Aurobindo Ghose retired from active participation in the Indian nationalist movement in 1910 after being acquitted in the ‘Alipore Bomb Case’. Frustrated by the slow progress of the movement and his activities fettered, Aurobindo finally sought asylum in French Pondicherry. In 1926, Aurobindo turned over his responsibilities to Mira Richards – ‘The Mother’ – who became the spiritual head of the Aurobindo Ashram. An émigré from Paris, Mira continued Aurobindo’s stated purpose to function as an agency facilitating the evolution of humankind into ‘Supermind’, a sort of divinity on earth.
Mira, however, was not only a yogic Oracle of sorts, but also, it would seem, had a natural talent for organization. Under her aegis the Aurobindo Ashram began attracting people and funds that would promote her ‘dream’ project – a city that would be, in her words:
“…a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord, harmony, where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his suffering and misery, to surmount his weakness and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the care for progress would get precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the seeking for pleasures and material enjoyments.”
In February 1968, with government approval, the utopian community of Auroville was inaugurated. Its master plan – strikingly empty for the moment – consisted of a formal expression of Mira’s vision – that of four arms radiating from a center marking off four zones of activity – residential, cultural, international and industrial.
It has been nearly 40 years since that time, and Auroville’s growth has not been spectacular. The community relies heavily on neighboring Pondicherry and the surrounding countryside for its economic and social survival. However, what has worked as a completed project is the Matri Mandir at the canter of the plan; as well as several innovative architectural projects that are remarkable for their elegance and commitment to environmental concerns.
The Auroville experiment, started as one person’s mystic dream in 1968, is far from complete. Of the projected 50,000 population that the master plan envisions, Auroville has barely 2000 permanent residents almost a half-century later. The community is charged with being elitist, being dependent upon – and exploiting – neighboring villages for its survival, and with exacerbating the divide between Indians and aliens.
To its credit, Auroville has been the site of numerous innovations in architecture and building construction – ferrocement technology, low cost alternatives, and reusing local material and building technique. It is home to a small but effective cottage industry that exports its products worldwide.
It is fair to say that there is little wrong with the ‘idea’ of Auroville – a city that belongs to none, but is home to all. Whether humankind can live up to this utopian agenda is a very personal judgment – what is true is that, once in Auroville, sitting not far from the Matri Mandir as the sun goes down, it is difficult not to feel a sense of awe, of promise, and of hope that at least some of this will have its intended effect. The world is better off with an Auroville – than without.
References you might want to follow up on:
- From www.auroville.org.in
- Ca se passe là haut, en route pour Madras, sur le haut de la colline. Mother’s Agenda, 1965. pp. 139-147
- Cited in «Auroville Architecture : Towards New Forms for a New Consciousness » PRISMA, Auroville. 2004. pp. 96-97.
- Palleroni, Sergio et.al. Studio at Large : Architecture in Service of Global Communities. UW Press, Seattle. 2004. pp. 70-75
“Auroville Architecture: Towards New Forms for a New Consciousness”. PRISMA. Auroville: 2004
“Auroville: The City of Dawn” Times of India Online, 13th May 2001.http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/41644891.cms
Guigan, Gilles. “Aspiring for Perfection: A History of Matrimandir, the Soul of Auroville”. Samasti: Auroville. 11th November 2002.
Palleroni, Sergio et.al. Studio at Large : Architecture in Service of Global Communities. UW Press, Seattle. 2004.
Rangan, Kasturi. “A Utopian Town in India Built on a Dream”. , New York Times. Oct 16, 1971.