Auroville: A Spiritual Retreat
Auroville: A Spiritual Retreat in South India
By Kathleen Broadhurst
With its serene atmosphere, Auroville in South India is must see place for travelers who are interested in spirituality or sustainability. Situated almost on the tip of India in the state of Tamil Nadu about a 30-minute rickshaw ride from Puducherry, Auroville offers a one of a kind experience in alternative living for those who are interested in staying for a while.
A truly international city, Auroville boasts residents from 140 countries and all the states of India creating a culture that is full of possibility, experimenting with creating a new society and finding ecologically friendly ways of living.
A Universal City
Some 40 years ago Sri Aurobindo’s companion, a woman known simply as “the Mother”, founded Auroville around an enormous banyan tree. Since that fouding Auroville has grown into a township of at time nearly 50,000 people.
To outsiders Aurovillian’s devotion to the Mother can seem a bit cult-like, but know that you do not have to connect with the Mother in order to connect to and enjoy the spiritual life in Auroville. Auroville is open to all and has much to offer.
The philosophical heart of Auroville is its charter which states:
1. 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.
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 realizations.
4.Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.
Bonfire at the Matrimandir
While the charter is the core of Aurovillian principles the physical heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir rising above beautiful gardens it is a gold orb radiating in the sunshine.
To go inside the Matrimandir you will need to sign up first for an educational video about the building of the Matrimandir and the founding of Auroville. Then you will be allowed to tour the building with a guide, this includes a ‘concentration’ session in the main room. After that you will be free to make you’re own booking for the concentration room or any of the smaller ‘petal chambers’ that surround the orb.
The act of concentrating, or meditating, in the room is a wonderful moment where you can connect with yourself and the heart of Auroville. It is cool and white and at the center is one of the world’s largest crystal spheres onto which sunlight is beamed, projecting the image of the sky onto the floor. Sitting in the room is a transcendent experience even if meditation isn’t usually your thing. The architecture alone is powerful and totally unlike anything else. The petals are small chambers each with their own theme and color, from Peace to Humility the open petal rotates daily.
Auroville designed water filter
Experiments in Sustainability
Although the primary purposes of Auroville are the socio-spiritual ones in it’s charter Auroville has, since its early days been a hub of sustainability and green-practices. Auroville does not call itself an eco-village but many of the smaller communities within it are dedicated to principles of alternative energy, organic farming, permaculture and sustainability. Communities like Buddha Garden, Sadhana Forest and Gaia’s Garden are all places where these principles flourish, just to name a few.
In more recent years its has become an education center for those who are interested in learning more about alternative practices and has teamed up with Living Routes, an organization that helps students study abroad in eco-villages.
For those who are visiting with this end in mind it’s best to plan on spending a chunk of time here, a month at least, to allow yourself to integrate into the community Some of the best things that are happening in Auroville are not seen by visitors and so if you’re coming, do consider the idea of volunteering or interning.
In some cases you can stay for free, exchanging work for room and board. One such place is Sadhana Forest, the reforestation project that is actually a little removed from Auroville proper. It has been working on restoring the indigenous topical pines to the land to help curb erosion, anchor soil and save water. They are completely vegan and the living is rough but it’s a truly off-the-grid experience.
Culture in Auroville
For many visitors Auroville is a restful stop where those who are a bit India-weary can pause to recoup in some of the best alternative healing centers in the country. With massage, reiki and other forms of alternative restorative therapy available for visitors, it’s easy to see why people travel here from all over the world.
There are many who are drawn to the city in order to take part in workshops or to see performances by one of the many talented groups of musicians and dancers. Take a weeklong course in Ayurvedic Acupressure Massage, join the weekly Kirtan, or take morning yoga. The workshops are listed along with other weekly offerings in the Auroville Newsletter, which can be found either at your guesthouse or at the Café La Terrace.
Auroville has produced fantastic visual and musical artists and if you’re lucky you can catch a show either in a gallery space or a live performance. Keep an eye out for Nadaka a band that fuses classic Indian with contemporary sounds to create something beautiful and uniquely Aurovillian.
In between workshops and meditations at the Matrimandir you can grab a bit to eat at one of the many local eateries. Stocked with local and ‘orgainic-as-possible’ food you can eat cheap at the Solar Kitchen, which serves cafeteria style lunches, mostly idlis and sambar, or sip a latte as you enjoy homemade gelato at the Café La Terrace.
Make it for lunch one day at the India Pavilion and grab authentic South Indian fare. Pizza at Auroville Pizza is a little pricy but the most satisfying pie in the subcontinent.
You can stock up on Aurovillian made favorites at Pour Tous where they have everything from massage oils to raw honey. The Bakery has every carbohydrate confection you can ever want and especially delicious chocolate croissants. Get there early, they move fast.
You can beat the heat in the middle of the day by taking a drive down to Repos Beach where you can sit in the shade of palm trees while you feast on one of their fantastic and huge salads, or go for a dip in the Indian Ocean, so warm it’s like bathwater. Sadhana Forest offers Friday night movies, usually of an environmental/educational theme, but some worthwhile Indies as well.
Renting a moped or scooter is a necessity given how large Auroville is. While it does contradict the green principles of the community the Indian heat makes cycling unbearable for visitors most of the year.
Auroville, while having much to offer those who are staying there, is also a wonderful place from which to explore the region. Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry and known affectionately as Pondi) is a 20-30 minute rickshaw ride from the Auroville visitor’s center.
This old colonial town still retains reminders of its French past with a beachside promenade of decaying facades and distinctly French items on all the menus. The highlight is really the marketplace that is filled to the brim with color and sound, get lost in its alleys and buy a kilo of garam masala to bring home. The fish market is as fascinating as it is aromatic and worth a look, though you will want to hold your nose.
Two hours, or so, away depending on how much your taxi driver feels like risking your lives, is Tiruvannamalai one of the most photogenic spots in Tamil Nadu. The major attraction is the Anamalaiyar Temple, dedicated to Shiva. The complex is mind boggling with its colorful representations of the deities and Dravidian architecture. Deep inside you’ll find the Darshan room where for a small fee you can go into the heart of the temple for prayers and a blessing.
Not far from the Temple is the Ramana Maharishi Ashram where, if you’ll lucky, you may walk into a puja (a sacred Hindu ritual fire offering ceremony). If there’s nothing going on at the ashram it’s still a nice place to relax, and to meditate with others. Many who come through the doors end up staying longer than they intended so consider yourself warned!
If You Go
If you chose to visit Auroville you can day trip from Pondicherry and take a tour, which will tell you the basics and give you a glimpse of the Matrimandir, but unless you are really are crunched for time plan on spending at least a week to take full advantage of the offerings.
Auroville is in southern Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Its hot, really really hot, in the summer which starts in April. As a result many Aurovillians head for cooler weather and the offerings are slim until September when people start coming back. The best time to visit is October-February while the temperatures are bearable.
As A Visitor
Contact the Visitor’s Center for booking information. There are many places to stay in Auroville and each location has it’s own community, flavor and focus. From luxury bungalows with swimming pools to dorm style youth hostels to camping in Sadahan forest Auroville has the right accommodation for any style and any budget. Plan ahead though as spaces fill up fast.