Silently, in single file, we walk towards the giant golden orb. To either side of us are neatly groomed lawns, trees and flower beds. Behind us are the stone benches where we were briefed; further back, the entrance gate to the Park of Unity, and the dirt road we took to get here. Up ahead, the looming, aureate disco-ball - with its countless concave and convex dishes across its surface - glimmers against a vivid blue sky, while red-brick rooms protruding from its circumference funnel us into a subterranean amphitheatre.
Here, a gentle fountain flowing. The water runs down concentric circles of marble petals, arriving at a central glass sphere. We sit in a circle around the perimeter, still silent, and wait to enter the Matrimandir.
At last we’re led inside. The only words spoken inform us to put on a pair of fresh white socks. These are to be found folded neatly in a nearby tray. Socks on, we walk up ramps and through narrow corridors, bathed in a red glow that emenates from the domed surface of tesselating triangles around us. Already this feels like an otherworldly space – a minimalistic, spheroid cathedral, barely ornamented, though occasionally punctuated by some hindi script, a neatly mounted candle, or a length of fountain. But this isn’t our main destination, not quite. That lies through a door up ahead.
Auroville is an experimental township on the South-Eastern coast of India. Its population comprises mostly Indian locals. It is not really an Indian place, though.
Auroville announces itself as a “universal town,” a place for people from all countries, of diverse beliefs and cultures, to co-exist and “realize human unity.”[i] It’s home to people from western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, China, USA, Australia and beyond. By law[ii] it belongs not to the Indian state but to the Auroville Foundation, and in turn, to “humanity in general.” In short - Auroville is intended as a kind of post-nationhood utopia, and was established as such in 1968 by a woman known as The Mother (born Mirra Alfassa in Paris, 1878) whose long-time spiritual and philosophical collaborator, Sri Aurobindo, gives the city its name.
I first came to Auroville about a week ago, just planning to stick my head in and look around, over the course of a day. I did; I explored the gardens and neighbourhoods, watched the Visitor’s Video, viewed the Matrimandir (literally, “Mother’s Shrine”) from outside and chatted with some Auroville residents. The whole visit was fascinating… walking trails explaining The Mother’s flower-symbolism system; some of the most wonderful architecture I’ve seen, ever; a dense forest cultivated from once-barren plains. A heady collision of Indian and European visual vernacular, and of stern utopian functionality and new-age flamboyance. At the same time, for a supposedly radical and revolutionary society, it felt a lot more familiar and mundane than I’d have expected. In any case, it soon became clear that a day trip wasn’t going to be long enough to sink my teeth it.
The door is opened. We tread like cats into the white and circular Inner Chamber. This is the heart of the Matrimandir, set aside for Concentrations – sessions designed to focus the mind with a view to cultivating human unity, and oneness with Divinity. (These ideas emerge from The Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s teachings of “Integral Yoga,” but don’t belong to any spiritual doctrine per se – Auroville’s founding scriptures are intentionally vague, if abundant, and conceived as post-religious).
We seat ourselves on the floor, forming a ring around a crystal sphere in the middle of the room. It’s the largest optically-perfect glass globe in the world, I’m later told. My eyes don’t quite believe it but there’s a tight beam of light flowing in through an aperture in the ceiling and striking the globe, carrying on through its base and down towards the lower levels. But the most arresting thing is the quiet.
I’ve never heard quiet like this before. The shrine’s husk-like layers, the crisply carpeted floors, the clever acoustic design means there’s no discernable ambient sound at all. As we begin our concentration – closing our eyes, or gazing deep into the glass globe – you could literally hear a pin drop. The space is unforgiving if you do make a sound, too: those unfortunate enough to cough also have to hear sound reverberating at length throughout the geodesic structure. But provided you’re quiet, the stillness is overwhelming. I count my breaths and concentrate. After about fifteen minutes (but it feels like no time) the lights flash orange-red, twice. This means it’s time to go.
After my first brief visit, I knew had to return to Auroville and explore more. My second visit was also brief – just a few days - and to be fair, there is only so much one can grasp about any place in such a time, let alone an “experimental township.” But Auroville is small, and time moves slow here. So I unpack my bags in a small local villa-house (blue walls, geckos everywhere, garden bleeding into forest; papaya trees) and absorb as much as I can.
