No trip to Pondicherry is complete without a visit to Auroville. Located about 30-minute’s drive from the centre of Pondicherry, Auroville was inaugurated on 28th February 1968 by the initiative of The Mother. It is an international-universal township project, where all men and women of good faith can live in peace with the purpose of realizing human unity. Call it an ‘experimental community’, a ‘hippy commune’, a ‘utopian society’ or whatever else you want – Auroville has been up and successfully running for the past 50 years, showing the world that townships like this that offer an alternative vision of human co-existence are possible.
The concept of Auroville came to The Mother in the 1930s, the spiritual companion of the spiritual reformer and guru, Sri Aurobindo. In the 1960s, against the backdrop of the Cold War and an increasing proliferation of nuclear arms, she felt compelled to put the plan into action and to create a sanctuary of peace that was above any nationality, politics, or creed. She secured backing from the Indian Government, and the General Assembly of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) passed a unanimous resolution in favour of Auroville, cementing the path for the project.
At its official inauguration, about 5000 people gathered at the Banyan tree, which is considered the epicentre of the township. Banyan trees are known for their ability to form ‘aerial roots’ or branches of the tree that grow down to form alternative trunks, thus giving the tree further support and ensuring that it does not fall. They have special significance in spirituality as it is considered that the Buddha achieved enlightenment under one of these trees. Representatives of 121 nations and 23 Indian States brought with them some soil from their homeland and mixed it in to the lotus-shaped urn, now called the Urn of Human Unity, which proudly stands in the amphitheatre. It was at this time that The Mother gave Auroville its 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.
- Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
- Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.
There are now around 3,800 Aurovillian residents – young and old – and the township is ever-growing. The township is divided into zones; an industrial zone, an international zone, a cultural zone, a peace area, a residential zone and a green belt. It has 5 schools, 3 kindergardens, 2 creches, a number of research centres, a museum of archaeology, two health centres, which offer a range of alternative health therapies, dental clinics, a horse riding school, 18 farms growing organic produce, a town hall, approximately 50 guest houses, 69 natural wastewater treatment plants and 180 wells for water supply, amongst other things.
I imagined the courage that the first Aurovillians must have had, to uproot their lives and to take a chance on an emerging concept, an emerging place. I longed to meet some of the OAs (original Aurovillians) and speak to them. By chance, we had an encounter with a few in an ice-cream parlour in central Pondicherry. We didn’t get much time to really discuss in full with them but one of the men said that he had helped to build the Matrimandir, right when they had begun construction.
The Matrimandir, meaning the house of the universal mother, is located in the peace area of Auroville. It is supposed to represent the spirit or soul of Auroville and was designed as a place for individual, silent concentration and contemplation. It is in the form of a huge sphere, surrounded by 12 ramps, or petals which are covered in red sandstone. The Matrimandir itself is covered in overlapping golden disks which reflect the sunlight and make it appear like a luminous, glowing orb.
If you want to visit Auroville and the Matrimandir, you must attend at the Visitor’s Centre. Here, there is a photo exhibition of Auroville and a room which shows a short introductory video about the founding concepts of Auroville, her charter, the construction of the Matrimandir and her unique features.
From there, you are issued a ticket to view the Matrimandir, which is a short 2km walk to the viewing point. Buses are also available for those who may not be able to walk. The viewpoint offers a stunning view of the Matrimandir and her surrounding gardens, some of which are still under construction.
If you want to visit the internal chamber of the Matrimandir, you must first go to the Visitor’s Centre during its opening hours and make an appointment for the following day. All bookings must be made in person. There is no charge. The table for bookings is located above the Kalki shop, near to the visitor centre itself. You will receive a yellow booking card which you must bring with you. We made a booking and were told to come the following day at 8.45am. We arrived and were seated in a video room full of about 50 people. I looked around me and was startled at the diversity of people in the room. The video was a longer version of the video that we had watched on the first visit but which gave more background to Auroville, the work that it does and the Matrimandir.
From there, we exited and boarded what looked to be an old school bus and drove the short 5 minutes to another holding area, where there were toilets, a cloakroom and some benches. We were told to hand in all our possessions; bags, mobile phones, water bottles. No phones or videography were allowed. Here, we met our Matrimandir tour guide, who seemed to be an Aurovillian himself. He had a slight foreign lilt to his English. I pegged him as being German or Norwegian. We assembled on a row of stone benches and he told us the origin story of the Matrimandir. To the front of us, was the Matrimandir in all her radiant glory. To the left, rose the leafy branches of the Banyan tree. To the right, the sloping steps of the red sand-stoned Amphitheatre rose up, cradling the lotus urn at its pinnacle. Manicured grass lawns spanned around us, interspersed with little patches of succulents. A pup from a bulbous spiked head of a cactus had come loose and I debated whether I could sneakily take it with me and repot it. Having no bag to put it in, meaning I would have to bear its thorns with my bare hands, I decided against it.
