We each have had some connection with this experimental city begun now 50 years ago by the spiritual partner of Sri Aurobindo, a radical political thinker & leader during the period of the struggle for Indian independence. She was named by him The Mother when in 1926 they founded an ashram in Pondicherry, on the Bay of Bengal… India’s east coast.
The very name, meaning city of dawn, suggests the energy which brought Stephen into its dream when he wrote an article for The Christian Science Monitor in 1973 about this newly conceived city.
This at the time when he & his father Otto were involved with exploring the concepts & development of such new cities while working along with many others on a project called the Minnesota Experimental City, recently documented in a film: http://www.mxcfilm.com/.
In turn, I became acquainted with Auroville through a Jungian play-therapist with whom I worked about the same time… 1975. Austin had been a devotee of The Mother at this ashram before studying sand-box play with Carl Jung’s daughter.
Thus we made a second journey out from the family’s home-base in Bangalore. Just as Hampi had been a long day’s drive to the west, Auroville is an equally long day’s drive to the east. All on roads which are only partially built in the current efforts to improve India’s infrastructure. Improved indeed over the 14 years since our first visit!
Once again, Anjana helped us with details of planning, as well as making an important connection for us… an introduction to a woman who has been part of this community from its beginning. Tapas is the aunt of a friend, Uday Arya, whom Anjana knew when they were youngsters in Bangalore. Stephen made an impromptu call & she generously met us at the Dreamers Cafe where we had a late lunch.
She grew up in the Ashram, knowing The Mother… & apparently Austin as well, which seems difficult to believe, however much I want to trust such a dose of fortune. That she liked us became clear as she graciously took us under her wing, giving genuinely attentive assistance.
We were already settled into our simple yet nicely sized, bright airy room in the Center Guest House, upstairs with colorful cotton drapes which soon were flowing in the breeze of a brisk ceiling fan. Two very firm single beds which turned out to be happily sleep-able.
We had walked through woods & along a road carrying many motorized cycles & some bikes… those being the usual means of transportation in this settlement 50 years in the making from nothing-in-nowhere… first visiting the Visitors Center to get a beginning orientation, seeing models of the ambitious site & several slightly inadequate videos about the philosophy & the building of the Matrimandir, which is the symbol & centerpiece of the place… a fascinating piece of architecture.
Unfortunately we learned that it was closed for some kind of renovation & with disappointment resigned ourselves to only viewing it from some distance.
The dream of Auroville is vast. A model city of love & learning. An improbable transcending of such limitations. Beyond traditional codes of national or religious identities…
The city remains very much a blank canvas — a very large tract of forested land on which the dream is still gradually growing. Many rather widely scattered campuses & settlements of wild variety, from education to farming — some rather well developed, yet still mostly in the manner of communes in the sixties… a whiff of the hippy. The plan is to gradually evolve settlements by interest & function: education, food production, various arts & so forth, all spiraling out from the center, leaving anticipatory space for eventual growth to a population of 50,000. Currently there is far more space than structure. Life feels spacious as well here, but there is the sense that much is going on which we won’t have time to visit or to learn much about.
Our dinner at the Center House was good enough, although quite bland, rice, good vegetables, a serviceable dal & a salad of shredded carrots grapes & pomegranate seeds… No spice at all! Probably because of consideration for the bevy of older European women who are visiting here, however there were a few younger lively Spaniards as well.
Another fortuitous meeting occurred when one of those women requested joining our table, a blowsy Scot who lives at Findhorn & knows Dorothy McClean, whom we know through our friend Michael Hathaway & his mother. First when both women visited my Mother Garden in Occidental & when they came to lunch at Soundcliff several years later… another “small world” connection!
After breakfast we walked again to the visitors center because, although the iconic main feature is closed, we could take a van to the viewing point which would let us see it from a distance.
It is impressive. A very slightly flattened spherical construct of a uniform field of convex golden discs then alternately overlaid with a constellation of larger, similarly golden, overlapping concave discs. The total effect was a shimmering vibration if light, whether sun, some nocturnal artificial lighting… or, I would love to see the effect of a full moon!
