By Abby Jade Sarfas
auroville: The City of Dawn
A magnanimous statement, for a magnanimous project.
Because that’s what Auroville is, what I was told Auroville is many times whilst I was there – a project, a work-in-progress, an experimental town-ship. It’s certainly a noble undertaking, and one with the purest of intentions. The vision is stated clear on the website; “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole.” But what is Auroville, exactly, and fifty years after its inception, how close does it remain to the original vision?
I spent a week in the aptly named ‘experimental city of human unity’. As an extension to the course I took on Modern Indian Philosophy, three students from my university were taken out to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to learn more about the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo – on whose philosophy Auroville is based.
Over the course of the week our schedule was hectic; we were taken on tours of all four zones of the city – the industrial zone, where fairtrade businesses create things to sell both inside and outside Auroville, the residential zone, where inhabitants of the city (Aurovillians) live, the international zone, which houses pavilions dedicated to different continents and countries, and the cultural zone, with space for cultural, educational, art and sports activities to take place.
It sounded pretty great on paper. I couldn’t wait to see this city, where everyone strives to live in perfect harmony with each other and with the earth. The environment is prioritised in a way that it is not in ninety-five percent of communities, sadly. It is nearly always sunny, thanks to its location close to the South East Indian coast. It is extremely multi-cultural, with inhabitants who hail from all four corners of the world. This is represented by the ‘Urn of Human Unity’, which is located in the centre of the concentric circle layout and contains the soil of 121 nations and 23 Indian states. This is all surrounded by a ‘Green Belt’, a conservation project of farmland and rainforest that breathes air – literally – into the life of Auroville.
It sounded like a dream, like the perfect example of how we should live.
But is that the reality of Auroville?
As I stated, I was only there for a week, and I don’t think that is enough time to truly take in a place and understand it. But I will be relating to the best of my ability what I observed whilst I was there, and what I thought of Auroville’s success in line with its mission.
Sri Aurobindo was one of India’s leading philosophers throughout the twentieth century. He wrote extensively on many topics, including metaphysics, health, yoga and politics. His vision was holistic and all-encompassing; he didn’t want to advise on how to better life in one or two areas, he preached an entirely new and ever developing state of mind for all humanity. Human unity was the core of his belief, and remains the core of Auroville’s vision.
However, Auroville was not the brainchild of its namesake. The idea to create a physical place to bring people together to practice Aurobindo’s philosophy and attempt to realise this heightened human state of being was the vision of Mirra Alfassa, otherwise known as ‘The Mother’, his spiritual companion and collaborator. In her last years she drafted a plan for the place she called Auroville, and planted the seeds of the community that I visited fifty years later. A quote from her in a book about Auroville (Auroville: Aims and Ideals) outlines exactly what Auroville was intended to be.
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.”
A noble intention, but one that seems to have surpassed Aurobindo’s initial influence; not everyone in Auroville follows the philosophy of Aurobindo to the letter.
This was a slightly confusing fact upon getting to know the city and some of the inhabitants, but it began to make more sense as time went on. All Aurovillians are at least aware of Aurobindo, and aware of the vision and intent of Auroville. And though both spirituality and philosophy play a huge part in the creation and development of the city, there are other things that seem to top the list of importance. The key word when it comes to Auroville is development. The city is only fifty years old, after all, and is still a rather revolutionary concept. Fifty years ago, it began as nothing more than a barren expanse of sand and a few hippies camping out with nothing but a dream of how they wanted the world to be. They followed Aurobindo’s words east, and brainstormed a new way of living.
So Auroville has certainly succeeded on more than one account. It is a functioning place to live and work, and the sense of community it fosters is admirable. Most of the permanent inhabitants know each other by name, and get around by bike or motorbike. Most of the food is grown in the many farms of the Green Belt, and the one food market operates on donations. To become a permanent inhabitant you must have either been born there or have volunteered for at least two years before applying for a house or apartment. You are then given living space that suits your needs – a small room or apartment for a young single person, perhaps a bungalow for a couple and a house for a family. Once you are a permanent resident, everything is about giving and receiving. Money is not a concept in Auroville, which sounds pretty utopian to me. Yet, this was the most difficult concept to grasp.
