A month in Auroville

Auroville is in the border of Tamilnadu and Pondicherry. It is around 5 Km from beach, part of it is right beside the sea. Auroville is best known for its tourist attraction – Matrimandir, that looks like a golden globe. Auroville wants 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. Living in Auroville is a unique experience that is difficult to narrate in mere words.

I had been in Auroville earlier with a tourist mindset, this time we went with a mindset to live there. Biggest challenge in Auroville is to find a place to stay. There are number of guest houses but they do not give any information on rate or availability. We started off by writing directly to number of them. Most did not bother to reply, a few did. We picked one that promised to have most attractive value proposition. It is a place called New Creation, that runs a boarding school-cum-orphanage. The money we give goes to upkeep of the orphanage. Staying there gives a feel of tour with a flavor of philanthropy.

Auroville is made up of number of communities. New Creation Community was started with in view to give  ‘first Aurovilians’ (i.e. the local people present on the Auroville land) a bridging place where they slowly and gradually could become aware that Auroville is for all people of good will and that, if they are willing, they can become Aurovillians themselves. The best approach to that was to create an educational environment, like a primary school, boarding and sports facilities. In order to meet the financial needs to run an undertaking where everything is free, including a Primary school for 240 children and a school with 30 small kids in a new ‘Free Progress’ experiment, they have created some income generating activities such as guests facilities.  There are 16 double rooms and 4 single rooms, all mosquito-proof, with fans, attached bathrooms, and a guest dining room with filter water and kitchen. There is a gymnasium, a sport ground with volleyball, basketball, 2 tennis courts, a running track and a small swimming pool.

We stayed in a double room with kitchen. There were huge trees all around the place and a place to park my car. Our morning used to start with pleasant sounds of bird and squirrel chirping, down side was the bird droppings that had to be cleaned from my car. Bird dropping contains rather large amount of uric acid, that needs prompt attention. Probably some covering or canopy would have helped, but we did not bother much about it for our rather short month-long stay.

The rooms were with basic amenities. There are many architectural experiments that has its own pros and cons. Hexagonal shapes probably saved some bricks while covering larger area. But this poses problem with rectangular furniture. What is good for beehive does not necessarily good for human being. Traditional wisdom of keeping the floor level higher than ground and roof overhangs were missed out by the rookie architect. These resulted in some avoidable visits of wild life  and occasional dripping roof during heavy rain.  This goes to reinforce the strong design concept. That many local custom and practices are there for a good reason. One need to understand them before trying to do anything better. Painting in the room are done by the students of New Creation. Some of them really looked promising.

There is a story that says a wise Zen monk was given opportunity by God to the see both Heaven and Hell. ‘What are the differences between Heaven and Hell?’, a young Zen monk asked an aged Buddhist priest who was renowned for his wisdom.

‘There are no material differences,’ replied the old monk.

‘None at all?’ asked the puzzled young monk.

‘That’s right. Both Heaven and Hell have a spacious hall with a big pot in the center in which noodles are boiled, giving off a delicious scent,’ said the old priest. ‘The size of the huge pan, the number of people sitting around the pot and the bowl of sauce placed in front of each diner are the same in both places.’

‘The odd thing is that each diner is given a pair of meter-long chopsticks and must use them to eat the noodles.’

‘To eat the noodles, you must hold the chopsticks properly at their ends,’ the old monk told the young Zen monk.

‘In the case of Hell’s kitchen, people are always hungry because no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the noodles into their mouths,’ said the old priest.

‘But isn’t it the same case for the people in Heaven?’ the junior monk inquired.

‘No. They can eat because they each feed the person sitting opposite them at the table. That’s the difference between Heaven and Hell,’ explained the old monk.

Heaven and Hell is created by the neighbor you have. We were fortunate to have an exceptional family as neighbor – Ashish, Lopa and Ishan. They were very helpful and excellent friend. Lopa is a teacher of the “Experimental School”. Individually they are exceptionally good human being. It is wonderful experience to know them personally and understand their attitude towards life.

Entrance Road towards New Creation is littered with garbage tied to trees. These are offering to God fulfill various greed. As a reflection to the inner nature, the place looks ugly. Hope someday someone will look at the ugliness and pray for the good of everyone and restore the place to its natural beauty. Till such time the trees mutely carry the burden of human greed and folly.

