Destination: India : A State of Grace : In South India’s Tamil Nadu, an ashram and a utopian city are drawing thousands of international visitors

Shaver is an El Cerrito freelance writer

A silvery chime breaks the dawn stillness, the gentle summons to meditation. Through the net canopy, which bars Dracula-like mosquitoes from my bed, there is a gauzy view of blue and onyx sky and, if I crane my neck, a ruffled patch of the Bay of Bengal. There is the slap-slap of sandals in the hallway as obedient guests of the Park Guest House head down to meditate at the sea wall bordering the courtyard. I picture them folding themselves into the lotus position, unblinking gazes fixed on the molten sphere of the rising sun.

I grant myself a dispensation, another half hour in bed, although the mattress, thin and unyielding as Pegboard, hardly encourages snuggling. (There is no question of even silent discontent over this, since my bay-front room is spacious enough for a conference, has a balcony, its own bath with torrential shower and is only a short ride away from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram I have traveled so far to visit. All this, immaculate, for $15 a night.)

I can afford to ignore the chimes because I have not come to the ashram to “face the furnace of inner purification,” as recommended by the ashram’s founder. Nor do I have any hope of finding what the founders described as “Supreme Light, Supreme Knowledge, Supreme Love.” I am here because, like others who came of age in the 1960s, I cling to a discredited faith, a conviction that, with a new microchip or two in the social mainframe, it might be possible to create rational communities and healthy ecosystems in our ailing world.


I am not alone. During the past decade, there has been a steady stream of us to this remote South Indian town of Pondicherry, just south of Madras--an estimated 30,000 a year--to visit not just the ashram but the 2,500-acre utopian settlement of Auroville, just eight miles away.


In the spare, light-filled Park Guest House cafeteria, I breakfast with an international crowd that includes a Swedish family and a vivacious couple from Argentina. The menu consists of toast, yogurt, a single-egg omelet and sweet, milky masala tea. Cost: 75 cents. We are scrutinized from the wall above by a larger-than-life photo of Sri Aurobindo, the charismatic seer and founder of the nearby ashram. It was here that Aurobindo’s theology was developed as an amalgamation of Hinduism, neo-Platonism and yoga, which has attracted waves of devotees from all over the world.

But it was the experimental settlement created by Aurobindo’s disciple-administrator and successor, Mirra Richards (always referred to as the Mother), that I came to investigate during my visit last year. “Earth needs a place where men can live away from all the national rivalries, social conventions, moralities and contending religions,” she wrote. Her vision was of a model town, an international community.

And so was born Auroville, from the French word aurore, meaning “dawn”; literally, city of the dawn. It would be built on an arid tract of largely nonproductive coastal plateau northeast of Pondicherry. The inaugural ceremony in February 1968 was attended by representatives from 121 countries who, in a fine theatrical gesture, poured soil from their respective lands into an urn placed in the very center of the new community.


I have learned that the ashram headquarters in Pondicherry offers tours of Auroville, so after breakfast I head out. The gaggle of auto and bicycle rickshaw drivers permanently stationed at the guest house gate springs into action as I emerge. I climb onto the cracked vinyl seat of the most underfed-looking driver’s rickshaw, trying not to watch the spindly legs’ exertions as we push off.

Pondicherry, a French colony from 1816 to 1954, has a Mediterranean air and relaxed Gallic charm, a bit out of step in this Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Streets are wide and shaded, lined with pastel villas numbered by shining brass residence plates. Gardens are ablaze with flowering trees and bougainvillea.


The ashram is an elegant two-storied colonial house surrounded by a high wall. In contrast to the other institutions around Pondicherry, there are no beggars or loungers, no clamorous rickshaw drivers either outside or inside the ashram compound, which consists of a reception center, educational center, large courtyard and various service buildings. (Scattered around town are the ashram’s various small manufacturing enterprises.)

I obediently remove my shoes, place them in the rack by the gate, and venture into the house. The outer lounge area is cool, dim, and furnished with a settee, silk-shaded lamps, antique chests gleaming with polish and a well-worn Chinese carpet. There is an air of dignity and unpretentious grace. But there is also a pervasive sense of carefully controlled access and heavily regulated behavior--from the stern Bengali in charge of shoe removal at the gate to the posted signs prohibiting “smoking, drinking, sex and politics,” to the desk people in charge of issuing the Laissez Passer that admits the visitor to the various ashram departments and enterprises.

Clutching the all-important pass, I wander through the ashram courtyard, a riot of yellow chrysanthemums, huge dahlias and walls dripping with pink bougainvillea. In a central court I come upon a riveting scene. The atmosphere is dizzying with burning incense and the aroma of masses of flowers. Center stage, in the shade of a giant neem tree, is an imposing marble sarcophagus covered with a floral arrangement more elaborate than any Rose Parade float. In this are the mortal remains of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Clusters of worshippers sit or kneel near the shrine, attention riveted on it. Thin elderly women circulate and, in whispers or head shakes, enforce the ban on photography or disrespectful behavior. It is a strange, supercharged tableau, like a medieval morality play done in mime.

Unnerved, I retreat to the gate, retrieve my shoes and set off along the pleasantly bustling streets to have a look at the various ashram enterprises. These are scattered around the central town, behind flowered walls, their presence indicated by modest little signs at their gates. . In these open-air workshops, walnut-skinned Tamil workers, immaculate in white lungis and pastel saris, move rhythmically about their tasks--weaving, embroidering, tracing delicate patterns in wax for batiks. And from a wall in every establishment, the deified pair keep watch--Aurobindo and the Mother--seeming to be perpetually aware of their followers’ need for magic, mystery and authority.

