Puducherry

Puducherry (aka Pondicherry), a former French colony, still imbibes the influence of its colonizers. There are loads of French run restaurants and guesthouses; all the street name begin with “Rue”; and no one uses deodorant. There isn’t all that much to do in Pondicherry itself save indulge in continental food. Tourist attractions are limited to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. There is also the beach drag that, under a stroke of genius, the city closes to motorized vehicle every night after six. Every night, you can observe hundreds of Puducherrians sitting and watching the waves in contemplative silence, no cell phones.

I was very generously hosted for over two weeks by a girl I met through couchsurfing, Nahid. Nahid is a model and we have fun doing photoshoots. She is also a blackbelt in karate and teaches self-defense to girls through an NGO. There is even an article written about her.

A few images from my shoots with Nahid.

There are several day trips one can take around Puducherry. Paradise Beach is a relaxing hangout spot with wide sandy beaches and palm trees; although there was a contemplative crowd studying two drowned men when I visited…trouble in Paradise.

Around 2-3 hours by bus is the city of Chidambaram, which boasts the great temple complex of Nataraja, a Dravidian architectural feat. I visited with Nahid and couple other traveler friends. We combined the trip with a visit to the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, which is the world’s second largest mangrove forest.

A goporua (an ornate temple tower) at Nataraja.

Taking pictures as the Mangrove Forest.

There is also Auroville, a town 12 km northwest from Pondicherry established in 1968 to promote progressive harmony among all peoples of all creeds and nationalities: “…an emerging international township dedicated to the ideal of Human Unity” (sign at The Auroville Visitor Center). Auroville is definitely, totally hipster; although, aside from the ginormous golden golfball-shaped meditation sanctuary called the “Matrimandir,” not all that different from an Israeli kibbutz in concept, design, and humanistic idealism. Auroville, which was originally envisioned to champion a population of 50,000, currently has under 2,500 permanent residents engaging in the international community dedicated to harmony, sustainable living, and “divine consciousness.” Sixty percent of the community are non-Indians.

The Matrimandir (sanskrit for "Temple of the Mother") took 37 years to build.

Mira Alfas (known as “The Mother”) is Auroville’s founder and spiritual matriarch. Alfas was born to Jewish parents in Paris in 1878. In 1020, after years of studying Yoga and Buddhism, cultivating the spiritual awakening she experienced when she was 5 years old, Alfas permanently settled in Pondicherry.  She founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926 in honor of her teacher and spiritual collaborator, Sri Aurobindo. Alfas died in 1973. Her body rests in a vault in the courtyard of the Ashram, adjacent to Sri Aurobindo’s tomb.

Portrait of The Mother by famed French humanist photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.


The Matrimandir, a spherical, golden, solar-powered meditation sanctuary open only to members of the Auroville community, was constructed to represent the Mother’s vision for Auroville. Around the structure rises twelve “petals.” Inside the petals, there are twelve mediation rooms, each named after an attribute of the Mother. The first eight represent attitudes towards the Divine, and the last four, attitudes towards humanity: Sincerity, Humility, Gratitude, Perseverance, Aspiration, Receptivity, Progress, Courage, Goodness, Generosity, Equality, Peace. Surrounding the Matrimandir are twelve gardens named by the Mother: Existence, Consciousness, Bliss, Light, Life, Power, Wealth, Utility, Progress, Youth, Harmony, Perfection. They are each symbolized by a flower; “Flowers are the prayer of the vegetal kingdom” (The Mother).

Those will idealistic leanings would probably love Auroville. Personally, I found it hard to get past the cultish elements of the society — in particular the obsession with The Mother (a psychoanalyst’s haven?) whose photos adorn apartments and public spaces in Puducherry in addition to Auroville. There is also the fact that villagers have to pay to live in Auroville. Most new members require more funds to buy into the community than most Indians are ever likely to have. I can’t shake the sense that community is a playground for new-age elites who use the trope of The Mother’s vision to indulge in opportunistic escapism. The Aurovillian may reply that the lessons learned from the petri dish can be applied outside the lab. I’m not so sure.

The Mother’s vision for Auroville was stated in her 4-point Charter set forth at the inauguration ceremony. The first clause of the Charter sets forth the sine qua non of the Mother’s ideology: “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one out be the willing servitor of the Divine consciousness.” So, there is a caveat to Auroville’s mantra of all-inclusiveness; participants must be be willing to serve the Divine consciousness. Although, to be fair, the Divine (insofar as it is akin to Divine consciousness) comprises of rudimentary humanistic chores. The Mother characterizes the Divine as: “All the knowledge we have to acquire, all the power we have to obtain, all the love we have to become, all the perfection we have to achieve, all the harmonious and progressive poise we have to manifest in light and joy, all the unknown splendors we have to realize.”

Still, I can’t help but entertain my cynical inklings as to the Auroville project. Denuding people of their national and religious identities seem to me more like escapism than entering into a truly progressive society. While Auroville’s charter doesn’t reject religion de jure, there are no churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples in the area — just the Matrimandir representing The Mother’s vision of spiritual practice viz. emboldening the individual’s human experience. Aurovillians are de facto secular ex pats — my kind of people — I wish there more like them in the world. My question to Auroville is as follows: Shouldn’t the exemplarity of a progressive society manifest peace and harmony notwithstanding differing, and perhaps conflicting, ideological views?

I hope my analysis that Auroville is somehow a defect project passes some muster because the alternative is that we must strip ourselves of creed to participate in the Divine order, which I chalk up to an utopian pipe dream.


Cynically yours,

Shalev