Inside Auroville it is a mixed bag of people and their motives.  Much like the flower that bloomed in the New Creation Garden. Part of it is bright and colorful, part of it is rotten and ugly. It is a city, just like any other specimen of human habitat, perhaps here in a more cosmopolitan and concentrated manner. Future of mankind has to find a solution to the problem that our civilization now faces and come out with a answer. According to Shri Aurobindo this will be the New Creation, seed of this lies within the current human being.

 

As you go ahead from ECR road entrance after New Creation School and the tree with offerings you find a nice colorful temple. It is my observation that people of tama guna is attracted and motivated by fear, hatred and anger. This is typified in this temple – animals and punishing demigods are prominent, deity is hidden inside a rather small temple.

A little ahead you find the new temple of consumption – Tanto Restaurant. Tanto is a Pizzeria Chain run by a Italian gentleman Daniel. Daniel came to India for a tour and had fallen in love with the country. He missed his home food so started a Pizzaria. Slowly he started making cheese for his Pizzas and Pastas. Incidentally the spaghetti that he uses are made in his factory. Part of it are sold in outside. Tanto is a beautiful case of backward and forward expansion. He has been in business for around 10 yrs and already having a turnover of around Rs. 20 million/yr.  He has 3 restaurants in Pondicherry and contemplating of opening in other cities. Considering he started his business without any kind of capital this is really impressive.

Beyond Tanto, you see a couple of small shops and hotels and then what you find is a road to nowhere. That is what Aurovillians call the road that cuts across Auroville. Perhaps the road typifies the current situation in Auroville.

When Mother was there she gave the goals to Aurovillians. It was her wisdom to plant trees on what was once a barren land. She also gave the direction to build the beautiful Matrimandir.  Aurovillians took her command unquestioningly and executed it meticulously. What we see in Auroville is the result of that Karmayoga – work done without any consideration of result and reward.

Greenery around Auroville is as much commendable as the Matrimandir that most tourists make a bee-line to see. They see the gold foil dome and most leave thinking it to be a golden globe. Only few tourist bothers to visit Matrimandir for concentration. Greenery and Matrimandir is like some scenery that you see beside this nowhere road.  Some units like Tanto, Aureka, Earth Institute, Maroma are like this lotus. If you care to look at them, they are beautiful at their own right. Lotus and Marshes are all part of nature, one cannot have one without the other. But like the road, Auroville lacks a greater common purpose. Mother is not here anymore in person to guide the community towards its goal of new creation. In this confusion, each pursues their own objective. Like a colony of ant, each pulls Auroville towards its direction of RIGHT, at the end it does not seem to move anywhere.

Life in Auroville is anything but boring. There are cultural shows. Many young foreigners uses Auroville as springboard for entry to India. Auroville has a special VISA status and some special property act. By this act a foreigner can work in Auroville without getting an Indian Work Permit. Many use this status to showcase their talent, get local press coverage and taste their acceptance before applying for work permit. Many will give training from within Auroville rather than spending their effort and money for Indian work permit. Here you see a Japanese performer, Yuhei Motoyama, giving Taiko performance.  This event is sponsored by Japan Airlines and Japan Foundation.

Apart from special performances there are movie shows, cultural fests that dots the social life of Auroville. Everybody is welcome to these shows and participation is the keyword. Focus is to keep the events simple that involves most people. It also gives people a platform to showcase their talent, get some reality check and provide necessary training ground.

Here you see capoeira performance being given by Aurovilleans. Auroville promotes capoeira for its use in self defense.  It an art that evolved in Brazil in order to ward off colonials. It is characterized by its fast and fluid movement, in the form of dance. Aim is to maim the attacker with minimal contact.

Auroville has some sandy beach. Unfortunately these are used by local fishermen to dry their fish. There are two beach guesthouses – Sreema (Tanto) and Repos. The stench  can be overwhelming at times, but other than that, the beach is good. It is unfortunate that there is no alternative to offer that will take care of the stench other than a conflict between tourist attraction and fishermen’s livelihood.

Some people are not bothered of the stench and prefer to live there. The beach remains sparely populated with this olfactory deterrence.

To get a flavor of city life one can visit Puduchery. It is about 10 Km from Auroville. Beach front is closed to traffic between 6:00 PM – 6:00 AM and resembles a mela.


