by Andrea Braune
So this is Auroville. A tiny spot on the immense Indian ground with the vision to encompass around 50,000 inhabitants anytime in the future, but currently even struggling to break the 2,500 mark. Is this what the 5,000 people of 124 different nations, the “Mother” and Sri Aurobindo (the two spiritual founders of Auroville) had imagined almost 50 years ago, when they assembled in 1968 at the centre of the future township for an inauguration ceremony? Or what UNESCO expected when they promised their financial support for what was planned to be “an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity, where people of all countries would be at home – the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages”? Probably not. I also was not sure what to expect when coming to Auroville on the _SocialStarters Immersion Programme. Today, Auroville is still trying to find a balance between the postulated independence from money and status (both of which are conceived as blocking the assessment of the real value of each human), between hippie and modern western influence and Indian traditions, between spirituality, sustainability and tourism and between Indian and French-Italian cuisine.
To be fair, they are doing a pretty good job in balancing the different styles of cuisine: this place is a paradise for foodies addicted to South Indian cuisine who still value their typical French Croissant and Italian-style coffee for breakfast. The money-matter though is everything but settled: In order to keep the town as cash-free as possible, Aurovillains and visitors are supposed to use a local sort of credit card, the “Aurocard”. When we came here, we were excited: “Wow that’s easy! I just put the money on it that I need for the 6 weeks and don’t have to worry about anything else – how convenient!” – but alas: we noticed soon that almost none of the shops and restaurants accepted the card so you still had to carry cash with you. Nevertheless, there are some shops and restaurants where you can ONLY pay with Aurocard, and if there’s no money on it you first have to top up at another place called the financial service centre (but be aware of limited opening hours!). Lucky you if you happen to have money on it – then you might only have to wait the standard 10 minutes for paying at a restaurant since the owners have to call up someone from financial services to deduct the amount from your Aurocard credit. But let’s not be petty… this is Auroville, this is India and most times, things are just handled in a different way than in the Western culture.
This is probably where the spiritual part of Auroville comes in: practice serenity, patience and humbleness. And where to do this better than in the spiritual centre of the city, the Matrimandir – or as I like to call it: flashy Death Star. To me, this is what it looks like from the outside: a shiny, golden version of the famous battle station in Star Wars. When you’re one of the lucky ones with a ticket to the spiritual inner chamber (of course, you can get the ticket for your first visit not on side but in another part of the city, and only between 10-11 am and 2-3 pm) you are not allowed to speak, cough or sneeze and people in white clothes/socks indicate the way with solemn faces. You marvel at the perfect 70s Sci-Fi impression in pink and white that the inside of the ball offers your spiritual self while you wander on white carpets in a spiraling ramp up to the inner chamber. This is really a great experience if you are open to meditation and spirituality, or just a huge fan of Sci-Fi architecture. And it finally gives you an excuse to wear white socks pulled over the lower end of your pants – what used to be NEVER in fashion, in shiny Death Star world it is considered as perfect neatness. Culture shock in Auroville? A little. Culture shock in Matrimandir? Oh yes. But in the most endearing way cushioned by fluffy fabric.
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