Words and Pictures from my stay at an international township building human society from scratch
The day after leaving Auroville, I am catching up on my sleep at a friend’s place in preparation for the party later in the night. It is going to be a great night, I can feel it. The next morning I am set to leave for Hampi with a few friends. And from there on, wherever the wind takes me. Inspite of all these plans, I feel a little sad and nostalgic. It feels as if I’ve just left home to travel. That is what Auroville does to you — it makes you feel like you belong there.
Auroville is an experimental township in the erstwhile French colony of Pondicherry. It belongs to no one in particular but the people who manage its affairs are influenced by the words of Sri Aurobindo, poet, nationalist, philospher and The Mother, who was his spiritual partner.
What I’ve experienced in Auroville is that it is as close to an ideal society as you can get — this is of course based just on the 11 days that I spent there. It has its pros and cons but people have accepted it as the realities of life. Most people that I met there were happy or more accurately, content. This could either be put to the social dynamics that are prevalent there or the strong spiritual atmosphere or a combination of both.
Life there is unhurried yet efficient. People are laid back but productive. They are also very occupied with their work but you can also find time for an hour long breakfast conversation. Whomever you meet and greet, will have a smile on their face and enough time for a short but comfortable conversation with you. I feel they value human connections a lot over other aspects of life but at the same time are very inward focused in terms of personality improvement. They don’t want to change you, but you feel a different person yourself around them.
There are 5 kinds of people in Auroville — Guests, Volunteers, Newcomers, Aurovillians and Locals. About 50% of all are non-Indians. Guests are people like me who go there on a vacation, pay for their food and accommodation, do some activities there and come back. Volunteers work on different aspects of the society ranging from office accounts work to reforestation and body healing. In exchange, they get room and board. Aurovillians are the residents who have bought a house in Auroville and now spend time building up the society in whatever way they can. Newcomers is a one-year long status before you can become Aurovillians. Locals work there just like any other job and live either inside Auroville or in the nearby villages.
I arrived in Auroville as a guest and this is what I would recommend to first timers who just want to take a vacation to relax and chill for a couple of weeks. If you want to explore a different style of living, then maybe Volunteering for a couple of months is a good option for you.
I stayed at Vérité Guest House which is an easy to miss place surrounded by trees. Most of the area inside is covered in green and the architecture of the place is simple yet tasteful. It runs purely on sustainable energy — we had our own Solar cells and a full blown wind mill. Rooms are simple, clean and functional. The intention of my trip was to sort myself out, figure out what to do next and find my purpose. And funnily enough my room’s name was Purpose. Other rooms were also interestingly named such as Humor, Gratitude etc.
There was a decent enough library which was, unsurprisingly, populated in majority by books on spirituality or about life from a 10000ft. view. There was a Guest Lounge where you could make your own tea/coffee, access the internet and just relax and talk to people. Vérité Hall was a big multipurpose hall where a lot of activities, which I am going to talk about later, took place.
The food was the rare combination of healthy and delicious. We were served vegetarian organic meals with some of the fruits and vegetables plucked right from the farm inside the premises. We ate together huddled around one big table. If not, you can always join anyone’s table for a good meal-time conversation. And since, it is less of a guest house and more like a community living, after meals, you wash your own dishes.
There is no direct internet connection into your room, you have to go to the guest lounge and access it. This was the best thing that could have happened. Technology detoxification did me good, not to mention that I broke my smartphone on the trip as well.
It was a no smoke, no alcohol, no drugs place. And frankly, I didn’t feel like taking any. The fresh air, good people, nice food were reasons enough to stay aware and in your senses.
You don’t carry cash around much for the simple reason that it is useless over there. They have the concept of Auro Card which is what you use to pay everywhere. It is basically a sort of card where you feed in some money and for every transaction, money is debited from that card.
Commuting is either by motorbike, bicycles or by foot in that order of preference. People do have electric bikes as well. The distances inside Auroville aren’t great (usually around 2–4 kms from one point to another) but the roads aren’t pucca and go uphill and downhill, so riding a bicycle or walking could become tiring after a while, thus a motorbike is what I’d recommend.