At Le Cafe one can enjoy some fine coffee and sea breeze.

For a taste of French life, Pomande Resturant is a good choice.  Sitting there one could enjoy the sunny beach from the comfort of an air conditioner.

Our daughter, Sukanya came down from Pune to celebrate her birthday with us.  Being in Auroville we could enjoy both the city life and the life of a quite laid back town.

Pondicherry has a rather magnificent university for its size. As a bonus our friends daughter, Purva is studying there. Met her after a gap of 10 yrs. It felt as if we had a time travel of 10 yrs past.

 

Being in New Creation we grabbed the opportunity to celebrate our daughter’s birthday with the school kids. Evening was a party time with the kids. The community head (Steward – as he is called in Aurovillian lingo) Andre, joined us to grace the occasion.

The road to nowhere takes you from one highway to another. If you follow the beaten down metaled road and the road signs, you will miss the Auroville altogether. Here is a road that goes inside Auroville. Road signs are for visitors to take them to a car park. Unmetaled red road is the main road to get inside Auroville. The security guard standing there is to stop any car from entering the sacred road. One needs special permission and a sticker to enter Auroville with a car. That sticker is available from a office located at the center of Auroville. Just like this road, Auroville has excelled in wrapping itself in many Catch-22 rules and processes. One can spend their lifetime in getting to understand them.

Once inside, you are greeted with red road, complete with proper drainage. Auroville is gifted with people who knows their job, unlike current bunch of city planner that are scourge of most Indian cities. Our present city planners make roads without proper drainage that in turn make the city resemble Venice during every monsoon.

Auroville has a master plan that resembles like a galaxy.  Current development has been rather haphazard which was more driven by opportunity rather than plan. Currently Auroville is trying to consolidate according to the city planned under Mother’s guidance.  Auroville is supposed to be a city of 50,000 people. Given the attitude and current composition this looks to be a long journey. Currently there are only 2500 odd Aurovillean, locals seem not very keen to join the team and current bunch of Aurovilleans do not seem too keen towards that end.

There is a circular road that is supposed to run around the main facilities. This road has been paved with compressed earth blocks. Part of it remains incomplete due to land acquisition issues. The road looks rather narrow for a city that will have 50000 people.  Maybe city planner take a serious look and give due consideration for future.

Shri Aurobindo and Mother always advised for community kitchen. They wanted people to give less thought on food and channelize their mind and energy for other work. Solar kitchen takes this idea one step ahead with sustainable community cooking.  It derives its name from the big Solar Bowl on its roof, which provides part of the steam for cooking on all the sunny days of the year. The other part of the steam needed, is provided by a diesel fired boiler. Throughout the year approximately 1000 lunches are prepared daily, of which 540 go to the schools, 200 go out by tiffins and 260 to 300 are consumed in the Dining Hall. It uses vegetables and grains grown organically in and around Auroville. There is a choice between western items like pasta, mashed potato or fresh salads and items like idli, dal or chutneys. Daily curd and freshly made juices are available.

Just beside solar kitchen there is Auroville Super Market – Pour Tous Distribution Center.  This supplies all daily necessities of Aurovilleans. One has a choice of taking food from PTDC instead of Solar Kitchen. PTDC offers more variety like Sushi, Muffins, Steamed Vegetables and such thing. A typical lunch cost around Rs. 70/- at PTDC. Actually, it is not proper to talk about money in PTDC. Long term guests and new comers pay a monetory contribution commensurate with their consumption. For Aurovillean the service is kind of free. Circulation of money is discouraged within Auroville. Money is a powerful instrument that is essentially tamasic in nature. PTDC is created as an experiment to curb unnecessary buying habit. If a particular Aurovillean consumes more than average. He/She is given feedback to restrict their consumption.

On the same circular road and slightly away from solar kitchen there is Auroville library. This library has a fantastic collection of books on Sustainable living, alternate economy, religion and spiritual philosophy. Apart from “serious” books, it also has a good collection of fiction. It contains more than 30,000 volumes in eight languages – English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian and Tamil.

Auroville has number of industries thriving under its fold. Spirulina cultivation is one such unit. It sells its product under the brand name of Aurospirul.

