Auroville: the city of dawn

I have been negligent in making updates to my blog for the past month or so, but I thought better late than never.  I was in Pondicherry and Auroville from Saturday March 12, 2011 to Sunday March 20, 2011.  The entries for Pondicherry, Quiet Healing Center, and Auroville are from that time.  

After a couple of days in Pondicherry we moved a few kilometers north to a place called Quiet Healing Center, which is part of Auroville and run by a group of Germans.  When I told people I was going to spend a week in Auroville, some thought it was a week too long.  Even Datta from our guesthouse in Pondicherry told one of my friends that if we didn’t like Auroville, we could come back and stay with her since she’s seen people return quickly from Auroville.  When an Aurobindo devotee tells you that, you start to question whether you’re doing the right thing.  But a friend from KYM whom I trust recommended that I check out Quiet (Quiet Healing Center) so we forged on.

Water lilies @ QuietAs soon as I saw the beautiful grounds of Quiet and the Bay of Bengal, I knew I picked the right place.  Since I’d never been to Auroville I didn’t know exactly what to expect but I could tell right away that this place wasn’t at all the communal, live off the land, “worship the Mother,” and meditate from the energy of the crystal ball kind of Auroville.  Quiet is part of Auroville and is advertised as an Auroville guesthouse but in fact, it is a beach resort with an emphasis on healthy living and a wide array of treatment offerings.  In other Auroville guesthouses you can volunteer, work, or stay for extended periods of time learning a craft.  But Quiet specifically noted that you couldn’t work in exchange; the room tariffs were as high as regular hotels and they treated us as if we were hotel guests.  As I sat on my balcony taking in the views of the beach and the Bay of Bengal, I exhaled deeply and the memories of the city of Chennai started to melt away.  We had a relaxing afternoon at Quiet and decided that we would visit Auroville the next day since we were all curious about what this place was.

Auroville (“city of dawn”) is a brainchild of “the Mother” who was the spiritual partner of Sri Aurobindo.  Since my introduction to Sri Aurobindo at his ashram in Pondicherry and my visit to Auroville, I’ve learned more about his life and his philosophy.  But for now I will just focus on the Mother since Auroville was created under her directive.  The Mother was a French born woman named Mirra Alfassa who first came to Pondicherry and met Sri Aurobindo in 1914.  She returned in 1920 to settle permanently at the Aurobindo ashram and eventually took over its management as well as the spiritual community that grew from there.  After Sri Aurobindo’s passing in 1926, she became the leader and teacher to the Aurobindo devotees and continued Sri Aurobindo’s work.

Auroville was inaugurated on February 28, 1968 with a handful of soil from 124 countries (Datta, our guesthouse owner from Pondicherry stood in as a representative of South Africa as no deligate from that country could make the journey).  It was created as an international community where everyone, regardless of their creed, color, or nationality, could come together to promote a harmonious way of life and to bring about a higher level of consciousness.  The original plans were to build a global village to house up to 50,000 inhabitants but currently there are about 2,500 residents representing 40 or so countries.  It certainly sounds like a New Age experiment, a dream for every hippie and those who are hippies at heart.  To add to the New Age-ness, at the center of this community is something called the Matrimandir (the Mother’s Shrine) and a series of gardens the Mother wanted to name “Park of Unity.”  Roughly about 80 settlements that have sprouted around the heart of Auroville are planned “organically” in the shape of a spiraling galaxy and each community has its own area of expertise.  The place where we were staying, obviously, was specializing in wellness and healing.

When we arrived at the visitor’s center, we were asked to watch an introductory video presentation that explained the ideas behind Auroville.  After watching the video, we were allowed to walk about half a mile to see the exterior of the Matrimandir.  I had seen photos of this unfortunate building resembling a giant golf ball/ Epcot Center, but in person it was a lot larger.  It gleamed and shined under the sun, looking ever so strange in the middle of nowhere India.  I read from my guidebook that the structure is 36 m/ 118 ft in diameter and is devoted to the “divine creatrix.”  The sphere is covered with 1,400 golden discs to symbolize a radiating golden Supermental Sun.  I don’t really have the right words to describe the oddity of this thing but we were there and we saw it.