The three of us questioned every Aurovillian we were able to talk to, and we left without one solid answer. Not that there’s some sort of conspiracy surrounding money in Auroville, not at all (though it seemed that way at first). We got honest answers, but nothing that satisfied us in terms of how the concept of money aligned with Auroville’s goal. For as much as equality and unity are at its heart, Auroville isn’t for everyone. Not at the moment. Anyone can come to volunteer in Auroville, and anyone can apply to live there. But you need money to do it. Because Auroville can’t supply everything, and as an experimental city still very much in progress, it also needs to make money in order to build, develop, and communicate with people on the outside. A lot of this comes from tourist revenue and fundraising projects, but Aurovillians still need to support themselves. Some of the restaurants, like the central food hall, are free for Aurovillians to eat at. And the accommodation is free. But that’s where the handouts stop. The market may be donation based but donations still consist of money. And other restaurants may heavily reduce the price for permanent residents, but eating there will still cost you.
After talking to several people, I deduced that you need to be one of three people to survive financially in Auroville; rich, working at one of the outlets or a semi-permanent resident.
Most Aurovillians seem to fall within the third category; people who reside in Auroville for most of the year but also spend a portion of their time outside, usually in their home country, working in order to support themselves when they return.
It didn’t seem ideal, but I guess I can’t judge. There aren’t enough communities like Auroville right now in order to live without money, and Auroville is doing its best. But what about its impact on the world around it? Specifically, the rural communities of Tamil Nadu?
Situated where it is, in the midst of tiny, bustling, ramshackle Indian villages, Auroville looks a little alien, a town picked up and dropped down. The roads are red dust and wide, the buildings are spacious and white and the temple in the centre of it all, the Matrimandir, looks like a giant, shining, minimalist golf ball. It’s beautiful, and peaceful for the most part. Tourists mill around the gift shops and restaurants, and Aurovillians call out greetings to each other as they whizz by on their motorbikes.
But there is another demographic not usually mentioned – the South Indian locals who make up the majority of the staff – as cleaners, waiters, cooks, guards and drivers. Auroville supports the villages around it by providing steady employment for the villagers who might otherwise find it difficult to thrive. I’m particularly taken with a native school teacher on our tour of Auroville’s education facilities. He’s a large, jovial man who seems to genuinely love his job and care for the welfare of the children. He explains the policy of education that the schools of Auroville employ; a “self-directed, free-progress philosophy of learning”. Children are gently guided towards their individual development, they are given freedom to play and to learn and are gently moulded into students who know their own minds and respect themselves as well as their teachers. Children of the surrounding villages are lucky, he tells us. Most of the children we see have been hand-picked for free education and support, from families who might not otherwise be able to provide decent education.
So does that make it alright? Children are educated and adults are employed, so Auroville is doing something good, right? Even so, I can’t shake the slight uneasiness I feel. There are Indians who have made Auroville their home, but I can’t help but feel as though the status of ‘Aurovillian’ is closed to those whom are closest to it – the villagers who work there and are educated there. Because it is, at the moment. They can’t afford it, even if they wanted it.
However, despite its shortcomings, I believe that the world needs Auroville.
Though many people have yet to hear of it, Auroville is active in the wider community. Aurovillians volunteer to Auroville outreach programs, and Auroville leaders are at the forefront of global debates on the economy, the environment and conscious, positive human development.
We spent an invigorating morning at the Hall of Peace, a space built with the intention of facilitating harmony, awareness and a sense of oneness for all humanity. We’re told about the committee of Auroville leaders whilst we’re there, and about focus groups put together to brainstorm the development and future of Auroville. As with everything else, we’re told that it’s still very much a work in progress. There are things that work and things that don’t, but unlike too many other institutions and communities, Auroville isn’t afraid of change. And it’s that spirit that I’m most impressed by, and that I see Sri Aurobindo in.
His philosophy was all about self-development, after all. He believed that every stage of human evolution was important, but that we still have so much further to go. Thousands of people have poured their life’s dreams into Auroville, in an attempt to realise the next stage of human development, and the heart and passion is evident everywhere you go.
So what is the future for Auroville?
Only time will tell. My week there was both good and bad, eye-opening and overwhelming. I had never heard of a project such as this, and I’m so glad that one exists. To dip in and out of social, economic and environmental issues is commonplace nowadays, especially for young Westerners. We satisfy our compassionate urges by marching in the odd protest, signing the odd online petition. And there’s nothing wrong with that, to help issues you care about in any way is admirable. But to know that there’s an entire city of people somewhere in the world – and many others like it, I now know – dedicated to personal and global development, peace, unity and harmony? I think that’s pretty great. And I hope that more people hear about and are inspired by Auroville and its efforts sooner rather than later.
Article cover photo by InOutPeaceProject