The Dharma Buddies of Auroville

A sanctuary in southern India is perfect ground for old and new spiritual friends from around the world to reunite and flow together like the water.

Camille Cusumano
Oct 22, 2019 · 9 min read
In February, 2018, Auroville, an international spiritual community in southern India, celebrated 50 years of lobbying for peaceful, healthful, sustainable living on our planet. All photos: Library Camille Cusumano

The water flows in from every state in India, from all corners of the earth, from as far as Siberia, even from nations on hostile terms, like the U.S. and Iran. It seeks its own level in a wide shallow basin where the procession marchers pour each precious vial, a peaceful solution.

The Water Ceremony is the crowning celebration of the Golden Anniversary of Auroville, an intentional community in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Along with hundreds of others from near and far, I have gathered in the dark before dawn, as people have on this date for 50 years. We sit on clay-red steps of an amphitheater. The scuff and rasp of bare feet and saris settle into breath-filled silence. Each of us meditates on what feels like impossibly unanimous goodwill.

Blue teardrops convey the source country of each vial of water.

With first light, a choir of voices elevates that feeling a few decibels. My eyes tear, gooseflesh raises. A roaring bonfire in the round reflects off the gold-leafed globe of the nearby Matrimandir, Sanskrit for “Temple of the Mother.” I recall spiraling up its dim chamber on Merino wool carpet to a shaft of natural light illuminating a large solid crystal.

For the next hour, the water bearers, founders and their offspring, transport flasks. After each pouring, they insert blue teardrop-shaped placards into a grooved circle to reveal the water source. Next to the basin rises a lotus-shaped marble urn that contains soil from 124 nations, carried to Auroville’s inauguration in 1968.

50 Years of Enlightenment

If it’s true that water holds memory, then this blending of the universal solvent perhaps will seep into world consciousness that once harmony reigned on our planet. That is my lofty idea as I marvel at this choreography of hope onstage. I think of the mingled sweat and sheer muscle power of the hundreds who shaped Auroville out of barren land in 1968, that water shed year. The Tower of Babel has nothing on this enterprise. Perhaps the thriving village with enlightened education, holistic healthcare, renewable energy projects, and sustainable farming is a microcosm of what can exist on a bigger scale.

For a month here, I avoid the news that indicates otherwise. There is something patently special in this hallowed ground, the inspiration of one French Mirra Alfassa, spiritual collaborator of philosopher Sri Aurobindo. Their images abound in every corner, from the Town Hall to the visitor center to the grocery store. Referred to with reverence as the Mother, Alfassa joined forces with Aurobindo in the 1920s at the ashram in nearby Pondicherry where they lived and taught his defining belief: How we humans will evolve into “supra-mental” beings.

Founders envisioned a populace of 50,000, but—many are called, few are chosen—Aurovillians today number a steadfast 2,500, representing some 50 countries, almost half of them Indian residents. Despite a dwindled vision, India and UNESCO have recognized this cultural treasure, offering financial support. To much pomp and ceremony, Prime Minister Modi even made a rare visit for the 50th anniversary, paying homage to the community’s endurance.

To me the village feels like a giant free-form ashram, preferable to those where bells and gongs insist on strict schedule adherence. Many tranquil corners spread out from the central Peace Park where silence is observed. One evening under the waxing moon, as devotees embraced a giant banyan, a resident enchanted us playing her Tibetan bells. The sound waves floated like haloes over the Matrimandir that rises round and golden from twelve lotus petals (containing smaller meditation rooms).

Enlightened Capitalism and Sharing in Auroville

I tool around the mostly unpaved network of roads and trails on an electric bicycle, taking advantage of yoga classes, Ayurvedic massage, and frequent cultural events in the various pavilions and communes. Many events are free to all and everything is cheap. Food, lodging, and all business owners give a third or more of their profits to the town coffer in what seems a respectable compromise with capitalism. For about $17 a night, I lodge at Avision guest house among acacia and neem trees. My host works daily on his vision: a hydroponic greenhouse, soon to supply the town with organic leafy greens.

My primary reason for coming to Auroville has been to connect with good friends Oga and Carsten. They live in Berlin and come here often to escape their harsh winters. We have known each other since the 1990s when we became dharma buddies at the San Francisco Zen Center. We all support the noble aspirations of the colony— “human unity in diversity.”

Farm to table: an organic thali meal at Auroville’s Solitude Farm

But Oga is the one who puts her actions where our beliefs are. She volunteers her services, as visitors are encouraged to do while here. Gardens, farms, education, food service, and city maintenance can all use help. Korean by birth, Oga assists Wonja, owner of Goyo (meaning inner stillness), a Korean restaurant in the commune Luminosité. Oga helps cook and translate the daily menu into English, the local lingua franca.

Twice during my stay, I have the honor of being one of only fifteen diners who sit around Goyo’s long table, eating in silence. The vegetarian meal served buffet style is delicious and copious. The second time we eat at Goyo, do-gooder Oga has invited a dozen Indian women from Life Education Center, where she also volunteers with its director, Devi, another dharma buddy (and native Indian who lived in Berkeley for years).

Life Education Center’s local women with volunteer Oga (in apron)

The young women are shy but smile as I take photos of them, bedazzled by their swaying rainbow of saris. Although they come from neighboring Kottakarai, their home life is a distant cry from this utopia. It does not value a daughter’s education. When I see the intricate quilts, garments, and other textile work, that Devi guides them in making, I wonder if they know how skilled they are. I purchase a quilted purple and gold tapestried laptop case to support their handiwork (way underpriced). I admire that Auroville is no cloister but open-armed and outreaching to its disadvantaged neighbors. The boosted self-confidence of these few women is worth a thousand acts of diplomacy.