At the ashram, a knot of would-be Auroville visitors has gathered and we mill about, holding the tour tickets for which we have paid the equivalent of $12. At length, a tall Bengali in Western shirt and trousers appears. Have we filled out the forms? Nothing in India ever happens without a form. When will our tour depart? Who can say? Perhaps soon, perhaps later.

Finally, two vans appear and we cram ourselves into them too tightly to move either arm or leg. The Bengali transforms himself into an affable, expansive tour guide who tells us to call him Mr. Chatterjee. Our driver decides to set a speed record for the run and there are bone-rattling near misses with oncoming buses and elaborately decorated trucks. No one smiles as we sight a road sign that warns “Rash and negligent driving--Can make you Invalid!” We hurtle past fields where men hack at the earth with crude hoes, past villages of mud huts, thatched roofs and pots hanging over dung-fueled fires. The stark and arid landscape softens slightly with trees as we near Auroville. Mr. Chatterjee makes a sweeping gesture and yells above the motor roar that all this was barren scrub 20 years ago. Now there are more than 2 million trees on Auroville’s 2,500 acres.


Arriving at Bharat Nivas, Auroville’s impressive reception center, we are joined by an Auroville guide. We begin with a walk around the Bharat Nivas complex that houses the information center, administrative offices, library and restaurant.

Designed by a Madras architect, the complex is a stunning architectural presence composed of bold, sculptural structures of concrete and glass.

Maps are given out and we learn that the original town plan for Auroville was a spiral nebula with swirling greenbelts and residential, industrial and cultural zones designed to accommodate 50,000 residents. The current Auroville population is somewhat more than 950 permanent residents representing 22 nationalities, the largest being Indian (30%) and French (20%), living in 70 small communities.

Out of 230 houses, more than 50 are equipped with photovoltaic panels. Thirty windmills provide power for pumping water in the various settlements and there are more than 70 solar cookers, a dozen solar water heaters and more than 15 biogas tanks that produce methane for domestic use.

Auroville has two small stores that invite donations and distribute freely to residents whatever has been received. In 30 handicraft units scattered around the settlements, skilled workers manufacture and export incense, apparel, leather articles and many other items that are sold in Auroville boutiques. All Auroville residents who are engaged in activities that generate income take what they require for their own needs and for the business, and donate any surplus to a common fund that supports those whose jobs don’t produce income.

All permanent residents who don’t have outside sources of income are provided with a subsistence diet, shelter and a modest allowance for incidentals.


Visually dazzled and mentally sated with logistics, we are ripe for the climax of an Auroville encounter. The vans deposit us at what is not only the geographical but also the spiritual center of town. Here, close to a venerable banyan tree flanking a wide shallow amphitheater, is an astounding sight. An enormous sphere--not yet complete--seems to emerge from a crater in the ground like consciousness emerging from matter. It is the Matrimandir (a Sanskrit word meaning “dwelling place of the mother”). Conceived by the Mother, it was to be a place for concentration, “for trying to find one’s consciousness.”

There was to be no dogma, no religious rituals, no flowers, no incense, no music. Inside, no talking. Silent, compliant, we follow our two guides up a ramp and then a series of staircases into the sphere. We obediently surrender cameras and slide our feet into paper shoe covers. I have a wild sense of participation in some 12th century monastic initiation as we pad, one by one, into a vast central chamber lined with white marble. The intense whiteness is psychedelic, and I wander, briefly befuddled, before finding a space among a hundred or more rapt meditators perched like a flock of birds with folded wings.

Sunlight pierces a vent in the roof above and is transformed by the sensational translucent globe into a rainbow of delicate pastels radiating out into the whiteness. I sink into the profound silence, aware of a powerful tug into another dimension, a wordless dimension of feelings and heightened sensitivity.

Later, over tea at Bharat Nivas at a table with four Auroville residents, I try to speak of the peacefulness and radiance of that chamber, the bewitching effect it had on me. I know that Auroville, unlike other popular places of pilgrimage in India, is never denigrated by Indians as a tourist trap full of corrupt ascetics and venal priests, but under the calm, knowing gazes of these residents I have an acute sense of being a callow tourist, welcome but on quite another plane of understanding.

Conversation with the four reveals that they consider themselves tough pioneers and rugged individualists in a living laboratory, dealing with pressing and pivotal concerns affecting the entire planet.

They confess shortcomings. There have been conflicts when one working group felt the activities of another were inconsistent with its vision of Auroville, but none has proved irreconcilable.


I remind myself that the shelf life of most utopias has rarely been more than 15 years.

We make the gentle namaste gesture with palms together in farewell. But as our van speeds back to Pondicherry, I feel strangely exhilarated. The elation is linked, I realize, to hope. Auroville celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1993, a landmark, I decide, that raises the possibility that people--in this case a bewildering national and ethnic mix--can reinvent community and point the way to a sustainable planetary civilization.


GUIDEBOOK: Auroville’s Aura

Getting there: Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Air India and Malaysian Airways offer connecting service, with plane changes, to Madras. Lowest round-trip fares start at $1,400.

From Madras to Pondicherry, take the bus (about $2, round trip; three-four hours; many departures daily) or contact the ashram, and ask it to send a car for pickup at the Madras airport (about $25-30, one way, three-four hours).

Where to stay: A number of Pondicherry and Auroville guest houses offer various standards of accommodation, ranging from very basic to Western-style comfort. The Park Guest House at the southern end of Goubert Avenue ($15 per night) is among the best. Guest house rates range from $1.50 to $15 per day, not including meals. They should be booked in advance. For information and assistance contact the Sri Aurobindo Center of Los Angeles (see below).

For more information: Sri Aurobindo Center of Los Angeles (also known as the East-West Cultural Center), 12329 Marshall St., Culver City 90230; tel.(310) 390-9083.