Building a perfect world
The planned town of Auroville in India was supposed to bring the human race together in a utopian community. But that was a half century ago. Do any of those 1960s ambitions survive today?
The Temple of the Mother, or Matrimandir, looks like a giant golf ball. Its 1,400 gilded plates glitter in the tropical downpour, giving the edifice a mystic glow.
“What’s inside?” I ask the driver.
“The soul of Auroville,” he replies cryptically.
Matrimandir is the spiritual and geographical center of this model city, tucked into a forest in southern India. At the center of the temple’s white marble interior is a crystal-glass globe, which refracts the sun’s downward slanting rays. Perhaps a hundred people can fit into the murky inner chamber, a place for common prayers and meditation.
The origins of Auroville
On February 28, 1968, by a solitary tree near the city of Pondicherry, a strange and solemn ceremony was held. On a sun-scorched patch of empty land, more than 5,000 people from more than 120 countries and all 29 Indian states had gathered.
Each guest brought a handful of dirt from their home country, which was poured into a large urn carved in the shape of a lotus. Participants in the ceremony included diplomats and dignitaries from international organizations, including UNESCO. Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski also made the 2,500-kilometer trip down from New Delhi.
AUROVILLE’S CENTRAL POINT IS THE TEMPLE OF THE MOTHER, OR MATRIMANDIR, which resembles a gigantic golf ball covered with 1,400 gilded plates
Such were the beginnings of Auroville, which also calls itself “The City of Dawn.” The town was thought up by Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman and the spiritual partner of the Indian philosopher, yogi and nationalist politician – Sri Aurobindo. She hoped it would be a place to bring together people of all backgrounds to cultivate their spiritual development in brotherhood and peace.
Her ideas fell on fertile ground. The late 1960s were a time of ferment and social change. The whole postwar order was falling apart. Young people in the West were questioning traditional values and outdated institutions – the family, the educational system, the army. People took to the streets in Paris, San Francisco, Rome. Even behind the Iron Curtain, in Warsaw and Prague, where things ended badly when the Warsaw Pact intervened to put the big freeze on the Prague Spring.
The protests had various causes, but they all shared a common denominator – young people wanted to live full, honest and just lives. Some thought the way led through the teachings of the East. A wave of wanderers set forth from Europe to India, seeking spiritual balance and a deeper meaning of life.
Sanatorium for the soul
The drumbeat of rain on the hostel roof is steady and monotonous. It makes even the mosquitos drowsy. A powerful cyclone is blowing out of the Bay of Bengal and sweeping the Coromandel coast of eastern India. The storm lashes Chennai (Madras), a city of nearly 8 million inhabitants, and floods nearby Pondicherry. Torrential rains have submerged many streets and set the wells gurgling with excess runoff.
Nestled in its forest, Auroville shrugs off the storm. The tree roots patiently soak up the rain. Residents and visitors feel safe. Food is in ample supply. The hostel buffet is stocked with fruit, vegetables and fresh-baked bread. Everything is whole-grain and organic. Even the coffee is brewed with harvested rainwater.
Only a few guests are staying at the hostel. The cyclone has scared away most of the tourists, who’ve decided to sun themselves under clear skies on the west coast. A retired German lady sits beside me in the buffet, complaining that the rain will keep her from visiting Matrimandir. There’s also an uptight Irishman and a Japanese woman intently scanning pamphlets with Auroville’s cultural offerings: workshops and courses, ranging from theater groups to yoga sessions and natural medicine.
Two black-and-white photographs hang behind the reception desk.
The first shows Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), dressed in a white robe, his long gray hair swept back over his shoulders, looking every bit the sage with his calm and noble visage. The second portrait, sporting a charming and secretive smile, is of Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), Aurobindo’s French helpmate and India enthusiast. Her background is even more exotic than his, since she comes from mixed Egyptian-Turkish-Jewish ancestry.
In Auroville, they’re known as the Guru and Mother.
Born in Kolkata (Calcutta) but educated at Cambridge University, Aurobindo was an important figure in the Indian independence movement in the early 20th century. He was imprisoned for his political activities. After his release, he settled in Pondicherry. This French enclave in southern India sheltered political fugitives from the British-controlled territories of the subcontinent.
In Pondicherry, the revolutionary morphed into a writer, philosopher and mystic. Around him gathered a circle of faithful followers. Aurobindo’s fame spread far and wide, extending even to the Europe. One day in 1914, it brought to the doors of his ashram, or hermitage, a young woman named Mirra Alfassa. The guru quickly fell under the Frenchwoman’s spell, and a strong spiritual bond was forged between them. Alfassa soon took over management of the ashram and began to be called Mother.
Meanwhile, Aurobindo was slowly withdrawing from the world, devoting himself to meditation and writing. He published treatises on integral yoga and the spiritual legacy of Indian civilization, trying to combine Western science with Eastern wisdom.
After Aurobindo’s death, Mother decided to give his ideas a tangible – and very material – form.
