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Out There in Auroville
Viva Sarah Press
"It isn't at all what I expected," admitted a Canadian man in his 50's

A city the earth needs? That's what the New Age community of Auroville, located in India's southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, claims to be. Although more a village than a proper metropolis, the 1600 citizens who live there aspire to one day boast 50,000 inhabitants.

Unlike other cities in India, Auroville is not bustling, has no pollution, and is devoid of poor people. Instead, it is a kibbutz-like community with interesting - if not befuddling - ideas and plans for the future. Oh, and two-thirds of the population are sunburned, leathery skinned Westerners.

The community, inaugurated in 1968, results from a vision shared by the Bengali mystic Sri Aurobindo and his French-born companion, Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother. Auroville is the culmination of their dream of a place where seekers from all over the world could come together to live a progressive life in the service of the Divine Truth.
The 10 days I spent there were most enlightening.

Geographically, Auroville covers 20 square kilometers. At its center is a huge golf-ball like structure called the Matrimandir (Mother Temple). Inside this geodesic dome is housed a mighty big crystal in an eerily quiet meditation chamber. Radiating out from the Matrimandir - in the shape of the Galaxy -- are some 100 settlements or neighborhoods named after development goals such as 'Surrender,' 'Certitude,' 'Sincerity' and 'Aspiration'.

I stayed for the duration of my visit at the Center Guest House. There, I was able to meet a number of citizens (called Aurovilians) as well as possible newcomers (who were checking out whether this community is really for them). I was also outfitted with a bicycle and promptly got lost in the maze of non-sign-posted red dirt roads that wind through forested areas connecting the small settlements.

According to its charter, "Auroville aims at becoming a model of the 'city of the future'. It wants to show the world that future realizations in all fields of work will allow us to build beautiful cities where people sincerely looking towards a more harmonious future will want to live."

Physically, entrepreneurs in a variety of fields - agriculture, housing, computers, education - have taken to experimenting with different methods. Some results have been successful; others less so. Rather than use established agricultural techniques Aurovilians work the land by trial and error (and much failure according to their latest newsletter). On the flip side, their building research center has come up with some innovative low-cost housing technologies. A few architects have also gone wild with their ideas and a number of the settlements - most notably Kalabhumi and Verite -- look to be Hobbit or Smurf inspired.

Rationally, this so-called utopian society has all the problems a regular, non-planned city contains.

In its promotional material, Auroville gives the impression that it is an integrated community of different nationalities and faiths. In truth, the community is quite segregated, and only unified by its diversities.

While Auroville's charter claims it to be a place of tolerance and equality, many of its residents seem to harbor opposing views. Racism between the Indian citizens and the Westerners, as well as among each of the groups themselves is very noticeable. The North Indians, like in the rest of the country, do not see their southern compatriots as equals. At the same time, some of the European residents I met always referred to their fellow Indian Aurovilians as "they" or "them." And then there were those who found fault in people's different religions.

"It isn't at all what I expected," admitted a Canadian man in his 50's who came to Auroville with the desire to emigrate (but changed his mind). "Mother's original plan and the reality of the community today are not the same."

The community is less spiritual than I, too, had imagined. While the Matrimandir is geographically the center of the township - and in Mother's writings is referred to as the 'soul of the city' - it is the Solar Kitchen that is the real center of the community. Here residents gather for lunch or an afternoon cappuccino and email in the rooftop cafe.

One of the central tenets is that Auroville belongs to nobody in particular, but to humanity as a whole. Yet, during my stay I came across an inordinate amount of possessiveness. Residents claim not to be materialistic, but they all have the latest technological gadgets. Soon after my arrival, a long-term American guest and a German newcomer purchased bicycles. While most cycles in India are of the one-speed rickety variety, these two bikes were top-model, multi-gear sorts. The new owners repeatedly noted how "cheap" the bikes were - when, in reality, they cost more than most Indians make in a month.

As spiritual groups often do, Auroville attracts all sorts of fringe people. Whereas one usually doesn't need the permission of a city's residents when relocating, when moving to Auroville newcomers must complete a two-year tryout and then be voted in as a member. Such new measures were made clear to me after the first Aurovilian I met replied to my cheery 'hello' with: "I'm a hermit. I don't really talk to anyone."

An Italian, who has lived there for 21 years, said, "this is the only place you can express your individuality and not be told to conform."

But in an attempt to weed out overtly 'out there' individuals, Aurovilians are inadvertently promoting the need to be crazy with their principle that newcomers must provide funding for their own accommodation with the stipulation that these facilities belong to the community as a whole and not to the individual who paid for them. Seriously, who would shell out $50,000 for an apartment they cannot call their own?

I'm a little lost at how Aurovilians plan to reach a population of 50,000. But if that's truly a goal for them, to be taken sincerely as a "city the earth needs", residents should really think about revising their constitution. It reads: "[...] The whole earth must prepare itself for the advent of the new species, and Auroville wants to consciously work towards hastening that advent. Little by little it will be revealed to us what this new species should be and meanwhile the best measure to take is to consecrate oneself entirely to the Divine...."
Beam me up, Scotty.

© Viva Sarah Press August 2002

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