The structure seems to hover in a crater of space defined by twelve gently sloping red sandstone plinths rising as if splitting the large grassy knoll, with formalized bits of turf finishing the effect of the radiant globe being birthed from a quilt of the earth. A set for some holy science fiction… which analogy might be apt for this “not-a-temple” because this is “not-a-religion”. Its interior is a blank white space used not for meditation, but for contemplation. Contemplation toward some involved evolution of the human species.
Tapas brought us into the grounds we thought we would not be able to visit! Here she explains the conceptual plan of the gardens which the Mother designed to mirror her principles & dreams for the new city…
Some few are quite finished, such as this one with pools & waterlilies…
Others are remain grassy dreams…
The merge of the natural living landscape with the built is wonderful to me!
One of the stairways up into the interior “heaven” of contemplation…
While not quite my wish for moonlight, it is subtly lit in the evening…
One of the fountains…
One symbolic, near sacramental, ceremony at its inception brought hands full of soil from 124 countries to be placed in an urn shaped like a lotus blossom in symbolic unity — the central icon around which has now been built one of the most impressive structural spaces I’ve ever experienced: A large shallow amphitheater, like a bowl of gently asymmetrical concentric steps, flowing like a rhythmical wave in some vortex of the imagination. Rising out of this omphalos is an exclamatory rise of a mound into which is cut a spiraling narrow footpath up to the white marble mosaic lotus bud… the receptacle containing the co-mingled soils of the earth.
Salt was used to represent those nations whose soil was not able to be actually collected for this dedicatory celebration.
Tapas, then a 13-year-old child of the ashram, was given the honor of representing Syria. She told her first hand story as she guided us around the grounds to which we would not otherwise have had access. She was raised close within the spirit of this place, her father & grandfather being comrades of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother. She invited us to walk deep into a quiet meditation space of the Lotus Pool centered under the hovering golden-clad sphere, giving us opportunity to view the scintillating pads, made of glass tiles encasing a layer of gold leaf.
We had noticed, through binoculars from the viewing platform the afternoon before, ropes, which I’d extrapolated were for cleaning these tiles & indeed those who did that work were tying them back for the evening, as others were sitting in meditation around a reversal of the usual construct of a basin or a fountain… created of white marble petals down over which water quietly flowed into a center void… returning the energy of all above into the depths.
The interior (which we didn’t see) is described as being a white carpeted space devoid of anything but a visual void of silence for intense contemplation. Some sort of vetting is required to be gifted entry. We were honored simply to be bought to even this taste of extraordinary beauty… it is enough. We sat savoring the gift of some most appreciative minutes. Walking up & out through one of the cuts between the twelve plinths we circled to view the steps entering the space above, from which the model shows a pair of helical stairways wound into its suggestion of some celestial space.
The several actually finished gardens happily brought some version of enough-ness to this quite outre contemporary site! They vary according to the botanical evocations of the twelve aspects defined by the Mother’s vision for this scheme, a lovely, ultimately lively formality.
I am truly appreciative for this opportunity to visit this entity close-up… which only the day before had seemed would be denied. Thank you Tapas. Thank you Anjana.
At her invitation we’d had lunch at the community’s vast Solar Kitchen & again later she invited us for a salad on the building’s lively rooftop.
This sculpture’s reminder to be silent upon entering a more meditative part of the Matrimandir’s viewing platform wasn’t always followed. I listened to chatter as I longed to be closer to this object.
I’ll let these couple shots I made in the visitor’s center tell short bits about the soul of this new city:
Our last morning we headed to a resort on the beach, taking a celebratory swim in pools of yet more enlightenment plus the Bay of Bengal!
That before heading the few kilometers up to the former French colony of Pondicherry to meet Uday, who is a next generation in the heritage of a family rooted in this story. He suggested the two of us walk along the promenade before dinner… a welcome time to recap our experience.
Uday joined us for an introductory dinner leaving us impressed with his dedication for genuine education grounded in the history of the truths of this ancient culture being constantly re-overlaid with new systems. There is evidence of hope…
We took a night bus back to Bangalore. I’ll spare that story!