Since Auroville is a proper society of people and not just a tourist destination, it provides for its residents activities which engage them physically or mentally or both. I am a sucker for trying out new things, hence I took part in a lot of them and saw a lot of mini industries thriving inside.
In the mornings, you could do group meditation or take part in one of the many classes of Yoga of different forms (Hatha Yoga in Iyengar tradition was the most common one in our guest house). One of the days, we attended a South Indian Cooking workshop. I enjoy cooking so it was fun to learn cooking from the locals. We made delicious Dosas, Chutney, Rice Pudding, Banana flower cootu and cutlets.
Come afternoon, and you can visit the small industries like Swaram — a music instrument production space. These guys create their own new instruments and you could go in their workshop and see how they do it. If you have some skill that they can use, you can volunteer as well. And if you want to buy some, you can do that as well.
The Bamboo centre was an incredible place. I never knew that Bamboo is such a useful plant. It grows really fast — up to 100 cm a day. It was thus used as a torture method in earlier days — tying up a prisoner above a growing Bambaoo, you can imagine the rest. It has strength of steel yet is very flexible — a quality that it teaches everyone of us — bend but do not break. You can eat it, make clothes with it which are better in material than cotton, make soap out of it, charcoal, houses and a thousand other things. It stop soil erosion much faster than any other plant and gives 30% more oxygen than other trees. They say that you can just live off Bamboo if you want.
Evenings can be spent doing things like watching movies of all languages which are played daily inside the community theatre. There are dance parties — mostly Salsa and Tango. Or you can enjoy watching shows like Kathakali. If it is full moon, you can go for a moon bath and meditation.
There are a lot of therapies which keep on happening like the past-life regression therapy which I was interested in ever since I read Dr. Brian Weiss. It is basically a therapy where the healer takes you to your past life and tries to figure out parallels from that life to this one to solve any of the problems you have, not that I had any in particular. But, I eventually decided to ditch it as per recommendation of some people.
I enjoyed two things specifically — Dance Space and Sound Bath. Allow me to elaborate on that. Sound Bath is where guys from Swaram bring in their instruments and give an aural experience that quite literally shakes you to the core. You lie down with your eyes closed forming one piece of a circle while Swaram does its magic. They start by playing a Sitar and then move higher with bringing in more instruments. And all this music moves around you as they move around in the circle with the instruments. Your body can literally feel the vibrations of the big chimes being played right over the top of your body. And goes without saying, these guys were masters of their art.
Dance Space is a form of improvised dancing where you lose your inhibitions since nobody’s going to judge how or what you are doing. There are on instructions, no rigid form — you do what you want. It feels very liberating.
A lot of people go to Sadhana Forest to work on reforestation. Just like in my guest house, which uses completely sustainable resources of energy, Sadhana forest is building a way of living as we used to when we were in earlier societies — the gatherer phase of humans.
One afternoon, I even cooked lunch for all the people in the guest house — of course with the help of the Ammas and volunteers — people who diligently took notes of what I would need for cooking. I taught them how to cook proper Aloo Parathas, made Aloo Pyaaz Rasa and Vegetable Pulao. I was so glad and relieved to see that they enjoyed the food. They even had to put a sign “Each one take one” in front of the parathas to ensure everyone gets to eat at least one.
I’ve said this earlier, saying it now and will say it again in the future — the people you meet are going to make or break your travel experience or for that matter your day to day living. You could work in a shitty job and still feel happy if surrounded by nice and happy people — vice versa holds true as well. I was lucky enough to find nice and happy people in Auroville. I don’t know what it was about the place but most people I met there were genuinely content with their lives. Be it the guy who has stayed there for 22 years or a newbie who is just visiting the place to our auto rickshaw driver. Here are a few snippets about their lives:
Out of all the people whom I met there, no one had a bigger effect on my experience there than Paola, my friendly Mexican neighbour. She had returned from Australia after a year of study+work in Sustainable Development which she was very interested in. She taught me how easy it is to be happy and content with what you have, where you are and whom you are talking to. She told me Mexicans are like that — friendly and like to celebrate life. We used to spend time singing songs on the bike ride, waving and shouting Hola at everyone on the street. Or we used to chill in the guest lounge telling each other stories — like the ones she told me how she sky dived solo with just a day of training. Or we would make tea and discuss Indian mythology. Or she would bring her skipping rope and show me some cool tricks. Or we would chill in our rooms, listening to music and showing each other pictures of our childhood. Once, we read our diaries to each other and it was interesting to read how the same incident could be viewed by two different people. Mexicans know Salsa like Punjabis know Bhangra. So, she helped me out with a few moves as a preparation for the Salsa party.