The village’s multi-cultural population makes for a broad array of culinary options, from French and Italian to south and north Indian and all manner of Asian food, all of it breathtakingly inexpensive. Oga, Carsten, and I love trying it all. Part of the allure is just finding cafes tucked helter-skelter down a trail or hidden throughout the woodsy hamlet where mongoose chase each other across your path. The town is less a grid than a circular galaxy. Artsy signs near hidden paths and crossroads are helpful.

A cooking class, left, and another Solitude thali, right

The Solar Kitchen, busy as a beehive, offers all-you-can-eat vegetarian fare in a brightly lit cafeteria. I prefer outdoor settings like that of Solitude, couched within the international zone near the French and Tibetan pavilions. Solitude serves what it farms organically. Its friendly, eccentric owner, Krishna, a Brit educated at a Krishnamurti school, roams the open-air kitchen wearing a T-shirt turban against the heat. He’ll drop by your table and explain the thali, the meal served in small bowls representing six flavors. His thali has an exceptional sambar (tamarind stew) and coconut chutney.

A Calmer Slice of India

Compared to encircling villages, Auroville is an oasis of serenity. The contrast is jarring the days I take the bus to Pondicherry. I meet up with Oga and Carsten, who have braved the chaotic traffic to get there on a motor scooter. Pondicherry (or Puducherry) attracts multitudes of pilgrims to its ashram. We squeeze in among them in the jasmine-scented courtyard to meditate around the flower bedecked crypts of the Mother and Aurobindo. Meditation is one way to satisfy the Mother’s wish that Aurovillians be “servitors of the Divine Consciousness.” Thus, my friends and I in our Zen-trained way of “turning the lamp inward,” here on the Buddha’s native turf, do just that.

Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings 5 p.m. sharp find the three of us headed to the home of a local friend. Ramesh has retired from engineering work in New Jersey and returned to his native India. I consider him a new dharma buddy extraordinaire. He lives in a bright airy complex across from Luminosité community where Wonja, Goyo’s owner, has resided for about eight years. Wonja and itinerant meditators (a Korean monk, once) also join us.

Together we sit two periods of zazen punctuated by a short walking meditation (kinhin). Ramesh improvises the meditation gong with a metal cup and teaspoon. He has a few authentic zafu cushions for us and my power spot becomes facing his third-floor window. The word dharma might be defined as the true, even sacred, essence of the universe and of one’s nature. I try to let that awareness saturate me as I gaze at nattering birds flitting from plumeria to magnolias, none of which was here fifty years ago. The monotonous three-note call of the hawk cuckoo (dubbed the fever bird by the Brits) sings my mantra.

After zazen, we sit in a circle and talk into the night, about the state of things in Auroville. Ramesh serves us mango or orange slices, filtered water, watermelon juice, cashews, and sometimes his homemade halvah. We ask about his physics students — he volunteers at a local school. Wonja might bring her rice noodle soup and tell us about her pursuit of Korean ingredients in Chennai, a grueling three-hour drive away.

We debate whether Auroville is successfully fulfilling its destiny. Its extravagant lushness suggests a sort of Shangri-La, but I also recall a visit to its “industrial zone” where I watched Styrofoam being recycled into bricks for building. (Why is not the whole planet following suit?) We had all attended Auroville’s annual Trashion Show, stunned and entertained as locals sashayed the runway in elegant jewel-bedecked gowns and outrageous costumes all fashioned from trash. The Mother strongly believed in art and creativity as essential to self-actualization. Then, there is the ongoing debate of our evolving into “supra-mental beings” as Aurobindo proposed. As apes evolved into us homo sapiens, we are supposed to evolve into a higher species of human.

Cows and mandala in front of my Avision guest house, Auroville

We all value Ramesh’s informed insights and perceptions. Although a tad curmudgeon, he reminds me of the Buddhist deity Manjusri, who with his razor-sharp sword cuts to the chase. Ramesh’s perceptions can be summed up, not without a dash of optimism, humans will be humans. Ramesh is a man who is not apt to spout the going spiritual rhetoric, much of it now bereft of its original flavor; a man who does not lock his front door; a man who didn’t need the Water Ceremony to coax his deepest humanity; a man who gives money to locals to help them get on their feet in business. In other words, a man who believes humans are fine just the way they are. I suspect my new and old dharma friends and I will pick up this debate right where we left off our next reunion in Auroville.

If You Go:

The best time to visit Auroville is December through early March, with February having the celebratory events each year for the Mother’s birthday (February 21) and Auroville’s anniversary (February 28). For all lodging and other travel information, visit Auroville.org.

Originally published at https://www.perceptivetravel.com.

NoMudNoLotus Writer

Publishes shapely prose, creative nonfiction (travel and…

Camille Cusumano

Written by

Author(ity) in/on San Francisco. Novel, essay, memoir. Teaches tango. Travel, outdoors, culture. Former editor at VIA Mag.

NoMudNoLotus Writer

Publishes shapely prose, creative nonfiction (travel and memoir) and fiction (short), that is deeply contemplative, imaginative, literary with an irresistible narrative drive.

Camille Cusumano

Written by

Author(ity) in/on San Francisco. Novel, essay, memoir. Teaches tango. Travel, outdoors, culture. Former editor at VIA Mag.

NoMudNoLotus Writer

Publishes shapely prose, creative nonfiction (travel and memoir) and fiction (short), that is deeply contemplative, imaginative, literary with an irresistible narrative drive.

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