The Hindu: Auroville the city beneath a banyan tree


Today, Auroville is home to over 2,500 volunteers. Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

At 50, Auroville might not be the ‘city of the future’ as once envisaged but it is still a vibrant community

Some 50 years ago, on a vast, barren plateau north of Pondicherry, a lone, young banyan tree stood guard. It seemed to be waiting for something. Then one day, someone hammered a nail into its trunk to hang up an advertisement. Lore has it that the banyan tree sent out an SOS — and it was received by the Mother in Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She immediately sent someone to check, and the place she had been looking for was found — soon she would start a city near that banyan tree.

It was the culmination of a task she had carried forward after Sri Aurobindo had passed away. When All India Radio had asked Sri Aurobindo on August 15, 1947 to deliver a message for the newborn nation, he had outlined roles for India, Asia and the world in a text called the Five Dreams, where he spoke of a next step in evolution that would raise man to a higher consciousness.

Mirra Alfassa (born Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa), known to her followers as The Mother, was the spiritual partner of Aurobindo, philosopher, yogi, guru and a leader of the independence movement.

Throughout, their work together had been to uplift humanity to a further level of consciousness. For this, they envisaged the setting up of an ideal town. The ‘universal town’ would not be just a development project, but an evolutionary experiment.

Atop a dusty plateau

The Mother was 90 when she started work with architect Roger Anger to chalk out a city plan for 50,000 people. It came to be called the Galaxy Plan and looked quite unlike most modern cities and had very different priorities. The idea began to inspire people worldwide. The Mother noted: “Scores of people have come for Auroville…. They’ve already begun discussing what the city’s political situation will be… Auroville must be at the service of the Truth, beyond all social, political and religious convictions. But above all, I insisted that it would be better to build the city first! And that we would see afterwards.”

Finally, on February 28, 1968, over 5,000 people from across the world clambered up the dusty plateau and gathered in an open amphitheatre next to the banyan tree. The Mother read from The Auroville Charter and the city of the future was born.

The charter said:

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, 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.

Earth from 114 countries was poured into an urn in the amphitheatre and the charter was read in several languages of the world. The banyan was no longer alone. Thousands of people passed under the blue canopy floating between its branches where an exhibition on Auroville and its city plan was displayed. An adventure began — one that would be both spiritual and material.

Tapas Bhatt, who now works as a coordinator at Pavilion of India, recalls how as a 14-year-old student at the Ashram school, she was struck by an incredible feeling of togetherness as thousands of people were united in their common aspiration for the world. “It was all so simple, really, so splendid,” another visitor recalls.

Hippies and horticulturists

People came from everywhere. There were engineers, architects, technicians, doctors, dancers, artists, writers, corporate types, plumbers, horticulturists, researchers, hippies, students and teachers. Some came by chance, some were eager to get started, some were still searching, and for some who met the Mother, their destiny had changed.

It was a young, vibrant place. New ideas were in the air. Huts were coming up, wells being dug, trees planted, bread baked, electricity organised, schools set up. There were basketball courts, music and theatre. At night, some read Aurobindo or meditated in their huts while others discussed the Mother’s last message at the community dining table.

Soon, the construction of the Matrimandir would begin at the heart of Auroville. About 20 people with crowbars started digging at the site but the scale was huge and they were joined by a local workforce from the village. The Matrimandir would become the soul of Auroville, a building for the invisible.

In those early pioneering years, there were only about 300 people. But the Mother was already initiating large projects. After Matrimandir, she started plans for Bharat Nivas (Pavilion of India) in Auroville’s International Zone: The city of Universal Culture had to get off the ground. But Auroville already had several designations to live up to: City of the Future, City of Dawn, City at the Service of Truth, City the Earth Needs.

And what did the earth need? According to the Mother, “Earth needs a place where men can live away from all national rivalries, social conventions, self-contradictory moralities and contending religions; a place where human beings, freed from all slavery to the past, can devote themselves wholly to the discovery and practice of the Divine Consciousness that is seeking to manifest. Auroville wants to be this place.”

It was heady stuff. Meanwhile, work at the Matrimandir began, the foundation was laid and the four base support pillars built. On November 17, 1973, just as the construction of the fourth pillar was completed, news arrived that the Mother had passed away.

It was the beginning of several challenging years, with uncertainties, court cases, visas refused, funds cut and sometimes no food.

Too ambitious?

The ground realities were grim. With architect Roger Anger leaving Auroville for a few years, doubts crept in: was the city plan too ambitious? Was it a big mistake?

Despite the doubts and the tough times, when I first came to Auroville in 1979 I did not sense any inordinate panic. There was so much to be done. The best attitude seemed to be to pool in all our resources and get on with the work. Now, regenerating the severely eroded land had become the priority. Alternative farms with wholly organic systems were established. We would think of the city again, but for now the focus was firmly on environment and sustainability, which fine-tuned our collective awareness and attitudes.

Admirable work was accomplished over the next years with research and projects initiated in earth, wind, solar and water technologies. However, this also brought with it a certain downsizing of the dream.

The City of the Future was now called a community. This shrinking of the spirit and vision has led to a certain stasis, and Auroville’s intended avatar as a ‘model town’ still remains to be harnessed. Auroville is a place where many preconceptions alter.

Its collective body cannot be formed by relying on established democratic or institutional formats alone. New forms might evolve as the collective emerges.

To school on a pony

My only regret is that I could not start out in Auroville as a child. “And just look at the names listed for the Auroville schools,” laughs Deepti Tewari, who teaches at Last School. “There is Last School, After School, Super School and No School! Auroville is a place of an unending education, for the constant progress we need to make here.”

Kripa Borg-Pion remembers walking though empty fields to get to school and the monsoon mud fights. Often, when times got tough, there was no school to go to. Children grew up with very little structure, roaming around, riding vandis (bullock carts) or ponies to school; they were typically comfortable in at least three languages, if not five. It made them resilient and flexible but gradually some began to demand structure, more discipline and even grades for their work.

Now a mother of two growing boys, Kripa stands at a midpoint between three generations. “My children are growing up differently, in a very different Auroville. Their education is very structured, and life is much more organised and stable.” Auroville’s education now offers hybrid possibilities between experimental and standard education, community experiments and extracurricular activities.

In 1968 Auroville was planned as a unified, self-sustaining town, ideas that are now in vogue. It was planned with overlapping, multi-use zones, with solar energy and non-polluting, non-motorised traffic. It balanced high and low density areas to integrate green zones in city spaces.

But above all, it planned to be necessarily artistic with an emphasis on beauty. All this, in one place.

Talking to a host of people, young and old, as I worked on my book, I realised how much of Auroville is still invisible, how much has been achieved and how much is yet to be done. As Auroville approaches its 50th year, this is a chance we cannot miss.

The writer is an Auroville ‘old timer’ waiting for the city to happen. Auroville: A City for the Future is her ninth book.

Anu Majumdar

(originally published in The Hindu – NOVEMBER 18, 2017)