Auroville’s Experiment in Human Unity
Volunteer in India’s Unique Township
If you drive south from Madras for three hours, and turn off of the East Coast Road near a village called Kuillapalayam, you will pass the French bakery where I ate the best croissants I have ever tasted. That bakery is part of a unique “experiment in human unity” called Auroville in honor of Sri Aurobindo.
Although unknown in America, Sri Aurobindo is as famous in India as Gandhi and Nehru. An early leader in the independence movement, Aurobindo abandoned politics and founded an ashram (center for spiritual learning and religious practice). He believed that mankind’s next evolutionary step will be spiritual rather than physical. After his death, some of his followers took evolution into their own hands. In 1968 Auroville, independent from the ashram, was founded in a desert, rural area near Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. Their stated goal was to develop a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics, and all nationalities.
Following this model of “divine anarchy,” Aurovilians have worked to build a city that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and self-sustaining. What they have accomplished is a unique township that supports many innovative projects. Auroville has been endorsed by UNESCO and receives 10 percent of its budget from the Indian government. Not surprisingly, human evolution does not make an interesting day trip, and Auroville is of little interest to regular tourists. Yet for anyone who wants to actually get involved, Auroville offers fascinating experiences.
It is less a city than a network of small communities, many of which focus on a specific project or program, such as environmental restoration, locally known as “greenwork.” The original Aurovilians began their greenwork as a matter of survival, learning through trial and error years before restoration ecology was a subject taught at school. Old photographs of now-forested sites show barren ground, revealing the extent of their accomplishment. Travelers interested in environmental work should start by contacting the Pitchandikulum community, which operates an environmental learning center in a restored greenbelt. In addition to forestry programs, there are several working farms in Auroville, most of which practice organic or alternative methods of agriculture. Many of them offer training.
Women’s rights in rural South India have not caught up with urban areas, and caste distinctions have not been fully erased. Added to this is the imbalance between impoverished local communities and the artificially inflated Auroville economy, which presents real opportunities for exploitation and conflict. The Village Action Group responds to these conditions. It sponsors development projects in neighboring Tamil villages, offers vocational training for young women and operates an elementary school, among other programs.
As might be expected, Auroville is rich in artistic and spiritual pursuits. There are many opportunities to practice yoga, martial arts, and dance. Although organized religions are not represented, many Aurovilians are connected with the ashram in Pondicherry. The only tourist attraction in town is a spiritual site: the Matrimandir, Auroville’s central meditation center. A golden dome containing a giant crystal in the center of a circular meditation room, the Matrimandir is also the only air conditioned building in Auroville (it is powered by solar panels).
All Skills are Needed
Because Auroville is essentially an attempt to build a new society from scratch, any skill you have is likely to be needed. Activists, artists, and spiritualists may take the spotlight, but Auroville is also host to architects, computer programmers, urban planners, bankers, businesses, and even lawyers. In fact, to the uninitiated, divine anarchy can look a lot like bureaucracy.
Newcomers to Auroville are expected to participate in a lengthy orientation program (many people avoid this, although others find it valuable). Guesthouse reservations, as well as transportation from the airport in Madras, can be arranged through Guest Service. Cash is not accepted at most facilities. Aurovilians maintain accounts at Pour Tous, a financial co-op, and sign for their purchases at local businesses. A Pour Tous account is recommended to anyone staying more than a few days, if only to gain access to the excellent iced coffee at The Coffee Shop.
It is quite common for travelers to bypass official channels in favor of a more organic experience. Many people come to Auroville for only a week or two and find informal volunteer opportunities. Auroville does offer services that can help you make your plans in advance. The Auroville Volunteers, Internships and Studies Program (AVIS) helps students and workers find placements lasting for a month or more. Stipends are rarely available, so volunteers must bring sufficient funds for the duration of their stay. Fortunately, this can be well under $20 per day.
AVIS also helps professionals find volunteer work in their field. Young professionals willing to work for a minimum of six months and whose skills match a critical need in Auroville may qualify for partial support.
Connections is Auroville’s human resources center, which is building an opportunities database with the goal of making it easier for guests to jump the divide between tourist and community participant.
It is not necessary to believe in divine anarchy or follow the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo to participate. If it takes all kinds to make the world go around, Auroville could keep the world spinning. The township includes approximately 1,800 individuals from 35 countries. Indians, French, and Germans make up two thirds of the population, with only 70 residents from the U.S. Whatever your personal philosophy may be, you can be sure of two things. You will learn something from the diverse population of this experiment in human unity, and you will eat delicious croissants.