Vaṇakkam! (Hello in Tamil, the local language)
After another cosy flight on Spice(y) Jet, we had our first terrifying taxi ride on the way to Auroville. We stupidly said to take the roads without tolls because we didn’t want to pay the extra 200₹ (Jack was being tight), and so went on the windiest, narrowest roads during the busiest time of day. Our driver didn’t speak any English and drove like a mad man. Jack was convinced he was a rally driver in a former life (and not a good one at that). We eventually arrived at Arka Guesthouse in the pitch black with very numb, tightly-clenched bums.
“I’m going to close my eyes and think of Shiva (our Goan yoga instructor)” – Jack, said during the horrific ride
Arka Guesthouse was so quiet, akin to a nursing home (in fact some of the residents looked like they should have been in one). It did make us feel a little uncomfortable at first as everyone stared at the newcomers. For those who know us, we (Jack) struggles to keep quiet at the best of times, and after 8pm we were expected to remain silent, the first of many rules in Auroville we didn’t keep to. That being said, the place itself was in an amazing location and felt like a jungle retreat with turtles and palm trees!
We decided to go to Auroville as it is quite a famous town, and it had been recommended by several people as a spiritual hub and a unique place in its beliefs and practices. We came with open minds and on our first day made our way to the visitors centre to get a better understanding of what Auroville is all about.
Our first impressions…. it’s a cult!!
It was set up by The Mother (a French woman) in 1968 who was the spiritual partner of a man called Sri Aurobindo (a famous spiritual freedom fighter of India). Her aim was to make “a universal town where men and women of all countries were able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville was to realise human unity.” There are portraits of The Mother everywhere; in our bedroom (put firmly away), by the side of the road, in restaurants and shops etc. We were still very confused by it all but essentially it seems like the people that live here (they named themselves Aurovillians) are trying to live sustainably and ethically (spiritually and environmentally) which overall is admirable.
The same day we picked up our electric scooter (bonus Aurovillian points!) as you need your own transport to get around. Auroville looks like a giant university campus with block paving, streetlights, roundabouts and modern architecture. You can really tell riding around that this place isn’t real India. It is very much westernised, and more of a hippy haven. However, there are over 2500 Aurovillians, so they must be doing something people like.
One of the things that struck us as loony was that no one ever actually owns anything here. If you want to live somewhere you make a “donation” and are allowed to stay there or use the land etc. However when you die or decide to move you can’t sell the house/land/property, because it is still owned by the collective Auroville. Every business in Auroville also makes “donations” to the Auroville fund (its just taxes as far as we can make out). You have to be committed if you want to stay here, it would seem.
It’s a giant golden golf ball… This was one of the main highlights for us, not for spiritual reasons but for its colossal size and intricate design. The Mother had a vision back in the 1960s of a hub/centre of Auroville which promoted her beliefs; a place where residents could visit and practice being a “better Aurovillian”.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photographs or make any sound whilst in the grounds (yet more rules), so you’ll have to make do with a picture from Google.
It took over 30 years to build (its not quite finished yet) and we’re still not sure who funded the build – some say private individuals, some say the Government… We began to learn there were plenty unknowns in Auroville which even the locals didn’t know the answers to. Undoubtedly it was a marvel and as we walked through the immaculate gardens surrounding the building we got a sense of the size and effort needed to create such a wonder, the pictures will never do it justice.
Surrounding the Matrimandir are twelve “petals” (meditation rooms) each representing an attribute of the Mother (Existence, Consciousness, Bliss, Light, Life, Power, Wealth, Unity, Progress, Youth, Harmony and Perfection). Inside, it is very quiet (you are told to leave if you need to cough or sneeze) and everything is white/grey, we had to wear white socks to keep it clean inside. A hole at the top lets in a beam of natural sunlight which hits a large spherical crystal in the main chamber – a room for meditation. Sitting in this big empty, white room staring at a big crystal in the centre was a surreal experience (quite cultish) and we both looked at each other and stifled laughter feeling stupid whilst everyone else looked serious.
We both walked away from the experience feeling incredibly calm (if not a bit amused) and found ourselves wondering if this was part of the indoctrination process.
Praise the Mother…
This only deserves a tiny paragraph because on the whole we were not impressed with the food in Auroville. It was expensive and lacked any spice, we can only assume they have dumbed it down to suit the French who are the main people that reside in Auroville. Despite this harsh introduction, we did find a few gems which we have to highlight…
- Maiyam Past Food – They only have 2 dishes on the menu which change daily so you are guaranteed to eat fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. We opted for the Thali which was served in earth crockery. “They serve your meal in the order in which it should be relished” so we had our pudding first which was a bit strange! There are 5 tables in the whole restaurant which we loved giving it a homely feel. They only opened in November 2019 so please support them if you are in the area.
- Brother’s Pizzeria – This feels very wrong to be writing about an Italian whilst we were in India but the curries weren’t so good and we were craving some Western flavours. Please don’t judge! They only have pizzas on their menu and they were consistently packed with local Indian tourists so we knew it would be good. Try the garlic salami pizza!
- Solitude Farm Café – We will be speaking about our time at Solitude Farm in our next blog post but it would seem criminal not to mention their café in our restaurant highlights. They use their own produce and cook on open fires. It was fascinating to watch the local women prepare and cook in the same way it has been done for centuries. We recommend the Thali and mind-blowing blue flower juice.
- Bread and Chocolate – This was the most Westernised and pricey restaurant we visited in Auroville, but boy was it worth it! Smoothie bowls, pancakes, quinoa salads, homemade ice-cream…the list goes on! Georgina satisfied her satay fix and Jack loved the mint chocolate ice-cream. They also support Buddha Garden in Auroville (next blog post) and use their delicious micro greens in the salads.
Next on Auroville Part 2: Sacred Groves, Buddha Garden and Laughing Yoga