Man at His Best

The Way They Live: Auroville, Pondicherry

A cashless, government-less, areligious, apolitical, egalitarian society in India. Does it work?

BY LESTARI HAIRUL | Jul 19, 2016 | Travel

There will never be a dearth of utopias. Or at least communities that are attempting to form one, that is. 10KM north of Pondicherry, a former French colony, lies one such commune, Auroville. It was set up in 1968 by a French transplant of Turkish-Egyptian Jewish descent Mirra Alfassa, who was a devotee, and later right-hand woman of Sri Aurobino. The latter was a spiritual guru, the kind you’ll find aplenty in the Indian sub-continent and who’d ask his disciples to refer to Madame Alfassa as The Mother.

The 4-point charter that governs an essentially ungoverned township is the most important creed:

1 | Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.

2 | Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.

3 | 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.

4 | Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

For a place that espouses being of service to Truth beyond all religious (and socio-political) convictions, Auroville is replete with images and references to both The Mother and Sri Aurobino. They do have a big dome-like building in the centre of the township however, called Matrimandir, where one is forbidden from making religious or prayer-like gestures whilst soaking in silence and meditating. 

This experimental township was formed with a goal of having 50,000 residents, but decades later, there are only 2487 true residents. A large percentage are from India, France and Germany, with the others a mixed bag of 46 nationalities. But that doesn’t mean the place is a ghost town. Visitors from all over the world visit Auroville with that same gnawing hope that they’ll be able to find spiritual meaning. It is notoriously difficult to become an Aurovillian, involving a two-year probationary period after which you are assessed by a panel, before you have to pay a significant sum that goes to your accommodation, and donation to Auroville among other procedures. But for a visitor, guesthouses and voluntourism opportunities abound in its various agriculturual and manufacturing mini-industries. Donations highly recommended. 

With its lofty mission of being an egalitarian place where all are welcome, and all are working to realise true human unity, the township is greatly supported by the Indian Government and UNESCO. The former contributes a donation each year, with other funds being provided for by visitors, residents and other donors. It is an experiment in human relations that UNESCO would understandably be greatly interested in. 

Auroville was a barren land in its early years but concerted efforts at reforestation and building organic farms meant that it is largely self-sustaining though water supply is an issue, provided for and bought from neighbouring villages in Pondicherry. Villagers outside of Auroville are also employed within the compound to work as service staff, leaving the spiritual undertakings to the foreigners.

A cashless system is purportedly in place but various reports have confirmed that cash is much preferred. It seems like the basic machinations of capitalist society are difficult to shake off. After a rash of assaults, including rapes and two brutal murders perpetrated by non-Aurovillians, security services were employed. Paradise is further tainted by a BBC documentary in 2008 that reported cases of child abuse and the presence of a paedophile within the community. Auroville fought the allegations, but the case was dropped. 

It remains to be seen whether humanity can appropriately function in utopias. In Auroville, where visitors come to stay for a stint and then leaving just so they could get more money working back home to come back, utopia is stalled by the pesky material needs of existence. And even if the denizens themselves are purely looking to live in a spiritual state afforded to them by their status as worldly, privileged foreigners, there is a matter of the non-Aurovillians living for centuries longer nearby who are by and large not allowed to experience the same fruits. Perhaps history already has the answer.