Matrimandir, Auroville

The Matrimandir has an inner chamber that further demonstrates the Mother’s commitment for utopian idealism and aspirations for higher spirituality.  But these Aurovillians didn’t make visiting the inner chamber easy; you had to go back to the visitor’s center and request a separate visit for another day.  We were asked to return in two days at an appointed time for an additional video presentation and a guided visit.  Nadia and her husband were leaving the next day so it wasn’t possible for them, but Lorena and I signed up to come back.  It sounded so intriguing- an inner chamber with 12 pillars, complete silence, with a giant clear crystal ball in the center.  Can’t you just hear the piped in Enya music now?  How so very…!!!  We had to check it out.

Lorena and I returned two days later, and we joined about 20 or so other people to visit the Matrimandir.  After watching another video we were taken to the structure on buses, and asked to leave all of our possessions with an attendant- no phones, no cameras, no nothing.  We had to wait for about 30 minutes before an Aurovillian guide came to explain how this visit was going to take place.  We had to be completely silent as soon as we started to walk towards the Matrimandir, once we arrived at the bottom we had to take our shoes off and line them up along the side, walk up the stairs and into the Matrimandir (he asked that if we had long pants on, please to roll them up so we don’t track in any outside dirt), inside the Matrimandir we would need to put on the socks they provide for us.  Once we have the socks on, we will form a single line and slowly walk up the ramp towards the top of the sphere where the inner chamber is.  We would have about 10 to 12 minutes for “concentration” (they don’t use the word meditation), and absolute silence must be observed in the inner chamber.  He warned that as the large inner chamber is completely empty, any and all noise will be amplified; if one needs to cough or clear his throat, he should leave the room, silently.  Whew!

And that’s exactly what happened.  We walked up and into the sphere, and I really felt as if we were in a science fiction film and the humans were being led into the mother ship.  Everything was white inside the Matrimandir; the walls, the columns, the benches, the carpet, the socks, everything.  There were some Aurovillians stationed strategically throughout the Matrimandir keeping everyone where they should be and watching our every move.  There were some water features but they too, were all completely silent.

The circular inner chamber with the clear crystal ball in the center, was exactly how you would picture it.  The crystal ball, man-made and said to be the largest in the world, was propped up and had a single beam of sun light shining down from above.  There were twelve white pillars in this all white room, with white cushions and pillow for people to sit in circles.  Did I really “concentrate?”  No.  I wanted to see!  Someone came up with this idea to build this thing and people really did built it.  Not only that, but they made up a whole schedule and routine around what should be done here.  I wanted to see and I wanted to understand.

Banyan tree in Auroville

I did close my eyes for a bit to feel the silence of the room, however.  I wondered if being inside a big vacuum, felt like this- it really was very quiet in there.  I felt calm but I didn’t find the space quite so spiritual.  And then the light went on and off a few times, our silent signal from the guide that our visit to the inner chamber was over.  We did in reverse every step we took to get inside the Matrimandir, and we were done.  There was a large banyan tree outside the building that supposedly is the actual center of Auroville.  I sat by the tree for a few minutes and for me, those few minutes were more quieting and peaceful than any time I spent inside the Mother’s Shrine.

After this visit I could understand perhaps why some people go back to Pondicherry instead of staying at Auroville longer.  I may have as well, if I wasn’t so happily situated at Quiet where the traces of the Mother were next to none and Auroville wasn’t mentioned or recommended to its guests.  I thought the overall idea of Auroville is a nice one; who doesn’t want all of us to live peacefully together?  But the UFO like sphere and the Mother being viewed as some kind of voice or representation of the Divine…  The cultish religious tone of the place did not suit me at all.

India is full of surprises and experiences I never expected.  This visit to Auroville was certainly one that I didn’t plan for but I thought it was worth seeing.

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