From there, we traipsed up the pathways, which looped around the peace gardens and emerged at the foot of one of the red sandstone ramps or ‘petals’. We ascended the stairwell and were told to remove our footwear. We were then directed into a doorway and I felt like I had entered a cave. Wrapping around the Matrimandir, we walked by some of the meditation rooms or ‘pods’ nestled in the lower sections – each representing one aspect of consciousness as emphasised by the Mother. We reached the marble lotus pond. White marble petals are overlapped, with a white crystal orb in the centre. Water gently laps over the petals. We positioned ourselves around the pond’s edge and everyone sat in silence for some time. A bell gently tolled, signalling the end to our quiet contemplation and we ascended some more stairs to the belly of the Matrimandir. Immediately upon entering, we were enveloped in silence. It was dimly lit and I felt as if I had just entered a space ship. At one section, our guide gestured to us to take a seat on a white cushioned bench. Beside us, inbuilt into the bench was a container of long white socks. We were instructed to put them on as from thereon, everything was either white marble or coated with white carpet. Walking further still, we ascended another flight of marble stairs. A woman in all white was silently standing there. She did not make eye contact but angled her right hand to point us in the right direction. A winding white ramp, flanked by glass walls, spiralled up towards the next section and we ascended. As we walked onwards, my calves began to ache slightly at the effort. All around us, the metal golden circles looked like hammered shields of war. I looked down over the side and imagined falling off. I centred myself and kept walking.
Finally, we reached our destination – the inner chamber. The chamber is completely white and devoid of light, save for a glass globe located in the centre of the cylindrical room. Through the use of mirrors and a computer program which catches the sunlight and redirects it, a beam of light penetrates through the roof and angles directly down into the crystal. Sometimes, the line of the light beam was clear and precise. At other times, it shifted form and threw the orb into moving patterns of light and shadow. It made me think of the Big Bang and creation.
Around the orb, are 12 white marble pillars. The Mother had given specific instructions that she wanted these white pillars present in the room, although they serve no structural purpose. Just beyond the pillars, a row of white cushions was laid out, for people to sit and meditate. There were three rows of cushions with the cushions towards the wall containing another one for a back rest. A row of chairs was lined up in one corner, for those who could not sit on the ground.
After the initial shuffling died down, I could hear the silence roaring in my ears. It was deafening and for a moment, I panicked. After my ears adjusted, I settled into a short meditation set of 30 minutes. Every so often, I would open my eyes and gaze at the orb in the centre. I can’t say that in the silence, I suddenly struck upon the meaning of life, but it was a unique experience nonetheless.
We were then silently ushered out and led down the winding ramp. We took off our socks and returned them to a large white basket which had appeared. We descended the marble stairs, put on our shoes and regrouped outside.
Our guide took us to briefly view the Amphitheatre and to sit among the many trunks of the Banyan tree. We were then escorted back to the holding place; our possessions were returned to us and we were returned by bus to the Visiting Centre.
Meditating in the Matrimandir is definitely an experience I cannot forget. The various stages at which you stop mentally prepare you for the silent space of concentration and contemplation. Even divesting ourselves of our worldly items – bags, phones, cameras – was a necessary step on the journey.
I understood that the small barriers that exist to access the Matrimandir – such as having to make an appointment in person and for the next day, and not being allowed to bring in phones, bags etc., are there to ensure that the sanctity of the Matrimandir is preserved and that the vision of the Mother is realized. Only those who are genuinely serious enough to make the pilgrimage will come back.
What I appreciated the most is that there is no prescribed dress-wear. People came in shorts, t-shirts, dresses, trousers – whatever they wanted. I think other meditation organisations would do well to understand that the Source, or universal energy, does not care about external dress. It penetrates beyond the flesh, to the very soul.
For those who meditate and even for those who don’t, I would recommend making the effort to experience it for yourself.
Post-script: Since our visit, I’ve been searching more information about Auroville. Buzzfeed recently did a short segment about Auroville for the Netflix series, Follow This. Jessica Namakkal has written an excellent piece called ‘European Dreams, Tamil Land: Auroville and the Paradox of a Postcolonial Utopia’, which delves further into Auroville’s complex relationship with the local Tamilian community. It is definitely worth reading.