What is Auroville?
“There should be somewhere on earth a place which no nation can claim as its own, where all human beings of good will who have a sincere aspiration could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority; that of the supreme truth; a place of peace, concord, and harmony.”
That was the dream of Mother Sri Aurobindo when she founded Auroville 51 years ago. Auroville is an experimental city located in South India, close to Pondicherry.
During its inauguration in 1968, representatives of 124 countries and 23 Indian states placed a handful of earth from their homelands into a lotus-shaped urn at the center of the township in a symbolic gesture of human unity.
Today, what was once a barren plateau of red earth has transformed into a lush green landscape. Auroville is progressively expanding. It now has a community of over 2,800 permanent residents from India and 54 other countries, and an ever-changing number of volunteers.
I found out about this special place after watching a video by Drew Binsky:
WHAT MAKES AUROVILLE SPECIAL?
- Auroville is a cashless society.
- It focuses on environmental regeneration, organic farming, renewable energy, village development, free healthcare and education, cross-cultural communication, women empowerment, and many others.
- It has no race, no religion, no government, and no nationality.
- To become an Aurovillian, you need to have stayed there and worked for free for at least two years. You also need to get three references from other residents and pass the review process.
It sounds like an ideal alternative haven for hippies, environmentalists, spiritualists and Socialists. I would have thought that if such a place exists at all, it wouldn’t be in India or anywhere in Asia, but in European countries such as Finland, Denmark, or Norway. The ones with the highest happiness indexes. Or where people are generally more receptive to unconventional ideas. Such was the level of my ignorance and racism.
But there it is, this place called Auroville, a.k.a. the City of Dawn, located just a few hours away from Chennai, South India.
Getting to Auroville from Chennai
The nearest airport to Auroville is Puducherry Airport. But it’s a very small one that serves only a few domestic flights. So, most people usually land in Chennai instead.
To get to Auroville from Chennai, you need to go to Koyembedu Bus Station and take the bus heading to Pondicherry. There are many of them — at least one every 15 minutes. So, I just hopped on one and told the conductor that I was going to Auroville, which is 11 kilometers before Pondicherry.
I can’t remember how much it was, but it was cheap (and being the scrooge that I am, when I say something is cheap, you can bet your last dollar that it really is cheap). What I do remember is that my journey back (Pondicherry – Chennai) was even cheaper despite the journey being longer. So, I’m not sure if there is a fixed ticket price or if it really depends on whether the conductor likes you.
Anyway, as promised, the driver dropped me off at a junction leading to Auroville. From there, it’s only another 3 – 4 kilometers to reach Auroville, which you could either cover on foot or hitchhike, like I did.
Where to Stay in Auroville
Apparently, there are many guesthouses (I only saw a few as I didn’t have a motorbike to explore the whole village), but only one hostel: The Time Traveler’s Hostel. It’s located right opposite the visitor’s center. The walls were made of bamboo and raised on stilts. Each room could accommodate up to four people.
How to Get Around in Auroville
The best way to get around in Auroville is by renting a bike/motorbike. The village covers a huge area, and everything is quite far from each other. Plus, the roads are badly lit at night. And since some of the events/activities might take place at night somewhere far from your hostel, it’s not going to be a very comfortable (or safe) walk, unless you’ve got headlamps or torch lights. For this same reason, if you’re renting a bike or motorbike, make sure the lights are working.
What to Do in Auroville
Most people who visit Auroville only do so as a day trip from Chennai or Pondicherry. They usually only spend their time in the visitor’s center, which is enough to provide them with everything they need to know about the place.
The center is equipped with a video hall, a mini museum, bookstores, restaurants and shops. The items sold are what you might expect in a community that is highly concerned about creating a sustainable living. So you’ll find lots of organic, handmade, recycled, and upcycled stuff on offer.
At the information center, you get to flip through a thick folder that advertises classes, events, and activities that are happening in that particular month. And they are either free or very cheap because skill-sharing is a major concept in Auroville. One of the girls at my hostel was taking French lessons for only 2,000 rupees (30 USD) per month! With daily sessions!
Even if you’re not staying long enough to take any of those classes, you could still check out the events and happenings. The night of my stay, there was a Beatles concert, and I was lucky because it was held right inside the visitor’s center, so I didn’t have to walk very far from my hostel.
Because Auroville has no religion, instead of having a place of worship, they have this huge golden metallic sphere called the Matrimandir, where people can go to meditate.
Inside it, a spiraling ramp leads upward to an air-conditioned chamber of polished white marble (this info, I got from Google because I didn’t get to see it for myself). The Matrimandir has its own solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens.
Radiating from it are four zones of the town area: the Residential Zone, Industrial Zone, Cultural & Educational Zone, and International Zone. And around the town area is an environmental research area that includes farms and forestry, a botanical garden, seed bank, medicinal and herbal plants, and water catchment bunds.
Silence is to be strictly observed inside the Matrimandir. Therefore, not everybody is allowed in except permanent residents of Auroville and serious meditators.
Visitors who wish to meditate there can register at the visitor’s center at least one day before and only up to one week in advance. Booking cannot be done online.
I went to try my luck but unfortunately, it was full. Not that I was really into meditation or anything, but I think I would have enjoyed the silence.
But all was not lost. Although I couldn’t go inside the giant golf ball, I would still be able to view it from a distance. Every day except Sunday, visitors are allowed to see the Matrimandir from a viewing point.
The viewing point was quite a distance away, but it was a pleasant walk through shaded pathways surrounded by trees and a rock garden.
I also got to sea the banyan tree, which was rumored to be over 100 years old.
After a while, the golden sphere came into view. I was separated from it by a fence and a few hundred square meters of garden. It was a very serene place. I could hardly believe I was in India — there was no sound of car horns.
After visiting the Matrimandir viewing point, I walked back to my hostel, packed my stuff and hitchhiked to Pondicherry. Overall, I was quite impressed with this experimental city. It was otherworldly. The people were otherworldly. It felt like being in an international art/music festival where you’re surrounded by the ‘cool crowd’. Think artists, dreamers, yogis, hippies…
However, if the concept sounds too ambitious and idealistic to be a success, it probably is. I have read that despite its stringent rules and all the spirituality mumbo jumbo, Auroville is not free from crimes such as robbery, sexual harassment, rape, and even murder.
Besides, Auroville is steeped in bureaucracy. The process to become a permanent resident is a long, tedious one. And it’s also expensive. First of all, you have to work for two years without pay. Secondly, once you have passed the review process, you will have to make a ‘mandatory donation’ (an oxymoron?) of up to USD 50,000 to the township, in return for housing.
This supposedly cashless city also receives a steady stream of donations from the Indian government, visitors, and private donors. To whom this money goes to, nobody seems to know or want to talk about.
But I guess it’s not fair for me to judge after staying for only one night. Would I visit again? Yes, because you’ve got to admit — it’s a fascinating concept. It may be too cultish and new agey for my liking, but that bit about “no religion” and “no race” is a major selling point for me, coming from a society that makes such a big fuss over those two things.