Auroville is an international spiritual community in South India. Its charter bravely proclaims that Auroville intends to be a living embodiment of human unity. The place has existed for about fifty years and has about 3000 residents excluding the locals. Quite unique in its realisation, Auroville has largely managed to stay away from the glare of the mainstream media . As an idealist though I am tempted to scrutinize the place further. What have they achieved? What are the pitfalls and what are the useful lessons for India if any from this experiment.
As a visitor the first thing that hits my eyes are the natural buildings. The materials used like unbaked bricks, unpolished granite give a feeling that the buildings are one with the surrounding trees. A place where you can take walks in open spaces without a loss of privacy and without running into plastic wrappers. Such is also possible in the farms of rural India, however the difference is that this is a township with buildings knit close. Auroville is a reminder of either cities in the Indian past when the population was less or of some current South East Asian tourist towns like in Bali. The buildings are particularly pleasing to me, a confluence of traditional Indian natural buildings and modern western design. Our cities would do well to follow some this architecture instead of creating the concrete monstrosities that have cropped in the last few years.
The next most obvious thing that hit my eyes is the various posters announcing yoga, massages and workshops related to health. I am convinced that such are things the planet needs more of. However when I look at the prices announced I am frustrated that they are about twice or thrice the usual Indian prices. Given the steep price rise also of the guest houses I get nostalgic about the time a decade ago where the place also seemed more inclusive of Indian tourists. I can see that the systems of guest registration and finances etc. have become a lot more structured the last few years, the controls being brought in both by the foreign office of India and the Auroville management to plug vagrant tourists. However, the streamlining and central control seems to have benefited the guest houses and therapies business at the cost of personal trust and small negotiations. Both India and Auroville have a history of doing so well and its sad to see them go. This is a classic case for the debate of centralisation versus decentralisation around the world . My opinion is that decentralisation is much more empowering to the people. Decentralisation is also more robust as it is not dependent on a single authoritarian figure.
Digging deeper in Auroville involves reading a copy of the local newsletter. This is the main vehicle of communication within the community. It is heartening to find that there are a programmes also offered for free in Auroville. There are interesting movies showing on most nights, dance and music performances. The complex organisational structure of the place is exposed in the newsletter with its hot debates on policy. I am faced with recogising that as an educated middle class citizen I feel outside of the political system in India. My political participation seems limited to voting once in a few years and consuming the media. Unless we choose a life of a bureaucrat, a choice we need to have made quite young, both the middle class and the intelligentsia are largely left out from state governance and policy. What if we had a pan-Indian intellectual forum that can usefully contribute to Government decisions? Almost no country be it the USA or Japan has been able to do create such a forum and policy seems to rest invariably on politicians and mass sentiment. In a small and educated community like in Auroville many voices are heard and debated upon, kudos.
In terms of the demographics the largest groups that domicile here are the Europeans and the local Tamils. In the earlier days the foreign arrivals were largely hippies living a quiet life in a huge tract of land along with the largely uneducated villagers. Overtime there have been children born here with mixed identities and hence I can happily say that is a mixed ethnic community. The next round of arrivals both as guests and participants have been the foreign new-age spiritualists. Auroville seems a good halfway point from their cultures to India which can be overwhelming for them. The one problem of the foreign tourist ghettoising himself in Auroville is that the perception of the mother country is mostly dismal and dismissive. Foreign tourists in Tiruvanamalli are able to have a much kinder view of the Indian people and more realistic view of the country. The latest round of tourists to Auroville seem to the young, urban Indians. I wish I was ten years younger to feel a sense of community with them!
Coming from a place where service is usually silent and efficient, negotiating for a lunch in a cafe here can be a complex job. It is the only place in the world I have been so far where I have had to pay three hundred rupees for a meal and then clear the plates. I am not against egalitarianism but this money-machine that has cropped up lately is skewing power here. Thankfully, there is much of spirituality and goodness to explore in Auroville beyond the pains . The strategy that works for me here is to expect people to be rude and controlling and in return be pleasantly surprised many times a day.
For women and freedom this is one of the best places to in India. You can let down your hair, wear what clothes you want to and in most cases men approach you safely. The Indian woman here can do away with the pacifying voice and be direct in conversations without being judged as arrogant. Yes, finally one place in the country for a rebellious woman!