In Auroville, I encountered the question — Is the purpose of life to be happy? I had met Dhanya, who was a very happy man in Holland. But, he was looking for more but didn’t know what. He has been in Auroville for 22 years and seemed to be the calmest person I have met. We had good long chats about how to live life. I asked him about the ‘purpose’ of life and he gave me an advice which works well for me and I would like to share with you — We can either pick one thing and focus on it completely thinking this is the purpose of our life and constantly seek change. Or we can be OK with where we are and seek to do our best. And by doing this, our purpose will emerge. If we find ourselves in conditions which we don’t like, we can try and make the most of it and find the best out of it but if we can’t, we can try and find a way out of it.
I guess, for us, happiness is not enough. We are always looking for something more. There will always be a conflict that arises in our minds.
Ivana was a very funny Czech lady who was a budding painter and took our meditation classes. Ivana checked my heart coherence too which is a device used to track how well you are doing in meditation. Coco, a South African lady runs the art gallery in Auroville and she was such a sweet person who has finally started to like India.
Met Mila, spanish woman of 51, who had closed a book of her life and moved to India to open a new one. She said she is happy at Auroville and her happiness was effusing out of her infectious smile. A lot of people come to Auroville to unwind and explore a new way of living. Some of them have closed their earlier chapters of their lives and have moved here in hope of finding something new.
Marcella, a Brazilian who has just sold off her car rental company told us stories about the death of the Brazilian presedential candidate in a flight crash and the conspiracy around it. Rajaveni, was a very funny lady who was in charge of the kitchen. She used to be a dancer and had toured the US in her younger days. Inge, Dutch, travelling in India for a long, long time and a damn good photographer. She told me about the Ultimate Frisbee competition that happens at the beach in Auroville. I never knew there were proper international Frisbee tournaments.
If I am anywhere near a beach, I cannot not go in and take a swim. And since, the beaches at Auroville were much cleaner than the ones I have seen elsewhere, say Goa for an example, I spent an insane amount of time at the beach. They are less crowded and if you rise up early enough, you can find yourself to be the only one at the beach and soak in the morning sun which rises up from the sea and sets behind the trees. There is a decent surfing scene as well. By the end of my trip, I was totally tanned, sunburnt and happy.
Marcella taught me a phrase in Spanish — Vamos a la playa! (Let’s go the beach, it is used whenever you venture out to do something interesting and adventurous). At the beach, Paola, being Paola, introduced herself to a few people and became friends with them. She even befriended a gang of Rajasthani boys with whom I played football.
The evenings beach visits were very different from the morning ones. In the evenings, the dusk sky becomes a plethora of colors as if god’s own children had spilled bottles of color across it. Not sure if it was the darkness or the high waves but we found ourselves in reflective mood.
Afterwards, we used to go out for North Indian meals. These girls loved it and made a point about how Indians use the breads/rotis as forks to lift the food. I find it funny because I never thought of our eating habits like this before. Marcella wasn’t sure about having Indian food because she is not into spicy food. But, I talked her into it and it was a good decision. Sometimes, when you know you are doing something based on your knowledge (more than the other person), then you should take command and make a decision for the group without worrying about the outcome. You went in with the best of intentions and good heart and that is all that counts.
The people in Pondy were nice too — I went there with Paola, Rajaveni and her small son Samaran. I roamed the streets and drank coffee as I waited for these ladies to get a haircut. As I sat there in the coffee shop and thought of how to thank the lady for the coffee, it didn’t come naturally. Anger and sadness comes naturally to us — whereas being happy is almost an effort. Gratitude is not a thing that comes naturally to us. I eventually did say that it was nice coffee. This simple appreciation was reciprocated in a loud and clear thank you sir which felt real. It feels great to give out positive energies — you get lots of them in return.
