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Peace in Pondicherry, India

Volunteer at the World's Largest Planned Community

Mahatma Gandhi watches: A statue of Gandhi stands at The Place de La Republique on the Beach Road (also known as Goubert Salai). Gandhi's statute has replaced that of French Governor Dupleix.

The endless in-your-face coverage of violence and terror streaming over the television continued to add layer upon layer of misery on my soul. I knew that I had to find a cure to believe in humanity once again. In search of this, I headed off to Pondicherry, in the state of Tamil Nadu, South India.

Auroville, the true international community is believed to be the first such realization of human unity. Just ten kilometers or a 30-minute drive away from Pondicherry, this township operates according to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo.

A bit of history: Sri Aurobindo, a Cambridge scholar, was a revolutionary during India's independence movement. He was also a social reformer, a philosopher, and a spiritual thinker. He practiced a scientific, non-sectarian blend of yoga and idealism.

To escape from the British, he arrived in French occupied Pondicherry in the early 1900's and remained till his death in 1950. His disciple, Paris born Mirra Alfassa or "The Mother," spent 30 years with him. It is she who took the first steps towards creating Auroville way back in 1968. Today, she is as much revered as her guru, Sri Aurobindo.


The French Institute in Pondicherry

Coming to Auroville: Auroville is quite clear about its aim: to realize human unity. While Aurovillians are expected to lead a spiritual life, no specific religion is practiced.

A few ashrams in India have in the past gained notoriety for promoting a free life, replete with tantric chants and drugs -- a general abuse of the Indian philosophy. Auroville, with its sedate and constructive way of life, is just the opposite. Even the Ashram-run guesthouses permit you to stay, with strict conditions attached: no drinking, no smoking, and, yes, you have to be in by 10.30 p.m.

Auroville, www.auroville.org, aims to eventually house up to 50,000 people from all over the world. It has the backing of not only the Government of India, but also UNESCO. Currently it houses around 1,700 women, men, and children. Most are Indians; and others come largely from the U.S. and Europe.

"We are not a cult, we are a community that works together and researches into aspects such as sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind," I was formally informed at the information desk. In fact, the lady at the desk ensured that I took down her words correctly.

If you are contemplating an alternate lifestyle, log on to www.auroville.org/comingtoav.htm. Most of your questions may be answered if you visit www.auroville.org/comingtoav/faq_comingtoav.htm and you may see photos of the community at www.auroville.org/gallery/visual_tour/index.htm.

You need to prove yourself to be a true Aurovillian at heart prior to admission in the community. See www.auroville.org/vision/tobeatrueavlian.htm for more details.

"You have to give back to the community in terms of your useful talent, just as the community gives back to you," I was told. Aurobindo's ideal is that spiritual work is not divorced from society. Thus, Aurovillians spend their time on socially productive activity, ranging from alternative agriculture to education. Ultimately Auroville hopes to be a self-sufficient township.

Short-Term Internships at Auroville: Yes, the going is tough if you are contemplating a permanent residence at Auroville. It makes better sense to put in a short stint and find out whether you fit in. Even if you are not contemplating a permanent move, a short stint at Auroville would definitely broaden your outlook. For students or for those fresh out of university, this may sound particularly appealing.

The Auroville Volunteer, Internships and Study program (AVIS) was launched a few years ago. There is no structured program as such. If you are interested you are required to send an email together with a brief description of yourself, your field of study, and your preferences as regards the fields in which you would like to volunteer.

A list of projects available for which you could be best suited is then sent to you. Contact details of project leaders are provided and you have to get in touch with them directly.

With project leaders being busy, it is essential to plan this in advance. "You cannot visit India and then try your luck at Auroville. This does not work," is what I learned from a literature student from London, with whom I swapped views over a cup of coffee. However, if you are lucky, you may get an interesting project in spheres ranging from architecture, town-planning, organic farming, teaching, or even social work that is carried out in the surrounding villages.

Speaking informally to Aurovillians at their cafeteria, it seemed that students of architecture are the most welcome. Construction carried out at Auroville, whether for residential houses, or community centers, reflect innovation in terms of usage of building materials, technology, eco-friendly architecture, and cost effectiveness. Rainwater harvesting systems, domestic wastewater treatment plans, and renewable energy systems are the ‘in' thing at Auroville. More details are available on www.auroville.org/thecity/architecture.htm.

Log on to www.auroville.org/education/avis/avis.htm#students for complete details on the application and selection process. But please remember that this is not a paid internship. Budget accommodations are however made available to interns in various ashram-run guesthouses.

Build Your Own Residence: The community is quite open about its looming accommodation problem. In fact, they are reeling under it. Anyone joining Auroville is expected to build his or her own residence, in consultation with the Auroville Development Group. Strict guidelines have been set in this regard. Meanwhile, they are housed in "newcomer" units -- mostly coconut thatch-roofed huts on short stilts -- or have to stay with friends. Currently, newcomers do not receive any permanent accommodation for at least five years. Auroville admits that this could be a big problem for families with kids. They caution that decisions on joining should not be made in a hurry.

In Sum: An internship sounds interesting, if you are interested in exploring experimental "self-sufficient living" that includes exposure to the use or even development of solar energy systems, alternative architectural styles, rain harvesting, waste-water management, organic farming, etc. But plan in advance to ensure that the project leader really needs you and is willing to mentor you. And yes, do make sure that your accommodation at the guesthouse is fixed prior to landing in Pondicherry. Besides you will have to shell out your own money for everything, from accommodation to food. A sum of RS500 per day ($1 = RS46) may suffice. This seems affordable for a glimpse at an alternative lifestyle.