“She wanted to create an ideal city, transplanting a European concept into Indian culture,” Janek Simon, an artist and sociologist who spent six months in Auroville, said in a 2011 interview. “On the one hand, it’s a typical modernist project, trying to reimagine from scratch social and economic institutions, politics, education and architecture. On the other hand, it’s inspired by Aurobindo’s philosophy that change begins in consciousness, from which transformation of the material world follows.”
From wasteland to tropical garden
It’s November 2015, and the rain just keeps pouring down. We’re sitting in a spacious wooden hut that belongs to the Sadhana Forest Community – an environmentalist commune devoted to reforestation and water conservation. Located on the outskirts of Auroville, it was founded in 2003 by an Israeli couple – Yorit and Aviram Rozin. Right now everyone is watching “Pina,” Wim Wender’s documentary about the great German choreographer Pina Bausch, projected on a big screen.
A MAP OF THE ISLAND OF UTOPIA ON THE COVER of the first edition of Sir Thomas More’s famous treatise of 1516
The show is part of an open house for visitors. Every Friday, the community invites tourists for an ecological lecture, a film and a free vegan dinner, all intended to encourage them to return as volunteers. The minimum stay is two to four weeks, depending on the time of year.
All around, children are running wild. Jumping, scrambling up the log beams, burning up their excess energy. None of the adults tries to cramp their style. About the only thing that is forbidden are competitive games. Even chess and checkers are frowned upon. Kids are supposed to learn how to cooperate, not compete.
Some of the children skip school to avoid the culture of competition.
“They learn from each other and the volunteers,” community members explain. When we ask about what these kids will do when they leave Auroville and return to the world without a formal education, nobody bothers to answer.
The commune follows a strict ecological regimen. Teeth are brushed with a special powder; dishes are washed with sand and ash; sewage is composted. Nothing goes to waste and everything is used. Water is treated here with reverence for every drop. Alcohol and tobacco are forbidden, and everybody at Sadhana follows a vegan diet.
Any product that could cause suffering to animals has been eliminated. This not only rules out certain foods, but involves an almost total boycott of the processed foods and consumer goods churned out by multinational corporations. Everything is geared to a modest, low-carbon lifestyle.
Not everybody here is a paragon. Auroville may be a utopian community, but folks still like to gossip, and stories about the “foresters” abound. About quick trips beyond the city limits to buy a beer and cigarettes. Or terrifying rumors that the Sadhana leader patronizes a dry-cleaning establishment in Pondicherry.
While Aurovilians aren’t necessarily fond of the “foresters,” nobody questions their environmental expertise. The entire history of Auroville over the past 50 years can be summarized as a heroic effort to reclaim land from the desert – foot by foot, seedling by seedling, well by well.
That’s how a sun-scorched prairie became a garden town.
“It’s a major achievement and almost unique on a global scale,” Paweł Kowalczyk, who spent six months in Auroville as a volunteer in 2010, said in an interview on Polish Radio.
From utopia to dystopia
Plato’s Republic was the first ideal state described in the literature. But the collective term “utopia” was coined in the 16th century by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the philosopher and Lord High Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, who wrote a famous Latin novel on the happy island of Utopia, published in 1516. The title is clearly intended to be ironic, since “ou-topos” in Greek means “a place that doesn’t exist” or “nowhere.”
Thinking about utopias has changed diametrically over the centuries. The 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau – inspired by the voyages of Admiral Louis-Antoine Bougainville, who circumnavigated the globe and was the first European to visit much of Polynesia – argued that true peace and happiness was only possible in a world uncontaminated by civilization. Tahiti was supposed to be an example of a land ruled by “noble savages.”
A FRENCH EXPEDITION UNDER THE COMMAND OF ADMIRAL LOUIS ANTOINE DE BOUGAINVILLE LANDS ON TAHITI in 1767. When its members returned home, their tales built the myth of an exotic paradise where people were happy because they were unspoiled by civilization and progress
Unfortunately, in the 20th century this utopian dream of an ideal social order was transformed into the nightmare of communism. This disillusionment cost untold millions of lives and poisoned hundreds of millions more.
After the spectacular disasters of totalitarianism and two world wars, Europe’s appetite for utopian visions faded. In their place, dystopias came into vogue. Literary expressions of this midcentury intellectual current include George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971).
This meant that Westerners hankering for utopia needed to look farther afield, both geographically and spiritually. The logical place was India.
The monsoon is unrelenting. The humidity is so high that clothes washed a week ago are still drying on the veranda. The rain squalls come in waves, sweeping in every hour or so with another wall of water.
The weather has its compensations, however. It makes driving through Auroville a vivid experience. Its empty red streets, spiraling out from the center in the shape of a galaxy, were laid out by the modernist architect Roger Anger (1923-2008), following a sketch made by Mother herself. The city’s four main zones were to include an industrial area in the north, a cultural zone in the northeast, a residential quarter in the south and southwest, and an international quarter to the west. Surrounding the town is a nearly mile-wide belt of forested areas, farms and sanctuaries.