Pondy has a nice enough promenade where we went. There, looking at the litter thrown around everywhere, Paola asked me why are the beaches so dirty and why do people not care about it. I think it is not just because people are not educated. I believe there is a deeper reason — we haven’t experienced economic prosperity, our basic needs aren’t met yet — maslow’s law, thus rest of the things such as behavior, culture etc just don’t come into our minds. This is obviously an inference from a result.
Ganesha temple — we were told the story of the elephant Lakshmi, who is tired but still stands there day in and out. I found it sad but maybe likes doing what she does — blessing people in exchange for the food they give her.
Aurobindo Ashram is also located in Pondy where there is the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo. I am always amazed at how one person can yield so much control over the way so many people live their lives. For the sake of understanding it better, I bought a few books by Sri Aurobindo. The thing that I like about him is that to me, he feels like a poet first and a spiritual leader later. He had served in the army and written lengthy, beautiful poems, Savitri being the magnum opus. However, what impressed me most was his book praising Bankim Chandra’s poetry. I took his fanboyism and respect for Bankim Chandra as a sign of humility from a great leader.
With its construction beginning in 1968 and coming to completion 40 years later in 2008, Matrimandir is a magnificent structure. Other than the one at the top, I don’t have more pictures of it but you should definitely look it up online to understand its beauty. It stands next to the Banyan Tree which is the geographical centre of Auroville. Matrimandir is an architectural wonder to behold with numerous golden discs covering the whole outer surface of the dome like structure. Everything is well maintained and you have to take permission to go inside especially when you are a first timer inside the mandir. It is named after the mother (matri, matre in french) since she had dreamed about setting up a place like this. Once you enter the mandir, you become aware of the quiet and calm that floats in the air — and first timers like me are also left awestruck.
The inside of the dome has water running down along its pillars. There are passages through which you move up a steep, spiral walkway to the inner chamber where people assemble to concentrate. You would be amazed to see what’s there — nothing. Well, nothing except a crystal ball which has a beam of sunlight falling upon it straight at the top. This sunlight alone provides for the light in the room. As you focus on the light and the ball, everything else seems to dissolve away. This beam of light then passes through the crystal and falls on another crystal ball which is placed in a pond, outside in the garden.
The dome is surrounded by 12 petal shaped structures each one of which has a meditation chamber of its own. And all of this is located inside a huge garden of unity which again has many smaller gardens. You can also go to the Banyan tree which has some good and powerful vibrations about it. Hugging and touching the tree to feel the vibrations is a common sight. Overall, it felt as if the visit to matri mandir helps to give a perspective on our place in the universe. But, I guess this experience is personal to me, others might feel differently.
Shore temple in Mahabalipuram is a place of importance which I’ve been reading about in my textbooks since my school going days. And since Mahabalipuram is an hour and a half away from Auroville, we decided to visit the place. It has some fabulous sculptures and the craftsmanship of the people of that time is breath taking. Mahabalipuram also has the cleanest beach I’ve been to in India — white sands, clear blue water and few people. Here are some pictures from the visit.
A Day in the life
Time at Auroville flies very fast. Even though you feel like there is a lot of time to do things, it flies by you without making you feel restless or rushed. My usual day at Auroville used to begin with a knock on the door by Paola. She woke me up every morning before 6 so that we can go for meditation together. Half an hour of that and I preferred to catch up on my sleep. After about an hour of napping, we were served a breakfast of freshly cut fruits, curd, porridge, multi grain bread and home made jams of fruits which I had not even heard of.
The rest of the morning we had to ourselves. We spent it in the guest lounge, telling each other stories of our lives. There was one time when we were chilling and sipping tea, we were making plans to go to Mahabalipuram and I started telling Paola about Indian mythology. While talking, it felt as if I am in love with our culture and country all over again. People from all over the world come to India thinking that it is the spiritual centre of the world but we fail to realise how culturally rich our history and our present customs are.