The calm of Serenity Beach: Just opposite the turn towards Auroville, is a dirt road that leads to the beach. You will reach a gate that firmly states: Private beach for Aurovillians only (Auroville has cordoned off a portion of the beach for private use). Just next to this gate is a narrow sandy track that leads you to the same beach.

Useful Websites

Getting to India: A visa has to be obtained prior to arrival in India. Americans can obtain the application forms from their nearest office of the Consulate General of India in U.S. Also required with the application are: the original passport which is valid for at least the next six months with at least one empty page; two passport-size photographs, and the processing fee. Currently, the processing fee for a 6-month tourist visa appears to be $60. Some Consulate General offices enable you to download the application form online, such as indiavisa.travisaoutsourcing.com/get-a-visa.

Getting to Pondicherry: Pondicherry is accessible from either Bangalore (capital of Karnataka state) or Chennai (capital of Tamil Nadu state), both of which are connected by air. Bangalore, however does not have an international airport as yet. The Karantaka Government-run buses (both deluxe and regular) ply from Bangalore (Majestic bus station) directly to Pondicherry. It is roughly a 6-7-hour journey. Buses are also available from Chennai's Bus Terminal at Koyambedu (an hour away from the Chennai airport). Here, please ask for the East Coast Road Bus. It takes approximately four hours to reach Pondicherry.


The quiet, clean streets of Pondicherry

Ministry of Tourism: Hotel details, what to see, where to eat and stay — such tips are available on this website. Pondicherry offers lots of historical churches, ancient monuments - such as the lighthouse, a serene beach, and a quaint museum.

Auroville: The official website of Auroville provides much more than a mere introduction. Should shopping be your weakness, log on to www.auroville-products.com. Gifts can be purchased at La Boutique D' Auroville, an interesting outlet in Auroville itself. Photography is strictly prohibited on the Auroville premises.

My Favorite Haunts

The Park Guest House: Overlooking the bay, this Ashram-run guesthouse is by far the best. It is set in a lush garden with fountain and ponds. It has around 80 rooms. Most blocks have large balconies that face the sea. Certain rules apply, drinking and smoking are prohibited and the gates shut at 10.30 pm. A short personal interview prior to admission is a must, to gauge whether you are "spiritually correct.". The rooms are large and clean and the price is heavily subsidized at RS300-500 a night, for a double-bed room. Telephone: 91+0413+ 334412; parkgh@auroville.org.in. Log on to www.sriaurobindoashram.org/visitors/guesthouse/ghlist.php for a complete list of Ashram run guesthouses

Le Cafe: This cafeteria on Goubert Salai Beach road, facing the sea, is excellent for a leisurely breakfast of omelets for RS10, dosas (south Indian fried pancakes) for RS20 and coffee from the coffee vending machine. No one bothers you while you take in the picturesque view.

The view from Le Café: This government-run café situated on the rocky shore itself offers a stunning view of the Bay of Bengal. The shore comes alive in the evenings, when both locals and travelers throng to take a whiff of the salty breeze.

Rendezvous: Situated on 30, Rue Suffreen, it is a very popular restaurant, especially for dinner. My favorite dishes were grilled seer (fish) for RS120, and the cheesecake for RS60. Spiced ice creams with flavors ranging from black pepper to cardamom were unfortunately not available.

Selva Restaurant: Diagonally opposite Mahatma Gandhi's statue on Beach Road, this vegetarian fast food restaurant is clean and neat. Worth a visit for lunch or even breakfast. Try out various South Indian dishes such as idlis (steamed rice cakes), dosas with a potato filling and various rice dishes. Prices are very reasonable ranging from RS20 to RS50.

La Boutique D'Auroville and Kalki (Mission Street): These shops offer a range of Auroville produced goods from essential oils, aromatic sticks, perfumed candles, hand-made paper products, pottery, to leather products such as bags and sandals. Silk garments were extremely expensive. My purchases were limited to the scented candles that cost RS40 upwards.

Samadhi: The courtyard of a nondescript building on Rue De La Marine houses the Samadhi (cremation site) of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. A marble white tomb, intricately decorated with flowers and overshadowed by a large tree, offers serenity and quiet. There is complete silence, no one is permitted to talk, nor is anyone permitted to make offerings of flowers. Footwear is to be left behind on the opposite side of the road, on specially constructed racks. A bookstore on the same road provides lots of material on their teachings. Also thrown in for sale are gaudy broaches and lapels. Timings for visiting the Samadhi tend to change, but it is open both in the mornings and in the evenings.

Auroville: One can either hire an auto-rickshaw (a 3-wheeler) from Pondicherry for this 30-minute drive or go with a conducted tour. A car repair shop Sri Aurbindo Autocare Service, further down the road from the Samadhi conducts an Auroville tour. It is best to go independently and glimpse Auroville at your own pace. The information desk at Auroville is very helpful. An exhibition hall provides complete details. Public access is controlled and a viewing pass (available for free) has to be obtained. The Banyan grove is the most peaceful. Personally, I was horrified to see the global gold-colored disc-plated Matrimandir, that is essentially a meditation and purification center and is still under construction. But to be fair, it symbolically denotes the consciousness and the golden sun. The inner chamber of the Matrimandir receives a permanent ray of sunlight, which beams directly on to a unique perfect globe crystal that symbolizes the soul.

Lu-Sa-Ka has traveled extensively in India. She describes herself as a curious traveler, an occasional writer and a vociferous reader. She can be contacted on awriter@sify.com.

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