The heart of the town is the Solar Kitchen, a community dining hall. A 15-meter wide solar battery is mounted on the roof, powering the entire building. The lunchtime rush includes several hundred Auroville residents, giving the crowd a cosmopolitan flavor. Languages and ideas mix freely in a cheerful clamor. The clientele also includes many visitors from villages beyond Auroville’s protective Green Belt.
Hotels, spas and old-age homes have also sprung up on the outskirts of town. The price of real estate has jumped more than tenfold in recent years as speculators and developers try to cash in.
Yet Auroville itself has not grown as Mother had anticipated. Her original plan was for a city of 50,000 – but as of May 2018, there were only 2,852 permanent residents, from 56 countries. Of these, nearly half – 1,252 – are Indians, with most of the rest coming from Europe, especially France and Germany.
Official residents of Auroville are helped by temporary volunteers and local Tamils. That’s why the actual population is closer to 10,000. But only permanent resident status gives access to numerous rights and privileges.
In theory, anyone can become a citizen, but in practice it’s far from easy to establish permanent residency. Candidates must first work as volunteers for at least a year. be self-supporting, and have enough money to build their own house or buy into an existing collective. To gain resident status, they must get other residents to vouch for them at an entry assessment. In practice, it’s easier for affluent Westerners and members of India’s upper classes to pass these hurdles.
Aurovilians work together on about 200 community projects, ranging from ecological farming to fair trade, education and crafts.
“Instead of calling it a utopia, it’s better to describe Auroville as a living laboratory,” Kowalczyk says.
Scientists, teachers and engineers are given free rein. People can organize their own start-ups or join an existing project. For example, the Auroville Earth Institute (AVEI) focuses on energy-efficient earthen architecture, marrying traditional skills with modern technology. The Pitchandikulam Forest specializes in land recultivation and preserving indigenous species of medicinal plants. Sacred Groves builds low-cost, ecologically sensitive housing for volunteers and newcomers to the community. Some of the homes were designed by renowned architects such as Anupama Kundoo, a rising star in the field of low-impact architecture.
The street layout in Auroville is a tangle of winding, often unmarked paths and blind allies. They lead to various residential communities with quaint names like Aspiration, Trust, Discipline or Grace. Each is built in a different architectural style, with its own guiding philosophy and identity.
Besides lunches at The Solar Kitchen, residents of all neighborhoods in Auroville regularly gather for holidays such as New Year’s or local celebrations such as Sri Aurobindo’s birthday or the anniversary of the city’s founding.
Utopia on life support
The suburban bar is usually crowded with familiar faces at the tables. Here you can buy utopian contraband like alcohol and cigarettes. You can also let your hair down for a moment. The strict rules and moral obligations are suspended just long enough to have a quick beer and a smoke.
Auroville has its own complex organization, including a governing board, and advisory council, a residents’ assembly and various committees and working groups. But it’s not easy to enforce the rules without a government. The city has functioned without a formal leader since Mother’s death 45 years ago. To a certain extent, this role has been taken over the India’s central government.
Since 1988, when the Indian parliament approved the Auroville Foundation Act, the city has been administered by a foundation – which owns all the land, houses and businesses within its limits. The Indian government is represented by the Foundation secretary, a senior civil servant who serves a three-year term and lives in Auroville.
The community is trying to transition to a cashless economy, expanding on its early barter and exchange system. Residents’ funds are deposited with the Foundation, which manages their financial assets.
“The town operates a Freestore with no prices. You just pay a monthly subscription and then take anything you want,” says Janek Simon.
Plenty of places take cash, however. There are at least two dozen restaurants and cafes that cater to visitors, along with a tourist shop downtown that offers health food and handicrafts for hefty prices.
TAMILS FROM NEARBY VILLAGES PROVIDE AUROVILLE WITH CHEAP LABOR. It’s almost like the 16th-century Utopia imagined by Sir Thomas More, where each happy household was served by two slaves
In recent years, Auroville has actively promoted its brand and image. Sustaining outside interest is essential to the community’s survival. This means sweeping any unpleasantness under the rug, including internal squabbles or violent crime. There have even been rapes and murder.
This utopian community is far from self-sufficient. It depends on government subsidies, tax breaks and donations to stay afloat. Auroville would not survive without an army of volunteers that provide a steady supply of free labor. They’re everywhere – drafting blueprints in the design shops, caring for animals, teaching school or working as DJs at the local radio station.
But the harshest accusation against Auroville is that instead of tearing down the walls between East and West, it is perpetuating the neo-colonial divide between cultures.
You can see this every day at The Solar Kitchen, where Aurovilians and Tamils dine at separate tables. The former are soulful spiritual questers from the West, while the latter are uneducated cheap labor – better suited to be servants, cooks or construction workers.
“Exploitation of the locals is a problem, because they work in far worse conditions than Auroville residents. The people who founded this place have grown old and conservative. Their high ideals and lofty phrases conceal privileges for a small group of affluent members,” says Janek Simon.
Perhaps the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987) was right when he said: “There is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.”