulent hatred of the other is on the rise again – Americans vs. Mexicans/China/Korea/Iran; the UK vs. Europe; France, Austria and others vs. Muslims and refugees; while atrocities against indigenous peoples and civil wars rage in Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine and central Africa.

And so it is a gross understatement to say that almost every nation on the planet has a lot of work to do in realising the sort of world that Gandhi imagined. In this task it is essential that the past be remembered and honoured – and I for one have no problem with being reminded of and humbled by the role my ancestors played in the enslavement and misery of millions. Most important, though, it must be learnt from as every one of us strives to build a new, better future for all people.