My first trip to Pondicherry was with my family when I was a teenager. I don’t remember as well as I probably should but I do remember being in awe with Auroville (lol).
I remember driving past the sacred Matrimandir which was still being built at the time (back in 2007) and that I was proud of being able to take a clear picture of it through the fine mesh covering one of its gates. And I definitely remember making a mental note to come back again because I loved the peace and quiet in the green ‘jungle’ with its red sandy path.
So one morning, 9 years later, I found myself there, alone this time. My aunt was kind enough to ask her driver to drop me there and I was quite shocked because the one thing I seemed to have forgotten was how long it takes to get inside from the main road. Trust me, its not a walk, if that’s what you were planning on doing.
We passed through what looked like a sleepy little Tamilian road with little shops and B&Bs scattered everywhere. But instead of the usual scrawny brown kid being chased by a helpless mother, I noticed an increasing number of hippie goras, some of them proprietors of these roadsidey establishments. It was a little unsettling since I guess I am not used to it.
Well anyway, after what seemed like forever, we reached Auroville. The driver dropped me off with an awkward ‘I’ll see you at 1’ and left me standing in the dirt. I found the very nondescript entrance – in the shape of a small canopy of trees – and headed towards my destination.
The walk to the visitor’s center from the parking lot is short and seems to transport you to an oasis in the middle of a dusty desert. You seem to come out onto a vast expanse shaded with trees and small crowds of people going about their daily businesses while Indian tourists look around helplessly. It’s quite like walking into a contemporary Arabian bazaar.
Well I had heard that if I wanted to see the Matrimandir, I had to watch this compulsory free video and receive a free pass, so in I went to the small auditorium. I didn’t learn so much from the old scratchy film as I did from the pamphlets and informational boards outside and I can briefly explain a few things about Auroville.
Auroville is an ‘alternative’ township built not so long ago in 1968, on the ideologies of Mirra Alfassa, also known as The Mother, and the yogi/philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The township has been described as ‘an international community of dedicated to the ideal of human unity’ and is ‘an international community, dedicated to peace, sustainability and ‘divine consciousness’, where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township’.
So there are about 2,500 residents spanning 52 nationalities there! Together they run projects like schools, sustainable farming, handicrafts and more.
After I finished watching the film, a bored guard outside the door handed me my free pass and told me if I anted to come back to go inside the Matrimandir, I would have to book an appointment and come back the next day (which is kind of a pain really). But anyway, I decided to walk down to the temple for the time being.
Much like Auroville’s entrance, the path to the Matrimandir takes one through a beautiful half man-made half natural canopy of greenery with some goats interspersed at regular intervals. Cycles are available too, but I decided a walk would be better (plus my tights pants wouldn’t have let me sit on a bike. I blame the great south Indian food I was having).
The morning was too hot for a November day and I was just about to start cursing myself when I came across one of the biggest and widest banyan tree I have ever seen in my life.
Aurovilleans believe that this tree has been around for about one hundred years but I beg to differ. It is DEFINITELY way older than that. Its branches have grown far out from the trunk and into the ground like a eerie real-life version of the Hometree from Avataar.
Back in 1965 when The Mother and French architect Roger Anger (who designed Auroville) decided to build the township, he drove to a barren plateau and noticed the only form of life, this very tree which would later become the geographical center of Auroville.
In 1968, it was under the shade of this grand tree that the founders and a select delegates inaugurated this township.
A few meters from the tree is a path that leads down to the Matrimandir and the iconic golden dome seemed to peek out from amidst the branches as I walked towards it.
The ‘soul of the city’ is surrounded by an expanse of rolling gardens with trees bordering them. The gardens are divided into 12 individual parks each with different flora and have names like Harmony, Perfection, Gratitude and Bliss.
The golden globe (pun intended) seems to rise up from the earth, ‘symbolising the birth of a new consciousness’.
They generally don’t allow you to walk into the gardens I guess and that’s why I had to stand at this viewpoint and take this picture.
Those who are lucky (and/or patient) enough to come back another day and go inside know that the mandir has an inner chamber which is divided into two hemispheres, the upper one completely made of white marble. In the centre sits a crystal glass globe which receives light from an Pantheon-like opening in the dome and diffuses it to a small pond below the structure while lighting up the room itself.
I believe the ambience inside the dome is that of complete silence. Dare whisper or, God forbid, cough in there and be ready to squirm attract the ire of those in deep meditation. Definitely not for a clumsy fool like me then.
You don’t really need to spend much time at the viewpoint and so I started heading back to the visitor’s centre to buy me some stuff. The walk back was seemingly refreshing, maybe because I found me some inner peace at the Matrimandir!
I made my way to Kalki and the other boutiques to buy some handmade paper diaries (obsessed with stationery which I never use!) and my beloved scented candles and just about made it back to the parking on time after gulping down a necessary filter coffee, burning my tongue in the process.
The driver was waiting for me as if I had taken too long. With a hurried ‘sorry’ I got in the car and we drove off. I just about got a last glimpse of the Alibaba-ish canopy before it disappeared out of sight and I sank into a post-splurging melancholy of how I was supposed to lug all my Maroma candles on the flight back.
Sitting back at home in Delhi writing this, I think I’d be seeing myself back there soon, (inside the Mandir this time) especially since I am out of Auroville’s scented candles and handmade paper stuff.
And of course, inner peace.