Lunch was simple yet delicious — all organic food with great quantities of salad along with it. The non-Indian non-vegetarians eating with us said they would convert to vegetarian if they get this kind of food everyday. There was one particular old man from China who used to eat just white rice and vegetables. He didn’t speak English so our conversations were limited to smiles which was at times more than enough to understand his state of mind.
Sometimes, a siesta followed lunch. If not, there was always the option of going to the beach. Evenings were spent socialising, meeting new people during the various events and all the activities that kept on happening .
On most days, we visited the cafes inside Auroville, howling at people — “Hey Mate, join us”, drinking copious amounts of coffee which probably explains the aforementioned behavior. The coffee was great — it’s south india, this is pretty much what you would expect.
There was one evening which I clearly remember. I was riding my bike under the moonlit sky, with open fields to my left and right and a dense space of trees ahead of me. It felt like a scene out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie with me as the main character.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac kept me company when I wanted to read something. And I couldn’t have picked up a better book. Even then, I spent more time meeting people and listening to their own personal stories.
I wrote a lot on the trip — it helped me notice my thoughts. There used to be times when I wanted to write one thought, I used to start on it and then even before it was over, another thought would come to me. Like right now, I was thinking about some random email I got in the morning. Now, I’ve learnt to notice when my thoughts take me away from the task at hand. How to bring it back in the present is a much more difficult task which I have to learn.
As I was writing one evening sitting in the garden under an orange sky with sun peeping from behind the clouds, with sound from a session of Sound Bath leaking from inside the hall, I kept taking breaks to talk to people who came to say Hello to me.
Each day’s diary entry felt like the perfect way to spend that day. It felt that I wouldn’t change a single thing if I could from that day. And I am grateful that I got a chance to spend my time like that. In fact, this is a line (or a version of this) I find in my diary often — “I am in a very good space right now”. “I feel content and blessed.” “I am grateful for these days.”
Auroville is not a cult, though it can seem like it at first glance. It is simply a group of people who want to experience a new way of living by coming together and building a new culture and society from scratch without the conventional dividing issues such as color, nationality, language etc.
All the good things about Auroville doesn’t mean there is no problem with it. But, it is as close to a utopian society as I have ever seen. Also, my experience has been so good because I wasn’t doing any work over there. I think that people who actually work over there might have a slightly different version of Auroville than mine. But, even so, most people I met there were enjoying their lives and seemed content and at peace with where they were.
This trip made me realise how a good vacation and travel especially alone is not about the places you see or the architecture. It of course does play a part in your overall experience but it is a lot about the people you meet, their stories and the friendships spanning across continents that you make along the way. It feels good when you know that across different cultures, the basic qualities for friendship are still the same — love, respect, trust and I was lucky enough to make a few friends along my journey.
Notes to Self
Here are some of my notes to self during my time at Auroville. I hope they are of some use to you.
- Don’t rush into one moment from another
- Be in the moment, that moment is unique and will never come back
- Be unequivocal in your thoughts and speak what you are feeling, it helps solve a lot of things
- Let the possibilities of future problems not worry you in the present moment in case you can’t do anything to solve them right then.
- Don’t judge people for being different — more often than not, they have a reason to do what they do.
- Make yourself a schedule
- Focus on the task at hand and forget about the rest. One moment can only be occupied by one single task
- Sit in proper posture, use sunscreen
- Walk towards people to greet them with warmth in your heart, smile on your lips and eyes and no preconceived notions and an unjudgmental attitue and devoid of any -ve thoughts. greet them as they are already your friends
- Take small portions of food instead of wasting.
- You don’t have to agree with everyone to avoid conflict or continue small talk. This does not mean you have to contradict someone every time their opinion is different from yours. Choose your battles.
- The importance of universal human quality is the ability to make people smile and natural warmth. This is a universal quality which transcends boundaries and cultures so it is a good habit to develop this skill.
- Discover that one thing that will make you happy whenever, wherever. Paola’s was ‘sharing’. Find yours.
- Easiest way to feel nice is to make others feel nice.
- ‘Big, Open heart’ came up in my conversations often.
- Don’t rush yourself into planning something for the future while wasting away the present. Find a balance.
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Originally published at www.mayankja.in on October 15, 2014.