Certain things one reads about Auroville are revealed to be myths – or at least exagerrated – fairly quickly. The town assures you it’s not a tourist destination, but tour buses and autorickshaws roll in reliably each morning. This hardly seems discouraged: there are gift shops peddling Auroville-made wares, books, food and more to the tour-bus set. Auroville is also sometimes said to boast a cashless economy, instead operating on a principle of sharing, communal labour and (in some cases) earning credit on a site-specific “Auro Card.” Certainly all these practices exist, but Indian Rupees are also accepted at every Auroville shop or restaurant I visit. The cashless economy is at best a work in progress, at worst a delusion.
Cynically, one wonders how many of Auroville’s other aims are merely pipe dreams, or so foetal as to hardly warrant worldwide notoriety. There are clear initiatives for sharing – such as the ‘Pour Tous’ (‘For All’) food supply resource – but if these systems aren’t operating on a pure communist principle, how distinct are they from other hippy enclaves within neoliberal democracies? I also can’t help but notice that the ritzier corners of the township (where every house looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright), the population consists of mostly European expats, while the Indian village of Kottakarai, within Auroville’s boundary’s, doesn’t appear to benefit too much from its wealth. In fact, the distinction between what is and isn’t Auroville is rather hard to make – it’s not as simple as drawing a line around the edges. Auroville seems more to be a constellation of farms, buisinesses, institutes and neighbourhoods (with names like Sincerity, Aspiration, Miracle and Adventure) bound more by philosophy and routine than by geography; places within Auroville can be not Auroville, while places futher away (even overseas) can seemingly belong to the Auroville community. Auroville is more an idea than a physical site, though it clusters around the iconic and beautiful Matrimandir, and a majestic banyan tree adjacent (which constitutes the official epicentre of the city).
Skepticism and bemusement aside, I try to soak up as much of Auroville as possible, taking stock of its myriad projects. There are countless sports and arts groups, a radio station, museums and spiritual programs. There are numerous schools, academic projects and research labs. For a population of just 2,500, the breadth of activity is astounding. Perhaps most impressive is the township’s foray into environmentally conscious infrastructure: solar arrays and food cookers, wind farms, electric vehicles, organic agriculture, water vortices and jaw-dropping reforestation efforts.
It’s important to note that these efforts are not necessarily parochial or separatist, and Auroville definitely doesn’t feel like a “preppers’” community. Outreach programs allow Aurovillians to share their genuinely innovative eco-techniques with other parts of India, and some of the wind power they harvest even gets put to use in other cities.
The big question, really, is whether Auroville’s central goal is on track: the quest for human unity, that is to say harmony, co-operation and tolerance. I can’t possibly say from my short stay. Certainly everyone I meet is lovely to me: offering free scooter/truck rides to wherever I’m humidly trudging, imparting small gifts or gestures of kindness. But India on the whole has extended similar benevolence in the month I’ve been here, so who knows how much is the influence of the Auroville lifestyle. If nothing else, it’s a phenomenal aesthetic project – the retrofuturistic architecture, actually being used for its intended purpose; the endearingly quixotic neighbourhood names, the gardens, the careful layout of the whole place, designed to resemble a kind of galactic spiral. The Mother was an artist, and Sri Aurobindo was a poet; together, they dreamed up Auroville and in time, it became a reality. Well, it’s still becoming one, slowly but resolutely. In a way, it’s a collaborative work of art, art on the largest scale I’ve ever seen. A town where art and life are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable – and unapologetic in its bright eyed, defiant sense of hope.
Auroville was a gas, and in the week that follows I do wonder if I might like to live there properly for a while, sometime. Returning to Perth at first the streets feel cold, corporate, ghostly. The uncanny feeling one often gets upon arriving back in Australia. But then Saturday night comes around and I’m watching New York’s DAI BURGER at The Bird and she’s rapping up a technicolour storm while we dance around like slinkies. And then I’m at the Budgie Smuggler and DJ WILLY SLADE rips his clothes off to reveal a red dress underneath is suddenly doing ‘Wuthering Heights’ karaoke atop the decks. And then it’s Sunday and I’m listening to friends and strangers play beautiful songs at Mojo’s, and the same again on Tuesday, for Shartfest, whereupon I see BOAT SHOW for the first time and discover they're the best band in the world, but with a brash irreverence that perhaps would not wash or be appreciated in slow-and-steady Auroville. And I’m reminded that “human unity” doesn’t need such a lofty designation, nor does it need to wear white robes, or even reflect upon itself a great deal. What's that meditation book? Wherever you go, there you are?
[i] Soliman, Lotfallah: Auroville, the Fulfillment of a Dream. https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-13796203/auroville-the-fulfillment-of-a-dream
[ii] Auroville Foundation Act, 1988. http://www.teindia.nic.in/mhrd/50yrsedu/x/7H/9D/Toc.htm