There are some typical incense stick, decorative candle and paper product making units. It also had a thriving dress making industry that came up with a unique combination of European and Indian  styles. Most of these are now closing from the copy-cat competition from Pondy.

When you go to visitor center you will hear this large wind gong. This is made at Swaram – an shop that makes musical instruments for Auroville.

 

Talking about Visitor Center will be incomplete without a reference to its rather uniqui building material. The bricks that you see are not ordinary fired brick. Entire Visitor center is made of Compressed Stabilized Earthen Blocks (CSEB). CSEB is a environment friendly technology that used local soil to produce bricks without using coal or fire wood.

Auroville Earth Institute is one of the center of excellence in promoting use of such material.

There is a machining and fabrication shop Aureka that makes machinery for these earthen block. Current machines are manually operated hand pressed or semi-automatic hydraulic ones. It is working on a fully automatic block making press. I was working on its controller. You see here the machine being prepared for full scale trial.

Initial phase of Aurovilleans who came was given a rather large piece of barren land where even a blade of grass did not grow. They toiled and turned the place full of trees. As result of their hard labor water level of the area has risen and the place has become fertile. In this empty land, initial settlers built large mansion for themselves which is not sustainable for a city of 50000 population. Initial settlers feel entitled to a life of comfort, commensurate to the work they did in Auroville or else where. Current houses for the newcomers that you see in the picture are being built in the style of multi-storied flat. Availability of large supply of low-paid workers from nearby villages help to sustain the colonial lifestyle. There is a latent resistance among these Aurovilleans to let go of the comfort, help to raise living standard of the local population and assimilate them within the fold of Auroville.  There is equal reluctance from the locals to let go of money, inheretance and freedom to work anywhere. There is no clear solution that will be acceptable to both. Ideal solution would be where people live like family members, share the resources equally and work together for betterment of everyone. Such thing are easier said than executed in practice. Perhaps some divine intervention is store for the big change to happen. What is true for Auroville is true for rest of the civilization. World is poised for a divine intervention only its time may not have come.

 

Coming to Divinity, one gets reminded of Siva – lord of destruction that paves way to New Creation. The place is full of Akanda flower(Calotropis gigantea), the flower of Siva. I could not stop myself from sharing a picture here.

Perhaps as reflection to our mood a close specimen from nearby species choose to visit our place. You can see the tension in its face. Watching carefully from a distance about the happenings below.

It clearly did not like what it saw. Certain amount of aggression is visible. That is a typical animal instinct that is still prevalent even with us.

 

But it proved to be a wise monkey. I would say it understands aggression is not the best practice. Something we homo sapiens often forget. It choose diplomatic display of displeasure instead of proceeding with raw aggression.

Like a wise animal afterwards it went to mind its own business completely ignoring the surrounding. There is no fun in trying to change everyone all change begins with himself.

Decisions are always difficult to make. Some decisions are liner, they make incremental change and the effect is reversible. Some decisions are catastrophic. Once taken, these catastrophic decisions dictate future course of actions. There is no way to retract and go back from where you have started in catastrophic decision. Most decisions that affect life in real sense are such catastrophic decisions.

These are like these delicate droplets on a lotus leaf. They look apparently stable but a small ripple will make the drop running either towards the center or towards the edge. Once it moves, there is no way to stop it.  Perhaps this is the reason, people postpones making the move and clings on the tested belief and ideology, fully knowing time has come to get rid of these and move on. It is a classic example of tamasik feedback loop. Where inaction is caused by fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is this inaction that fuels degradation and chaos. This chaos further strengthen the grip of fear and uncertainty.  Way out of this downward trend is rajasik force. Rajasik force driven mainly by hope and greed. Current civilization is now standing at a cross road where the cycle of greed has encompassed every thing and do not motivate people for doing things that are good for others. Need of the hour is Rajarshis. Persons who are able and motivated to work without looking for reward.  Auroville was formed to incubate such Rajarshis. Current civilization needs such people, dedicated souls who work for their own passion and not for reward. Auroville has such people, but the number is certainly not higher than what is visible in rest of the society. Auroville does not have an environment that will attract other like minded Rajarshis to migrate and assimilate with Auroville. It  has some individuals striving for it, but the task looks beyond the capacity of human effort. Maybe some divine force will pave way for such change.

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