Auroville was envisioned by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother) as a model universal township where people from all over the world could come and live together in a non-religious community and advance society. The town was inaugurated on 28 February 1968 and 124 nations were represented. The purpose of Auroville was ‘to realise human unity– in diversity.’ In essence, it was a sociological experiment … but has it worked?
Near the end of our time in India we felt as though we wanted to escape the pollution and rubbish that pervades the country … and Auroville seemed to fit the bill. It was January, slap bang in the middle of the high season (December to March) so we knew it would be pretty busy. We tried to find somewhere to stay for three days on the online Auroville accommodation site, but it wasn’t very user-friendly. We had to contact the hosts one at a time and wait for a reply before we could contact another host, which isn’t good for people like us who tend to plan the day before! In addition, many people volunteer at Auroville so stay for a while and hosts prefer people who are staying for weeks rather than days.
On the day we left for Auroville, we went for breakfast in Pondicherry before heading off. Our usual breakfast place was pretty full and we ended up sharing a table with a mother and son. By coincidence they were renting a place in Auroville for a while. We hadn’t managed to book any accommodation but our new found friends said we could stay with them if we had trouble finding a place. We took their number and, although we hoped we wouldn’t need to fall back on their offer, we felt more confident about turning up at Auroville with no accommodation.
We got a taxi to drive us there and wait until we’d sorted out a place to stay. Our first stop was the accommodation office at Auroville. The phone lines were down so the accommodation officer wasn’t able to contact anyone, but she told us that one of the nearby homestays, Atithi Griha, had recently had vacancies. We dashed over there and luckily they still had rooms. I booked in while Ian got the taxi to drive our stuff round.
The rooms were built around a central courtyard, with a restaurant at the front. Our room was very basic, with a double bed, a desk and a lamp, and some built in bookshelves. There was a simple ensuite with solar hot water, but it wasn’t very clean. A breakfast of simple, but tasty Indian food was included in our rate of 1,090 RP (about £11) and dinner was also available, if pre-ordered, for an additional cost of just 75p! We ate dinner there one night and invited our friends who had offered to let us stay with them.
Despite reading about Auroville and chatting to other travellers who had visited it, I found it difficult to imagine what it would be like. Auroville was originally planned for 50,000 people, but so far there are only about 2,400 people (from 50 nations) living in small communities set among the trees, on this sprawling 20 square kilometre site about 10km north of Pondicherry. The community is split into different areas according to their particular research interests. At the heart of the settlement is an old banyan tree. Originally, this was the only tree on the site. Today, the forested area is a tribute to the revegetation skills of the Auroville pioneers.
Near the banyan tree is the Matrimandir – a monument that looks like a massive golden golf ball. This was conceived by The Mother as ‘a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection’, and is said to provide the perfect conditions for meditation. Access to the Matrimandir is strictly controlled. Visitors first have to watch a short film about it and then do a tour to look at the outside. We did the preliminary requirements but didn’t get an opportunity to go inside the Matrimandir as it was booked out in advance.
We hired pushbikes so we could visit other communities in Auroville. These were available from the kiosk near the visitors’ centre and cost just 60p a day. One evening we rode to a pilates class at Tiranga and then had dinner at the Solar Kitchen, which is the community dining area. Another day we had lunch at Solitude Farm, consisting of a delicious thali of fresh organic produce and a purple drink called Radha’s Consciousness.
The Aurocard can be used instead of money and some places, such as the Solar Kitchen, will only accept this as payment, but it is a bit of a palaver. First you get an Aurocard from your host then take it to the town hall to load it with money. When you leave, if you have money left on the card, you need to visit the town hall again to get a refund, and then return the card to your accommodation for a refund of the card deposit. I wouldn’t bother getting an Aurocard again for a brief stay as many places, including the main restaurants near the visitor’s centre, accept money.
There’s plenty to do at Auroville if you want to get involved. I did a half day workshop about ‘Integral Yoga’, which was devised by Aurobindo and The Mother. It is to do with bringing the spirit into the mind and then into the body, by being in the present moment and connecting to beautiful things in nature.
Volunteers who stay for a while would get to know the place better, but we got the impression from people we spoke to who lived there that it was rather cliquey. It also seemed to me as though The Mother and Sri Aurobindo had become what they didn’t want to become – gurus of a cult. And, despite outward appearances, all is not peace and harmony at Auroville – there was a murder while we were there and I saw an article in the newsletter about a recent suicide.