Auroville — A Place That Belongs to No One


Long before traveling to India, I had heard about this town “Auroville”. I heard of it as a different kind of society, a spiritual one, and also one where people lived without money. Looking at the Auroville website, the first picture I saw was an image from the sky, and it reminded me of the Burning Man in its setup. A significant object in the center, surrounded by the community and other structures. Perhaps it also had Burning Man values.

Auroville left, Burning Man right

I felt Auroville would be a perfect place to go after volunteering for Vipassana in Tiruvannamalai.

I arrived in Auroville on Sunday afternoon. Once I checked in, it became apparent that one can’t easily get around Auroville without the need of a motorbike. It being Sunday, motorbike rental shops were closed, so I had to wait until Monday morning. The nearest restaurants from my hostel were a 10-minute walk through a quiet, empty road. At night it was completely pitch black, requiring a flashlight. I’m always slightly wary of dogs in such places later in the night, for there’s a fear of being bitten. You can see this road in the background:

On Monday I got to business. After renting my motorbike (for a mere 100 Rs. per day, which is ($1.56 USD), I rode about 20 minutes to the Auroville Visitor Center to learn more.

My ride

The first goal I had upon arriving to the visitor center was to get tickets to go inside the Matrimandir. This requires registering to receive a time slot to visit — in my case I had to wait two days. In the meanwhile, I got a same-day ticket to the Matrimandir viewpoint, which involves a 20-minute walk.

Before walking to the viewpoint, I read about Auroville, and its overall vision:

Auroville seeks to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.
The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity. Located just north of Puducherry on the southeast Indian coast, over 2,000 permanent residents from various international backgrounds call Auroville home, having dedicated themselves to the realization of it’s charter:
Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the divine consciousness.
Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.

(credit: Yoga Center Amherst)

Here’s a picture of a poster describing the dream of Auroville:

Sounds pretty amazing right? Ideally our entire world should be this way, but Auroville is the seed for now.

Auroville has two founding figures: one is referred to as “The Mother”, and the other is Sri Aurobindo. The Mother came from France, and Sri Aurobindo was born in Calcutta, educated in England, and returned to India thereafter. When the Mother first met Sri Aurobindo, she said, “I knew that it was he who had come to do the work on Earth and that it was with him that I was to work.”

The Mother, and Sri Aurobindo

The Mother setup and created Auroville in 1968 on her own, after Sri Aurobindo had passed away in 1950. She advised in the creation of the “Matrimandir”, which is the center of Auroville.

The exterior of the temple is made up of many golden circles (see below). Each circle is made up of many gold-plated tiles. This design is non-trivial and required innovation and craftsmanship.

Two days later I returned to see the inside of the Matrimandir, and oh man it was epic! The inside of the temple is unlike any other temple I’ve ever seen. We were required to put on white socks as to not soil the inside. Once inside, we walked up a spiral staircase to the top into a meditation room. It’s all white, cool, serene, and completely quiet. In the center is a huge crystal ball, which is illuminated by a ray of sun passing through the roof of the mandir. I felt so calm, relaxed, I wish I could meditate here for hours. Just check out this video of the inside!

The Matrimandir is one aspect of Auroville, but what was the life of an Auroville resident? What were the people like? How did they live without money? I heard about many being involved in projects, like farming, to creating musical instruments, to exploring building things sustainably with bamboo. I suppose the only way to really learn more would be to come here and volunteer for at least two weeks at one of the projects. A popular project I heard about is The Forest Project, which is all about reforestation, so consider volunteering for that if you’re interested.

Onsite, Auroville has plenty of infrastructure, like schools, a hospital, restaurants (a popular one is called Solar Kitchen). I went to a documentary one night at an auditorium, during an eco-film festival week. They premiered a documentary from San Francisco, “What the Health”. The documentary made me nostalgic about San Francisco (its got scenes around the city), but it also made me feel at home in Auroville with like-minded people.

Oh, and it didn’t cost anything to watch the documentary.

I left Auroville, amazed by the Matrimandir, but skeptical about the society itself. Could it really be that perfect? Coincidentally, I went to a cafe in Pondicherry, and sat next to an elder gentleman who would give me some insider information about Auroville. We started chatting, and I learned he had grown up in Uganda, lived in London, and now had retired here in Pondicherry with his wife. The primary reason was to be near the Aurobindo Ashram. When we started talking about my experience at Auroville, I learned that he had volunteered there for a few months. He felt it didn’t quite live up to the Mother’s vision — even though it had a desire to operate with no money, it relied a lot on donations from the external world. He told me of some other minor politics internally, like how money is managed, but not in detail. Perhaps its confirmation bias at work, but I felt like he confirmed some of my skepticism about the society.

Regardless, Auroville is an experiment in action, and I support what it stands for. And for its residents, it offers some freedom from the rest of the world, where people strive to live and work together and transcend boundaries like nationality, ethnicity, financial wealth, etc.

Auroville belongs to nobody. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole.
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